Monday, December 5, 2011

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ISU Discovery Genetically Increases Algae Biomass by More Than 50 Percent

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 09:19 AM PST

ISU algae researcher Martin Spalding

This story contains great news about an exciting Iowa State University discovery for genetically modifying biomass production from algae. Attached to this story, however, is an emphatic word of caution bout completely understanding and controlling the potential impacts of such genetic mutations.

According to the Iowa State University news service, research headed by Martin Spalding, professor in the Department of Genetics, Development, and Cell Biology, has led to discovery of a genetic method that can increase biomass in algae by 50 to 80 percent. To accomplish this feat, ISU researchers say they've unlocked a genetic pathway in algae that can dramatically increase the amount of CO2 consumed by the organisms, thus helping recycle more of the greenhouse gas and increasing oil yields for non-food based biofuels.

Spalding says the key to this increase in biomass is a combination of two genes that increase the photosynthetic carbon conversion into organic matter. The breakthrough comes from expressing certain genes in algae that increase the amount of photosynthesis in the plant, thus leading to more biomass.

“There is no doubt in my mind that this brings us closer [to affordable, domestic biofuel],” said Spalding. In natural settings, algae are limited from growing faster because they don’t get enough carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, according to Spalding.

In environments that have relatively low levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), such as air in earth’s atmosphere, two genes in algae, LCIA and LCIB, are expressed — or turned on — to help capture and then channel more carbon dioxide from the air into the cells to keep the algae alive and growing.

However, when algae are in environments with high carbon dioxide levels, such as in soil near plant roots that are expiring carbon dioxide, the two relevant genes shut down because the plant is getting enough carbon dioxide.

Research by Spalding’s group shows that algae can be made to produce biomass.

“Based on some prior research we had done, we expected to see an increase, probably in the 10 to 20 percent range” he said. “But we were surprised to see this big of an increase.”

In experiments to get the algae type (Chlamydomonas reinhardtii) to produce more biomass, Spalding first expressed LCIA and LCIB separately. Each effort granted a significant 10 to 15 percent increase in biomass.

When the two genes were expressed together, Spalding was surprised to see the 50 to 80 percent biomass increase.

“Somehow these two genes are working together to increase the amount of carbon dioxide that’s converted through photosynthesis into biomass by the algae under conditions where you would expect there would already be enough carbon dioxide,” said Spalding.

Spalding’s research was funded in part by grants from the Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture and the Department of Energy, Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy.

As for words of caution, author Stephen Lacey writes, "Franken-algae may be key to reducing carbon emissions. But do they represent a different environmental threat?"

"While this research is promising for limiting carbon emissions and expanding biofuels, it's not really new. Genetically modified algae are a key part of the "secret sauce" of companies like Sapphire Energy, Solazyme, Synthetic Genomics and TransAlgae, which are all toying with different genetic changes in order to increase oil production.

"But what if these organisms — which can very easily leave the lab on clothing, skin or through the air — escape into the natural environment and contaminate the gene pool of wild algae and dramatically increase growth rates?"

Ever-vigilant caution must be practiced as scientific developments move forward.
ISU photo by Bob Elbert


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New Thin Film Solar Module Efficiency Record Set

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 07:30 AM PST


thin solar efficiency record

Yes, it’s that time again — another solar power efficiency record has been set! The category: thin film solar module efficiency. The company: Solibro, a subsidiary of the large German solar company Q-Cells SE. The efficiency: 17.4% (of aperture area). The confirming party: the independent Fraunhofer ISE Institute. Where will the technology be used? In “next generation CIGS thin-film technology for Q.SMART modules.”

More details from Q-Cells:

The record test module, with size 16 cm2, was fabricated using processes fully scalable to cost-effective mass production. The co-evaporation CIGS (Copper Indium Gallium Selenid) process uses metal flux profiles, temperature profiles as well as process time similar to Solibro's current production.

"We are very proud of this result as it demonstrates the leadership of the CIGS technology produced by Q-Cells' subsidiary Solibro. The current record verifies the feasibility of the efficiency roadmap of the Q.SMART module targeting an average aperture efficiency out of series production of up to 16.7 % in 2016", said Lars Stolt, CTO of Solibro.

Already in March 2011, a Q.SMART thin-film module, marked a world-record, with an independently confirmed efficiency rating of 14.7% which still is the world-record for monolithically integrated CIGS thin film modules in series production, today.

Q.SMART's CIGS technology harnesses a "light-soaking" effect unique in the thin-film sector to generate an average of 2.5 percent power boost above nominal power at standard test conditions. Q.SMART also outperforms in diverse environmental conditions, including low-light periods of the day and high-heat climates. Ideal for residential, commercial and utility-scale settings, Q.SMART comes along with a positive sorting; i.e. customers always receive what they pay for – and more. In October 2011 Q-Cells realised a lighthouse project by delivering around 200.000 Q.SMART modules into the world's largest CIGS solar power plant located in Ammerland, Germany.

The CIGS technology behind Q.SMART was developed in 1983 by the Ångström Solar Center at Uppsala University, Sweden, commercialized by the spin-off company Solibro in 2006, and acquired by Q-Cells in 2009. Q.SMART is produced in Thalheim, Germany, at the company's own factory with a total nominal production capacity of 135 MWp.

With this world-record Q-Cells has marked the fifth world record in 2011 underpinning the technological leadership of its products. Next to the two world-records in the CIGS sector, a polycrystalline solar module from Q-Cells' in-house research centre achieved a module efficiency of 18.1% related to the aperture area in July 2011. Recording this efficiency, Q-Cells has beaten its own world record of 17.8%, set in spring 2011. In April 2011, a cell produced on the basis of the Q.ANTUM technology had already set a record for major polycrystalline solar cells, achieving an efficiency of 19.5%.

Q.SMART Solar Module image via Q-Cells

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Thailand Inaugurates Its 1st Solar Thermal Power Plant

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 07:07 AM PST


thai bells flag solar power

We don’t write about Thailand all that often (OK, I don’t know if I’ve ever written about it here on CleanTechnica), so I figured I had to give a shout out to this good solar news story from the thoroughly flooded country (a country I probably get a good portion of my rice from). The news, as the title indicates, is that Thailand now officially has its first solar thermal power plant up and running. ”Thailand’s Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Yongyuth Wichaidit has pressed the start button of the first solar thermal power plant in his country,” Wirsol/Independence reports (but in German).

The solar thermal parabolic trough power plant is located in the province of Kanchanaburi Huaykrachao, for those of you somewhat familiar with Thailand, and is has a power capacity of 5 megawatts.

While this is the first, it won’t be alone for long. Thailand has plans to build 14 more solar power plants in this province.

And, beyond this being a first for Thailand, it’s actually also a first for the world!

“The power plant TSE 1 is the first in the world that operates on the basis of the direct evaporation of water / steam. The technique is considered to be particularly efficient.”

Thailand, you guessed it, has a feed-in tariff (FiT) in place that supports solar power. The FiT is for “small power plants” with a capacity up to 10 megawatts.

Source: Wirsol/Independence | Thailand bells & flag via Cyril Plapied (Sorry, I can’t find a photo of this power plant — please shoot one over if you can.)

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Super Sexy Yamaha E-Bikes & E-Trikes

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 06:42 AM PST


Yamaha has been unveiling a number of super sexy and efficient vehicles (yes, bikes are vehicles) recently. CNET highlighted a couple recently and Gas2 just highlighted one, all of which are cool enough to drool over, in my opinion, so I thought I’d share them here as well.

yamaha e-trike

Credit: Toyota

yamaha toyota e-bike

Credit: Toyota

This first one, EC-Miu, is an “e-trike,” as you can see. And the one right below it is the electrically power-assisted Pas With bicycle. Both were co-designed by Yamaha and Toyota, and both include “an advanced smart grid energy-management system designed for homes, businesses, and power companies, which means your e-bike will be another appliance you can manage online.”

They will also be embedded with Wi-Fi, so that riders can use smartphone-based navigation and telematics services.

These bikes can recharge at G-Station recharging stations used by electric cars.

Perhaps even more super sexy than the above (I guess it all depends on who’s riding it), is the Yamaha Y125 concept bike, which gets a staggering 220 mpg. Here’s more on this beauty from Jo Borras over on Gas2.

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North American Solar Photovoltaic Market to Double in Q4 2011

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 06:25 AM PST


solar engineers panels north america

This comes as no surprise to those of us following the market, but it may come as a big one to FOX News (& friends) — the North American solar photovoltaic market is set to double in quarter four of 2011 compared to quarter four of 2010.

The PV market is projected to increase 33% over quarter three 2011, and 101% over quarter four 2010.

The U.S. is projected to account for 84% of the market this quarter, and Canada (largely Ontario, because of its world-leading feed-in tariff and the “cool” or “contagion” factor), the other 16%. Breaking it down by states and provinces, it would look like this:

  • California: 21%
  • Ontario: 16%
  • New Jersey: 11%
  • Other U.S. States: 52%

Reaching the U.S. Solar Energy Industry Agency’s goals and projections, the U.S. solar industry looks like it will double this year (as it also did last year), reaching about 1.9 GW of new solar capacity.

But, with all sorts of uncertainty on the table, the question is where the industry will go next…. “Caught between strong utility-scale project demand, declining solar incentives in distributed generation applications, module over-supply, and significant policy uncertainty, the North American photovoltaic (PV) market is at a crossroads, according to the conclusions of the recently-released NPD Solarbuzz North America PV Markets Quarterly report,” Solarbuzz reports. Overall, though, the future looks sunny.

"PV is now positioned to take significant market share from other energy sources as it approaches grid parity in some regions. Downstream companies are facing enormous challenges to adapt to rapidly changing channel structure and business models in order to successfully participate in that opportunity," said Craig Stevens, President of NPD Solarbuzz.

2012 is looking to have more challenges than previous years, largely due to the SolarWorld-China trade disputes, “with clear evidence that some Chinese manufacturers and project developers have already started to delay shipments and installations,” and the expiration of the US federal cash grant for solar projects.

However, Solarbuzz still forecasts the North American market tripling in size by 2015, “with the ground-mount installations securing the largest market share of 42%.”

For more on what’s driving U.S. and Canada solar growth, check out the news release or report on Solarbuzz.

Solar panels & engineers via shutterstock

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US Biodiesel Industry Smashes Previous Production Record for 2011 Despite Ongoing Concerns

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 05:36 AM PST

biodiesel fuel

After coming off a disappointing year in 2010 for US biodiesel production, the industry in 2011 has come roaring back to life, smashing all records, including the most recent record in 2008, the US Biodiesel Board recently announced. However, the US biodiesel federal tax credit set to expire at the end of 2011, there is some concern within the industry, as biofuels companies continue their onward advance as a solution to get nations off of fossil fuels.

This year saw 802 million gallons of biodiesel produced all across the US, including in Iowa, Florida, and Washington, the Board said. That is more than double 2010 production of 315 million gallons, and far ahead of the previous all-time record of 690 million gallons in 2008.

The contributing factor to the upward trend in US biodiesel production was the reinstatement of the US biodiesel federal tax credit. However, the same credit is supposed to expire at the end of this year unless Congress can come up with a solution to keep the credit going into 2012.

Industry participants note, of course, that the potential of the US federal biodiesel tax credit being axed at the end of December could do some serious damage to the sector.

“It will affect how many people we can hire, how much feedstock and equipment we buy, how many truckers we put to work delivering fuel," said President Gabe Neeriemer of Patriot Biodiesel of Greensboro, North Carolina. “This incentive is working, and particularly in this kind of economy when politicians say they’re doing everything they can to create jobs, I can’t imagine why Congress would allow it to expire."

The US$1-per-gallon tax credit has helped pushed employment up to 31,000 in the United States, compared to 13,000 a year earlier, and helped the industry reach a GDP of US$3 billion, the Board said. The tax credit has also been a benefit to strapped government coffers, providing US$628 million in local, state and federal revenue.

While biodiesel saw good production this year, along with the biodiesel credit set to expire, the ethanol blenders tax credit is done this year and could also hurt the industry. Other concerns, including the ongoing food versus fuel debate and a recent report stating the US may have problems reaching its ethanol targets by 2022 unless technologies are ramped up to offer more support, could cause additional concern in the biofuel industry.

Despite the challenges within the biodiesel and ethanol industries, renewable fuels will definitely continue as a part of the energy mix of the US and other industrialized countries. Even if they face energy challenges within their the U.S. and Canada, new demands from emerging markets are anticipated to stimulate the creation of more sustainable fuels that can also support global economic growth.

Photo Credit: Attribution By Spencer T.

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Solar Company Gears Up for Battle, with Real Bullets

Posted: 05 Dec 2011 05:04 AM PST

Department of Defense promotes solar power for overseas forward operating basesThe Department of Defense has just  awarded the California-based solar company Cogenra a $2 million contract to demonstrate its solar  power cogeneration system at two military bases in the U.S., with an eye toward introducing the technology on a wide basis, including overseas forward operating bases. The idea of using solar energy in a potential or actual danger zone may seem a little off, but regular readers of CleanTechnica nay recall that the U.S. Marine Corps has been using solar power in Afghanistan, and the military has been introducing various portable and shippable solar devices  including a flexible solar power tent, solar-in-a-backpack kits, and solar panels that pack up like suitcases.

A Solar Power Cogeneration Twofer

Photovoltaic cells normally produce a lot of heat along with electricity, and too much heat interferes with the cell's ability to reach its maximum efficiency. In conventional solar technology the system is tweaked to mitigate excess heat and/or the excess is shunted off as waste. Cogenra's system harnesses the waste for heating hot water. The cogeneration technology is ideal for private sector facilities where hot water is in heavy use, such as corporate campuses with onsite fitness facilities, and the military equivalent would be bases where troops are housed.

Solar Cogeneration and the Big Picture

The new contract calls for Cogenra to install its technology at the Port Hueneme Naval Base in Ventura County, California and the Army Parks Reserve Forces Training Area in Dublin, California. Cogenra won the contract under a competitive program, joining 26 other projects that were chosen out of hundreds for the Department of Defense's 2012 Installation Energy Test Bed Initiative. DOD has been running the Energy Test Bed program since 2009 with the aim of trying out advanced energy technologies in real-world conditions. The idea is to spot systems that not only perform well in a test, but that can be standardized and installed at multiple DOD facilities under a wide range of conditions.

Solar Power Under Fire – For Real

On top of Cogenra's upcoming demonstrations at the two California bases, in September the company was among a small group showcasing new energy technologies at an experimental Marine Corps forward operating base under extreme desert conditions. It was selected for additional assessment, which according to a company press release could lead to its "expedited deployment at Forward Operating Bases around the world."

Military Pushing for Strong Solar Power Industry

One of the Energy Test Bed goals is to "facilitate wide-scale commercialization" of new energy technologies – in other words, to support the growth of the domestic alternative energy industry. The military’s promotion of a U.S. industry  is hardly a radical twist. It’s right in line with the military’s traditional reliance on strong U.S. industries to support its mission, including the petroleum, aviation, and automotive sectors, all of which have benefited from intensive taxpayer support in many different forms.

Image: 3/5 Dark Horse Marines use solar power at Afghanistan base, credit: courtesy of U.S. Marines.

Twitter: @TinaMCasey


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The Difference Between Being a Lone Nut and Being a Leader (or How Solar Became Viral)

Posted: 04 Dec 2011 05:25 PM PST


Somebody has finally put a number on something we have all had a gut sense about: people are far more likely to follow a trend (in this case, installing solar panels) when it is clearly a trend. But the natural follow-up question is: “when does a trend officially become a trend?”

There is an amusing and inspiring TED talk (core part of it above) that uses a popular YouTube video to illustrate a fairly universal human tendency — to dismiss a true trendsetter as “loonie” until a certain threshold, whereupon, suddenly and magically, what they’re doing becomes a trend. Perhaps you’ve seen the video above before — it’s a lone guy dancing up a storm, painfully alone in a sea of a mostly sedentary audience. You can feel the scorn of those who presume him to be either crazy or drunk — who does that anyways? But this dancin' fool doesn’t care, he’s oblivious to conformity, and ends up triggering a human landslide. There is a difference between “crazy” and “I don’t care if people think I’m crazy” though, and there is an important lesson to be learned about leadership — and it isn’t obvious, you have to watch the TED talk to get it.

When I put my architecture career on hold to enter into the red hot Ontario microFIT solar market, it was because I knew a sure thing when I saw it. Highest feed-in tariff in the world, highest in world history. Why on Earth would someone say no to earning 14% ROI, protecting your roof, reducing your carbon footprint, ensuring energy independence, boosting your local economy, and displaying what some might argue to be the strongest symbol of environmentalism after the bicycle? You don't need to be a strong salesperson, this sells itself!

Turns out it wasn’t so easy. Everybody embraced the idea, but it seems many were afraid of looking like a freak. In the early months, aesthetics seemed to be the number one concern, and I frequently questioned my sanity for having left my original career path.

Well, what a difference 18 months makes. I am seeing the solar version of the dancing guy, and I have a few observational notes of my own. Gone is the worry about how panels will look — it is already something people want to show off. Referrals make up about a third of all sales, and there is a spike of interest right after a new installation. The main question now is not ‘if,’ but ‘when,’ and ‘how big.’

So, back to this study I mentioned at the beginning — what effect does it have on people when solar panels are installed near you? If you start with a neighborhood with 25 solar installations, where it was 100 days between the 24th and 25th installation, this peer pressure effect will reduce the time between installations to just 10 days by the 250th [photovoltaic] project.

solar contagious

To summarize, being near solar panel installations seems to step it up within our personal priorities. Otherwise known as “keeping up with the Jones’s.” Everyone has their own reasons, but the link is clear. No real surprise, but it’s great to have a peer-reviewed study to back it up.

Does this make people dumb as sheep? As my mother used to ask me, “if everyone jumped into a lake, would you do the same?” Trends are not always sensible. In 1637 Holland, people had whipped each other into a frenzy to buy tulips; everybody had them and everybody wanted more, literally trading away their houses until the tulip market crashed. And what about powdered wigs? Don’t laugh, everyone was doing it at one time. I don’t pretend to have the answers to what drives certain modes of conformity, but it is important to make a distinction — the people who got up to dance didn’t do so because they wanted to emulate the dancing guy,… they did so because they wanted to dance.

Anyone comparing solar panels to fashion or fads needs to research what peak oil and climate change is. There is not enough room in this article for science lessons, but suffice it to say that environmental awareness is at an all-time high for one simple reason — we are in the age of information and awareness. You can probably thank the internet for a lot of that. And once you learn something, you do not “unlearn” it. We have a truckload of problems bearing down upon us, and solar just happens to be a “shovel-ready” solution which some jurisdictions have made it profitable to participate in. It seems once people discover these issues, they prefer to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. This is why anyone new to the program naturally becomes the best advocate for it. It isn’t surprising that within weeks, all his cousins and his accountant want to get a solar evaluation too.

Awareness is contagious. It doesn't work the opposite way. Thank God for that!

This guest post came to us from Yoshi Hashimoto, an architect/energy auditor/solar specialist out of Windsor Ontario. Big thanks to Yoshi — I’ve been wanting to write about this for awhile and haven’t been getting to it (and I think he does a much better job of it than I would have), and I hadn’t actually seen news of this new Yale study before he shared it with me. Thanks, Yoshi!

Image via Home Solar Systems Info | Source: Yale

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