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Google Power Technology

Google Files First Solar Patent, Builds R&D Team 118

Posted by Soulskill
from the searching-for-electrons dept.
bizwriter writes "Google has moved beyond investing and using solar power and has started on serious R&D work in the field. Its first patent application in solar energy technology just became public, and the company is staffing a new R&D group 'to develop electricity from renewable energy sources at a cost less than coal' at 'utility scale.'"
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Google Files First Solar Patent, Builds R&D Team

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday June 03, 2011 @01:19PM (#36332356)

    The Sun has a limited supply of hydrogen fuel. If we start depending on solar, in a few measly billion years we'll be depending on hydrogen imports from undemocratic planets. And the chance of a meltdown within 5 billion years or so is pretty much 100%.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    That is a solar patent? Does the summary have a wrong link or something?

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Perhaps somebody can shed some light on this problem?

    • by Ambvai (1106941)

      Nope. But it's the same link in the article too!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      TFA has the wrong link too. It's called "journalism".

      Probable real patent. [uspto.gov] The claims describe a relatively simple control system for aligning mirrors, not exactly requiring incredible R&D investment to come up with. Considering its content is practically irrelevant to the article's hype, no-one gave two shits about fact checking it.

    • by osu-neko (2604)
      No, right patent. From further down:

      BACKGROUND

      [0002] A heliostat solar energy system generally includes a number of heliostats configured to reflect light into a receiver. The resulting heat can then be converted into power. Use of heliostats as a source of solar energy often requires receiver temperatures of nearly 1000.degree. C., which in turn requires sunlight to be reflected from the heliostats into the receiver at high concentrations.

      SUMMARY

      [...]

      By using a camera scheme to control the orientation of individual heliostat mirrors, a closed-loop heliostat control system can be provided that ensures that sunlight is reflected from each heliostat into the desired receiving location. Given the available speed of image processing, errors in the heliostat reflection can be controlled on a real-time, or near-real time basis. Such a system allows concentrated sunlight to enter the receivers for a large fraction of the day in order to provide sufficiently high temperatures for the creation of solar power.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Google' is really interested in clean energy. It invested in Makani Power that targeted high altitude winds (these winds potentially being a source of energy cheaper than coal). Wasn't bloombox too talking about google as its beta customer?
    Good luck with the new venture.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Rei (128717)

      Google's also been really involved in enhanced geothermal, one of my favorite techs. For those not familiar, here's [renewableenergyworld.com] a good rundown of its promise and pitfalls. Namely, it's baseload, works basically anywhere on the planet (all that changes is the required depth of the borehole), is renewable with virtually no environmental impact, and can provide thousands of times more power than we currently consume. At the same time, it's not widespread currently for one main reason -- not that it doesn't work, but th

      • by munozdj (1787326)
        Would it have real consequences to extract the planet core's heat to use it for our own purposes? I admit that the amount of energy extracted by geothermal is insignificant compared to the total heat inside the planet; but if we managed to make the temperatures drop by a few degrees celsius inside, wouldn't it disrupt plate tectonics or the earth's magnetic field or something else? It's an open question, I'm by no means familiarized with this field, so any answers wolud be greatly appreciated.
        • by Anonymous Coward

          In a word, no. Plate tectonics are driven by mantle plumes two thousand miles deep and hundreds to thousands of miles in diameter. Geothermal boreholes don't even pierce the crust. To call the amount of heat extracted from the Earth's mantle by a geothermal plant insignificant is playing it safe; there are more accurate words like "infinitesimal" or "undetectable". It can really only affect the temperature of the (solid crustal) rock in the immediate vicinity of the plant. The magnetic field, of course, is

    • by Zerth (26112) on Friday June 03, 2011 @01:43PM (#36332620)

      I just hope they can maintain interest longer than they did with their Power Meter API, which was just deprecated.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    For the love of GOD, Slashdot, fix the login popup to STAY ON THE ARTICLE BEING READ.

    What's the point of having a fancy Ajax Web 2.0 "popup" login if it just redirects you to the main page afterward???

    • by Azmodan (572615)

      For the love of GOD, Slashdot, fix the login popup to STAY ON THE ARTICLE BEING READ.

      What's the point of having a fancy Ajax Web 2.0 "popup" login if it just redirects you to the main page afterward???

      What's the point of having an account if you post as AC?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Solar is doomed by the amount of land it requires to make "utility-scale" energy available for anything, by its intermittance, and by the fact that the sun ultimately must go down. This is a chimera, but they will spend a lot of money chasing it.

    It's politically incorrect on Slashdot to say these things anymore, but they will be no more successful here than anyone else is -- i.e. ultimately not at all. The people at Google are all energy users, not producers, and they haven't really internalized that.

    • Re:What a waste. (Score:5, Informative)

      by Rei (128717) on Friday June 03, 2011 @01:48PM (#36332656) Homepage

      Solar is usually about an order of magnitude more land-dense than hydroelectric (when you include the area taken up by the reservoir), and about on par with coal (when you include the land taken up by the coal mines required to fuel the plant and the few decades it takes life to regrow on them after an exhausted mine is abandoned)

      Daily intermittence is readily countered by a wide range of factors.
        * Thermal storage
        * Pumped hydro energy storage (works with any type of power; already widespread in China for day/night demand averaging) (does not require a river or a large impounded area!)
        * Integrated peaking (you already have a thermal power plant; adding a supplemental source of heat for when demand exceeds supply costs you almost nothing)
        * The natural correlation between solar intensity and power consumption (night is off-peak, sunny days have more AC load, etc - -it's not perfect, but it's a nice start)
        * Generation-source diversity (wind, solar, tide, wave, etc do not all line up with each other in terms of what generates when)
        * Long-distance HVDC power transmission lets you take advantage of the fact that the sun doesn't set in all places at the same time.
        * Smart grids and demand-flexible industry allow to shift when power is drawn to when it's abundant.

      • by JSBiff (87824)

        I have a question related to location. . .

        I think that solar has a lot of potential in places like TX, NV, CA, NM, AZ, etc.

        Here in Ohio, we just came off a stretch during the spring where in 2 months we had like 5 days of sunshine. It wasn't just Ohio either; most of the United States East of the Mississippi was being affected by this cloud cover all at the same time for those two months.

        There are companies building solar power plants in Ohio. I just don't understand how that makes any sense? If we convert

        • by Lifyre (960576)

          Part of the answer is that not all solar requires full sunlight. They don't produce the most power but they are able to produce some. That was also his point with the long haul HVDC lines and smart grids allowing you to shift between where the power is produced and where it is used.

        • Re:What a waste. (Score:4, Interesting)

          by Rei (128717) on Friday June 03, 2011 @05:22PM (#36334076) Homepage

          Let me start you off with this [youtube.com]. Tell me when you see the whole US clouded over.

          A particular Ohio city is not an island (btw, there has never been a time in recorded history when a city in Ohio has had only five days of sun in 2 months). Ohio is connected on a grid to the rest of the country. The regional grids are increasingly being connected over longer and longer distances by high power runs. It doesn't matter if your particular area is cloudy, because somewhere else isn't.

          A single wind or solar plant has a lot of randomness. A large number of them, spread out over a large region, have very little randomness. Also, FYI, but the time a power plant is down for is already built into its cost equation. That's known as the "capacity factor", and is a key element in economics planning for power plants.

          Secondly, the grid *already* has to handle fluctuations. Not only fluctuations in supply -- yes, conventional power plants go down too, both for maintenance and for unexpected failures -- but even moreso due to demand. Demand fluctuates wildly, and a demand fluctuation is no different than a supply fluctuation. We deal with this by having "peakers" available. These are power plants that can rapidly scale their production up or down depending on the needs of the grid. One of the great things about solar thermal is that it basically comes with a built-in "peaker"; all you need is a natural gas burner, and you've got your backup at almost no extra charge. The turbines are already there, the transmission, etc.

          Beyond all of that, please read the bullet points at the bottom of my last note.

          • by ShakaUVM (157947)

            >>Secondly, the grid *already* has to handle fluctuations.

            Right. With coal, NG, or nuclear backstops.

            It's not practical to build a 100% wind and solar grid, because the amount of overcapacity provisioning you have to do is pretty extreme. Variability in solar and wind plants is much much higher than at a coal or nuclear plant (which get a 90% capacity factor industry wide), and they run at much lower capacity factors than other power sources (around 10%-20%).

            In other words, a 100MW solar plant is real

            • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_cost_of_electricity_generated_by_different_sources
              with a capacity factor of 25% solar pv is listed at ~$210/MWh, whereas "advanced" nuclear are listed at $113/MWh with a capacity factor of 90% which is probably only achieved in korea. (do they infer the "next" generation plants which will presumably be cheaper than all those 30year old plants all over the world).

              look at the cost of wind! cheaper than nuclear! please take a look at http://www.makanipower.com/concept/maka

              • by ShakaUVM (157947)

                Sorry, AC, you're trying to convince me of something that I've spent a long ass time studying (the cost of power).

                I actually wrote part of the wikipedia page you just quoted to me. So, you know, thanks.

                Estimates vary quite wildly by region and the person doing the estimation. Estimates can also involve a certain amount of crystal ball gazing - one of the reasons why some of the estimates instead of trying to predict the future, they look at costs of existing plants.

                Go ahead and look at *all* the numbers on

          • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

            by JSBiff (87824)

            I don't really think you've addressed my questions:

            That video you linked routinely shows anywhere from 25% to 50% of the US under clouds at the same time - that's a pretty big drop in supply.

            "A particular Ohio city is not an island (btw, there has never been a time in recorded history when a city in Ohio has had only five days of sun in 2 months)."

            Huh. Go look at the statistic for April and May of this year that we just got off of. Maybe 5 days isn't exactly the right number, maybe it's 10. The point is, it

            • by Rei (128717)

              That video you linked routinely shows anywhere from 25% to 50% of the US under clouds at the same time - that's a pretty big drop in supply.

              The key is that it's never all under clouds -- or even mostly under clouds. A particular area may have an unusually cloudy period, but the whole US does not. Factor in Canada and Mexico, and the ratio becomes even more stable. As for the "pretty big drop in supply" remark, I must remind you again that this is known as "capacity factor", and is already factored into t

      • * Pumped hydro energy storage (works with any type of power; already widespread in China for day/night demand averaging) (does not require a river or a large impounded area!)

        Come again? A large reservoir is exactly what a pumped storage plant needs. You need 200 m^3 of water per second to generate 1 GW. In fact hydro and pumped storage have limited application because of the limited number of places where you find a large body of water and a sufficient altitude difference for the exhaust/lower storage pond.

        * The natural correlation between solar intensity and power consumption (night is off-peak, sunny days have more AC load, etc - -it's not perfect, but it's a nice start)

        That's only true for warm climates. Here in northern Europe (52deg N) AC is less of a factor, and power consumption peaks in the evening and in winter (electric heating).

        • by Rei (128717)

          You need 200 m^3 of water per second to generate 1 GW

          That's a nonsensical statement. The amount of power produced relates to both volume *and* head.

          Day/night buffers (like those used in China, like those to pair with solar) are several orders of magnitude smaller than those used on the large-head large-scale conventional hydro projects. Which is why conventional hydro projects take months or even years to fill.

          You don't need *any* natural body of water with pumped hydro (although it's cheaper if there is

          • I got my figures from Dinorwig [wikipedia.org], which has 500m of head, and was designed as a day/night buffer. Its storage ponds may not be as large as a conventional hydro installation, but at ~ 1 km^2 each they're not exactly small either.

            • by Rei (128717)

              You're talking about a single plant that stores 1.4GWh, and it only takes up 1 km^2 each for its reservoirs. That's some really impressive energy density. Remember, Dinorwig is a plant designed to be able to jump-start the whole national grid ;) 2km^2 for that level of energy storage isn't bad at all.

    • You can't sail around the world. You'll fall off the edge. You can't break the sound barrier. It's impossible. You can't do it! You just can't.
  • HELIOSTAT CONTROL SCHEME USING CAMERAS : http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2011/0120448.html [freepatentsonline.com]
    I suspect the submitter came in through the search USPTO system.... I had to click "Next" several times to get to this entry.
  • Microsoft has this week launched it's own solar power plants ( DSES - Delayed Solar Energy System),

    "Microsoft Corporation (MSFT) has this week announced it's investment in two power plants based on the Delayed Solar Energy System (DSES) to power it's
    Datacenters in Chicago and San Antonio. These systems burn a special fuel to generate electricity using a conventional steam turbine driving a generator to power their datacenters.

    The innovative technology is called the Delayed Solar Energy System (DSES) and is

  • ...to me anyway is that a publicly owned company is spending R&D money on something that doesn't include the word "social". I don't know how they beat a couple bucks out of their investors for something that's worthless next quarter but may be huge in 10-20 years but I'm sure glad they did. Our only other hope is that the government (the only real customer of technology as far I can see...prove me wrong!) doesn't decide to cut off all funding for science next election cycle.
  • I'd forgotten how awful the USPTO's interface is for searching, viewing, and downloading patent and trademark materials (why the hell are tiffs the format of choice, and why the hell is it so difficult to get a decent tiff viewer?) I've been using Google Patents almost exclusively for quite a while now - much easier to search things out, patents are cross-referenced with hyperlinks, and it takes just one click to get a searchable PDF. But Google Patents doesn't handle patent applications, and so I can't u
  • I'm surprised no one has yet commented to this effect, but why would you want to use this patent? As I read it, the patent is for a very simple feedback control system for positioning of heliostats (mirrors). You put a camera on the collector, pointed at the mirror, and the camera controls the alignment of the mirror to center the point of highest intensity (the sun). Seems simple enough.

    The first problem, this only works for a single mirror. That means you would need one of these light intensity sensor

    • I just so happened to run across a discussion of intensity versus celestrial trackers the other day and the upshot was that on cloudy days the intensity trackers work much better. No one in the discussion spelled out why that was the case, but it was the result of empirical testing. My personal theory is that lots of water in the air can diffract the sun's rays enough so that the celestial position just doesn't line up with the effective position as seen from the ground.

    • by Bengie (1121981)

      " The sun is a celestial object, and celestial objects are nothing if not predictable. Why bother with cameras at all?"

      I've never heard of this and never thought of this, but holy crap.. "duh". You should've patented it. So much simpler than "tracking". All you would need is your long/lat info. Easily figured out with a cheap integrated GPS unit. Good thinking outside the box :-)

    • Tracking is necessary if the heliostat isn't stiffly enough built to perform dead-reckoning pointing. In order to lower costs, the heliostat support structure must be cheap, therefore flimsy. We're not talking about building a million-dollar heliostat, but a $2,000 heliostat. This has to be as cheap as coal, right?

      I talked with an astronomer in Tucson who's designing a solar system to be cheap as coal, and he's gone through all the steps to at least figure out how to get to that price point using a movabl
    • by raygundan (16760)

      You know the layout of your plant, or at least you should. Why not just use a single camera, tracking the sun across the sky, and use that combined with a bit of geometry to determine the optimum placement of each mirror to follow it.

      Because that requires, as you point out, precise knowledge of the initial and current position of all your mirrors. Doing this requires a really, really beefy support and foundation structure for each mirror, to the degree that it won't shift in wind or with ground subsidence

  • The founders of Google are also the two principal investors in Nanosolar, a company that makes high efficiency low cost solar cells. They have been supporting solar development for year now so I don't know why this should be a surprise to anyone.

    • They really don't.
      They make very expensive solar cells at the moment - they haven't managed to scale production.

      They have funding of over a billion dollars so far.
      They hope to have production at 115MW/year in 'Fall 2011', with production of 20MW in 2011.
      (this is on a background of them having announced capacities of around 1GW/year in 2008)

      So - 100 dollars a watt or so for produced panels.

      Current 'normal' solar panels are down to as low as about a dollar a watt, and falling, making nanosolars claims of $.6/

  • Google is an advertising/search company! Okay, so they started up with the Android. And a self-driving car. And they've got numerous other projects.

    But solar power research? When will the madness end!

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