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Technology

Why Researchers Are Excited About Perovskite Solar Cells

On the future of solar, a meaty lawsuit, and microplastics

Why Researchers Are Excited About Perovskite Solar Cells
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Current conditions: Massive wildfires are still burning in the Texas Panhandle • Thailand’s “Royal Rainmaking” program starts today, in which planes seed clouds to induce artificial rain • It will be cold but sunny in Washington, DC, where a special hearing on the rights of people displaced by climate change is taking place.

THE TOP FIVE

1. Sierra Nevada braces for huge blizzard

A massive blizzard could dump up to 12 feet of snow on parts of the Sierra Nevada over the next few days. “Storm total snowfall from Thursday into early Sunday is currently projected at 5 to 10+ feet for elevations above 5,000 feet, locally higher amounts of 12+ feet are possible at peaks, with significant disruptions to daily life likely,” the National Weather Service said.

NOAA/NWS Sacramento

The storm threatens to close Donner Pass, the region’s main thruway, which usually sees 30,000 cars and 6,000 semi-trucks each day. Northern California, Oregon, and Washington state are all under winter storm warnings and wind advisories, with gusts over 55 mph expected.

2. Researchers see breakthrough progress on new kind of solar cell

Researchers out of MIT have published a “guidebook” for controlling and engineering perovskite solar cells. These cells could “redefine the solar energy landscape,” wrote Michelle Lewis at Electrek, “offering a tantalizing combination of high efficiency, low manufacturing costs, and the unique ability to be applied to a variety of substrates, from rigid glass to flexible materials.” But they degrade far too quickly, and struggle to maintain their efficiency in large modules, and these technical challenges have so far hampered their potential for commercial viability. In a new paper published in the journal Nature Energy, MIT researchers outline how to change the properties of the perovskite’s surface so that it maintains efficiency and lasts longer. “I think we are on the doorstep of the first practical demonstrations of perovskites in the commercial applications,” professor Vladimir Bulovic toldMIT News. “And those first applications will be a far cry from what we’ll be able to do a few years from now.”

3. Apple workers reportedly nicknamed doomed EV ‘the Titanic disaster’

More details are emerging about Apple’s ill-fated self-driving electric vehicle, which was reportedly scrapped this week. The secret car – codenamed “Project Titan” – had been in the works since 2014, and was the company’s attempt to protect itself from an anticipated slow-down in iPhone sales. Entering the car market seemed an obvious next step for the company. “Apple would do to cars what it did to phones,” said Tim Higgins at The Wall Street Journal.

But after several starts and stops and at least four project leaders, most employees knew it was going to fail. They even nicknamed it “the Titanic disaster,” according toThe New York Times. The project lacked clarity and identity. Was it a Tesla rival? A self-driving car? All of the above? “Project Titan’s ambitions became diminished, less compelling — from an electric, robot car, then just about perfecting autonomy, then just about an EV,” Higgins said.

One thing’s for sure, Project Titan was expensive, costing the company $10 billion in the end. “Developing the software and algorithms for a car with autonomous driving features proved too difficult,” the Times reported. With that car crash in its rear-view mirror, Apple plans to accelerate its work on generative AI.

4. New York sues world’s top meatpacker over net zero claims

New York state has filed a lawsuit against the world’s biggest meat producer, JBS USA, alleging the Brazil-based company has misled the public about its environmental impact, according toBloomberg. JBS has promised to be net zero by 2040, but the filing claims the company cannot possibly reach this goal and has no plan to do so. Food production accounts for one third of global greenhouse gases, and livestock alone produces nearly 15% of all emissions. JBS has annual revenues of more than $50 billion and its supply chain relies on thousands of farms in the Amazon, many of which overlap on Indigenous land and conservation areas, reportedThe New York Times. Last year JBS was found to have one of the lowest integrity scores among major companies that have made climate pledges. It is currently trying to get its shares listed on the New York Stock Exchange, but has faced fierce opposition from environmentalists, U.S.-based beef producers, and both Democrats and Republicans.

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  • 5. Oil and gas giants eye geothermal projects

    Major fossil fuel companies are investing big money in geothermal energy startups and projects, The Wall Street Journal reported. “Many of these companies are using the same technology employed by frackers, but instead of searching for oil and gas, they are looking for underground heat,” the Journal adds. That heat can be harnessed to provide constant carbon-free electricity, and startups like Fervo Energy are finding new ways to make drilling for geothermal energy much cheaper, as Heatmap’s Matthew Zeitlin recently reported. Fervo is raising $244 million in new funding, including $100 million from fossil fuel company Devon Energy. “Once the industry is proven, I would not be surprised for today’s oil-and-gas industry to either buy or build their way to be significant players in advanced geothermal,” said billionaire former Enron trader John Arnold.

    THE KICKER

    A new study suggests up to 90% of microplastics can be removed from drinking water if the water is boiled and then filtered.

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    Jessica Hullinger

    Jessica Hullinger is a freelance writer and editor who likes to think deeply about climate science and sustainability. She previously served as Global Deputy Editor for The Week, and her writing has been featured in publications including Fast Company, Popular Science, and Fortune. Jessica is originally from Indiana but lives in London. Read More

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    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    Current conditions: Torrential rains forced Mauritius to shut down its stock exchange • “Once in a century” flooding hit southern China • In the Northern Hemisphere, the Lyrid meteor shower peaks tonight.

    THE TOP FIVE

    1. Biden kicks off Earth Day with $7 billion for expanding solar access

    Today is Earth Day, but President Biden and his cabinet are celebrating all week long. Senior members of the administration have scheduled a national tour of events and announcements related to the president’s climate and environmental record. It starts with Biden’s visit to Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, Virginia, today, where he will announce $7 billion is being awarded to 60 state and local governments, tribes, and national and regional nonprofits through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Solar for All initiative, which aims to support solar in low- to moderate-income communities. The average grant size will be more than $80 million, and the funding will be used to design new programs and bolster existing ones that subsidize the cost of rooftop solar installations, community solar projects, and battery storage.

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    Biden Hands Out $7 Billion to Expand Solar Access

    The Solar For All program is the final piece of the $27 billion Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund.

    Solar panel installation.
    Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

    The great promise of solar panels — in addition to their being carbon-free — is the democratization of energy. Anyone can produce their own power, typically for less than the going utility rate. The problem is that those who stand to benefit the most from this opportunity haven’t been able to access it.

    That pattern could change, however, with Solar for All, a $7 billion program under the Environmental Protection Agency to support solar in low- to moderate-income communities. On Monday, the Biden administration announced it was awarding the funds to 60 state and local governments, tribes, and national and regional nonprofits, at an average grant size of more than $80 million.

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    A Big Week for Batteries

    Texas and California offered intriguing, opposing examples of what batteries can do for the grid.

    A battery.
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    While cold winters in the south and hot summers across the country are the most dramatic times for electricity usage — with air conditioners blasting as weary workers return home or inefficient electric heaters strain to keep toes warm from Chattanooga to El Paso before the sun is up — it may be early spring that gives us the most insight into the lower-emitting grid of the future.

    In California, America’s longtime leader in clean energy deployment, the combination of mild temperatures and longer days means that solar power can do most of the heavy lifting. And in Texas — whose uniquely isolated, market-based and permissive grid is fast becoming the source of much of the country’s clean power growth — regulators allow the state’s vast fleet of natural gas power (and some coal) power plants to shut down for maintenance during the mild weather, giving renewables time to shine.

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