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Surge in Battery Research Fuels Hope for Cheaper Electric Cars

Revelations in lithium battery technology could mean cheaper batteries and less sticker shock for electric cars

Matt Beardsley

Stanford scientists Mike Toney and Johanna Nelson inspect a transmission X-ray microscope, a powerful device that takes nano-scale images of chemical reactions in batteries while they are running.

Imagine if Tesla, Nissan and GM could cut the price of their electric cars by 25%. That electric dream may be a wee bit closer than you think, thanks to researchers at Stanford University.

Recently a team from Stanford’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory announced a new method to analyze and potentially improve rechargeable battery technology in a radical way. A cheap, reliable rechargeable battery is the holy grail for electric carmakers that rely on costly lithium ion batteries for power. Instead of the usual pairing of a lithium compound with graphite, the study examined lithium-sulfur batteries, which in theory can store five times more energy at a significantly lower cost.

“Sulfur is an earth-abundant element and offers the greatest potential to reduce cost,” said research co-author Michael Toney, head of the Materials Sciences Division at SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource.

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Satellites Helping Save Water on California Farms

Researchers at CSU have teamed up with NASA to test water-saving technology on California crops

Craig Miller

Watering fields in the Sacramento Valley: traditional irrigation methods have required a lot of guess-work.

By Vinnee Tong

Near the Central Valley town of Los Banos, Anthony Pereira opens a tap to send water into the fields at his family’s farm. Pereira grows cotton, alfalfa and tomatoes. And he is constantly deciding how much water is the right amount to use.

“Water savings is always an issue,” he says. “That’s why we’re going drip here on this ranch. We gotta try to save what we can now for the years to come.”

Thanks to some new technology, that might get a little easier. To help farmers like Pereira, engineers at NASA and CSU Monterey Bay are developing an online tool that can estimate how much water a field might need. Here’s how it works: satellites orbiting the earth take high-resolution pictures — so detailed that you can zoom in to a quarter of an acre.

“The satellite data is allowing us to get a measurement of how the crop is developing,” says CSUMB scientist Forrest Melton, the lead researcher on the project. “We’re actually measuring the fraction of the field that’s covered by green, growing vegetation.” Continue reading

Why Shell Oil Supports California’s Climate Change Legislation

Shell CEO is pro-AB 32, but stands by taking legal action against environmentalists in Alaska

Shell, US

Shell has partnered with MIT to explore carbon sequestration.

Royal Dutch Shell CEO, Peter Voser affirmed his company’s commitment to AB 32, California’s climate change legislation, and also explained why a carbon trading system is crucial to the development of alternative energy sources.

“We are clearly in favor of cap and trade systems,” he said to an audience of Silicon Valley business people and climate experts Wednesday in Burlingame. “We’d like to have it globally, to level the playing field.”

This statement from Shell, the global oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands and one of the world’s largest companies, is notable when you consider the strong opposition to AB 32 from the oil industry at large. In 2010, Proposition 23 attempted to derail the imposition of AB 32 provisions and was largely bankrolled by Tesoro and Valero, two Texas oil companies.

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Will California be a Game-Changer for the Chevy Volt?

GM is hoping new carpool incentives and a green focus will boost Volt sales in the Golden State

Chevrolet

The Volt now qualifies for California’s HOV lane status and a $1500 state rebate.

When General Motors CEO Dan Akerson was in San Francisco last week, I spoke to him about the five-week long suspension of the Chevy Volt production — and why he thinks the re-launch of the new-generation Volt could be a winner in California.

The Golden State accounts for one-in-four sales of the Volt, the plug-in hybrid made by General Motors. The car offers a potential solution to the “range anxiety” hurdle many would-be EV buyers face; but to gain traction against rivals like the Toyota Prius hybrid and the all-electric Nissan Leaf, it still has to surmount its red-hot price and fiery reputation.

Akerson says the new Volt qualifies for California’s HOV lane status and a $1,500 state rebate, thanks to changes in the combustion configuration of the engine. The new Volt will have an additional emissions system fan to reduce tailpipe emissions and Akerson anticipates that the average 36 minutes a day that commuters save by using the carpool lane will deliver an effective “California twist” to the vehicle’s marketability here.

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Fuel Cell Reality Check: A Blooming Solution at Caltech?

The “Bloom Box” may be moving one step closer to affordability at Caltech — but is it even close to tipping point for the mass market?

Bloom Energy

Caltech needed more generation capacity to meet the demands of its energy-intensive research.

Sunnyvale-based Bloom Energy made a big splash in 2010 when it came out of stealth mode – on the CBS program 60 Minutes no less – and announced its high-efficiency fuel cell, spawned by a NASA project for Mars. It has earned an impressive roster of clients including Google, eBay and Walmart.

But beyond the inevitable skeptics, the really big catch? “Bloom Boxes,” as the fuel cells have been dubbed, have a price tag of around $700,000. Hardly affordable for all but the largest companies with plenty of cash.

Yet California Institute of Technology, the private research university generally known as Caltech, had twenty Bloom Boxes installed on its Pasadena campus in 2010. Each box now produces 100 kilowatts of electricity for a total of two megawatts capacity; or 17% of the university’s electricity demand.
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How to Capture the Power of High-Altitude Winds

High altitude winds may have more than 100 times the energy needed to power civilization.  But as this video from KQED’s QUEST explains, capturing that power is going to take some very creative  solutions.

By Chris Bauer

A dreamer stares up into the sky, watches the clouds slowly pass by and ponders what could be. From da Vinci to Newton to the Wright brothers to the little kid down the street, sometimes there’s a fine line between the day-dreamer and the visionary. And now a group of innovative thinkers are looking at those same passing clouds in a whole new way.

Looking up at the jet stream, Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist from the Carnegie Institution of Global Ecology at Stanford University says, “We find that there’s more than 100 times the power necessary to power civilization in these high altitude winds.” 100 times the energy to power the world is going to get people’s attention.

The global need for clean energy is pushing scientists and engineers to search for new, untapped sources of energy. “To solve this problem we need a real revolution in our system of energy development,” continues Caldeira, “We need huge amounts of power, and the things that can provide huge amounts of power include fossil fuels like coal, oil and gas; nuclear power, solar power and wind.” The strongest and most consistent winds are found in the jet stream as high as 30,000 feet above the earth. But how do you harness the wind power from that high? Now the race is on to find the answer to that question. Continue reading

Cheap Panels Changing the Game for Big Solar

Developers are moving toward photovoltaic panels for utility-scale solar plants

Photovoltaic Panels at a PG&E's Dixon-Vacaville array. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Photovoltaic solar panels are becoming the new black for large-scale solar projects in California.

Developers of what’s billed as the world’s largest solar project, spanning 7,000 acres in Blythe, California, say the plant will get half of its 1,000 megawatts from photovoltaic panels. This recent announcement makes Solar Trust of America the fourth large-scale solar developer in California to switch from solar thermal to photovoltaic panels, which Solar Trust CEO Uwe Schmidt calls “the right technology at the right time.”

Brett Prior, Senior Analyst at Greentech Media, says that large-scale solar developers have preferred solar thermal but the plummeting cost of photovoltaic panels is changing that.

“Over the last couple of years PV [photovoltaic] panels have dropped significantly in price,” says Prior.

How’s 70% over the last two years for “significant?” Prior says that’s because China is emerging as a major player in panel manufacturing. “Just in the last five years, China has gone from sort of a minimal role to over 50% of all worldwide manufacturing of PV panels.” says Prior.

However, cost of technology isn’t the only factor affecting large-scale solar projects.

“One area where [solar thermal] players are making a lot of progress is incorporating thermal storage,” says Prior.

For some solar developers, thermal storage is a viable feature for solar thermal power and worth the extra cost. Since solar photovoltaic panels only work when the sun is shining, some solar-thermal plants incorporate a feature that uses molten salts, which can store heat throughout the day and be released to generate steam for turbines.

Prior says solar-thermal plants using storage features allow more flexibility to grid demand, which is consistent after the sun sets.

“They can store energy during the morning when it’s not really needed by the grid, deliver 100% output at one p.m. when it’s most needed, and continue to deliver 100% output at eight p.m. when electricity demand drops off,” says Prior.

Despite the emerging energy storage technology, three other large-scale solar plants (links to interactive map, below) have made the transition from solar thermal to solar photovoltaic panels for at least part of the project. Other developers like NextERA’s Beacon Solar, builder of a large project in Kern County, have suggested similar plans.

View Making the Swtich in a larger map

Saving Redwoods: There’s an App for That

Redwoods: There's an app for that. (Photo: Michael Limm)

We’re not the only ones who think iNaturalist is pretty cool. Save the Redwoods does, too.

The San Francisco-based conservation organization has teamed up with the biodiversity-tracking social networking site to create an iPhone app exclusively for monitoring redwood and giant sequoia forests. It’s called Redwood Watch. It uses the same technology as the iNaturalist iPhone app, aggregating data on a special Redwoods page within iNaturalist.org.

“We hope that this will help us have a better idea of where redwoods are, and then we can use that data to understand what kinds of conditions they can tolerate,” said Emily Limm, director of science and planning for Save the Redwoods. Continue reading

Connecting Citizens and Science… with Smart Phones

Harnessing the power of “citizen science” can be a challenge, but many think technology can provide the missing link.

Scott Loarie demonstrates the iNaturalist iPhone app to docents at Jasper Ridge. (Photo: Richard Morgenstein)

The new iPhone app for the online community iNaturalist is officially out and available for free download from Apple’s App Store.  Its creator, Ken-ichi Ueda, hopes that the new app will make sharing and uploading field observations so easy, that more people will want to document what they find next time they’re out on a hike.

“My primary motivation is to get people outside, thinking about the plants and animals they are seeing and actually recording them,” he said.  “The act of recording really locks it in your mind.” Continue reading

Yes in Our Backyard

Rooftop solar can make a sizable dent in the West’s renewable energy needs

This week representatives from the federal Department of Energy and Bureau of Land Management wrap up their California barnstorming swing, to gauge public opinion on the topic of siting solar projects. Throughout this often contentious debate, many have claimed that a potentially huge piece of the power solution is being overlooked; rooftop solar.

Acres of flat-roofed commercial buildings in California's Inland Empire. (Photo: Craig Miller)

Fly into Ontario airport in Southern California’s Inland Empire — or just zoom in on Google Earth — and you’ll see hundreds of block-long warehouses. There are acres — probably square miles — of flat, gray roofs sizzling in the San Bernardino County sun.  Soon, though, instead of merely soaking up the rays, hundreds of industrial rooftops in Southland cities will harness them to feed the local electrical grid.

Solar panels ready for installation on Ontario warehouse. (Photo: Ilsa Setziol)

Southern California Edison and independent power producers holding contracts with the utility are building 500 MW of solar panels on warehouses and, to a lesser extent, on the ground at other Southern California locations.

Together these projects are expected to produce enough energy to rival a traditional power plant, enough to serve about 325,000 homes. Continue reading