Big Green ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Neal Dikerman at CleanTech Blog has an interesting post on IBM's efforts to enter the solar energy market.

I had a chance recently to visit with one of the individuals responsible for IBM’s (NYSE:IBM) Big Green Innovations strategy – which has made a splash in the cleantech world over the last half year. We were talking on a range of topics, but one that piqued my interest was the description of IBM’s work in photovoltaics – and a few thoughts on where they were going. I did not ask, and he did not offer, any particulars on the work in progress, but he did make mention of a few points that I thought were well worth repeating:

* IBM is expecting to be a player in the solar cell business – likely seeing commercial impact in the next 18 months to two years.
* IBM is developing both advanced crystalline technologies and CIGS processes – relying on their semiconductor manufacturing expertise and nanotech research to make breakthroughs in controlling PV manufacturing processes.
* You will not likely see IBM making branded modules – perhaps instead a cell production business strategy?
* IBM sees the potential for very high efficiency multi-junction cells in foreseeable future.

The fascinating part is that IBM is not a newcomer to the game. When you do a little background research, you dig up some fascinating tidbits, including a couple of articles dated 1978 in the IBM Journal of Research and Development that are interesting given the historical perspective they add to the discussion. For those still thinking that Silicon Valley venture capital is the real innovator behind the solar sector - see below.

As far as the mainstream (or even cleantech) press on IBM’s solar photovoltaic development, though, there has been little mention, and no details. had a recent mention (but no details) of IBM’s solar interests (along with an oblique mention of their work in developing desalination membranes for the water sector). There was a brief mention of IBM and an organic solar cell development in a 2004 year old Business Week article. And a brief mention of interest in solar technology in an Information Week article about the IBM Innovation Agenda – which the Big Green Innovations is a part. But that's about it.

There are over a dozen recent US patents and published applications by IBM referencing a range of solar cells or photovoltaic technology, a few are listed below - that can give some indication of what work IBM has going on.

* 7,109,584 Dendrite growth control circuit
* 7,094,651 Hydrazine-free solution deposition of chalcogenide films
* 6,933,191 Two-mask process for metal-insulator-metal capacitors and single mask process for thin film resistors
* 6,875,661 Solution deposition of chalcogenide films
* 6,774,019 Incorporation of an impurity into a thin film
* 6,316,786 Organic opto-electronic devices
* 6,351,023 Semiconductor device having ultra-sharp P-N junction and method of manufacturing the same
* 20070057255 Nanomaterials with tetrazole-based removable stabilizing agents
* 20060032530 Solution processed pentacene-acceptor heterojunctions in diodes, photodiodes, and photovoltaic cells and method of making same
* 20050158909 Solution deposition of chalcogenide films containing transition metals ...

So whether it’s high efficiency multi-junction cells to compete in the concentrator market, or organic or CIGS cells for BIPV, or providing advanced silicon cells to enable a new group of entrants into the rooftop module market, or something new entirely – IBM bears watching in the solar sector.

Robert Rapier has a post called "the future is solar" (and wind and tidal and geothermal if you ask me), with a follow up at TOD.
There are approximately 4 billion arable acres in the world. There are many different feed stocks from which to make renewable diesel, but most biodiesel is made from rapeseed oil. Rapeseed is an oilseed crop that is widespread, with relatively high oil production.

Consider how much petroleum could be displaced if all 4 billion acres of arable land were planted in rapeseed, or an energy crop with an oil productivity similar to rapeseed. The average rapeseed oil yield per year is 127 gallons/acre. On 4 billion acres, this works out to be 33 million barrels per day of rapeseed oil. The energy content of rapeseed oil is about 10% less than that of petroleum diesel, so the petroleum equivalent yield from planting all of the world's arable land in one of the more popular biofuel options is just under 30 million barrels per day. This is just over a third of the world's present usage of petroleum, 85 million barrels per day. Yet this is the gross yield. Because it takes energy to grow, harvest, and process biomass into fuel, the net yield will be lower, and in some cases may even be negative (i.e., more energy put into the process than is contained in the final product).

The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient. Consider the rapeseed oil yield above. A reader at The Oil Drum made a table that is basically the solar capture/conversion to oil from various crops. I tried to recreate the table, but it was taking far too much time (Blogger has a terrible quirk about tables), so here is a link.

Basically, the gist is that only a few hundredths of a percent of the incoming solar energy gets converted into liquid fuels. Of course some did get converted into other biomass, which could be otherwise used for energy, but generally when an acre of rapeseed/canola is planted, we get about 0.06% conversion of the sun's energy into oil. (This exercise can still be proven by assuming the theoretical limit for photosynthesis. One must just make more assumptions and it is not as easy to follow).

Consider now direct solar capture. Let's not even consider the record 40+% efficiency that Spectrolab announced last year. Let's not consider any of the more exotic technologies that are pushing the envelope on direct solar capture efficiency. BP's run of the mill silicon solar cells operate with an efficiency of 15%. That's about 250 times better than the solar to rapeseed oil route. Or, to put it a different way, you can produce the same amount of energy with direct solar capture in a 13 ft. by 13 ft. area that you can by photosynthesis in 1 acre of rapeseed. And odds are that you have a roof with an area that size, which could be used to capture energy without the need to use arable land.

Of course the disadvantages are 1). The costs for solar are still relatively high; 2). We have a liquid fuel infrastructure; 3). Storage is still a problem. But in the long run, I don't see that we have any chance of maintaining that infrastructure. The future is solar.

Dave Roberts at Grist has an interview with Amory Lovins.
If politicians think in sound bites and intellectuals think in sentences, Amory Lovins thinks in white papers. His speech is studded with pregnant pauses -- you can almost hear the whirs and clicks as an enormous mass of statistics, analyses, and aphorisms is trimmed and edited into a manageable length. I've talked to experts who struggle to substantiate their answers. Lovins struggles to leave things out.

No one has done more to change the world of energy, both its intellectual underpinnings and its real-world practice, than Lovins. Beginning with a seminal Foreign Affairs article in 1976 -- "Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?" which introduced the "soft path" to energy -- Lovins shifted the focus from bigger to smarter, from more to more-with-less. He's consulted with businesses, governments, and militaries on how to achieve organizational goals using less energy and less money. His books and articles are legion; the latest is Winning the Oil Endgame, a "roadmap to getting the U.S. completely, attractively, and profitably off oil."

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain Institute, the "think and do tank" Lovins founded. The occasion will be celebrated in early August at an event attended by, among others, Bill Clinton and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

I gave Lovins a call to check in on some of today's greatest energy challenges, from biofuels to Iraq to a backwards-looking Congress.

question After all you've done to shift the energy debate, why do supply-side questions still dominate the discussion in Congress?

answer Congress is a creature of constituencies, and the money and power of the constituencies are almost all on the supply side. There is not a powerful and organized constituency for efficient use, and there's a very strong political (but not economic) constituency against distributed power, particularly renewables. So I would not pay too much attention to what Congress is doing. I'm not saying it doesn't matter, but ultimately economic fundamentals govern what will happen -- things that don't make sense, that don't make money, cannot attract investment capital.

We see this now in the electricity business. A fifth of the world's electricity and a quarter of the world's new electricity comes from micropower -- that is, combined heat and power (also called cogeneration) and distributed renewables. Micropower provides anywhere from a sixth to over half of all electricity in most of the industrial countries. This is not a minor activity anymore; it's well over $100 billion a year in assets. And it's essentially all private risk capital.

So in 2005, micropower added 11 times as much capacity and four times as much output as nuclear worldwide, and not a single new nuclear project on the planet is funded by private risk capital. What does this tell you? I think it tells you that nuclear, and indeed other central power stations, have associated costs and financial risks that make them unattractive to private investors. Even when our government approved new subsidies on top of the old ones in August 2005 -- roughly equal to the entire capital costs of the next-gen nuclear plants -- Standard & Poor's reaction in two reports was that it wouldn't materially improve the builders' credit ratings, because the risks private capital markets are concerned about are still there.

So I think even such a massive intervention will give you about the same effect as defibrillating a corpse -- it will jump but it will not revive.

question Does the same critique apply to liquid coal?

answer Yes. I was delighted when both the Chinese State Council and the U.S. Senate about a week apart canceled [liquid coal] programs.

question But I'm sure you're aware that the political push behind liquid coal is still very much pushing.

answer Of course, including some people who should know better. It has fundamental problems in economics, carbon, and water, and bearing in mind that we can get the country completely off oil at an average cost of $15 a barrel, something in the $50s to $70s range doesn't look viable. Those who invest in it, publicly or privately, will lose their shirts, and deservedly so.

I think a good way to smoke out corporate socialists in free-marketeers' clothing is to ask whether they agree that all ways to save or produce energy should be allowed to compete fairly at honest prices, regardless of which kind they are, what technology they use, where they are, how big they are, or who owns them. I can tell you who won't be in favor of it: the incumbent monopolists, monopsonists, and oligarchs who don't like competition and new market entrants. But whether they like it or not, competition happens. It's particularly keen on the demand side.

question Will Big Coal fall on its face?

answer It's already clearly happening in the global marketplace -- although the U.S. lags a bit, having rather outmoded energy institutions and rules. Worldwide, less than half of new electrical services are coming from new central power plants. Over half are coming from micropower and negawatts, and that gap is rapidly widening. The revolution already happened -- sorry if you missed it.

question How might your notion of "brittle power" apply, not to developed countries but to countries that are developing in conditions in which resilience is at a premium? Iraq is the obvious example.

answer Some of us have made three attempts at [bringing decentralized power to Iraq] and there's a fourth now under discussion. The first three attempts, the third of which was backed by the Iraqi power minister, were vetoed by the U.S. political authorities on the grounds that they'd already given big contracts to Bechtel, Halliburton, et. al to rebuild the old centralized system, which of course the bad guys are knocking down faster than it can be put back up.

question How could Iraq have played out differently?

answer If you build an efficient, diverse, dispersed, renewable electricity system, major failures -- whether by accident or malice -- become impossible by design rather than inevitable by design, an attractive nuisance for terrorists and insurgents. There's a pretty good correlation between neighborhoods with better electrical supply and those that are inhospitable to insurgents. This is well known in military circles. There's still probably just time to do this in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, about a third of our army's wartime fuel use is for generator sets, and nearly all of that electricity is used to air-condition tents in the desert, known as "space cooling by cooling outer space." We recently had a two-star Marine general commanding in western Iraq begging for efficiency and renewables to untether him from fuel convoys, so he could carry out his more important missions. This is a very teachable moment for the military. The costs, risks, and distractions of fuel convoys and power supplies in theater have focused a great deal of senior military attention on the need for not dragging around this fat fuel-logistics tail -- therefore for making military equipment and operations several-fold more energy efficient.

I've been suggesting that approach for many years. Besides its direct benefits for the military mission, it will drive technological refinements that then help transform the civilian car, truck, and plane industries. That has huge leverage, because the civilian economy uses 60-odd times more oil than the Pentagon does, even though the Pentagon is the world's biggest single buyer of oil (and of renewable energy). Military energy efficiency is technologically a key to leading the country off oil, so nobody needs to fight over oil and we can have "negamissions" in the Gulf. Mission unnecessary. The military leadership really likes that idea. ...

So I guess the question is, why isn't Bush supporting the troops ?

Taiwan is about to trial a tidal / ocean current power generation system with the goal of being able to generate all their power needs via this method, retaining existing nuclear power plants as a backup and decommissioning their coal fired power stations completely.
The government is now discussing the possibility of large-scale ocean current power generation, using the strong Kuroshio current off the east coast of Taiwan to generate up to 1.68 trillion kilowatt-hours per year, officials at cabinet-level Council for Economic Planning and Development (CEPD) said Monday. ...

"Current power generation is not a new idea, " officials noted. "Countries like Britain, Canada, Norway, and Australia all have experience in deploying offshore marine turbines with capacities ranging from one megawatt to eight megawatts to support the electricity demand of hundreds to thousands of households."

"The problem is not the technology itself but how to locate a suitable site -- with a current strong enough, an undersea shelf not too deep, and a distance short enough to achieve power supply efficiency," they added.

However, they explained that based on the surveys done by National Taiwan University (NTU) , the sea area of some 6,000 square kilometers between the eastern county of Taitung and the outlying Green Island in the Pacific Ocean appears to meet all the requirements, and that the maximum potential capacity there exceeds 1.68 trillion kilowatt- hours per year -- while Taiwan's current annual demand of electricity is only about 98 billion kilowatt-hours.

According to the estimates of the project task force, a given site of 25 square kilometers located in the "shallow, high-speed zone" could support the deployment of 1,000 one-megawatt marine turbines, which would have a peak capacity of 1,000 megawatts: equal to the output of Taiwan's second nuclear power plant.

Chen, the project leader, noted that once the turbines enter commercial operation, Taiwan's existing coal power plants could be retired, while the nuclear power generators could be used as a backup system -- thereby resulting in a great reduction in Taiwan's total carbon dioxide emissions.

While I like George Monbiot a lot, his latest effort - "Eco Junk" - doesn't inspire me much - this grumpy sackcloth-and-ashes green socialist attitude is never going to get anywhere - he's self-marginalising as he is focusing on socialism first and sustainability second (and doing a very bad job selling both of them). The whole vibe here is the opposite of the Viridian Manifesto which recognises that you need to offer people a positive vision of the future if you want them to do something to change, not frighten them off with a dismal vision of carbon rations and relative poverty (both of which are unnecessary in my view).
With rising sea levels and more winter rain (and remember that when the trees are dormant and the soils saturated there are fewer places for the rain to go) all it will take is a freshwater flood to coincide with a high spring tide and we have a formula for full-blown disaster. We have now seen how localised floods can wipe out essential services and overwhelm emergency workers. But this month’s events don’t even register beside some of the predictions now circulating in learned journals. Our primary political struggle must be to prevent the break-up of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The only question now worth asking about climate change is how.

Dozens of new books appear to provide an answer: we can save the world by embracing “better, greener lifestyles”. Last week, for example, the Guardian published an extract of the new book by Sheherazade Goldsmith, who is married to the very rich environmentalist Zac, in which she teaches us “to live within nature’s limits”. It’s easy: just make your own bread, butter, cheese, jam, chutneys and pickles, keep a milking cow, a few pigs, goats, geese, ducks, chickens, beehives, gardens and orchards. Well, what are you waiting for?

Her book also contains plenty of useful advice, and she comes across as modest, sincere and well-informed. But of lobbying for political change, there is not a word: you can save the planet in your own kitchen – if you have endless time and plenty of land. When I was reading it on the train, another passenger asked me if he could take a look. He flicked through it for a moment then summed up the problem in seven words. “This is for people who don’t work.”

None of this would matter, if the Guardian hadn’t put her photo on the masthead last week, with the promise that she could teach us to go green. The media’s obsession with beauty, wealth and fame blights every issue it touches, but none more so than green politics. There is an inherent conflict between the aspirational lifestyle journalism which makes readers feel better about themselves and sells country kitchens and the central demand of environmentalism: that we should consume less. “None of these changes represents a sacrifice”, Sheherazade tells us. “Being more conscientious isn’t about giving up things.” But it is: if, like her, you own more than one home when others have none.

Uncomfortable as this is for both the media and its advertisers, giving things up is an essential component of going green. A section on ethical shopping in Goldsmith’s book advises us to buy organic, buy seasonal, buy local, buy sustainable, buy recycled. But it says nothing about buying less.

Green consumerism is becoming a pox on the planet. If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing: one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first. I am now drowning in a tide of ecojunk. Over the past six months, our coatpegs have become clogged with organic cotton bags, which – filled with packets of ginseng tea and jojoba oil bath salts – are now the obligatory gift at every environmental event. I have several lifetimes’ supply of ballpoint pens made with recycled paper and about half a dozen miniature solar chargers for gadgets I don’t possess.

Last week the Telegraph told its readers not to abandon the fight to save the planet. “There is still hope, and the middle classes, with their composters and eco-gadgets, will be leading the way.” It made some helpful suggestions, such as a “hydrogen-powered model racing car”, which, for £74.99, comes with a solar panel, an electrolyser and a fuel cell. God knows what rare metals and energy-intensive processes were used to manufacture it. In the name of environmental consciousness, we have simply created new opportunities for surplus capital.

Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status. I have met people who have bought solar panels and mini-wind turbines before they have insulated their lofts: partly because they love gadgets, but partly, I suspect, because everyone can then see how conscientious (and how rich) they are. We are often told that buying such products encourages us to think more widely about environmental challenges, but it is just as likely to be depoliticising. Green consumerism is another form of atomisation – a substitute for collective action. No political challenge can be met by shopping.

The middle classes rebrand their lives, congratulate themselves on going green, and carry on buying and flying as much as ever before. It is easy to picture a situation in which the whole world religiously buys green products, and its carbon emissions continue to soar.

It is true, as the green consumerists argue, that most people find aspirational green living more attractive than dour puritanism. But it can also be alienating. I have met plenty of farm labourers and tenants who are desperate to start a small farm of their own, but have been excluded by what they call “horsiculture”: small parcels of agricultural land being bought up for pony paddocks and hobby farms. In places like Surrey and the New Forest, farmland is now fetching up to £30,000 an acre as city bonuses are used to buy organic lifestyles. When the new owners dress up as milkmaids then tell the excluded how to make butter, they run the risk of turning environmentalism into the whim of the elite.

Challenge the new green consumerism and you become a prig and a party pooper, the spectre at the feast, the ghost of Christmas yet to come. Against the shiny new world of organic aspirations you are forced to raise drab and boringly equitable restraints: carbon rationing, contraction and convergence, tougher building regulations, coach lanes on motorways. No colour supplement will carry an article about that. No rock star could live comfortably within his carbon ration.

But such measures, and the long hard political battle required to bring them about, are, unfortunately, required to prevent the catastrophe these floods predict, rather than merely to play at being green. Only when they have been applied does green consumerism become a substitute for current spending rather than a supplement to it. They are harder to sell, not least because they cannot be bought from mail order catalogues. Hard political choices will have to be made, and the economic elite and its spending habits must be challenged, rather than groomed and flattered. The multi-millionaires who have embraced the green agenda might suddenly discover another urgent cause.


* Alex Steffen - The World WIth Us

* SMH - Shell reports big finds in Australia. It will be interesting to see just how much oil and gas ends up being found in the Browse basin.

* John Quiggin - Plateau oil

* Conservatives For Climate And Environment. Conservatives who want a carbon tax (unlike the fake conservatives in the government who are just representatives of a single industry lobby group).

* IHT - Britain to build 5 'eco towns' as part of new mass home building program

* The Globe And Mail - Microbe converts light to energy

* The Herald - One-tenth of Scotlands farm land earmarked by power firm. Biofuels are stupid.

* The Market Oracle - Buy Feed Corn: They're about to stop making it. One from F. William Engdahl. If he is a tinfoil merchant he is class above most of them (but be wary nevertheless). Regardless of whether or not the thrust of his theory is correct, biofuels are still stupid.

* Washington Post - Easy Money, Lifeblood Of Economy, Is Drying Up. Plenty of financial doomerism in the air today - don't give in to the fear is Peak Energy's advice.

* Cryptogon - NYSE Imposes Trading Curbs as Stocks Tumble. When I saw the quoted Reuters article in my news feed this morning, I correctly prediucted that (a) I'd see it on Cryptogon tonight and (b) that Kevin would invoke the name of the fabled Plunge Protection Team. I'm not sure that being so accurate a judge is a good thing mind you.

* Cryptogon - It’s the Old Sell-Gold-to-Cover-Stock-Losses Play.


IBM researchers have done plenty of good work in the field of organic conductors, i.e. organic photovoltaics. While I don't see their semiconductor experience as being overwhelmingly strong, they may be able to run at Spectrolab for the ultimate performers for space and mobile applications in the inorganic area.

Anonymous   says 11:36 PM

"The fundamental problem here is that photosynthesis is not very efficient."

What exactly does this statement mean?

When I see a solar powered mine producing silicon that is transported by a solar powered ship to a solar powered factory that purifies and produces solar cells that are distributed and installed and maintained (you guessed it - all by solar power) THEN we can make a comparison.

We plant a seed. The plant builds itself, extracts the raw materials AND provides an energy surplus and we compare it to one isolated part of an industrial process and complain about the "inefficiency"?!


Good break Gav?

True - getting people to do apples-to-apples comparisons is pretty difficult.

Still - you can stick solar panels (or better, CSP plants) on roofs and out in deserts - places where growing stuff is difficult.

I'd rather have my energy suppliers not compete for resources with my food suppliers.

Not a bad break - I'll still be posting a bit intermittently over the next month or so...

Fantastic info...I have been very interested in geothermal energy as of late, especially after Gov. Schwarzenegger formed a bill into law that set a CO2 limit on coal plants as a future source of electricity in the West Coast market. This is a good (early) time for geothermal energy production.

Geothermal Energy Special Report


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