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ENERGY

AND

ENVIRONMENT

solar

energy

eficial
.0

ar

al

technology

impact
climatic

it

can

...damage
"VIII

(140m

the

sun

to

"V

radIatIon

provide

nonpolluting

practice

of

cooking

and

cheap

fuels,

as

well

as

electricity

Hoagland

least

in

cies

ciencies,

the

.demand

very

year

ceives

in

all

from

the

known

gas

energy

equals

annual
have

and

solar

energy.

;,,~,

.~~.

wind
fact,

.'~.',,;:Attempts
of the
sun

".::~:
.C

-!..

of

by

all

way
sun

power
of

geothermal
to
are

oil,

of

fossil

energy

coll~~",*edire~t,~nergy,
not
n~h1:;18g1!a:mathenam~a"Afi~gtlii'~Ber'":

tidal.

fuother

of

major

By
fuel

percent

and

worldwide

that

Even

be

result,

the

with

reqwred.
60
percent

to
for

and

oil

solar
until

the

threatened

on

more

efficient

sources

Solar
of

energy

5It

is

uluikely

nology

meet

its

ations
of

at

efficiensuch
its

effi-

current

by

devoting

land

area

in

less
to

ener-

will

wind
heat

rivers

use

produced

of:~er~1

energyco~4~~,.gamsms
the
electridty,ijI

by

with

by

olo~ical
sunlight.

-methanol
mass

laying

or

out

photovolenergy
fuel

electrochemical

may
other

-'c

erect-

solar-pow-

the

Hydrogen

enz~~!'::-that
-."

apmay

biomass,

building

i..

some

in

can

cells

processes-involving
or

by

van-

availability

favor

harnessing

dams.

tech-

Electricity

burning

engines,
or

the

others.

turbines,

cells

265

and
naturally

over

solar
Regional

economics

generated

taic

a single

predominate.

sunlight

ing

30

that

will

ered

by
by

of

can,

With

energy

percent

proaches

demand

increase

electricity

new

!
I

sunlight,

achieve

could

less

technologies

u.s.

cultivation:

available

percent.

use

collection.

ener-

be

projected

conservati,;>D,

gy
will
provide

depends

and

percent.

coal

groWth
2025
is

of

1970s

than

pioneers
sun's

forgotten
the

the

30

for

for

economies.

Economic

for

As

mostly

crisis

use.

the

convenience

was

many
:3

pat~nt

Other.

using

overwhelming.

power

tapping

and

the

energy

other

provides

but

first

motor.

investigated

was

Peo-

also

and

gy,

world's

of

the

solar-powered

This

and

obtained

also

thousands

one

forms

coal,

the

wood

the

France

en-

humans.

for
is

But

much

combined.

burning

that

re-

is contained.

times

biomass

nuclear,

as
as

15,000

hydropower,

':;;;

times

uranium

been

surface

reserves

and

of

years,

~,--.els-in

10
sunlight

consumption

forms

~?~1;.;~~r;~;

earth's

about

ergy

natural

pIe

the

to

captures

laboratory,
to

for
solar

potential

biomass

solar

20

inefficient
material

Advanced
the

of

the

of

often

plant

typically

modern

coun-

environmental

the

does

percent

ben-

glob-

developing

heating.

photosynthesis

but
William

by

than

and

the

have

land

than

by

In

burning

technologies

have

pollution

alleviate

caused
110

less
and

air

change.

tries,

Technology

will

on

or

be:'~:'.{.tf;j,
bi':~-:-;:,:

microor;'",~:..~~;;~~,~~
are
-.."

driven
.-

solar

"~?ii:'

f',\

,..",..' "'~"'t".

c'
~t!r:

(, Solarenergyalso existsin the oceans


aswavesand gradientsof temperature
and salinity, and they, too, are potential reservoirsto tap. Unfortunately,althoughthe energystored is enormous,
it is diffuse and expensiveto extract.
.ethanol
Growing Energy
1- A gricultural or industrial wastes such

1-\ as wood chips can be burned to


generatesteamfor turbines. Suchfacilities are competitive with conventional
electridty productionwhereverbiomass
is cheap.Many suchplants alreadyexist, arid more are being commissioned.
Recentlyin Viirnamo, Sweden,a modem power plant using gasifiedwood to
fuel a jet enginewascompleted.The facility converts 80 percentof the energy
in the wood to provide six megawatts
of power and nine megawatts of heat
for the town. Although biomass combustion canbe polluting, suchtechnologymakes it extremelyclean.
q., Progressin combustion engineering
~d biotechnologyhasalsomadeit economical to convert plant material into
liquid or gaseousfuels. Forestproducts,
"energy
crops,"
residues
and
9ther;
wastesagricultural
can be gasified
and
used ta,s~thes1ze methanol.
'.\ is released.when sugars, 1--0- ~
"- various kinds of
,

,- :e!.f:,.~.

crops or from wood (by convertingcel- nificant sourceof energy.By one estilulose),are fermented.
mate, 80 percentof the electricalcon<1Alcoholsare now beingblendedwith sumption in the U.S.could be met by
gasoline to enhance the efficiency of the wind energy of North and South
combustion in car enginesand to re- Dakotaalone.The earlyproblemssurduce harmful tail-pipe emissions.But rounding the reliabilityof "wind farms"
can be an effective fuel in its
own right, as researchers in Brazil have
demonstrated. It may be cost-competitive with gasoline by 2000. In the future,

have now been by and large resolved,


and in certain locations the electricity
produced is already cost-competitive
with conventional generation.

biomass plantations could allow such tZIn areasof strong wind-an average
energyto be "grown" on degradedland of more than 7.5 meters per secondin developing nations. Energy crops electricityfrom wind farms costsaslitcould also allow for betterland manage- tIe as $0.04per kilowatt-hour.The cost
ment and higher profits. But much re- should drop to below $0.03 per kilosearchis neededto achieveconsistent- watt-hour by the year2000. In Califorly high cropyields in diverseclimates. nia and Denmark more than 17,000
10 Questionsdo remain as to how use- wind turbineshavebeencompletelyinful biomass can be, evenwith techno- tegratedinto the utility grid. Wind now
logical innovations. Photosynthesisis suppliesabout1 percentof California's
inherentlyineffident and requireslarge electricity.
supplies of water. A 1992 study com- 12 One reasonfor the reduction is that
missioned by the United Nations con- ~
~
cluded that 55 percent of the world's
~
"
energyneedscould be met by biomass DIVERSEDEVICESaid in capturing solar
:j
by 2050. But the reality will hinge on energy. Wind turbines (a) draw out the
~
energy stored in the atmospherethrough
what other options are available.
~
differential heating by the sun. A solar
.'.
oj
Wind Power

II-

".

;.,:"

oughly O.2S:percentof the sun's


energy
reaching
the'Iower
atmo'.
,
,.
C "-a mi-

furnace (b) uses radiation reflected onto


a central tower to drive an engine. Solar
panels (cand background) employphotovoltaic celIs to create electricity. And
crops;;
such. as sugarcane (d) tap
light b~'photo'synthesis..'
".. sun-"

-"

~
~
"

138

ENERGY

AND

ENVlltONMENT

stronger and lighter matcrials for the


blades haveallowcd wind machincsto
become substantially larger. The turbines now provide as much as 0.5
megawattapiece.Advancesin variablespeed turbines have reduced stress
and fatigue in the moving parts, thus
improving reliability. Overthe next 20
years better materials for air foils and
transmissions and smoother controls
and electronicsfor handling high levels
of electrical power should become
available.
Ill.! One early use of wind encrgy will
.most likcly be for islands or other areas
that are far from an electricalgrid. Many
suchcommuriitiescurrently import diesel for gcneratingpower,and someare
actively seeking alternatives. By the
middle of the next ccntury,wind power
could meet 10 to 20 percent of the
world's demandfor electricalenergy.
15 The major limitation of wind energy
is that it is intermittent. If wind power
constitutesmore than 25 to 45 perccnt
of the total power supply,any shortfall
causessevereeconomicpenalties.Better meansof energy storagewould allow the percentageof wind powerused
in the grid to increasesubstantially. (I
will return to this questionpresently.)
HeatEngines

IbO

ing it, a thcrmal storagc devicc and a ponds has beenwidcly investigatedin
convertcrfor changingthe hcat to elec- countrics with hot, dry climates,such
tricity. The collectorscomein tltree ba- as in Israel.
sic configurations:a parabolicdish that
focuses light to a point, a parabolic
SolarCells
trough that focuseslight to a line and .;1..0
an arrayof flat mirrors spreadoversev- T he conversionof light directly to
eraIacresthat reflectlight onto a single
electricity, by the photovoltaic efcentraltower.
fect, was first observedby the French
'~These devices convert bet\veen 10 physicist Edmond Becquerelin 1839.
and 30 percentof the direct sunlightto Whenphotons shine on a photovoltaic
electricity. Butuncertaintiesremainre- device,commonlymadeof silicon,they
garding their life spanand reliability. A eject electrons from their stable posiparticular technicalchallengeis to de- tions, allowing them to move freely
vclop a Stirling engine that pcrforms through the material. A voltage can
well at low cost. (A Stirling engine is thenbe generatedusing a semiconduconc in which hcatis addedcontinuous- tor junction. A methodof producingexly from the outside to a gas containcd tremclypure cl1'stallinesilicon for phoin a closedsystem.)
tovoltaic cells with high voltages and
Ig Solar ponds, another solar-thcrmal efficiencicswasdevelopedin the 1940s.}source,containhighlysalinewaternear It proved to bc a tremendousboost for..
their bottom. Typically,hot \vaterrises the industry. In 1958 photovoltaics
to the surface,where it cools off. But were first used by the Americanspace
salinity makesthe watcr densc,so that programto po\verthe radio of the u.s.
hot water can stay at the bottom and Va/1guardI space satellite with less
thus retain its heat.The pond traps the than one watt of electricity.
sun's radiant heat,creatinga high tem- Zl Although significant advanceshave
perature gradient. Hot, salty fluid is been made in the past 20 years-the
drawn out from the bottom of the pond currcntrecord for photovoltaicefficienand allowed to evaporate;thc vapor is cy is more than 30 percent-cost reused to drive a Rankine-cycleengine mains a barrier to widespread use.
similar to thatinstalledin cars.The cool There are two approachesto reducing
liquid at the top of the pond can also the highprice: producingcheapmateribe used,for air-conditioning."
als for so-calledflat-plate systems,and

ne way of generating electricity is \~ A by-product of this process-is fresh:0 drive an engine with the sun's water from the steam. Solar ponds are

haveno moving parts. One maybe optimistic about the future of these devices because commerciallyavailable
efficienciesare well below theoretical
limits and becausemodem manufacturing techniquesare only now being
applied. Photovoltaic electricity producedby eithermeansshouldsooncost
lessthan $0.10centsper kilowatt-hour,
becomingcompetitivewith conventional gene~ationearlyin the next century.

23
RESIDENTIAL
AND COMMERCIAL

AGRICULTURAL
AND INDUSTRIAL

TRANSPORTATION

END USE

DISTRIB1JfIONof renewable solar energy projected for the year 2000 shows that
many dilferent means of tapping the resource will playa role.
SCIENnFICAMERICANSeptember 1995

~
~

using lenses or reflectors to concentrate sunlight onto smaller areas of (ex-

radiant heat and light. Suchsolar-ther- limited by the large amounts of water pensive)solarcells.Concentratingsysmal electric devices have four basic they need and are more suited to re- ternsmust trackthe sunand do not use
components,namely,a systemfor col- mote communities that require fresh- the diffuse light causedby cloud cover
lecting sunlight, a receiverfor absorb- water as well as energy.Use of solar as efficientlyas flat-platesystems.They
do, however,capture more light early
.and
late in the day.
SOURCE
22 Virtually all photovoltaicdevicesopHYDROSOLAR SOLAR
erating today are flat-plate systems.
POWEROCEANSWIND
CELLS THERMAL
BIOMASS
Somerotate to track the sun, but most

UTILITIES

"

~
i:

StoringEnergy

S unlight, wind and hydropower all


vary intermittently,
seasonally and

evendaily. Demand for energyfluctuates as well; matching supply and demand can be accompljshedonly with
storage.A study by the Departmentof

;ic:,

",

"

.,,-..".
.~
~'I'
I(f"~:

f.(.

Energy estimated that by 2030 in the


U.S.,the availability of appropriate storagecould enhance the contribution of
renewable energy by about 18 quadrillion .British theml~ units p~r year.
.lJf With the ~ceptIon of biomass, the"
more promismg long-term solar systernsare designed to produce only el~ctricity. Electricity is the, energy ca~Ier
~f choice for mos~ statIon~ry applI.canons, such as heating, co~lmg, lIght~g
and m~c~ery.
But it. IS not easily;
stored m s~tabl~ quan.tIties. ~or use in
transportation, lightweight, high-capacJ.tyenergy storage is needed.
15 Sunlight can also be used to p~oduce
hydrogen fuel. !he tec~ologles reQU}redto d~ s.o ~ectly (Wlt~OUtgeneratmg eleCtriCIty first) are m the. very
early stages of development but m,the
long teml may prove the best. SunlIght
falling on an electrod~ can pro?uce an
electric current to splIt water mto hydrogen and oxygen, by a pr~~ess cal~ed
photoelectrolysis. The term photoblology" is used to describe a whole class
of biological systems that produce hydrogen. Even longer-term research may;
lead to photocatalysts that allow sunlight to split water directly into its compcnent substances.
1" When the resulting hydrogen is
~urned
as a fuel or is used to produce
electIidty in a fuel cell, the O,nlyby-product is water. Apart from bemg en.vironmentally benign. hydrogen proVIde~ a
way to alleVI' ate the proble m of stonn g
solarenergy,.It

can

be

held

"

'" ' ;;' "

...;:;,;:';~,:,:~::;;;:;;~.~~;;~i:,8J

A New Chance
for ,Solar ;,~ergy,,~*~~;:~l~~,:..:.~: 1
,
" ,:::~:;!;,;:., :'J.t,,~;."i;,rli1;"T';:i:~';,!~;,i;j
: S olar power is getting cheaper-in fact, the cost of,~lc,hlng ~~~:;~~~'srays~::;'j
:'
has fallen more than 6 5 perce~t in the, past.,10 years. 't,has,c~~~(b~co~e
;,\1
Inexpensive enough, though, to rival fo~SII fuels,so ~olarenerg~..\~Talns ~;;1
promising, not yet fully mature alternative. Sales run onlyabo~t~,!.\bllllon,:;;,j
annually, as opposed to roughly $800 billion for standard sourc~~ran.~,~p'I~~ci;'J
customers still generally reside in isolated a~~s! far,from po~erf,gryd~:~,'~!::~:::.;s.~
:~ But a new proposal from an American utility may well make"'~i91~~p~~er~1i
;, conventional-o-orat least_more competitlve..EnronCorporatlo~,,~h~J~rges~;t;~
U.S. supplier of natural ga's,recently joined forc,esw!th A~ocoC~rp~ratl,o_I:1;;\1}
:." owner of the photovoltaic cell prod~cer Solarex. The two compa~)es:'n,tend,,&~J
i; to build a 1DO-megawattsolar plant In the Nevada ~~sert.bYth~"e".~,C?f,;.1~96'..;fq
~ ..Thefacility, which could supply a city ofl 00,000, ~lIllnltl~'lys~'!;'!~~~lfo~~~~
i 5.5 cents a kilowatt-hour-:about three centscheaperon:~ver~.9~'"t~~n,!~e!1'ii
~,electricity generated by 011,coal or gas. "If they can ~ull this off, I~,!=a~~vo.~:i
, lutionize the whole industry, ~comments Robert H.Wllllams of prl~~~~o~~..~!!I~i):~
i: versity. "If they fall, it is going to set ~ack the technologY..1,9yea~.!4f~};i'~~i~J
;'
Despite its magnitude, the $150-million plan,d.oes npt~~:an,t~,a~.~~e.s~'~r.j~;,i
;:, age has finally dawned: Enron's low price is predicated, o,'l,tax.~x~~Pti~~S~~~j
f,' from the Department o,fEnergy and on guaranteed purchases bYcth,!"f~d~~I~!~:1
~' government. Nor does It mark a sudden technological breakthrouy~~ Solar~~i:j
: manufactures a conventional thlncfilm, silicon-based photovolta,ic:~el'~ha~!S~~
;' able to transform Into,electriclty about 8 perc,entofth,e sunllgh~.~~~tf~~ches:~~!
,: It. Rather the significance of Enron's ventur~houldt~e.b!d~e;~~~pted,..by:,~~::j
:' the aovernment-is that it paves the way for other,co~panl~,~,~~(.~~,~~;'a~ge,~,:,j
scare
~.""'~"'.""."'~-""-.A
investments In solar pQwer.
~-' Such investments could bring the price of solar.po~er,te~~nolo:g'y,a~~",~e~i~:'
~..';'lIverydown even further-for both large;'grid-:based,~ar~et,s"'an~~,r
1t~~,TP~.;;;!j
} dispersed, off-the-grld markets that arethe,norm,ln, manyc~evelop,?g,co~n;:~,.
': tries. 'This marks a shift in approach," explains Nicholas Lenssen~~to.rl:n~r1yat;):{3
:'.,.the World watch Institute in Washington; 9,C;;:andno,,!!,at E s,our~i,Jni,~~ulder,~{:l
\ Colo. "It allows them to attract 10wer-rlsk;long-termc,apltal~ no~Ju~!:yent~~ ~::~1
:~, capital, which is ,,-:erycostly." W~lch all means~heNevada de;~,~.~ay,~OOn.,.be,~
~: home to a very different, but stili veryh~t, kl~~,~,f!~~s~"s!te,:~~~:;,~:,~r!!~.~i!~rSj~::.
~
:i
"
'!
.':0,:":':"""'::';:"',,;-,,;',,-,:,,"]; \,,;'"J;",",;::,:v,...'.i1'::~,;.;~"
, .'"

, ,,_.,.:J,.

"...,..,~,="._,.",-~I;,..~(:.-.;,c

efficiently.

for as long as required. Over distances


.'
..
of more than 1 000 kilometers, it costs my will require alterations m the infraless to transport hydrogen than to trans- structure. When the decisio? to change
.mit electricity. Residents of the Aleutian is made will depe~d on the Importance
.; Islands have developed plans to make placed on the enVIr?lnen~, energy seelectricity from \vind turbines, convertcurlty or other consIderatIons. In. the
ing it to hydrogen for storage. In addi- U.S" federal programs for research mto
tion, improvements in fuel cells have renewable energy have been on a r9"erallowed a number of highly efficient,
coaster ride. Even the fate of the Denonpolluting uses of hydrogen to be de- partment of Energy is uncerta,in.
veloped such as electric vehicles pow- :28At present, developed natIons conered by hydrogen.
sume at lea~t 10 ti~es the e~ergy per
1:t- A radical shift in our energy econo- person than ISused m developmg coun-

The Author
WIlliAM HOAGLAND received an M.S. degree in chemical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After working for Syntex, Inc., and the Procter &
Gamble Company, he joined the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (formerly the Solar Energy Research Institute) In Golden, Colo., where he managed programs in solar
materials, alcohol fuels, biofuels and hydrogen. Hoagland
Is currently president of W. Hoagland & Associates, Inc., in
Boulder. The editors would like to acknowledge the assistance of Allan Hoffman of the Department of Energy.

tries. But the demand for energyis ris.


ing fast everywhere.Solartechnologies
could enable the developingworld to
skip a generationof infrastructure and
move directlyto a sourceof energythat
does not contribute to globalwarming
or otherwisedegradethe environment.
Developedcountriescould also benefit
by exportingthese technologies-if ad.
ditional incentivesare at all necessary
for
frominvesting
the sun. .in the future of energy

Furthel:-Reading
BASIC PHOTOVOLTAICPRINCIPLES
AND ME'nIODS. Kenneth Zweibel, Paul
Hersch and Solar Energy ResearchInstitute. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1984.
STFERING
A NEWCOURSE:
TRANSPORTAnON,
ENERGYAND THEENVIRONMENr.
Deborah Gordon and Union of Concerned Scientists. Island Press, 1991.
RENEWABLE
ENERGY:SOURCES
FORFUELSAND ELECTRICITY.
Edited by Thomas B. Johansson, Henry Kelly, Amulya K. N. Reddy, Robert Williams and
Laurie Burnham. Island Press,1993.
PROGRESS
IN SOLARENERGYTECHNOLOGIES
AND APpuCAnONS. Harold M.
Hubba~d, Paul Notari, Satyen Deb and Shimon Awerbach. American Solar
Energy Society, January 1994.

SCIEN11FIC
AMERICAN September 1995

139