Environment Forum

A parka with windows, a big box in the sky

Could you find domestic happiness living in an angular white parka with windows? A big box set on top of an apartment building? A turtle-shaped shell? A modular Y filled with triangles?

At the U.S. Energy Department’s Solar Decathlon, visitors can try on — OK, tour — these avant garde houses, knowing at least that they’re supremely energy efficient. And with the solar power industry on the defensive after the Solyndra bankruptcy, it’s a decent showcase for new technologies.

Set up along the Potomac River on a slightly out of the way corner of Washington’s National Mall, the village of 19 solar-powered homes represents the work of collegiate designers from New York to New Zealand, the University of Tennessee to Tongji University in China. The requirements are strict: each house must be between 600 and 1,000 square feet, and no taller than 18 feet, and be powered by the sun. Any power taken from the grid must be offset by solar energy produced by the house. No fireplaces, fire pits or candles allowed.

Officially opened on September 22, the contest judges the homes’ affordability, appliances, architecture, comfort zone, communications, energy balance, engineering, home entertainment, hot water and market appeal.

The CHIP house — the one that looks a bit like a parka or a big down quilt heaped into a mound — was standing room only on opening day, with a waiting line for visitors. It wears its insulation on the outside, swathed in white vinyl, and its unusual shape is meant to help channel cool air in and hot air out, easing fuel costs. Most electric devices in the home are controlled by a system using an iPad and XBOX 360′s Kinect, which means they can be controlled with a wave or a pointed finger. Solar panels cover most of the roof. CHIP (short for compact hyper-insulated prototype) is the work of students from Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture.

A solar-powered all-terrain vehicle, on extremely unfamiliar terrain

On Earth, we consider design, fuel efficiency, and enduring power when thinking of “green” vehicles. But there’s one solar-powered all-terrain vehicle that has by some lights out-performed anything rolling around on Earth. It is the doughty little robotic rover Opportunity, doggedly using its seven-year-old solar array to chug over the rocky surface of Mars.
Opportunity, like its twin rover Spirit, was designed to drive about .6 mile (1 kilometer) along the martian surface; by last month, Opportunity had driven more than 30 times that distance. It completed its primary mission in 2004 and since then has made important discoveries about parts of ancient Mars that might have been hospitable to microscopic life.
Like many earthly vehicles that are a bit past their prime, Opportunity has a few quirks, according to NASA’s Dave Lavery, who spoke at a briefing on the rover’s latest findings.
“We’re no longer driving a hot sports car,” he said. “We’re now driving a 1965 Mustang that hasn’t been restored.”
Even though Opportunity’s “drivers” are on Earth, controlling the golf-cart-sized robot remotely, they plainly feel a fair amount of affection for the little craft. NASA’s John Callas described the rover’s status almost as if it were a spunky grandparent.

“We have a very senior rover that’s showing her age,” Callas told reporters. “She had some arthritis and other issues, but generally she’s in good health, she’s sleeping well at night, her cholesterol levels are excellent and so we look forward to productive scientific exploration for the period ahead.”

Operating it takes a bit of doing. First off, to avoid wear on some gear teeth, Opportunity drove most of her latest jaunt backwards. Her NASA operators also warmed up actuators to the rover’s wheels, which made lubricants flow better — like applying a heating pad to an arthritic joint before a game of tennis, Callas said.

Pure water from solar power; will it catch on?

water1 Remote villages in developing countries might benefit from these twin 40-ft long containers (left) — a water purification system driven by solar power — as a substitute for noisy diesel-powered generators, trucks bringing in water or people spending hours every day walking to fetch water.

That’s the hope of the makers, environmental technology group SwissINSO Holding Inc. The small company has recently won its first contracts to supply the systems to Algeria and Malaysia and is aiming to sell 42 units of what it calls the world’s “first high-volume, 100 percent-solar turnkey water purification system” in 2011.

The system, an interesting-sounding technology in a world where more than a billion people lack access to fresh water, could also have extra uses from disaster relief to construction sites or to helping armies stay healthy in remote regions.

China’s Trina Solar launches $800 million expansion, as SpectraWatt sputters

IMG_1324Days after solar cell maker SpectraWatt notified New York authorities that it will shut down its seven-month-old factory and lay off 117 employees, China’s Trina Solar announced Monday that it will invest $800 million in new manufacturing plants over the next three years.

The move by Trina underscores just how difficult it has become for solar startups in the United States to compete against the massive investment being poured into Chinese photovoltaic module makers.

That’s particularly the case for startups making conventional silicon photovoltaic cells such as SpectraWatt, which was spun out of Intel in 2008 with an initial $50 million investment lead by the chip giant’s venture capital arm, Goldman Sachs and other investors.

Why the solar industry is booming while the wind business faces tough year

RTR2GMCH.jpgThese days there’s not a lot of industries that can report booming growth year after year (the one-company juggernaut that is Apple excepted). But it’s blue skies for the photovoltaic industry, according to a new report showing that solar installations in the United States are expected to have grown 62 percent in 2010 from the previous year.

The survey released by the Solar Energy Industries Association and GTM Research found that as of the close of the third quarter, 530 megawatts of photovoltaic modules had been installed so far this year, 22 percent more than the total for 2009.

“Early fourth-quarter data suggests that there will be a late-year surge in installations, resulting in total 2010 demand of 855 MW, well above the current pace,” the report’s authors wrote.

Chinese solar player Yingli looks to score at World Cup

worldcupChinese solar power companies have shone amid the downturn in the solar industry,  converting their low cost advantage into bigger market share and profits.

Now, China’s Yingli Green Energy Holding Co Ltd is making a play to raise its global profile.  It’s taking its solar panels to the world’s biggest sporting event, the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and has signed up to help sponsor the event.

The news makes Yingli the first renewable energy company to sponsor the World Cup — where the world’s best football (or soccer for U.S. fans) teams compete —  as well as the first Chinese company to seal a global sponsorship deal with FIFA, the world’s governing body for football.

Ted Turner returns to solar

tedturnerU.S. billionaire Ted Turner is taking a shine to solar power — again.

Back in 2007, Turner sold solar developer Turner Renewable Energy to solar panel maker First Solar for $34.4 million — which has since ramped up its push into developing its own solar power projects.

Now Turner is teaming up with Atlanta-based utility Southern Company to develop renewable energy in the United States. To start, they will focus on large-scale solar farms in the U.S. Southwest, where solar development is already heating up in states like California and Arizona.

Some of the projects could end up on Turner’s land. He is the largest individual land owner in North America with more than two million acres.  

Obama gets high marks for green record: environmental group

obama_solarPresident Barack Obama came into office with climate change and the environment on his list of top priorities.

Nearly a year later, one of the top environmental groups in the United States says that Obama has made the grade so far.

In a review of his green record, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) highlighted dozens of moves by Obama at home and abroad. They cited the $50 billion the president put in the stimulus package for cleaner energy and energy efficiency; an executive order for federal agencies to set targets to cut emissions by 2020; and the adoption of strict auto emissions standards, modeled after environmental trendsetter California.

Solar power mounts in Canada

canadaflag Solar power is heating up in the northern reaches of  Canada, a country not exactly known for its sunny rays and warm weather.

The industry has seen a heap of news from the region this week. US. solar heavyweight First Solar and Canadian pipeline company Enbridge announced that they are quadrupling the size of a solar farm in Ontario.

That’s on top of Chinese solar company Canadian Solar’s plans for a new $23 million plant in the province and a supply deal for Suntech in Ontario, too.

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