Electric Vehicles, Photosynthesis, and Wind Power – The Direct Energy Buzz for March 2015

This month with much of country still bound up in snow, ice, and general icky winter weather, we turn our attention to the energy innovations soon to hit the sunny-plashed highways of California. We’ll also leaf through developments in artificial photosynthesis, and lastly see how frozen fish and wind power can provide cheap, trouble-free energy.

Cars, computers, and energy — it’s no joke

With transportation consuming nearly one third of energy in the US,  automotive innovation would seem serious business, especially as the Internet of Things (IOT) is moving into automobiles. In spite of an ominous joke from the late 1990s, both MircoSoft and Apple are eagerly following along. Microsoft seems to already own the driver’s seat “IVI” (in-vehicle infotainment) platform through its Windows Embedded Automotive 7 offered by several car manufacturers. And now, Apple seems to be tinkering in its Cupertino, CA, headquarters with an electric car of its own.

Speculation and joke-invoked irony aside, Dieter Zetsche, the chair of Daimler told CNBC, “…I do see a huge opportunity by these two worlds converging between the automotive industry and the tech world on the West Coast, if you want. There are tremendous new opportunities: the connected car, the autonomous car, the very safe car: all of these opportunities are lying ahead of us, and we will exploit them in any form.”

Two of the energy technologies for electric vehicles being exploited in California right now. Plans for two different kinds of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations are being developed to not only power today’s green energy vehicle, but those in the future. California is currently home to 60,000 plug-in EVs in the PG&E service area and the utility recently pitched a plan to state regulators to build an estimated 25,000 EV chargers in the state. Each charger would “top off” a vehicle charge within 30 minutes.

While hydrogen fuel cell powered electric vehicles (FCEV) aren’t even on the road in California, yet, automakers plan to introduce them to the California commercial market beginning in 2015. To keep them on the road requires building more hydrogen stations. Currently, there are ten but the California Energy Commission plans to invest $20 million in building more.

A New Leaf?

Photosynthesis, the process that plants use to convert light energy into chemical energy, is the ultimate green energy because it powers life on Earth. The problem is that if you want to boldly go where no man has gone before and live long and prosper, you want to photosynthesis working on your starship. Julian Melchiorri may have just made that possible. His Silk Leaf combines silk protein and chloroplasts that work as an artificial leaf that makes oxygen through photosynthesis. Just add water and light.

But that’s not all. Back in 2011, MIT professor Daniel Nocera made an “artificial leaf” that used a small photovotaic cell that kicked out enough electricity to efficiently split water into oxygen and hydrogen. When you burn hydrogen in an oxygen-rich environment, you get a HUGE bang and water. There have been stumbles with corrosion of the semiconductors in separating process but the logical goal is to make hydrogen gas produced by artificial photosynthesis into a more useful fuel. Hmmm…Like fuel cells for FCEVs?

Curiously enough, Nocera’s answer for a corrosion-resistent semiconductor might lie in silk. Silk coccoons are already known to act as a “protein-based capacitor.”Silk has also been used as a substrate for silicon-based bio-electronics. And many other organic materials are dielectric or semiconducting, for example: aloe, egg whites, beeswax, and carnauba wax.

Now if NASA could combine the oxygen output from Melchiorri’s silk leaf with Nocera’s hydrogen producing leaf, maybe that could be the green solution to propelling the colonization of Mars…where humans could turn over a new leaf.

Sounds fishy: wind power MORE predictable than conventional.

There are times when you have alot of wind power but no demand for it. So,  you either curtail that power and pay a high penalty or you sell it for very cheap. In Cuxhaven, Germany, one frozen fish warehouse keeps the catch chilled to -4 °F. On days when windpower is producing cheap eletricity, the warehouse chills things down to -22°F. Since the well-insulated 5.5-million cubic foot only warms by 2 degrees every 24 hours during the summer, the warehouse can go roughly one week without turning on its refrigeration units. Not only does that save money, it also removes a huge demand from the regional grid —especially if other industries are also taking  advantage of that cheap surplus wind energy.

While this tactic might work well locally for the still under-integrated European grid , the North American grid is a different kettle of fish. Detractors argue renewable energy is unsuited for handling large base loads and  sudden demand spikes.

The American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) recent wind energy report argues the base load model of the grid is misleading. The report explains the grid’s needs breakdown into three components: “Energy is the actual megawatt hours of electricity flowing on the grid, capacity is the ability to generate more when needed, and flexibility is the ability to respond quickly to rises or dips in demand.” Energizing the grid really just requires predictable energy sources. Consequently, wind output variation is less of a problem than conventional power plants. Wind energy output is the most easy to predict well in advance (it’s the weather) and it’s the cheapest source. A forced outage at a conventional power plant tends to be sudden, unpredictable in duration, and take a big bite of the whole system’s capacity.

AWEA’s assertion seems confirmed by a report by mid-Atlantic grid operator PJM that shows during early January 2015, natural gas problems caused about half of the 18,861 MW that failed to operate during a cold weather alert on January 8. Wind power, meanwhile, performed well and produced 2,500 to 5,300 MW during the event.


Vernon Trollinger is a writer with a background in home improvement, electronics, fiction writing, and archaeology. He now writes about green energy technology, home energy efficiency, the natural gas industry, and the electrical grid.