• News
  • Renewable News
  • Solar

Solar Focus

In this illuminating despatch from the front line of the solar energy sector, Dr. Petri Konttinen, renewable energy expert for Luvata, argues that while President Obama’s green stimulus measures are indeed a step in the right direction, there is still some way to go.

President Obama’s plans for a green stimulus in the US have thus far focused on energy effciency, an area in which the US has until now lagged behind the rest of the developed world.


America has enjoyed the benefts of low cost energy for a very long time, thanks inpart to favorable trade agreements with nearby neighbors Canada and Mexico, and so in energy terms it has never been forced to look seriously to the future. Only now as we compare the oil
reserves of our neighbors with those in the Middle East, is it starting to register that oil won’t last forever.

The President’s proposals include a $16bn spend on energy effciency measures including weatherization for homes, $11bn on upgrading electricity transmission grids, $4.5 billion for the refurbishment of federal buildings, and $9bn on making improvements to the Amtrak rail system and building new high-speed railways to link cities.

These are all positive steps, but they can all be classifed as ‘clean-up’ operations. Only $6bn of the green stimulus measures is likely to be spent on renewable energy, and most of this will be in the form of new loan guarantees and tax credits for wind, solar and geothermal energy, including the cost of building new transmission lines to connect wind farms to cities. The lack of focus on renewables is disturbing given the situation America (and the planet) now finds itself in

Recognizing the need to drastically improve America’s energy performance, President Obama has set the ambitious targets of reducing carbon emissions on 1990 levels by 30% by 2020 and by over 80% by 2050. In order for the US to hit these targets, bold steps are required, and yet the detail of the President’s plan seems to fall well short of this. If the President is serious about hitting these targets, as he should be, he doesn’t need a clean-up operation so much as the total re-invention of a low carbon economy.

We have recently heard so much in the media about the financial crisis we are facing, and one of the main criticisms of the aid efforts for our financial systems was that pouring in more money is futile if it’s going to be spent in the same ways that led us into crisis in the first place. The same could be said of our energy usage; we can make our buildings more energy efficient, but while this is important, it is merely slowing down the inevitable. Only through a transformation to renewable energy will America effect the changes needed to protect us from the significant environmental threats we face.So what should America be focusing its efforts on? Some claim that wind power represents the long-term future, but with its foreseeable practical capacity only able to support a fraction of our energy needs at best, the powers that be should focus their efforts on where they can have a much bigger impact. There is only one renewable source which is vast enough and for which we already have the technology to potentially cater for all our energy needs – the Sun. Unfortunately we continue to ignore this energy source, while pursuing other sources, which in themselves are hugely wasteful.

Consider that half of the energy in every barrel of oil will be used to extract and distribute the other half. At the same time, 40% of all energy consumed by the average city is used in warming up or cooling down buildings. So, of our original barrel of oil, 40% of the remainder is keeping us warm or cool.

Conversely, a maximum of 1kW of power per square meter falls on every rooftop every day during daytime and yet we still insulate it out. A modern photovoltaic panel converts energy at about 15% effciency, meaning that a south-facing roof on a very small detached house could produce 4.5kWh a day, which is approximately enough to run two ovens at full heat or 410 energy-saving light bulbs all day long. Better still, a solar thermal collector runs at over 40% efficiency an heats water directly with no need for electricity or gas.

As I write this article, the total estimated energy usage on Earth today stood at 20.8 million kilowatts at 11:10am. The total amount of solar energy striking the planet in the same period was 153,600 million kilowatts. Some of that 740,000 percent over-supply from Mother Nature landed on our rooftops, and yet almost all of it was insulated out of our homes. We have the science to harness a lot of this energy with relative ease, and yet we continue to waste it instead.

The US could learn a lot from other nations about exploiting this invaluable resource that beats down upon us all the time. In Germany for example, the government introduced the German Renewable Energy Sources Act, which entices private investment in solar panels with substantial fuel bill reductions. Private individuals or businesses can connect to the national grid and will be paid for the energy they provide, and the law obliges utility companies to pay a higher price for this clean energy than they would for power derived from coal, nuclear or natural gas. Each person generally makes enoughproft from selling the power they generate to pay off a substantial amount of the low interest loan they took to buy the solar power system in the frst place, and the lasting legacy is that people will be able to produce a significant proportion of their own power.

Germany’s solar incentives have been copied by Spain, France, Italy and Greece, where the production and sale of excess solar electricity is encouraged, so that producers can recoup their investment in photovoltaic panels more quickly. On a sunny day in Spain, solar panels already provide up to 5% of the country’s energy needs. The UK government has committed itself to introducing a similar scheme by 2010, and the US should invest heavily in the same way, in order to start harnessing this energy source before it is too late.

Schemes like the one that is run in Germany and elsewhere have another major advantage. When people produce their own power, there is a lot less energy lost in transit. With traditional energy sources including extraction, less than 30% of the power at the production end even reaches our homes. We are always thinking about the very top of the supply chain, even though we have the technology to create energy at the very bottom of the supply chain, cutting out all of the ineffciencies along the way. If as a nation America provided the tools for its citizens to produce their own solar power, the amount of energy wasted in the nation’s supply chain would reduce drastically. This process needs more than another band-aid fx. It needs a long-term vision and leadership from the government, to teach the population how to generate its own energy rather than just feeding on it, as it were.

Another way to save wasted energy at the point of use is to make relatively minimal changes to air conditioning systems. As previously noted, 40% of the energy consumed in modern cities is used for warming or cooling buildings, and most buildings today are required to be ventilated with fresh air for health reasons.

In some cases this can be as much as 100% outside air being brought into the building for ventilation. The air is brought into the building through dampers located on the outside of the building and then the air is tempered by either heating or cooling it to an acceptable and comfortable room temperature. As the fresh air is introduced into the building, the old air is exhausted though another opening in the outer wall of the structure.

It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that bringing in fresh air and tempering it to a comfortable temperature uses a lot of energy. Every cubic foot of fresh air brought in must be either heated or cooled and then the same air is thrown back into the outdoor environment where the tempering will serve no benefit

Recent technology called the Runaround Loop captures the heat or cool of the indoor air by placing a finned tube coil in the exhaust opening and allowing the indoor air to temper the fluid in the coil.

This fluid is then pumped to another coil, placed in the entering air opening where the temperature of the room air is used to pre-temper the temperature of the required outside air. Most of these openings are located relatively close to each other so that only some piping and a pump is required to move the tempered fluid between the coils

The effects of this type of technology can be startling. In one recent Luvata project in the US, a Runaround Loop was installed that effectively recovered an estimated 6,000,000 kWh of wasted energy.

Those who run American energy policy have known about energy wastage for a long time, but the inertia of cheap oil and the reluctance to go through the initial expense of change has led them to do very little about it thus far.

According to the world’s leading scientists we are now approaching the point of no return, when drastic action is necessary to have a chance of saving the planet from catastrophic global warming. If you are reading, President Obama, please take heed: yes, do invest in the most effective energy efficiency measures, but even more importantly, please recognize that the greatest long-term benefit will begin with teaching the American population how to become reliant on its own, renewable generated energy.

Luvata is the leading international metals supplier of solutions, services, components and materials for manufacturing and construction. 

Luvata’s solutions are used in industries such as renewable energy, power generation, architecture, automotive, transport, medicine, air-conditioning, industrial refrigeration, consumerproducts and construction. The company’s continued success is attributed to its longevity, technological excellence and strategy of building partnerships beyond metals. Employing over 8,000 staff in 18 countries, Luvata works in partnership with customers such as Siemens, Toyota, CERN, Shaaz, and DWD International.