Part 2

The Limits of Technology

New clean energy innovations will very likely have a much larger potential than lifestyle changes to mitigate or eliminate global warming emissions.  And if you read journals and blogs on clean energy, many writers and reporters are smitten by these innovations’ collective potential.  Many of these technologies do have the potential, over the next several decades, to displace significant amounts of conventional energy with enhanced energy efficiency, renewable energy, and energy storage.

New technology, however, is not flawless, and just because it exists does not mean it is affordable, appropriate, convenient for everyone, or will be adopted quickly.

Look at an example of a breakthrough in electric lighting.  In about 1981, inventors were able to adapt microcircuitry in fluorescent lighting ballasts (regulators that adjust the amount of power so that it will not destroy the lamp).  These would save 20% of electricity used by these lamps.  However, most/all of the first companies that manufactured them went out of business because of high product failure rates.  Even though the bugs were worked out, the failures created a stigma that would last for several years, scaring off customers.

Once the ballasts became more reliable, their savings became so acknowledged that the U.S. Congress passed legislation mandating ballast efficiency standards in 1988 that became effective in 1990.1  This did not overtly require electronic ballasts, but it strongly encouraged it.  Adding to this momentum for adoption were numerous utilities that gave rebates to customers because it was cheaper than buying new power plants, which enhanced the customer’s payback for installation.  And for all this, as of 2014, the old technology of magnetic core coil ballasts still clung to 10 to 20% of the market.2

A federal phase-out on the manufacture or import of most inefficient ballasts finally took effect in 2014.3  Even then, however, the standards allowed exceptions for niche markets and residential sales.  And there are easily tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions, of old ballasts yet to reach the end of their life.

This is all to say that, in 2016, some 35 years after the first sales  of electronic ballasts, they still have not completely replaced dated technology.

Another example of slow-moving innovation in clean energy is a device that can produce electricity cost effectively with small hydroelectric units.  Hydroelectricity generates about 7% of electric power in the U.S.4  While hydroelectricity can theoretically provide 4 times as much power worldwide as it does now, the cost of installing conventional turbines is affected by economies of scale, and it is generally not cost effective to harness water at low drops (“low heads”) in elevation.5

In the 1970s, a medical doctor-turned-inventor, Daniel Schneider, began perfecting a device that could harness water and wind flows with a flow engine.  Looking much like a gargantuan Venetian blind, the slats were curved in such a way that they would be pushed up by the wind and water, which would then flow through the center, and then push the slats down.  Advantages included: 1) low-cost assembly; 2) the cost-effective ability to harness power in very low-altitude drops in rivers formerly considered unthinkable; 3) less wind energy lost at high speeds due to limited stress from centrifugal force; 4) and the ability to capture wind from varying directions without turning.

Diagram of Schneider Lift Translator concept

Schneider Lift Translator
Courtesy Natel Energy


It was ingenious.  It made the cover of Popular Science in February of 1978.  It received research money from the U.S. Department of Energy.

While he died in 2011, his mission was continued through Natel Energy, in Alameda, CA.  Schneider’s son, Abe, is President and CTO, and his daughter, Gia, is CEO.  The company went on to develop the hydroelectric version of the invention as a commercial product.  The first one began commercial operation in an irrigation canal in Oregon in June 2015.  The product also has applications in smaller dams, run of the river hydro, and even for the tail waters of power-plant cooling water outflows.

So from the time of the original patent filing in 1976 to commercial implementation, it only took 39 years.

LEDs were first invented in 1962, and the first niche-market product based on the technology, a red indicator light, appeared in 1968.6  LEDs did not make their way into the residential lighting market until 2009, and even then at very high (early adopter) prices.  As of the first quarter of 2016, LEDs had 26% of the “A-line” (common bulb) market, despite national codes phasing out most conventional incandescent bulbs.7  This is incredibly impressive, but way short of overnight adoption.

Low-e (low heat emission) windows that reflect heat away from a building in southern climates, and back into a building in northern climates, began with R&D in 1976.  The technology progressed relatively quickly, and by 1988, the technology had captured 20% of the U.S. residential market for new windows.8

However, even by 2010, low-e windows had only reached 80% of the residential market despite the cost effectiveness of the technology, utility rebate programs to encourage their use, and building-code requirements that effectively mandated them.9  This is not to mention the majority of existing structures that had not installed them through retrofits.

In the first 6 months of 2016, solar cells accounted for 26% of all new electric capacity in the U.S.  Solar cells represent the best chance for widespread adoption of decentralized renewable energy in buildings, and are ripe for adoption by the utility sector to displace some level of peak demand.

The first solar cell was developed in 1954 by Bell Laboratories to power satellites in space, and the first cells sold in 1956 for the 2016-equivalent of $15,993 per watt.10  (Interestingly, cells manufactured in that era are still operating, albeit at reduced levels of output.)  By 2016, the cost had fallen to $1.18 per watt.11

During the height of the Energy Crisis in the late 1970s, the U.S. Department of Energy’s national goal was to have photovoltaics (PVs) down to 5¢ per kwh.  That was the nominal benchmark cost of retail residential power (on the customer side of the meter) in 1980.  Adjusted for inflation, this would be 13¢ per kwh in 2016.  Yet it was not until about 2010 that PVs even reached this price for wholesale utility-scale power at megawatt-level economies of scale.12

There is no doubt that new clean-energy technology will continue to have a marked effect in the future.  However, the vast majority of new inventions and products made from them will take considerable time to reach maturity, few will be adopted quickly, and even when adopted, there will not be universal conversion for a long period of time.


1 Appliance Standards Awareness Project, “Fluorescent Lamp Ballasts,” and “National Appliance Energy Conservation Amendments of 1988,” Washington, D.C.  Online at

2 Beletich, Steven, et al., Mapping & Benchmarking of Linear Fluorescent Lighting, Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program, November 2014, Table 29. p. 68.

3 Appliance Standards Awareness Project, “Fluorescent Lamp Ballasts,” Washington, D.C.  Online at

4 U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Information Browser, Electricity Data.  Online at

5 International Energy Agency, Technology Roadmap Hydropower, Paris, France: 2012, p. 18.  Online at

6 Schubert, E. Fred, Light-Emitting Diodes, Second Edition, Cambridge, U.K.:Cambridge University Press, p. 8.  Online at

7 National Electric Manufacturers Association, “LED A-Line Lamp Shipments Capture More Than a Quarter of the Consumer Lamp Market for the First Time in 2016Q1,” Rosslyn, VA, May 16, 2016.  Online at

8 Rissman, Jeffrey and Hallie Kennan, “Low-emissivity Windows,” Washington, DC: American Energy Innovation Council, March 2013.

9 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, ENERGY STAR® for Windows, Doors, and Skylights, Criteria and Analysis Report, Version 6.0, Draft 1, Washington, DC, July 2012, p. 8.

10 California Energy Commission, An Overview of Electricity in California, October 2007, p. 26.  ($1,785 per watt in 1955 dollars adjusted for inflation.)

11 Munsell, Mike, Solar PV Prices Will Fall Below $1.00 per Watt by 2020,

GTM Research, June 01, 2016.  Online at

12 Bollinger, Mark, and Joachim Seel, Utility-Scale Solar Energy, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, September 2015, p. 13.

The Leading Edge

Those who read the last story may have the impression that this writer has scant regard for the potential of new clean-energy technologies.  This is not the case.  While considerable caution is justified, clean energy would never be where it is today if some seemingly far-fetched technologies had not worked.  This story will briefly highlight some of the leading edge technologies.

Aerogel Insulation

Insulation is usually rated by thickness.  For each inch of a given material, there is an “R-value” or thermal resistance value applied.  Conventional insulation is generally rated at an R-value of 2.5 to 3.8 per inch.  Aerogel, a high-tech form of insulation developed by NASA for space travel, has an R-value of about 10 or higher per inch.  It is said that insulating a house with aerogel would allow a home’s winter heating to be done with a candle.

It is one of the lightest materials known on earth, often (literally) 99.8% air, with a base solid surrounding these insulative microscopic air pockets that can be made of various substances, including silica, plastic, and organic matter.

Aerogel has many unique qualities besides superior insulation ability that make it a good building material.  It is hydrophobic, so it is resistant to mold, mildew, and decay.  While it stops heat transfer, it also “breathes,” preventing condensation build-up in building cavities it is used in.  It is also effective when compressed, compared to other insulating materials that lose effectiveness under compression.

One such application is to prevent thermal bridging, a phenomenon that occurs in walls, roofs, ceilings, and some floors where heat is lost through wood or metal studs that are difficult to  insulate.  Attaching thin aerogel strips to the studs reduces these losses.  Another use is in the remodeling of historic buildings, which often have little space to insert conventional insulation between walls or floors.  This problem is alleviated with a much thinner material.

Aerogel strip applied to stud to prevent thermal bridging

Aerogel strips used for thermal bridging insulation
Courtesy Aspen Aerogels


Future applications, depending on price reductions, may include bolstering the efficiencies of refrigeration cabinets, doors, and attic hatches, and transparent inserts in double and triple-glazed windows.

A company in Singapore, Bronx Materials, has claimed a breakthrough in price reductions, with a factory using recycled paper as the solid base scheduled to open in 2017.  As of late 2016 however, there was no indication of cost.

Current U.S. Aerogel Manufacturers

Aspen Aerogels (888) 481-5058

30 Forbes Road, Building B

Northborough, MA 01532

Cabot Corporation (617) 345-0100

Two Seaport Lane, Suite 1300

Boston, MA 02210-2019

Thermablok Inc. (813) 980-1400

6900 Interbay Blvd.

Tampa, FL 33616

Advanced Windows

Self-dimming windows – “Low-e” energy saving windows have been commercialized since the late 1980s, and are commonly required by building codes today.  They prevent heat from entering or leaving a building, depending on the climate.  However, there are penalties too.

For climates in the Southern U.S., low-e windows are manufactured to lower air conditioning bills by preventing heat from entering a home, but they slightly raise the cost of heating in the winter because of the same quality.  For the northern part of the country, these windows are built to reradiate internal building heat that would normally try to escape through the window glass, but this causes heat build-up and higher air conditioning bills in the summer.

There are now commercial products that have the ability to dim or stay clear at the discretion of the building’s occupants.  Known as electro-chromic or dynamic windows, a small electric charge reacts with a special metal oxide coating to tint, or untint, window glass.

Self tinting windows in restaurant

At the 71 Above restaurant in Los Angeles, smart windows filter sun at eye level while allowing more light in at a higher level. They allow optimal views of the LA skyline.
Courtesy SageGlass


This screens out up to 99% of visible light, and 91% of incoming heat.  (Alternatively, it can allow 58-60% of visible light and 41% of incoming heat to enter if desired.)  It takes from 7 to 12 minutes, depending on weather, to completely tint or untint between this range.

The cost premium for the glass is offset by reductions in the size of air conditioning, elimination of blinds and shading devices, and electricity savings from less air conditioning load and use of natural daylight.  (Most large commercial buildings require air conditioning even in the winter.)  These windows also improve the aesthetics of the interior space by reducing glare and allowing better connection to outdoor views.

While there is no prohibition against using these windows in residential settings, the price premium will usually not pay for itself quickly.

Dynamic glass manufacturers in the U.S. are listed below.

SAGE Electrochromics, Inc. (877) 724-3321

2 Sage Way

Faribault, MN 55021

View, Inc. (408) 514-6512

195 S. Milpitas Blvd

Milpitas, CA 95035

Aerogel windows –  At least one window company, Advanced Glazings Ltd., markets a curtain wall (SOLERA® + Lumira®) for commercial buildings with aerogel insulation sandwiched between 2 panes of glass.  While not transparent, it is translucent (looking similar to frosted glass), allowing natural daylighting without most of the heat gain associated with other types of curtain walls.

Advanced Glazings (888) 452-0464

870 King’s Road

Sydney, NS

Canada B1P 6R7

Non-Compression Refrigeration

Since the advent of modern refrigeration in the 19th century, the technology has relied on compressors to operate, which compress gas into liquid refrigerant, that evaporates again as it carries heat out of the refrigerated storage space.  The compression cycle has direct energy efficiency losses, which can be compounded when its waste heat increases air conditioning costs.

They are bulky, heavy, noisy, and the vast majority of the chemicals used as refrigerants have adverse environmental effects.  The refrigerants in conventional systems in the U.S. (typically hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs) are highly potent global warming gases.  Depending on the particular application, they can trap hundreds or thousands of times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Phononic, a Durham, NC company started in 2009, has spent $160 million in venture capital and 7 years of R&D effort to perfect a possibly disruptive non-compression refrigeration technology.  It uses microchips to dispel heat, increasing storage space and energy efficiency while reducing noise and weight. The chips are aided by passive carbon dioxide circulation in a sealed loop around the case acting as a refrigerant.  The chips are manufactured in the U.S., then exported overseas for refrigeration assembly.

As of 2016, the company had sold 3,000 medical refrigerators used for life sciences, medical care, and pharmacies.  These units are 10 to 30% more efficient, while having 20% more volume due to the elimination of the compressor.    The company also sold 1,500 residential wine chillers, and plans to market a 4.7 cubic foot commercial beverage refrigerator in 2017.  These other products also have the benefits of less energy use and more volume.

Phononic has been prospecting the air conditioning market as well.  It believes its technology’s best economic value lies in zonal cooling and heating, where a central unit would provide a base level of comfort (e.g., 80 degrees F throughout a building, while individual zonal units (similar to portable air conditioners or mini-splits) would hone to the final temperature (e.g., 70 degrees).

Microchip refrigeration is not the only compressor-free refrigeration technology being developed.  Cool-Tech Applications, a French company, is perfecting magnetic refrigeration.  Running electric fields through certain materials causes changes in temperature.  Using this principle, the magnets act as a kind of heat pump, while water circulating through pipes carries heat away from the case.

Cool-Tech has followed a similar path to commercialization, starting with niche markets such as medical refrigerators and wine coolers.  It also plans to introduce small beverage chillers in 2017, and is working in collaboration with commercial refrigerator manufacturer Structural Concepts of Muskegon, MI, to create prototypes for grocery stores.

Both Phononic and Cool-Tech have also partnered with Haier (formerly GE Appliances) to commercialize grocery store applications.

There is some departure in their business models, however.  Cool-Tech expects there to be a premium for the added expense of magnetic refrigeration components.  Though the company expects this to fall over time due to economies of scale, there may still ultimately be a payback period of 2-3 years from energy and maintenance savings to recoup the extra cost.  Phononic believes they can break into the market without any premium.

Since these are leading edge technologies, it is hard to predict the future of non-compression cooling and heating.  However, this is no longer a fantasy that can be ignored.

Phononic (919) 908-6300

800 Capitola Drive, Suite 7

Durham, NC  27713

Solar Tracking Collectors for Buildings

PVs have become an elegant, soundless, pollution-free way to produce onsite electricity and lower bills.  However, while offering a degree of independence, almost all PV systems in the U.S., including Austin, are grid connected.  Decentralized PVs are mounted at a fixed tilt that optimizes annual production.  While this lowers bills and reduces pollution, it often works at cross purposes with the utility they are connected to.

In Austin, the highest utility demand is in the summer at about 5 in the afternoon, which is when fixed-system production is waning, only producing about 31% of their rated output at that time.  This can be compensated for by tilting fixed systems in a westerly direction, but it reduces overall power production in the Austin area by about 10%.

PV systems can automatically track the sun throughout the year for optimal tilt and power production, but tracking systems, up to now, have been too expensive and complicated for decentralized applications on buildings.

A new product, PV Booster, is a 2-axis rooftop tracker designed for flat commercial roofs.  It tilts the array to optimize angles, allowing the sun to attain output that better matches the utility’s peak demand year round.  The company states the technology will produce about 32% more annual electricity than a south facing fixed tilt system, and 47% more power than a west facing fixed tilt system.

While costing more than a fixed array, the extra revenue greatly exceeds the extra cost from increased power.  Other positive features include boltless installation (the base is self ballasted by the mounting assembly), light weight, and adaptability to high winds (flattening the panels when they exceed a certain velocity) to protect the arrays from damage.

PV Booster (626) 585-6900

130 Union St.

Pasasdena, CA 91103W

Continue to Challenges to Clean Energy, Part 3: The False Promise of Free Weatherization ->

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