This week in solar, renewable and sustainable news.
In this week’s solar news, what the Inflation Reduction Act means for the climate, a lithium shortage on the horizon, and transparent solar cells come into focus
The monumental climate bill weaving its way through Congress has gotten a lot of attention for supporting renewable energy and other green initiatives. Still, the discussion has been primarily around the incentives to transform how energy is produced and consumed in the U.S. As details have emerged in the proposed legislation, analysts have turned to the actual effect the changes would have on the environment and climate.
Behind this legislation and much of President Biden’s energy policy is his stated climate goal of reducing the U.S. carbon emissions to 50% of the benchmark 2005 level. That goal seemed unreachable as recently as two weeks ago, but the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022 promises to make a difference.
In comments to The New York Times, UC Santa Barbara associate professor Leah Stokes called the bill “transformative.”
“It will put us on track for meeting President Biden’s goals,” she added. “It will reduce every American’s energy bills.”
A significant and measurable reduction in carbon emissions
According to Energy Innovation, the legislation would significantly cut U.S. carbon emissions by as much as 2,800 million metric tons (MMT) annually in 2030, even considering additional gas and oil leases included in the bill.
The New York Times highlights a study from Princeton’s Rapid Energy Policy Evaluation and Analysis Toolkit that pegs the overall reduction as 40% of the 2005 benchmark.
The legislation includes many incentives to shift to renewable energy, but shies away from penalties for the most part, with a notable exception for fugitive methane emissions. Methane is 81 times more destructive to the atmosphere than CO2 and is released in in large quantities due to natural gas mining.
There is a ripple effect
Although IRA 2022 falls short of President Biden’s goal of a 50% reduction, the act would have a ripple effect that could help reach the goal.
Many energy analysts expect the remaining 10% achievable through state and local government efforts and private sector changes. “And by driving down the cost of clean energy, it can make it easier for states or cities or companies to take further climate actions on their own,” Jesse Jenkins, an energy systems engineer at Princeton who helped lead the REPEAT project, told The New York Times.
In addition, the legislation should help the U.S. regain a position of climate leadership in the international community. With its own investments lagging, the U.S. has been handcuffed in its efforts to persuade other nations to shift toward renewables.
“If we can get this, that’s going to put the United States in a very strong position in meeting the international commitments on climate and industry,” said Dan Reicher, a senior researcher at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, told the Times.
On August 7th, the Senate passed the Inflation Reduction Act with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the decisive vote. The legislation heads to the House next, where passage is seen as likely. President Biden may sign the legislation as soon as next week.
Keeping the Li-ion Lights on
Much of the 21stt century and the green revolution have been fueled by lithium. The lithium-ion battery transformed communications and technology by powering cell phones. Electric vehicles (EVs) powered by li-ion batteries accounted for all of the auto market’s growth in 2021. In 2022, battery storage plays an growing role in smoothing out power demands spikes on the grid.
But lithium, the element that drives all this transformation, is an increasingly limited commodity, and li-ion batteries require a lot of it. The average EV uses nearly 18 pounds of lithium.
According to a recent report from the World Economic Forum, over 60% of the world’s lithium resources are in three South American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile. And over 70% of the production capabilities are in China.
Some economists are projecting a significant shortfall of the element as soon as 2025. Even Tesla’s Elon Musk has been opining on Twitter about the issue,
And lithium batteries are the new oil.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 13, 2022
Musk has also been urging entrepreneurs to enter the lithium processing industry. The proposed IRA 2022 legislation also includes lots of incentives for domestic processing of minerals central to green technology.
As far as we know, Mr. Musk has not weighed in on the sizable deposit of lithium discovered recently in Maine or the environmental laws that make it unlikely to be mined in the foreseeable future.
The World Economic Forum reports that lithium is relatively new to the hot commodity market. Increased mining, processing, or battery technology efficiencies may ease long-term constraints. Just this week, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute announced a breakthrough in the chemistry needed for calcium-based batteries. There may be hope for a technological solution, and new viable mines are coming online.
Nonetheless, lithium sold for a little over $5,000 per ton in 2010 but is expected to average around $75,000 for that same amount in 2022. The Wodgina mine in Australia restarted in May, and Chile is opening a new mine later this year. These developments might ease supply concerns, but if you are considering a li-ion solar battery, 2022 might be a good year to make that call.
Transparent solar cells on the way?
At ADT Solar, nothing makes us happier than the site of rooftop solar panels powering the home beneath them. Rooftop solar can have its limitations, though. A longtime dream of clean energy enthusiasts is an efficient transparent solar panel. Imagine if all the windows in a glass and concrete skyscraper were generating the electricity needed to run the lights and cooling in that building.
Researchers at the University of Michigan have taken another step toward that dream and published a paper about the results in Joule magazine.
These organic solar cells are up to 7.3% efficient in the lab, about a third of high-efficiency panels that currently set the standard on the American market. The breakthrough involves layered thin-film plastic cells.
Research continues, with a goal of 10% to 15% with 50% transparency. Buildings account for around 40% of global carbon emissions, and building-integrated photovoltaics are an emerging technology for both reducing that impact while also reducing the load on the grid.
The Weekly Sunsong
It’s already been a long, hot summer. And then, as we were writing up this week’s news, the power went out. If we had a solar battery for our apartment, we’d be in great shape. But no. Instead, we’re left in the dark, wishing we had energy.
And who else but Beyoncé to bring the Energy. We’ll go with any excuse to play something from her brand new release, Renaissance: