This episode of Dnews is brought to you by Fossil fuel energy is the most common type of power plant in the United States, but solar just hit a HUGE milestone that might make them finally shine past the competition. For all the talk about solar panels being better for the environment, they are still notoriously inefficient… or were, until now. Australian researchers from University of New South Wales created the most efficient solar panels ever; these new panels convert 46-percent of their sunlight energy into electricity. Typical rooftop panels hover around 15 percent at best. This new technology works by distributing the solar collection into three cells picking sunlight up in multiple wavelengths, and then reflecting the excess light at a fourth panel! Genius! So 46.

Percent… Yep… Ahem… ] 46% doesn’t SOUND like much, does it? Right? It’s less than half! Traditionally, power plants usually use heat to create steam and move turbines. Those turbines generate the electric current. I bet you’re as curious as I was about which plants are the most efficient, but they’re doing better than a LOT of them. To calculate efficiency of a power plant, you take the output power and heat, add that together, and divide by the total amount of power produced. Essentially, you’re accounting for the fact that burning fuels is HOT, and you lose a lot of heat in the power transfer. Let me give you an example, in the U.S., there are over 1400 coal power plants burning this fossil fuel at an efficiency of about 33%. Meaning two-thirds of ALL ENERGY from coal in a plant designed to use coal to create electricity is lost. Even the most efficient plants are only 45 percent. Nuclear energy, also measured by the previous equation, ranges from the low 30s to the high 40s… With the best, most heat efficient plants topping out around 48-percent. As technology improves, and the population has become more interested in environmental protection, both coal and nuclear have become more efficient.

But if we’re all honest with each other, making the plant perform better isn’t easy. Instead, a quick solution is to take the heat exhaust and loop it back into the plant. This conserves those extra BTU’s of heat, rather than letting them float away into the atmosphere. Some plants do this to conserve as much heat as they can. They can also help burn the fuel more efficiently, or fine tune the plant to keep it tip top. Unfortunately, wind power is the big loser outside of commercial solar, but even with that, they’re running anywhere from 25 to 50 percent efficiency. It varies depending on the design, and the location. Offshore wind farms run more often than on-shore ones, but the efficiency depends on how hard the wind is blowing and how much of that wind power the turbine can harvest.

Lots of scientists are working on making super efficient wind power. Biomimicry is a big part of their recent advances, with some scientists discovering that mimicking sharks, whales or birds will help make the installations capture more energy. This also informs the winner and champion of ALL these power generation solutions — hydroelectric. The biggest hydroelectric installations can get a 95-percent efficiency, and even the smaller ones can still hit 85. 85 is a LOT more than the next closest. It’s pretty incredible. But when you take into account the simplicity, the eye is drawn right back to solar. Sure, coal and nuclear have a lot of bang for their buck, solar needs a lot of space, and sun… but while 46-percent didn’t sound like a lot before… an infinitely renewable, non-polluting energy solution that is essentially equal in efficiency to other major generation techniques sounds pretty darn good.

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