2014 brought us plenty of news to be unhappy about. The year had barely begun when a major chemical spill poisoned the water of 300,000 West Virginians, a disaster that left residents worried about the safety of their water for months. Not even a month after the spill, tens of thousands of tons of coal ash spewed into a river in North Carolina, the toxic waste product piling as high as five feet in some places. 2014 saw crippling drought in California, devastating flooding in India, and climatic changes that threw many members of the animal world into disarray. To top it all off, 2014 could very well turn out to be the hottest year on record.
But 2014 saw some good news too — and a lot of it was in the form of advancements in renewable energy. Here are eight news stories from 2014 to remind you that, at least for the renewable energy sector, this past year wasn’t so bad.
World’s First Solar Road Opens In Netherlands
In November, the bike-crazy Netherlands became home to the world’s first solar road — one that happens to be designed specifically for bikes. The 230-foot stretch of road contains contains enough safety-glass-protected solar cells to generate enough energy to power about three Dutch homes. The project’s creators will be conducting tests on the road over the next three years to determine how the road holds up to bike commuters and how much energy it ends up producing, and if all goes well, they hope to expand the project to 328 feet by 2016.
Solar roads don’t typically produce as much energy as solar panels, due to their inability to be tilted as the sun moves across the sky. But they also don’t require huge tracts of land like major solar farms do, and they can be built in densely populated areas. As a concept, solar roads are in their beginning stages right now, but one couple in the U.S. hopes to eventually replace many traditional asphalt roadways with solar roads similar to the one in the Netherlands. Lots of people, it seems, want to see that dream reach reality: the couple’s Indiegogo campaign, which ended in June, raised $2 million.
Researchers Reach A Record In Solar Conversion Efficiency
Researchers from the University of New South Wales achieved a record in solar efficiency in December, converting more than 40 percent of the sunlight that hit the test solar panels into electricity. The researchers achieved this feat by splitting four different cells, and by using concentrated solar photovoltaic technology.
“We used commercial solar cells, but in a new way, so these efficiency improvements are readily accessible to the solar industry,” Mark Keevers, a UNSW solar scientist who managed the research project, said in a statement.
The highly efficient solar cells might be cheaper to produce than some other record-breaking cells, too. The researchers said that the solar design could be particularly useful for solar power towers currently being designed in Australia. If the test’s results are able to be replicated on a larger scale, those involved with the research project hope that the discovery can ultimately drive down the cost of solar.
Scotland Has An Amazing Month Of Wind Energy Production
Wind produced enough electricity in Scotland in October to power all homes in the country and then some, according to numbers from the World Wildlife Foundation. In all, Scotland’s wind turbines generated enough electricity to power 3,045,000 U.K. homes in October, output that WWF Scotland said contributed to a “bumper month” for renewable energy in the country.
Scotland, which is home to the U.K.’s largest wind farm, is a leader in renewable energy, with goals to generate 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. The U.K. as a whole has also broken records in renewable energy generation this year: in August, wind accounted for 17 percent of the U.K.’s national demand, setting a new record for wind generation in the European country.
World’s Largest Solar Plant Comes Online
CREDIT: AP Photo/Chris Carlson
Though it’s technically been operating since 2013, Ivanpah, the world’s largest concentrating solar plant, officially opened in February of this year. The solar plant, which uses mirrors to focus the sun’s energy, can generate enough electricity to power nearly 100,000 homes. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said in February that Ivanpah is “a symbol of the exciting progress we are seeing across the industry.”
Unfortunately, however, not all the news surrounding Ivanpah has been good news. The world also learned in 2014 that the solar plant’s concentrated rays of heat have been killing birds, reports that, as an Audubon spokesperson put it in November, “are alarming for us and everyone.” As of August, Ivanpah’s operators are working with investigators to figure out just how bad the problem is and how they can fix it.
The World’s Largest Tidal Array Gets The Green Light
This year wasn’t just a key year for wind in Scotland. The country also announced in August that it had finalized plans to build what it’s calling the world’s largest tidal array in the Pentland Firth in northern Scotland. In fact, it is due to break ground in January. Once the MeyGen tidal array is completed, it’s predicted to be able to provide enough electricity to power 175,000 homes, and will also create up to 100 jobs.
But Scotland wasn’t the only country prioritizing tidal power in 2014. In August, a 156-ton tidal power generator opened in Wales for a 12-month trial. If the trial goes well, the company in charge of the generator hopes to set up nine more of these generators, a set that, in all, could produce enough electricity to power about 10,000 area homes.
Researchers Continue To Develop New Ways To Use Solar
The solar industry is ripe for innovation, with researchers consistently coming up with easier, cheaper, and more versatile solar technologies. And the inventions didn’t stop in 2014. One British start-up developed a lightweight solar cloth that can be stretched across parking lots or buildings with roofs that can’t hold much weight, such as sports stadiums. The cloth won the Solar U.K. Industry Awards’ Building-Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) Solar Innovation of the Year in 2014.
And in July, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology unveiled a “solar sponge,” a porous material that’s able to efficiently convert sunlight into steam. The sponge, if it’s able to be produced commercially, could be used to produce potable water in impoverished areas.
World’s Largest and Most Powerful Wind Turbine Comes Online
Denmark started out 2014 with bang, officially starting up the world’s largest and most powerful wind turbine. The turbine, which is located at the Danish National Test Centre for Large Wind Turbines in Østerild, is 720 feet tall with 260-foot blades. And it’s an energy powerhouse, too: the turbine can generate enough electricity to power 7,500 average European households.
Solar Car Hits Speed Record, Could Soon Hit The Streets
Solar powered cars have long faced a dilemma: they can either be fast, or they can travel relatively far on a single charge. They couldn’t do both. In June, one solar car that can travel nearly 500 miles on a single charge broke a speed record for electric vehicles, proving that the dilemma of solar cars may soon be defunct. Sunswift eVe, a solar car designed by students at the University of New South Wales, reached a top speed of 87 miles per hour in June. At that point, the car wasn’t road-ready, but it might soon be: after raising about $28,600 in a crowdfunding campaign, the students behind the car are working to rebuild the vehicle to make it street-legal.