13 year old's solar project generates heat if not light.

tree-shaped solar panel experiment

Is this little blue tree the future of solar energy, or an overblown science project?

Who decided solar panels should be flat?

A seventh-grader from New York has worked out that solar panels arranged more like tree branches may capture more light than flat panels.

For real, kind of. Aidan Dwyer, 13, noticed that tree branch patterns are Fibonacci numbers, postulated that it had to do with photosynthesis, took some pretty involved measurements of an oak tree, built a PVC-pipe solar array in the same shape, built a flat solar panel, compared how much light each captured over time, and voila, he had an award-winning science experiment and a great-sounding theory: trees evolved with these patterns for good reason. He found that tree-shaped pattern is as much as 50 percent more efficient than the flat panel, depending on the time of year.

The seventh-grader’s explanation was that the Fibonacci pattern keeps branches out of each others’ shadows in full light and at the same time allows the tree to garner as much light as possible when some branches are in shadow and others in light.

Dwyer wrote up the results in an essay that includes details of a winter hike in the Catskills, the centuries-old history of humans noticing these patterns throughout nature (from shell structure to Galaxy shape), and a nice description of the way Fibonacci explained the numbers using the rabbit birthrate and Sanskrit poetry. The essay won the American Museum of Natural History Young Naturalist award.

Here’s where the story takes an interesting turn. More than one scientist has poured cold water on Dwyer’s theory, while others have cautioned not so fast. It’s a good lesson in the importance of peer review before publishing. Just as tree branches are arranged the way they are for a reason, so are today’s silicon solar cells.

And even if Dwyer’s experiment holds up to scrutiny, there’s a lot involved in making a successful solar module. After theory, proof of concept, peer review, and one or more back-to-the-drawing-boards, you still have cost of manufacturing and competition with other technologies.

But the kid isn’t necessarily barking up the wrong tree. Some of the world’s leading energy researchers are working on mimicking trees. The key is using inexpensive solar cells that work well in diffuse light.

Dwyer’s next move is to study different kinds of trees to find the most efficient design for his PVC solar array. He’s also applied for a patent.

Nice work for junior high. I hope Dwyer falls in with some inspiring science teachers. And I like his DIY attitude. So what’s this kid going to do in high school? I’ve got a suggestion–once you’ve solved the energy problem (even if this first attempt doesn’t do the trick), how about moving on to the global food crisis?

Solar shakeout will bring more failures, few deals

A brutal 2011 has left the solar industry dazed, damaged, and on the cusp of a major shakeout of weaker players that are more likely to shut down than be snapped up by their stronger rivals.

Solar subsidy cuts in top markets Italy and Germany prompted a 20 percent drop in the price of solar panels this year, bringing the fast-growing solar industry to a critical tipping point. Even companies that had been stock market heroes find themselves as the walking wounded, struggling to cut costs in a market awash with solar panels.

In the long run those price declines are healthy for an industry that relies on government subsidies to make its products competitive, but the pain is more than some can handle.


solar panels


“The process of separating the wheat from the chaff may be under way now, and that may be a good thing,” said Rob Stone, analyst with Cowen & Co.

Perhaps the biggest casualty so far is U.S. solar wafer maker Evergreen Solar. It was once at the leading edge of the solar world and boasted a market cap of $9.8 billion, but failed to keep up with Asian competitors and filed for bankruptcy protection last week.

A smaller, private U.S. solar company, SpectraWatt, followed Evergreen into bankruptcy this week after failing to raise money or find a strategic partner.

The European companies that helped drive the solar boom of the 2000s have also been among the hardest hit: Norway’s Renewable Energy Corp and Germany’s Q-Cells, once the world’s top solar cell maker, both took massive writedowns in the last month for cutting production at European plants indefinitely.

Those companies’ costs are far higher than their Chinese competitors, who swept into high-subsidy markets in Europe and handily stole market share from the industry stalwarts.

Like Q-Cells and REC, many of those still standing have cut production in markets where costs are higher to preserve declining capital. Germany’s Solon SE, for instance, is closing an Arizona module plant, and BP Solar recently closed its Maryland manufacturing facility.

Anemic multiples
The carnage this year has sent valuations of solar companies into a tailspin, with price-to-earnings ratios shrinking to the single digits, in many cases.

The anemic multiples reflect worries among investors about future earnings, and analysts have said that the book value of the companies is a better guidepost to their viability.

But while cheap stocks often prove to be fertile ground for acquisitions, few deals have materialized so far.

In the most notable solar deal this year, U.S.-based SunPower won backing from French oil giant Total, which took a 60 percent stake and gave the solar panel maker a $1 billion credit line.

But few other manufacturers are likely to be attractive takeover candidates.

“It’s going to be more akin to companies like Evergreen Solar not being able to compete and going under,” said John Segrich, portfolio manager of the Gabelli SRI Green Fund. “Companies like Energy Conversion Devices or Q-Cells are probably next on the list.”

Still, some deals will get done–and Asian players are expected to lead the way. Taipei wafer maker Sino-American Silicon Products said this month it is buying the wafer unit of Japan’s Covalent Materials for $451 million, and this week Germany’s Roth & Rau sold its CTF Solar thin film unit to an unnamed Chinese investor.

“Big Asian photovoltaic, and above all the Chinese players, will be the driving force in the sector consolidation,” said Dirk Meyer, managing director of corporate finance at Equinet, a German investment bank. “What they really want and many of them do not have so far is a strong brand in Europe.”

Still, many expect potential acquirers to have a high bar for deals given the weakened state of the industry.

High bar for deals
“Only companies with an interesting retail network and a good brand would be interesting for Chinese players,” said Bjoern Glueck, portfolio manager at Lupus Alpha in Frankfurt. “Only buying a production plant in Germany is not an option.”

Indeed, most of the consolidation is likely to be focused on niche areas of technology that allow brand-name companies to improve their efficiencies or bring better products to market.

“It’s cheaper just to add brand new capacity by buying new equipment than it is to go buy second-hand equipment or a second-hand company,” said Segrich.

That influx of new capacity combined with a dearth of buyers to prop up weaker players will ultimately lead some to shut down operations.

That would help alleviate oversupply in the market and give some breathing room to the stronger, existing players who may be looking at global demand growing at 10 to 20 percent through 2012 rather than the 35 percent rate that had been the norm.

“Capacity needs to be taken out of the market,” said HSBC analyst Christian Rath.

For those who can hold on through the current turmoil, the dramatic drop in the price of solar power will only help to create fresh demand for the technology that has been closing the pricing gap with fossil fuels.

“Every time prices fall to new levels, that opens up layers of demand that were maybe not accessible before,” Cowen’s Stone said.


Army tests 'microgrids' to get smarter about energy

A photo of the one-megawatt microgrid planned for Afghanistan during testing in California.

The Army plans to install microgrids in Afghanistan as part of its mission to reduce its energy-related vulnerability in the field.

A three-month experiment will deploy a system designed to use fuel more efficiency and pave the way solar and wind power in the field, the Army said earlier this week.

Right now, the Army uses diesel generators to power its bases. Transporting that fuel for generators and its vehicles comes at a significant financial and military cost as fuel convoys are often targets for attack.

The microgrids the Army plans to install will include diesel generators that are able to communicate with each to dole out only the amount of power that’s needed, saving on fuel. The basis for one microgrid will be four generators able to produce one megawatt. That will replace 22 smaller units, a move that should make maintenance simpler and cut fuel use.

The microgrids will include controls to integrate power generated from solar panels and storage systems. One of the design goals for the Army over the long term is to have modular systems where different sources of power can be used without complex on-site engineering.

“They’re being designed so that a soldier can just hook them up any way and plug things in and not have to worry about doing prior analysis of how the power grid should be laid out or what load should be placed where,” said Chris Wildman, the Hybrid Intelligent Power program lead, in a statement. “The generators automatically talk to each other, recognize each other and can control each other without Soldier intervention.”

The target application for Army microgrids are bases that start small but grow rapidly and see a rapid increase in power demand. For its tests in Afghanistan, the microgrids will power non-essential operations, such as laundry and kitchens.

The U.S. military has already tested solar panels in Afghanistan as a way to cut down on diesel generators, solar-powered shade tents, and portable solar panels for soldiers on patrol, all of which is part of a strategy to minimize the amount money spent on fuel.


SunPower claims new solar cell efficiency record of 24.2 percent

SunPower Corp. has achieved a world record solar cell efficiency of 24.2 percent

Although we’ve seen sunlight to electricity conversion efficiencies of over 40 percentwith multi-junction solar cells in lab environments, most mass-produced cells can only boast a conversion rate of around 15 percent. Now SunPower Corp., a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of high-efficiency solar cells, solar panels and solar power systems, has claimed a new world record solar cell efficiency of 24.2 percent.

Solar cell efficiency is the rate at which the cells capture and convert sunlight into energy. The 24.2 percent efficiency record for large-scale silicon wafers was confirmed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) on a full-scale prototype produced at the SunPower Corp.’s manufacturing plant in the Philippines.

“This new world record demonstrates SunPower’s ability to extend our lead in manufacturing the world’s highest efficiency solar cells,” said Bill Mulligan, vice president of technology and development for SunPower. “Our patented and proprietary, high-efficiency solar cell technology drives down the cost of solar energy by increasing the energy production from each solar panel.”

Improved cell efficiency is a much sought after goal of researchers and manufacturers of solar cells as it increases the cost effectiveness of solar cells by allowing the equivalent or greater amount of power to be captured using the same area of solar cells.

Boeing SolarEagle solar-powered UAV to fly in 2014

The Boeing SolarEagle will make its first demonstration flight in 2014 as part of DARPA's ...

The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Vulture program, which aims to develop and demonstrate technology to enable a single high-altitude unmanned airplane (UAV) to operate continuously for a period of five years, has entered phase II. Under the terms of an US$89 million contract, Boeing will develop a full-scale demonstrator called the SolarEagle that will make its first demonstration flight in 2014. The aircraft will have highly efficient electric motors and propellers and a high-aspect-ratio, 400-foot wing for increased solar power and aerodynamic performance.

“SolarEagle is a uniquely configured, large unmanned aircraft designed to eventually remain on station at stratospheric altitudes for at least five years,” said Pat O’Neil, Boeing Phantom Works program manager for Vulture II. “That’s a daunting task, but Boeing has a highly reliable solar-electric design that will meet the challenge in order to perform persistent communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions from altitudes above 60,000 feet.”

Under the Vulture II agreement, Boeing’s Phantom Works division will develop a full-scale flight demonstrator, including maturation of the critical power system and structures technologies. Key suppliers for the program include Versa Power Systems and QinetiQ, who will draw on experience taken from building its own solar-powered aircraft, the Zephyr.

During testing, the SolarEagle demonstrator will remain in the upper atmosphere for 30 days, harvesting solar energy during the day that will be stored in fuel cells and used to provide power through the night.

The desire to develop an aircraft that can stay aloft for extended periods to act as a pseudo-satellite for intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and communication applications has seen a number of solar-powered aircraft hitting the runways in recent years. The Solar Impulse recently flew through the night passing another milestone on its way to an attempt to fly around the world non-stop in 2012. Meanwhile, QinetiQ is currently awaiting ratification for three world records, including the absolute flight duration record for a UAV of 336 hrs 22 minutes, for its Zephyr.

But solar power isn’t the only energy source being looked at to keep aircraft in the skies for extended periods. Boeing’s Phantom Works division is also working on a hydrogen-powered demonstrator called the Phantom Eye, a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) aircraft designed to stay aloft for up to four days.