Industry News




 

01/17/2013

Photovoltaics vs. Biofuel

 
In the photovoltaic vs biofuel battle, one alternative energy option may be a definitive choice.

As facility managers and building owners prepare for another year of green pushes and renewable energy options, has research determined a winner in the photovoltaic vs. biofuel energy battle?

As electric vehicles (EVs) increasingly enter the market and charging stations are built to serve them, EVs are competing with alternative-fuel vehicles.

Using electricity generated by coal-fired plants to power the cars defeats the purpose to some extent, but what if the energy comes from the ultimate clean and renewable source – the sun itself? How would that compete with ethanol in terms of land use, life-cycle emissions, and even cost?

The question, says UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science & Management Professor and LCA expert Roland Geyer, is which makes more sense, growing fuel crops to supply alternative-fuel vehicles with ethanol and other biofuels or using photovoltaics (PV) to directly power battery electric vehicles (BEV)?

"The energy source for biofuels is the sun, through photosynthesis," says Geyer. "The energy source for solar power is also the sun. Which is better?"

To find out, Geyer joined former BrenSchool researcher David Stoms and James Kallaos, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, to model the relative efficiencies of the technologies at converting a given amount of sunlight to miles driven.

The results, which appear in a paper titled "Spatially Explicit Life Cycle Assessment of Sun-to-Wheels Transportation Pathways in the U.S." and published in the Dec. 26 issue of the journal Environmental Science & Technology, showed photovoltaics (PV) to be much more efficient than biomass at turning sunlight into energy to fuel a car.

"PV is orders of magnitude more efficient than biofuels pathways in terms of land use – 30, 50, even 200 times more efficient – depending on the specific crop and local conditions," says Geyer. "You get the same amount of energy using much less land, and PV doesn't require farm land."

The researchers examined three ways of using sunlight to power cars: a) the traditional method of converting corn or other plants to ethanol; b) converting energy crops into electricity for BEVs rather than producing ethanol; and C) using PVs to convert sunlight directly into electricity for BEVs.

Because land-use decisions are local, Geyer explains, he and his colleagues examined five prominent "sun-to-wheels" energy conversion pathways – ethanol from corn or switchgrass for internal combustion vehicles, electricity from corn or switchgrass for BEVs, and PV electricity for BEVs – for every county in the contiguous United States.

Focusing the LCA on three key impacts – direct land use, life cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and fossil fuel requirements – the researchers identified PV electricity for battery electric vehicles as the superior sun-to-wheels conversion method.

"Even the most efficient biomass-based pathway…requires 29 times more land than the PV-based alternative in the same locations," the authors write. "PV BEV systems also have the lowest life-cycle GHG emissions throughout the U.S. and the lowest fossil fuel inputs, except in locations that have very high hypothetical switchgrass yields of 16 or more tons per hectare."

PV conversion also has lower GHG emissions throughout the life cycle than do cellulosic biofuels, even in the most optimistic scenario for the latter. "The bottleneck for biofuels is photosynthesis," Geyer says. "It's at best 1-percent efficient at converting sunlight to crop, while today's thin-film PV is at least 10-percent efficient at converting sunlight to electricity.

Finally, while cost was not a key component of the study, Geyer says, "The cost of solar power is dropping, and our quick calculations suggests that with the federal tax credit, electric vehicles are already competitive."

What does this mean for the future?

"What it says to me is that by continuing to throw money into biofuels, we're barking up the wrong tree," Geyer explains. "That's because of a fundamental constraint, which is the relative inefficiency of photosynthesis. And we can't say that right now, biofuels aren't so great but they'll be better in five years. That fundamental problem for biofuels will not go away, while solar EVs will just continue to get more efficient and cheaper. If they're already looking better than biofuels, in five years the gap will be even greater. A search for a silver bullet is under way through "synthetic photosynthesis," but using genetic engineering to improve the efficiency of photosynthesis is a pipe dream. If there is a silver bullet in energy, I think it's solar power."

 


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Visit our website today to learn about the design flexibility of a Morton building and the endless possibilities of partnering with our designBUILD team.


Wood construction is both cost and energy efficient. Check out Morton Buildings and our designBUILD team online today to discover all the benefits of post-frame construction.


When choosing a metal-clad building for your next construction project, consider Morton Buildings, Inc., and their designBUILD team, we’ll make your dream a reality.

We Can Help You Reduce Energy by 30%

Our mission is to help our customers manage their buildings' energy costs, improve reliability, and enhance performance while having a positive impact on the environment.
CLICK HERE to find out how.

 


Tennant Company is a recognized leader in designing, manufacturing and marketing solutions that help create a cleaner, safer, healthier world. With thousands of satisfied customers already using award winning ec-H2O technology, why not see what you're missing? Test ec-H2O on your soils in your facility. Get a free demo.


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10/20/2014

The EPA looks to help improve energy and air quality during educational facility renovations. 

10/17/2014

Agency says current regulations "don't protect worker health".

10/16/2014

Scientists have developed LED bulbs free of rare earth metals.

10/15/2014

Survey shows a decrease in employees coming to work sick.

10/14/2014

New efficiency ratings available for apartment units

10/10/2014

New code to increase commercial building efficiency.

10/09/2014

Take charge of your electricity bill with these quick tips.

10/08/2014

Illumination improvements take the top award for physics

10/07/2014

Study shows equipment improvements could boost efficiency. 

10/06/2014

New device integrates batteries into solar cell design.

10/03/2014

The switch to green products comes to healthcare facilities.

10/01/2014

Photovoltaic installations serve nearly 2.7 million students

09/30/2014

Incidence of fires and property loss down from 2012

09/29/2014

Academic achievement tied to responsible reporting habits

09/26/2014

Survey shows people more careful, less satisfied in public washrooms.

09/25/2014

A new study shows that switching natural gas for coal will not significantly reduce the amount of CO2 emissions being produced. 

09/24/2014

A new study shows the carbon emission reduction policies individual states have adopted are yielding results.

09/23/2014

A recent survey of industry professionals indicates that investment in energy efficiency projects will increase over the next year.

09/22/2014

Fort Carson in Colorado is well on its way to reaching the goal of net-zero energy by 2020. 

09/19/2014

New regulations from the DOE would improve commercial air conditioner efficiency by as much as 30%. 

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