Solar Breakthrough Could Be A Game Changer For Energy Efficiency

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By Haley Zaremba

Until a few years ago, carbon capture was an industry darling, popping up in headlines and meeting notes across the energy sector as the new it thing for lowering carbon footprints and making the fossil fuels industry most climate friendly while still dominating the global energy mix. Look at FutureGen, a billion-dollar poster child of a carbon capture project that was supposed to single-handedly save the United States coal industry. That project was shelved back in 2015, and I think we all know what happened to U.S. coal, and salvation wasn’t part of it. Carbon capture in the oil industry, which also used to boast some big-ticket projects, hasn’t fared any better.  So what happened? According to reporting this week from CleanTechnica, the culprit is none other than energy efficiency. While energy efficiency is not nearly as sexy as cutting-edge technological innovation and carbon sequestration, it makes a lot of sense as a one size fits all approach to downsizing nearly any carbon footprint. The International Energy Agency (EIA) even refers to energy efficiency as “the first fuel of a sustainable global energy system.”

Some of the fixes for improving energy efficiency are amazingly simple. In India, the incredibly simple tactic of distributing energy-saving lightbulbs has led the country to surpass their own emissions curbing goals.  “India’s LED transition is estimated to save more than 40 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year – roughly enough to power 37 million average Indian households or the whole of Denmark for one year,” The Conversation reported earlier this month.

Another example of a deceptively simple problem is the humble window. “Heat gain and heat loss through windows are responsible for 25%–30% of residential heating and cooling energy use,” the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has reported. As the world gets warmer, the problem of overheated houses and the subsequent demand for air conditioning will continue to expand. “Combined, residential and commercial AC already accounted for 10% of US electricity consumption in 2019,” reports CleanTechnica, “which means that a lot of kilowatts are going to be flying out the window in the coming years.”

Now here’s where energy efficiency finally gets sexy: solar windows. Instead of being the locus of energy loss and inefficiency, a window could actually be an energy generator, creating electricity from sunlight. The effort to produce transparent solar cells has been ramping up for a while now, and there seem to be some serious breakthroughs coming down the pike. Just last week, the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory announced that they are now one step closer to developing their own game-changing “thermochromic photovoltaic” window.

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“The technology […] allows the window to change color to block glare and reduce unwanted solar heating when the glass gets warm on a hot, sunny day. This color change also leads to the formation of a functioning solar cell that generates on-board power,” states the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s press release about the breakthrough. “Thermochromic photovoltaic windows can help buildings turn into energy generators, increasing their contribution to the broader energy grid’s needs.”

While the field of energy efficiency is seeing some significant breakthroughs and enjoyed several years of global improvement, however, it’s not all sunshine and roses for the sector. Energy efficiency has been hit by a double whammy of anti-regulatory policy in the United States and a generally extremely un-efficient “new normal” thanks to the novel coronavirus pandemic. As Axios reported this week, “The pandemic is destroying energy efficiency.”

Energy efficiency improvements around the world have already been slowing down over the last few years. “In 2018, primary energy intensity – an important indicator of how much energy is used by the global economy – improved by just 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010, reported the IEA. This was a marked drop from 2017’s 1.7% improvement and was the third consecutive year of declining numbers. “It was also well below the average 3% improvement consistent with the IEA’s Efficient World Strategy, first described in Energy Efficiency 2018.” And this year is almost certainly going to be one of the worst.

As we head into the eye of the storm, with election season and the planning of an economic stimulus falling into the same chaotic time frame, it’s essential that energy efficiency is not overlooked in the planning for a post-pandemic economic recovery.

By Haley Zaremba for


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