2010-2011: Powering the Planet−Sustainably
In the face of climate change, population growth and global economic development, how can solar power meet the energy demands of the planet by the year 2050?
Through wide-ranging presentations by leaders in the energy sector and in-depth discussions with students and faculty, the 2010 Nelson Series will explore potential solutions to the global climate and energy crisis – including a comprehensive look at the future of solar power.
Thursday, October 14, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, October 22, 7:30 p.m.
Bill Gross P08
Founder and CEO of Idealab, Chairman and Former CEO of eSolar
Bill Gross offers real-world examples of how sustainable energy is currently being made a reality in business. Gross is a lifelong entrepreneur and proponent of sustainable energy, beginning in high school when he founded Solar Devices, a firm that sold plans and kits for solar energy products. As an outgrowth from Idealab, eSolar has already developed cost-effective, low-impact sustainable energy solutions.
Lecture synopsis, below.
A video of this lecture is available on YouTube Edu.
Friday, October 29, 7:30 p.m.
Nancy E. Ryan
Commissioner, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC)
An economist with expertise in energy markets and the public health and ecological impacts of energy production, Nancy Ryan was appointed to the CPUC in January 2010 to lead proceedings developing policies for the Smart Grid and Alternative Fueled Vehicles. She also plays a leading role in shaping California’s efforts to develop renewable energy resources and reduce the electric sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. Lecture synopsis, below.
A video of this lecture is available on YouTube Edu.
Friday, December 10, 7:30 p.m.
Daniel G. Nocera
The Henry Dreyfus Professor of Energy, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Director of the Solar Revolutions Project, MIT
Director of the Eni Solar Frontiers Center, MIT
Widely recognized as a leading researcher in renewable energy at the molecular level, Nocera studies the basic mechanisms of energy conversion in biology and chemistry with primary focus in recent years on the photogeneration of hydrogen and oxygen from water. He is a frequent guest on TV (ABC Nightline, PBS, NOVA, Discovery Channel in the U.S. and Explora in Europe) and radio (NPR) as he developed the pilot that was used to begin the new PBS science program ScienceNow.
Lecture synopsis, below.
A video of this lecture is available on YouTube Edu.
Lectures are free and open to the public and are held in Galileo Hall on the Harvey Mudd College campus, 301 Platt Boulevard, Claremont, Calif. All lectures are followed by a Q&A session and a dessert reception. A limited number of spaces are available at the VIP pre-lecture receptions and dinners with each speaker. Please e-mail email@example.com if you are interested in attending one of the dinners and to make a reservation.
For more information about the series, please call 909.607.7071.
Where in the World Will our Energy Come From? -Nathan Lewis
Successful widespread proliferation of solar power could be key to ensuring world peace as nations grow increasingly energy hungry.
California Institute of Technology chemistry professor Nathan Lewis, suggested as much when he opined that the greater the number of nations reliant on cheap energy to power their growing economies, the greater the risk of war among them.
Lewis – kick-off presenter for the Bruce J. Nelson (‘74) Distinguished Speakers Series, 2010 edition – asserted that countries historically have marshaled their armies against one another whenever supplies of vital resources become threatened or actually disrupted. But solar, he avowed, is one resource the world is not likely to exhaust any time soon.
Eclipsed by solar
This year’s Nelson events have as their theme “Powering the Planet Sustainably.” Lewis’s Oct. 14 address at Galileo Hall stayed true to that topic line throughout his hour-long discourse on the technical, political and economic constraints conspiring to prevent quick solution to the world’s rapidly escalating demands for energy.
“We’re going to need more energy,” said the editor-in-chief of the influential journal Energy & Environmental Science. In all of human history, “[t]he world hasn’t used less energy in a year than it did in the year before.”
Conserving will help ensure demand does not overwhelm supply. However, Lewis cautioned that “no amount of saving energy ever put food on somebody’s table, no amount of saving energy ever turned on a light bulb or a computer....You still are going to have to make...tens of trillions of watts of...energy within our lifetime, starting today....”
For now, though, there is enough fossil fuel to keep things humming along, but, Lewis argued, it will become increasingly costly and environmentally damaging to do so. Thus, when the petroleum runs out, energy suppliers will take natural gas and liquify it for use as an oil substitute. Then, when the natural gas is gone, CO2-laden coal changed into fluid form will be used instead. Given the size of world coal reserves, it could be 3,000 years before the last drop of fossil fuel is consumed.
“The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of stones,” he quipped in explaining how oil, natural gas and coal will still be around long after they are eclipsed in importance by solar power. And eclipsed they will be, sooner rather than later, Lewis assured.
Hydrogen from photosynthesis
However, for solar to overshadow fossil fuels, it first must match them in price – meaning, roughly 5 cents per killowatt (solar at present is more than quadruple that amount), Lewis reported.
Perhaps as crucially, solar energy must become far more readily storable. One promising avenue to achieve this is artificial photosynthesis. According to Lewis, the idea is to mimic the process used by living plants and from it generate clean chemical fuels – chiefly, hydrogen. He said this method may eventually provide a stunningly cost-effective and abundant way to make retained energy from the sun.
At the newly created Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (a federally sponsored venture between CalTech and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) where Lewis serves as director, he and other researchers are exploring ways to replicate the action of certain iron-loving bacteria which manufacture hydrogen from sunlight. The capacity to pull this off on an industrial scale could be just around the corner, Lewis proposed.
“We can do this [put solar at the energy forefront], because humans – if they want to – are incredibly inventive and creative and innovative,” said Lewis. “From a technical point of view, there’s nothing stopping us. We know all the basic principles. There is no new physics here. [Just] lots of new material science and chemistry.” As such, “this is our problem to solve because we can absolutely solve it if we really think we care.”
How Renewable Energy Can Beat Fossil Fuels -Bill Gross
Solar power will be critically important by 2050 when electric demand worldwide is expected to reach 50 terawatts, more than triple today’s global total consumption, suggested successful solar entrepreneur Bill Gross.
The founder and chief executive officer of Pasadena, Calif.,-based Idealab offered his views about solar’s future Oct. 22 in the second Bruce J. Nelson (‘74) Distinguished Speakers Series engagement of 2010.
The gap between electricity demand now and mid-century, Gross said, will equal 35 terawatts. He warned that, even at maximum possible deployment, wind, nuclear, biomass and tidal energy resources won’t be enough to fill future need, given that they will likely yield less than 10 terawatts combined. Only solar energy can supply that additional power demand “because the sun strikes the earth with 15,000 terawatts,” he said.
Applying Moore’s Law
Gross predicted by 2050 it will be possible to meet the electricity requirements of the entire U.S. with solar panels alone – and the number of panels necessary for that feat would, if all lumped together, fit within an area measuring just 83 miles by 83 miles, he said.
Such may prove possible because of technologic advancements being conceived today, Gross contended. He said these and other solar-related strides are coming from the fields of chemistry, biology, physics and computer sciences, which is why Gross’s Idealab is invested in them all (he started Idealab in 1996 to test ideas and turn the best ones – more than 75 so far – into early stage technology companies).
Among the most intriguing companies Gross has launched is eSolar. Founded in 2007 (and still helmed by him), eSolar’s mission is to prod solar energy toward price-competitiveness with traditional methods of making electricity.
One way eSolar approaches this task is by applying Moore’s Law of exponential growth and shrinking costs. Specifically, it leverages cheap computing plus genetic algorithms to devise highly complex simulations of solar electric-generating systems. These simulations allow eSolar to inexpensively experiment with potentially astronomical numbers of variables for optimizing the efficiency of the systems under study and, in the process, envision breakthrough technologies.
To illustrate, Gross described simulations modeled on an existing high-performance but distressingly expensive solar-thermal power tower that captures heat from the sun with arrays of pole-mounted parabolic mirrors – reflectors so huge that each one had to be custom constructed onsite. The simulations allowed eSolar to demonstrate the feasibility of eschewing giant mirrors at future plants and instead deploying tens of thousands of mirrors the size of plasma TV screens. Owing to their comparative compactness, those next-generation mirrors become cost-savers thanks to the ability to factory mass-produce and ship them, he explained.
Gross’s future-minded companies also are working to refine techniques by which solar-generated heat can produce electricity throughout the night. Originally, Gross, like other innovators, searched for methods to economically store electricity itself for dusk-to-dawn usage, but eventually abandoned that fruitless pursuit in favor of banking solar heat to make power afresh during hours of darkness.
He said salt – inexpensive and abundant – makes an excellent storage medium for solar-thermal heat. Its properties are such that it can rise to temperatures of 600 degrees Centigrade without degrading. Salt that hot is molten, and as such it can be readily pumped through pipes to wherever needed.
As proud as Gross said he is of the work being done at his companies, he indicated he was prouder still of his son, Mudder David Gross, ‘08 (mathematics), now working as an eSolar simulations engineer. Gross added that HMC is a rich vein of new talent for the solar energy field – Mudders and their creativity, he said, “can really make an impact” on solar’s future.
Solar Energy in the Golden State -Nancy E. Ryan
Solar energy is good for the environment—except when it jeopardizes the habitats of endangered animals, as some fear is happening in desert regions where massive facilities to generate electricity from the suns’s rays are being built.
Economist Nancy E. Ryan, a member of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) and that body’s Smart Grid policy development leader, was the bearer of this vexing news at an Oct. 29 address to HMC students, alumni and faculty. The influential solar-energy advocate’s hour-long presentation was the third in the 2010 Bruce J. Nelson (‘74) Distinguished Speaker Series.
Wildlife placed at risk
According to Ryan, a worry underlying the construction of solar electric-generating plants in California and elsewhere is the potential of these facilities to harm wildlife.
“There are critters, some of which are endangered or threatened, that live in the same places that solar energy resources are the best,” she said.
Ryan—appointed to her CPUC post in January after serving as the commission’s deputy executive director for policy and external relations—explained that a typical 500-megawatt combined-cycle gas-turbine plant has a footprint of about 30 to 80 acres, while, in contrast, a 500-megawatt solar-thermal plant takes up five to eight square-miles.
“You could put a lot of critters in [an area that size],” she lamented, mentioning specifically the at-risk desert tortoise, San Joaquin kit fox, Mojave ground squirrel, Peninsular bighorn sheep, and kangaroo rat. “Somehow, we have to figure out how to get solar energy out of the desert while living in harmony with the various critters that were there first. This has been a big challenge, so far.”
Ryan devoted most her time at the podium to a discussion of the business climate for solar energy. In particular, she shed light on California’s top-down policies designed to spark demand for photovoltaic power.
As a result of those efforts, California currently leads the U.S. in clean-energy innovation, with solar technologic advancement making big strides, Ryan said. “In the last two years, the solar component [of the state’s renewable energy sector] has just exploded,” she enthused. “It really is the future.”
But Ryan also sounded a few cautionary notes. For one, even though solar power is about as green as green gets, generating-plant operators still face plenty of red tape in seeking permission to build.
“[It’s] a “long and complicated process,” she said.
There is relief in view, though. Ryan said key government agencies have taken steps of late to accelerate permit approvals for prospective projects. “Mostly over the course of the last few months, the [California] Energy Commission alone has permitted seven solar-thermal plants for a total of 3,543 megawatts,” she said, adding that federal stimulus funds are being applied to these ventures to help lower their startup costs.
Limits of the grid
Another concern is solar transmission and distribution. With solar electricity, generation occurs not only at a relative handful of far-flung remote plants, but also on a growing number of consumer rooftops where photovoltaic arrays have been deployed – these occasionally produce surplus electricity that funnels into the power grid, Ryan indicated.
Personalized Energy for the Non-Legacy World – Daniel G. Nocera
Solving the world’s energy crisis will take a paradigm shift that embraces the possibility of powering a household using the sun, science and a liter of water.
MIT Professor Daniel G. Nocera, a recognized leader in renewable energy research, said he’s just 18 months away from a prototype that captures solar energy using water and a method that mimics photosynthesis.
Nocera, the fourth and final speaker in the 2010 Bruce J. Nelson (‘74) Distinguished Speakers Series, shared his scientific solution Dec. 10 with an eye toward the future and a lesson from the past.
He compared the current CO2 emissions problem to a similar crisis faced in 1894 involving horse manure. People used horses to power their transportation. As more people could afford horses, more horses were on the road and subsequently more manure was produced in the streets.
In 1898, civil engineers from around the globe gathered for a conference in New York to determine how to stem the rise in horse droppings, which were predicted to bury the world’s cities in nine feet of manure within 50 years. They concluded no solution could be found.
"They couldn’t understand the implication of the combustion engine, which was already being developed," Nocera said. "Eventually the horses went away and they didn’t have to worry about being nine feet deep in manure."
Likewise, he said, the world worries today about how to deal with emissions and dependence on fossil fuels when the real solution is to shift to something entirely different.
That something, Nocera said, will be personal solar energy stations that produce power that is clean, sustainable and cheap.
From Possible to Affordable
Converting water into energy is nothing new. For decades, scientists have split water into hydrogen and oxygen using an electrical current and a catalyst to break the molecular bonds.
In fact, an Olympic-sized pool can be converted into 43TW of stored energy using an electrolyzer to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, Nocera said. The problem is that it will cost about $12,000 per kilowatt.
"With a pool of water I can solve your energy problem, but that’s too expensive. But if I could do it in a glass of water using something like photosynthesis, I could produce energy cheaply."
Plant leaves have a membrane that chemically reacts to sunlight and splits the water inside them into hydrogen, oxygen and glucose. This membrane breaks down and then repairs itself about every 30 minutes, Nocera said.
For years, the acids produced when splitting water would destroy membranes created chemically in the lab. Nocera’s breakthrough came when he found a cobalt-phosphate catalyst that forms a membrane, which, like a plant’s, is able to repair itself.
Nocera then devised an artificial photosynthesis system that directs sunlight from rooftop solar panels into water tanks containing the cobalt-phosphate catalyst. A membrane forms and uses the solar energy to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then stored in a tank and later recombined with the oxygen in a fuel cell to produce electricity.
With his prototype system patented and in development, Nocera predicts a paradigm shift is coming.
Just as automobiles replaced horses and laptops replaced mainframes, one day, he said, a personal solar energy station will replace the power grid.