Energy and Global Warming News for April 5: Plastic electronics could slash cost of solar panels; A race to reap energy from ocean breezes; N.Y. auto show rife with lithe energy savers

Plastic Electronics Could Slash the Cost of Solar Panels

A new technique developed by Princeton University engineers for producing electricity-conducting plastics could dramatically lower the cost of manufacturing solar panels.

By overcoming technical hurdles to producing plastics that are translucent, malleable and able to conduct electricity, the researchers have opened the door to broader use of the materials in a wide range of electrical devices.

With mounting concerns about global warming and energy demand, plastics could represent a low-cost alternative to indium tin oxide (ITO), an expensive conducting material currently used in solar panels, according to the researchers.

“Conductive polymers [plastics] have been around for a long time, but processing them to make something useful degraded their ability to conduct electricity,” said Yueh-Lin Loo, an associate professor of chemical engineering, who led the Princeton team. “We have figured out how to avoid this trade-off. We can shape the plastics into a useful form while maintaining high conductivity.”

A multi-institutional team reported on its new technique in a paper published online March 8 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The area of research, known as “organic electronics” because plastics are carbon-based like living creatures, holds promise for producing new types of electronic devices and new ways of manufacturing existing technologies, but has been hampered by the mysterious loss of conductivity associated with moldable plastics.

“People didn’t understand what was happening,” said Loo, who co-wrote the paper. “We discovered that in making the polymers moldable, their structures are trapped in a rigid form, which prevented electrical current from traveling through them.”

Once they understood the underlying problem, Loo and her colleagues developed a way to relax the structure of the plastics by treating them with an acid after they were processed into the desired form.

Using the method, they were able to make a plastic transistor, a fundamental component of electronics that is used to amplify and switch electronic signals. They produced the electrodes of the transistor by printing the plastic onto a surface, a fast and cheap method similar to the way an ink-jet printer produces a pattern on a piece of paper.

A Race to Reap Energy From the Ocean Breezes

As New Englanders await a decision in Massachusetts on a bitterly contested proposal to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm, the State of Rhode Island is forging ahead with its own project in the hope of outpacing “” and upstaging “” its neighbor.

Crucial to its strategy is dispelling worries that economics will trump the environment, or the broader public good.

Instead of having a private developer dominate the research on potential sites, as Massachusetts has, Rhode Island embarked on a three-year scientific study, to be completed in August, of all waters within 30 miles of its coast. It has spent more than $8 million on research into bird migration patterns, wildlife habitats, fish distribution, fishermen’s needs and areas that might be of cultural importance to Indian tribes.

Its goal has been to head off the hurdles that have been in the way of the Massachusetts project, which has pitted coastal Indian tribes, business interest and homeowners against the developer, Cape Wind, and proponents of alternative energy. Frustrated by the failure of the two sides to broker an agreement, the Obama administration’s interior secretary, Ken Salazar, has promised to determine the fate of the project on his own this month. (On Friday a federal historic panel sent Mr. Salazar its recommendation that the government reject the Cape Wind Project.)

“We took the opposite approach of what Cape Wind did,” said Grover Fugate, the chief administrator of the Rhode Island project and the director of the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council.

Still, independent of the scientific study, Rhode Island has proposed two potential offshore sites “” a $200 million eight-turbine project off Block Island, and a far bigger $1.5 billion farm in the eastern Rhode Island Sound “” and has selected a preferred developer, Deepwater Wind.

In February, Gov. Donald L. Carcieri went so far as to suggest that the Block Island site was “on target to become the nation’s first offshore wind farm.”

Massachusetts counters that it is much further ahead. “We’ve been through all the state permits and we’re awaiting the final permits,” Ian Bowles, the state’s secretary of energy and environment, said in a recent interview.

Rhode Island has not secured permits, but it has trumpeted what Cape Wind so far lacks: a “power purchase” agreement with a utility company to buy what a farm generates. Yet on Wednesday, the state’s utility commission rejected that pact, which involved the proposed farm off Block Island, as too costly.

So for now, Cape Wind is poised to be first, said Matt Kaplan, a wind analyst at Emerging Energy Research, a firm that tracks emerging energy markets.

“If Cape Wind makes it through the permitting process, that is a major feat that no other offshore wind project has achieved in the U.S.,” he said. “However, power purchase agreements have been hard to secure.”

Officials consider a viable project as a source of energy and jobs, but the wind wars are also driven by state pride. “There is a rivalry to be the first state to have an offshore wind project in the nation,” Mr. Kaplan said. “And there is some embarrassment on the part of Massachusetts, having taken so long with Cape Wind.”

Delaware, Maine, New Jersey, New York and Virginia are also eager to secure permits and to lease blocks from the federal government in waters beyond the three-mile limit of state control.

N.Y. Auto Show Is Rife With Lithe Energy Savers

There was no shortage of news surrounding reduced energy consumption during the press conferences at the 2010 New York International Auto Show. Even Infiniti’s new 8-passenger QX56 SUV gets 20 mpg on the highway. Among the many product introductions and company announcements, Ford, Hyundai and Chevy stood out with notable strides in vehicle efficiency and forward thinking technology partnerships.


We sat down to a packed press conference thinking that FoMoCo was simply going to unveil their new Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, tell us how it’s not the same as Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrids, and call it a day. Sure the new Lincoln promises to be the most fuel-efficient luxury sedan in America, with 41 mpg in the city (6 mpg more than 2010 Lexus HS 250h), but we knew bigger news was on deck when the turnaround king himself, Alan Mulally, walked out onto the stage. The former Boeing CEO and cost-cutter extraordinaire was there to announce Ford’s new tie-in with Microsoft’s Hohm software application.

“Ford and Microsoft both share a strong commitment to contributing to a better world. Today, we begin the next major step in our working together and leading the way for energy efficiency and environmental sustainability,” said Mulally. “For Ford, this is a needed step in the development of the infrastructure that will make electric vehicles viable.”

Hohm is a free web-based service Mircosoft currently offers to consumers. It was designed to reduce energy costs and increase conservation by providing homeowners with insight into energy-use patterns. When Ford breaks cover on their Focus EV next year, an adapted version of Hohm will allow customers to connect with local utility providers to optimize vehicle charging.

They even piped Microsoft chief executive Steve Ballmer onto the big screen by satellite to chime in on the future impact of EVs. If you recall, Ford formally worked with Microsoft on SYNC, an in-car wireless connectivity platform that allows drivers to voice activate phone calls and MP3 tracks. It has been installed on more than 2 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles since its launch in 2007. Just like SYNC, Ford was not able to secure exclusive rights to the technology.


On the heels of Hyundai’s sixth generation Sonata mid-size sedan launch at last year’s L.A. Auto Show, the Korean automaker showed off new hybrid electric and turbocharged sport variants that add frugality, variety and performance to the Sonata family.

A palpable level of energy and eagerness emanated from the crowd as president and CEO of Hyundai America John Krafcik introduced the sleek new Toyota killers to flashing lights and high-energy music. As Krafcik pointed out, Hyundai and their Hybrid Blue Drive technology are a little late to the hybrid party (Toyota has been making hybrids for more than 10 years) but aren’t without a laundry list of best in class specs and industry first technologies.

Boost for U.S.-China Clean Energy Research

The Department of Energy announced this week the availability of $37.5 million in financing for Chinese and American researchers working on clean energy projects.

The goal is to stimulate joint research between the countries, which are the world’s top energy producers and consumers, and greenhouse gas emitters, said David Sandalow, the department’s assistant secretary of energy for policy and international affairs.

“Working together we can do more than working alone,” he said. “We are the biggest emitters in the world and together we have an enormous capacity to innovate.”

The D.O.E. financing will only go to American researchers and institutions, and grantees will match the department’s money dollar for dollar, bringing the United States’ contribution to $75 million.

An additional $75 million will be supplied by China for Chinese researchers. However, all proposed projects must involve researchers from both countries.

“We don’t have a specific template for exactly how this will work,” Mr. Sandalow said. “It could be that an American institution will propose and identify their Chinese partners as part of the application, or they may make proposals and then find Chinese partners.”

The efforts are part of an initiative called the U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center, announced last year to bring together teams of Chinese and American scientists. The center will open a headquarters in both countries.

The current financing will be aimed at projects with three areas of focus: buildings, clean coal and vehicles.

Projects could be related to building heating and cooling, advanced lighting and sensor controls, Mr. Sandolow said.

Drilling Plan May Buoy Efforts on Energy Policy

Ever since he ran Bill Clinton’s “It’s the Economy, Stupid” presidential campaign in 1992, James Carville has held a reputation for common-sense Democratic strategy.

In recent years, Mr. Carville has seized on the transformation of America’s energy system, which simultaneously touches voter concerns about the economy, national security and the environment. But he acknowledges that “energy independence” has lately lost political altitude.

Relatively low gas prices have drained away urgency, and the recession has heightened fears of economic dislocation. Republican charges that President Obama favors what they call a “cap and tax” plan that would destroy jobs while limiting carbon emissions have further damaged prospects for comprehensive energy legislation in Congress “” just seven months before midterm elections.

But Mr. Carville, a Louisiana-bred campaign veteran, found encouragement in Mr. Obama’s new plan to expand domestic oil drilling. The plan makes it easier for Senator Mary Landrieu, a Democrat from Mr. Carville’s home state, to back the president’s goals; it also increases pressure to cooperate on pro-drilling Republicans.

Having prevailed on health care and made progress on new Wall Street regulations, Mr. Obama and his Congressional allies “are starting to move the chains a little bit,” Mr. Carville noted. On energy, “They’re setting the table for something that’s inevitable.”

The springtime 2010 question is: inevitable when?

…. Now an ideologically divergent Senate triad “” a liberal Democrat, John Kerry of Massachusetts; an independent, Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut; and a conservative Republican, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina “” are preparing to unveil their version.Like the House bill, their work in progress would reduce carbon emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels over a 10-year period. That matches the goal Mr. Obama specified at global climate talks in December.

The three senators eschew the politically tainted term “cap and trade,” but not the concept. They would begin by capping carbon emissions for utilities, and in later years extend caps to manufacturers.

For the oil industry, they would impose a fee on refiners. To lure conservative Democrats and swing-vote Republicans, they would expand oil drilling and incentives for nuclear power.

Senators Kerry, Lieberman and Graham hope for passage by July 4, then negotiations with the House. But mustering the 60 Senate votes needed to overcome a filibuster represents a huge hurdle.

The Right Time?

Even advocates agree that after the exhausting health care push, it is an uphill fight. In fact, Tim Wirth, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who now leads the United Nations Foundation, warns that the debate could turn into an effort by Mr. Obama simply to prevent Congress from blocking his regulatory authority to limit carbon emissions. That authority represents the administration’s backup plan if legislation fails.

But the administration and its allies have not given up, insisting that only a carbon cap will create incentives for the American renewable energy industry to flourish and compete with economic rivals, notably China. The Senate negotiators have actively wooed support from business, including oil companies.

Within the 59-member Senate Democratic caucus, the conservative Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska appear out of reach. But as Mr. Graham prods his party to respond to younger voters’ environmental concerns, there is a chance of offsetting Democratic defections.

“There’s a path to five or six Republicans,” said Carol M. Browner, Mr. Obama’s coordinator of energy and climate policy. Among the prospects: moderate Senators Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine; Mr. Kerry’s Massachusetts colleague, Scott Brown; and George LeMieux of Florida, Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

9 Responses to Energy and Global Warming News for April 5: Plastic electronics could slash cost of solar panels; A race to reap energy from ocean breezes; N.Y. auto show rife with lithe energy savers

  1. mike roddy says:

    The research from Princeton on plastic collectors was very interesting.

    Any predicted dates for prototype deployment?
    Can this technology be used in large arrays, or is it just for distributed power?

  2. Intriguing article. It’s amazing what happens when bright young minds and essential funding are combined to solve the future problems of the world. Being involved in the renewable energy field and understanding the higher costs to produce and manufacture solar panels, this research and many other similar types have the potential to help solar power achieve grid parity in the near future. It’s only a matter of time before renewable energy becomes mainstream.

  3. James Newberry says:

    Solar energy already has “grid parity in the near future.” For example, photovoltaics are selling for $2 per rated watt (with 25 year warrantee), which is about half what they were just a few years ago (installed cost is approx. two or three times this) and the trend continues.

    The reason the perceived cost is economical NOW for the US to move agressively ahead by changing fossil/fissile subsidies to clean energy is because we have discovered that an order of magnitude of social costs have been kept off the books for every dollar of “market price” of fuels commodities. We have been cooking the books, cooking the planet and cooking ourselves. Watch China turn their economy on a dime when they realize they have jeopardized their entire coastal infrastructure from “Western models of development.”

  4. paulm says:

    With peak oil plastics will be getting expensive…

  5. Bob Wallace says:

    Except that we’re making significant progress with bio-plastics.

  6. prokaryote says:

    NREL Finds a Way to Give LEDs the Green Light

  7. prokaryote says:

    Forest epidemic is unprecedented phenomenon, still getting worse

    The Swiss needle cast epidemic in Douglas-fir forests of the coastal Pacific Northwest is continuing to intensify, appears to be unprecedented over at least the past 100 years, and is probably linked to the extensive planting of Douglas-fir along the coast and a warmer climate, new research concludes.

  8. Roger says:

    OT, but noteworthy as a big part of our ‘little’ climate problem:

    Boston’s 11 PM news/weather/news/weather/news/weather/sports just ended (yes, the weatherperson comes on at least three times to tease, please and entertain us)! Everything’s GREAT weatherwise here!! Why?

    Well, after having broken all records for March rains by a mudslide, with two “50-year” floods in as many weeks, now the TV weatherperson is visibly THRILLED to share the fantastic news that yesterday’s record high temperature is likely to be surpassed by another record high on Wednesday! We’re averaging 30 degrees above normal for early April.

    “Wow,” we are told–“You’re gonna like this at the Sox game tomorrow–a great summer evening at Fenway Park! It’ll be June in April!”

    These aren’t exact quotes, but you get the idea. This strange spring heatwave is all the rave–with never a thought to anything grave!

    Is it any wonder that we have a problem? Knowing what we really know, wouldn’t it be prudent for someone to suggest that weatherpeople control their enthusiasm for warmth? Could the heads of big TV be led to the White House for some encouragement to help begin the process of informing Americans about climate change, so we’re not the last to know? (Weatherpeople and citizens in the EU seem to get it!)

    C’mon Obama, lead the nation,
    It’s time for climate edu-ca-tion!