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Robots could make solar power super cheap

It's a simple enough robot: an ATV equipped with a robotic arm and few cameras. But it's already stealing green jobs from humans. Its suction cups grab onto the glass face of huge, power-plant-grade solar panels and lift them onto a metal frame. One robot, with three human helpers, can install a field of solar panels in an eighth of the time it would take 35 humans. Technology Review explains:

The main idea is to save money on labor, which accounts for a growing fraction of the cost of solar power as panels get cheaper ... For a 14-megawatt solar plant, the company [PV Kraftwerker] estimates, it might cost about $2 million to install the panels manually. Using the robot could cut that cost by nearly half. The company says that the robot, which lists for $900,000, could pay for itself in less than a year of steady use.

For now, at least, the robots still need humans to install the metal frames for the panes and to screw them in after they're placed.

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Levitating LED light bulb could easily be the coolest thing in your house

Photo by Chris Rieger.

The internet is full of makers, creating homebrewed technology out of stuff they have lying around, but every so often someone makes a thing that I can totally see as the centerpiece of tomorrow's science-fiction way of life. For instance, this levitating LED bulb.

Read more: Cleantech, Green Home

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This tiny electric car folds up for easy parking

Photos courtesy of Hiriko.com, stitched together by me.

The Hiriko Fold (you think that's Japanese, but it's from the Basque for "urban"! Basque! Didn't see THAT coming, did you?) was conceived a decade ago by researchers at MIT media lab, who wanted to design a small car that got even smaller for tight city parking. Now it's finally going into commercial production, which means you could have your own sweet little fold-up car as early as 2013.

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Global cleantech investment picks itself up off the floor

A wind farm in Minnesota. (Photo by Nic McPhee.)

Global investment in clean energy rose 24 percent in the second quarter of 2012, hitting $59.6 billion. The rise is largely due to China:

China was the main contributor to a 24 percent rise in new global investment in clean energy in the second quarter as large Chinese solar and wind projects raised millions of dollars of finance, said research firm Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

New global clean energy investment totalled $59.6 billion in the second quarter of this year, up 24 percent from the previous quarter but still 18 percent below the near-record high of $72.5 billion in the second quarter of 2011, the company said in a report on Wednesday.

Investment increased in other countries as well.

Europe saw investment rise 11 percent in the second quarter to $20 billion, while the United States gained 18 percent to $10.2 billion, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Some of the largest projects financed in the second quarter included the 270 megawatt (MW) Lincs wind farm off the UK coast at $1.6 billion; the 419 MW Flat Ridge Wind Farm in the United States at $800 million; the 250MW Guodian Shanxi Qinyuan Taiyue wind farm in China at $317 million and the Shanlu & Shengyu Bayannur Wuyuan solar PV plant in China at $316 million.

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The future of solar

This is part three of my interview with Michael Liebreich, head of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. See part one and part two.

Michael Liebreich. (Photo by Mike Lawn/Bloomberg.)

Q. The big story in solar right now is the flood of cheap, silicon-based panels from China and the subsequent wiping out of non-silicon solar companies in the U.S. and Germany (including, most famously, Solyndra). How will that play out?

A. A few years ago, China bet on blasting the existing stage of technology with money and process engineering, and American companies bet on the next generation, the funky stuff like CIGS. You could say that the Chinese definitely won this round. (Though I suspect First Solar, being a very well-run and effective company, may argue that it ain't over yet.)

You've got an existing overcapacity which will probably take most of next year to absorb. We'll probably see some solar manufacturing migrating away from China, accelerated by the U.S. trade finding. At the moment the Chinese have over-invested; you're seeing bankruptcies.

I don't think it's over for manufacturing in the U.S., Germany, or Japan, because [solar] is not purely a commodity. I still don't think we've seen the endpoint in terms of building-integrated, high-efficiency products. We're a couple of rounds in to a 12-round fight. It'll be a while before you see the final shape of the solar industry.

It's interesting: The U.S. has never been a manufacturer of solar panels at scale. It did the specialist technology for pocket calculators and satellites. It was really Europe and Asia [that manufactured at scale]. One unfortunate element to the trade tension is that the U.S. exports more silicon than it imports solar panels, and yet it's engaged in a trade war, which is extremely bad for those people employed at the installation end, it's bad for U.S. scientists developing [intellectual property] to license to China, it's just bad all around. You can understand the politics, but if the U.S. is not competitive in manufacturing, then it seems unfortunate to lay the blame for that at the door of this industry. Apple doesn't make iPads here; they're quite content to import those from China. What's different about solar? The only difference is, it's subsidized.

But look at the situation in Germany. Through feed-in tariffs, they've subsidized solar panels to the tune of something like 100 billion euros, and a big chunk of that went to China. But you know what? They're getting their own back. Now China has subsidized manufacturing with all this cheap capital, and the Germans have got cheap solar! It swings around.

We almost need a global industrial policy. But we're playing it for short-term, national, political (not even economic) advantage.

A country engages in dumping to destroy a [competitor's] industry and then raise prices and extract rents. But what industry, other than First Solar? Unless you want to argue that Solyndra was a robust business that was only destroyed because of the perfidious Chinese ... but that's absurd. That company was founded on the premise that silicon would remain at $450/kilo, despite the fact that before the whole boom, silicon was a $23/kilo. I don't want to mock Solyndra too much -- good people came up with the idea and good people backed it -- but it was always a Hail Mary bet. It was new technology, new form factor, new distribution channel -- it was a multi-miracle business. And frankly it never should have been debt-funded. That was just a distortion of loan guarantees for early-stage technology companies. There were lots of mistakes made, but it's not right to force it into the paradigm of the anti-dumping response.

Q. Do you think silicon prices will come back up and non-silicon solar panels will eventually become competitive?

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How to put solar panels on your roof, even if you don’t have a roof

sun over solar panelRight now, if you want to embrace the solar-power revolution, you have to have a roof and a lot of money -- or at the very least, a roof and a good credit score, so you can finance a solar system or work with a leasing company like SolarCity.

A bill advancing through the California legislature would change all that and make it easy for anyone who pays a utility bill to become a solar customer. Senate Bill 843 has passed the state Senate and just got approval from a key committee in the Assembly. As GigaOM reports:

The bill ... aims to enable people who don’t own homes, or own homes that don’t have suitable roofs for solar panels, to buy clean power and offset their utility bills. They could sign contracts with owners of solar power projects for a portion of the power produced, and the amount they pay for would show up as credits on their utility bills. The proposed program would be available not only to consumers but also businesses who are customers of the three big investor-owned utilities.

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Spray-on batteries could turn your coffee cup into an energy collecting device

Engineers at Rice University have figured out how to make spray-on, rechargeable batteries that could transform any surface, anywhere, into a device for collecting and storing energy.

Basically, the team broke down the elements of individual battery components and turned them into paints. Once they’d done that, they could turn any paintable surface into a working battery -- including coffee mugs.

The final paints were layered on to glass, stainless steel, glazed ceramic tiles and flexible polymer sheets — the resulting “batteries” worked just as well as the regular version. The team even picked out a choice ceramic mug, spray-painted the word “rice” in capital letters using a stencil, and demonstrated its efficiency as a battery.

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This gigantic hybrid ship can run on a battery

Although gigantic ships are relatively efficient -- compared to, say, transporting massive amounts of stuff by airplane -- they do use an astounding amount of fuel. The shipping industry is working on this problem. In particular, a Norwegian shipping company and a marine energy company are partnering to work on a hybrid ship, the Viking Lady.

The Viking Lady (how awesome is that name?) already has a fuel cell installed that helps reduce its energy impact. Next year it should be getting a battery. Together, those features will mean it won't have to burn gas while it's hanging out in port -- not only saving energy, but keeping down emissions.

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Here’s a fuel cell that runs on brain juice

Image by Rapoport et al., meninges and vascular anatomy courtesy of the Central Nervous System Visual Perspectives Project, Karolinska Institute, and Stanford University.

Whatever, Google Glasses; I'm holding out for the Google brain implant. And that just got a little more plausible, thanks to new technology for fuel cells that run off of blood sugar. In theory, if you popped one of these babies in your brain, it could get all its power from your own cerebrospinal fluid (the stuff that cushions your brain inside your skull).

Read more: Biofuel, Cleantech

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Lay off the Konarka: Dem energy message risks defeating Dem energy message

So, what's the state of play on energy in the presidential race? I'm glad you asked.

Broadly, what's happened is that both parties now perceive, accurately, that the public is pro-energy. That's why both parties are grappling for the "all of the above" slogan.

"Pro-energy," in the U.S. public's case, means pro more energy, cheaper energy, cleaner energy, and more secure energy. What the public does not like is the trade-offs between those goals. It doesn't like hearing that it has to give anything up. It doesn't like hearing about "anti-energy" penalties and prohibitions. And it never likes favoritism, waste, fraud, or generic "spending."

Given that all energy policies involve trade-offs between various desiderata, a political party's ability to sell an energy policy to the public hinges on its ability to evoke the right frames. More/cheaper/cleaner/safer energy always polls well. Restraints, added cost, pollution, and foreign-ness (especially Middle Eastern-ness) do not.

This basic dynamic helps explain why Mitt Romney is not dropping Solyndra. Conservatives still see it as one of their bests attacks on Obama. It evokes Big Government spending, cronyism, waste, and failure (i.e., less energy). It tars the rest of Obama's clean-energy programs, nay his entire agenda, by association.