Being Smart About Solar Energy, Even Where The Sun Doesn't Shine

Solar darkness in Freiburg, Germany
Solar darkness in Freiburg, Germany
Andrea Hoferichter

BERLIN - Winegrower Barbara Banke of the Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates in California doesn’t just love the sun because it ripens grapes. The sunnier it is, the lower the winery’s electricity and gas bills are. And those savings are possible because of the large mirrors mounted on the football-field-sized tin roof of the winery’s production facility that for a year now have been concentrating sunlight on a narrow band of thin silicon solar cells.

These cells deliver electricity – but that’s not all. A tubular system on the back of the cells has a mixture of water and glycol flowing through that cools the silicon modules and heats a water cistern to a good 60° Celsius. The winery needs more than five million liters of hot water per year to clean the tanks in which the wine is stored. The hybrid installation’s photovoltaics also supply lighting and air conditioning. "We’re saving so much energy we expect to pay off the installation in three years," says Banke.

The hybrid installation using both photovoltaic and solar thermal technology comes from Cogenra in California, which has installed solar systems at the University of Arizona and Facebook’s new headquarters in Menlo Park among others.

The two-in-one solution is highly efficient. "Pure silicon photovoltaics use 15% to 20% of sunlight. The rest is lost heat,” product manager Mani Thothadri explains. "If on the other hand you collect and use the heat, then overall efficiency per surface goes up to 75%."

Israel’s Zenith Solar company also claims a similar rate of overall efficiency. It uses even bigger mirror systems and expensive but efficiently stacked solar cells that react to the different colors of sunlight. For three years, one of their installations has been providing a kibbutz in Israel with electricity and heat. Zenith has also announced that it will be providing the Chinese province of Gansu with two 10-megawatt installations.

The Pike Research marketing research institute in Boulder, Colorado, is predicting quick growth for solar hybrids. According to their estimates, by 2022, solar hybrids will be providing energy for 13.5 million households around the world.

Improving electrical output

But putting futuristic small-sized power stations like these on German roofs doesn’t make as much sense. Systems that concentrate sunlight with mirrors are mostly suitable in areas where there is a lot of direct sunlight. So researchers at the Institute for Solar Energy Research (ISFH) in Hameln, Lower Saxony, have been testing hybrid models that work like the Cogenra systems – except without the mirrors. Essentially, these are classic photovoltaic modules cooled by liquid circulated on the back.

However in places where there is relatively little sun, like Germany, using the lukewarm waste heat for heating or hot water is not an option with the ISFH system. "But the hybrid installation can, for example, help to warm the air in a public indoor pool, and our tests have also shown that it can provide extra heat for a geo-thermal heat pump," explains ISFH engineer Erik Bertram.

Using the hybrid with the pump can improve electrical output because photovoltaic cells work better when they remain cool, which is why the module they tested produced 5% more current than usual and the heat pump needed 10% less electricity. Bertram, however, readily admits that the hybrid isn’t yet at the point where it would make sense to mass-produce.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) in Freiburg, Germany, prefer a different combination concept. They are developing a module that combines solar cells and heat absorbers in a well-insulated metal box that can produce a heating-compatible 60° Celsius even in Germany. On the solar side the module is covered by a coated sheet of glass that lets a lot of light in and no heat out.

This subtle heat trap can reduce electricity yield, since with every further degree this sinks by nearly half a percent. That is best observable during the summer months when the heating is off and no heat is drawn from the solar collector. "Generally the temperature in the modules then rises to between 40° Celsius and 60° Celsius," says ISE researcher Gerhard Stryi-Hipp. This means that efficiency sinks from a typical 15% at 25° Celsius to 12.5% – i.e. by a sixth. "That’s why in warm areas it’s worth considering adding a solar thermal air conditioning system that converts surplus heat," he says.

Security concerns raised by some – the electricity and the fluid are very close together in the hybrid modules – do not worry the ISE team because "while it is difficult to find materials that conduct heat well and insulate electric current reliably, it is doable," Stryi-Hipp says. His team mainly works with special synthetic foils, but is also testing lacquers and electrolyzed oxidized aluminum. The researchers aim to have their concept ready for serial production in three years.

"Buyers probably won’t save money on these solutions," says Stryi-Hipp. "But for the same money on the same roof surface they can produce more usable energy."

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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