BY LINDA BAKER
1. FOOT SOLDIERS IN THE SOLAR ARMY
“Solar energy is one of the most expensive energy sources right now. So every aspect of solar cells is being scrutinized to see how it can become more efficient and cheaper,” says Scott Weaver, chief business strategist at CSD Nano, a Corvallis startup that makes anti-reflective coatings for photovoltaic cover glass.
The Holy Grail for solar energy advocates is grid parity, in which electricity from solar costs the same or less than power from fossil fuels. CSD Nano, which is using nanotechnology based on the anti-reflective retina of a moth eye, is just one of many technology companies working on driving down costs. “It’s very exciting,” Weaver says. “We’re part of manifest destiny.”
Shannon Boettcher, a UO chemistry professor, is another pioneer, although he approaches the problem from a different angle. Solar energy is an intermittent power source, so figuring out how to store energy from the sun and make it a stable reliable energy source is crucial to achieving grid parity, says Boettcher. His research focuses on converting electricity from the sun into chemical bonds such as hydrogen that can be stored for later use. “We know how to do this using expensive exotic materials that are highly engineered. The challenge is to develop a process using earth abundant elements we can put together in low-cost scalable ways.”
An international contingent is working on this approach, Boettcher says. “Because if we want to displace all of our fossil fuel energy use, if we want to stop using coal, then we absolutely have to store renewables.”
2. THE LED ELIXIR
LED lights are about five times more efficient than conventional incandescent light bulbs. They are also up to 20 times more expensive and lack the warm light typical of the conventional bulb, which keeps consumers from buying them. If everyone transitioned to LEDs, consumers would potentially save 190 terawatt hours annually — the equivalent of lighting over 95 million homes. Pacific Light Technologies, a Portland startup, is developing a new process aimed at mainstreaming the high-efficiency LED. The technology involves quantum dots — chemically created microscopic semiconductors — that provide better light output “tunable to different hues,” says Pacific Light CEO Ron Nelson. The dots, now being tested with major lighting manufacturers, will also reduce the cost of LEDs by at least 50% and enable replacement of the phosphors currently used in LED lights, reducing industry dependence on the rare earth compounds. “We believe we have found the elixir,” says Nelson.
3. THE SMARTER FARMER
In recent years, buying food from your local organic farmer has become all the rage. But most local farmers still struggle to compete against big agribusiness. Smart phones are coming to the rescue, helping small and mid-size farmers practicing sustainable agriculture differentiate themselves from the pack.
“If you’re a medium-size farmer and you’re trying to reposition yourself out of the commodity market, you might tell your distributor you’re certified for environmental stewardship but that story isn’t told to other links in the supply chain. So people are working on Internet technologies to empower farmers to tell what’s unique. You put a QR code on your package and the customer can access the rich information. This is combined with traceability tools that help midsize produce growers satisfy increasing traceability requirements for food safety. It’s about putting tools in the hands of farmers.”
-Scott Exo, former executive director of the Food Alliance, a Portland nonprofit that certifies sustainable agricultural and food-handling practices