EGEB: Possible solar efficiency breakthrough, India to up renewables — but keep coal in mix, more

In today’s EGEB:

  • Researchers find the key to a long-pursued method for increasing solar cell efficiency.
  • Malawi gets a boost from solar — in more ways than one.
  • India wants to increase its share of renewables, but it also doesn’t want to abandon coal.
  • A Canadian town sees a shift from oil and gas to wind, but its concerns aren’t with the energy.

Electrek Green Energy Brief: A daily technical, financial, and political review/analysis of important green energy news.

Another week, another possible breakthrough in solar cell technology. One reason for limited efficiency in solar cells has been that one photon of light gets a single electron in return. But researchers at MIT have developed a method in which high-energy photons strike silicon and knock two electrons loose in the process.

While this method has been known for some time, the study’s news release notes that “actually translating the method into a full, operational silicon solar cell took years of hard work.” A thin intermediate layer of hafnium oxynitride was the key to triggering the release of the second electron — and the method could conceivably increase solar cell efficiency from 29.1% to about 35%.

The news release offers far more detail on the work of the researchers, and the full study was published in Nature this week.

Solar saves

A recent solar installation aims to bring power to a Malawi village, but when Cyclone Idai rolled through in March, it did more than that.

“It was a scary situation and we rushed to the site where there is a solar panel,” Hannah Longeya told Reuters. The metal stands holding up the small installation on an area of higher ground were set deep into the soil and reinforced with concrete, making it a place of refuge during Idai’s winds, rain, and flooding.

That was an unexpected benefit of the installation, which is designed to bring energy to the villagers in Chikwawa district. The solar microgrid was providing power to a school, clinic, business development center, and an irrigation scheme, before villagers had to relocate due to Idai’s damage.

But they soon hope to return and benefit from the power once again. Officials are also reportedly considering a plan to extend the microgrid’s power lines into the villagers’ new homes.

Renewables… and coal

India said on Thursday that it needs $330 billion to increase its renewable energy capacity to 500 gigawatts by 2030, according to Reuters. That would increase renewables to a 40% installed capacity share in the country, up from 22%. It’s looking for 175 GW of renewable capacity by 2022.

It’s a big push — but the country also said it wants to continue using its cheap and plentiful coal reserves going forward. India’s use of coal actually rose 9.1% in 2018-19.

While India should be pursuing renewables — especially solar — that’s the easy part. India only trails China and the US in annual greenhouse gas emissions by country, and China faces similar challenges with leaving coal behind. If those countries are unwilling to embrace a full energy transition away from the fossil fuel, the consequences look bleak.

Wind shift

The CBC published a story on Thursday about the Alberta, Canada, village of Halkirk with the headline: “Alberta village that started mining coal and shifted to oil and gas struggles to make a go with wind.”

At first glance, you may think the problems stem from the energy source itself, but that’s not the case. Rather, the issue comes from the lack of employees needed to stick around and sustain wind turbines:

Business is good for as long as construction lasts. Once the turbines are running, most of Robertson’s customers leave town. It isn’t as steady a clientele as oil and gas workers who have to stick around to maintain and operate wells after they are drilled.

It’s a familiar tale that will only become more familiar in the future. The Halkirk 1 wind farm is a 150 MW project that offers enough power for 50,000 homes, so while a few of the locals interviewed for the story would like to see another “oil boom” or more of an emphasis on natural gas, they’re also willing to acknowledge that times have changed.

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