University of Delaware
Eric Miller of the Department of Energy tells the audience that "solar is an exquisite resource," but one with many challenges.

Solar workshop

Experts address solar fuels generation using photovoltaic and electrolyzer technologies


11:26 a.m., March 11, 2016--Leading experts in the field of solar energy convened at the University of Delaware on March 7 and 8, for a workshop, jointly organized with Columbia University, addressing solar fuels generation using photovoltaic (PV) and electrolyzer (EC) technologies.

Commercial PV and EC technologies have been available for decades, and their combination represents an attractive means of converting renewable electricity into storable “solar fuels” such as hydrogen.

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The workshop focused on evaluating the current state of PV/EC technology and identifying challenges and opportunities in two critical areas: systems optimization, and PV and EC design. 

Invited speakers representing the Department of Energy (DOE), national laboratories, industry and universities provided the current status of research and development and stimulated discussions on the merits and challenges of obtaining high production capacities using the proposed PV/EC approach. 

Technical takeaways

One theme that ran throughout the presentations was the need for multiple approaches to addressing issues and solving problems. 

Eric Miller, hydrogen production technology development manager in DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, said, “Solar is an exquisite resource, but there are many challenges in taking energy from the sun and making it usable.”

As an example, he pointed out that it would take 18 football fields of solar panels to power a single 1500 kg/day hydrogen fueling station.

“A portfolio for large-scale, low-cost, clean, and renewable hydrogen is needed,” he said.

Other speakers addressed cost modeling of solar hydrogen production systems, the need to leverage existing technology in developing renewable hydrogen technology, and ways to increase power and energy generation from PV cells, modules, and systems.

According to Steve Hegedus, senior scientist at UD’s Institute of Energy Conversion, the U.S. derives only one percent of its energy from PV, while Japan is at two percent, and Europe at 3.5 percent.

Hegedus emphasized that PV can be installed anywhere on any scale and that energy payback time for PV has decreased to less than two years. With a lifetime of 25-30 years, PV has become a “very high net energy” source.

“We currently have many proven choices for PV,” he said. “All could be winners — they just have to demonstrate stability, cost and efficiency.”

Keynote: The Paris Accord

In addition to technical talks, John Byrne, director of UD’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy, delivered a keynote address on the Paris Accord and its implications for solar energy development.

Byrne said that a polycentric strategy is needed to deal with climate change, a problem resulting from the energy-intensive way of life that is spreading from wealthy nations to developing countries across the world.

“In the past, we tried to find the perfect carbon pricing model, but that didn’t work,” Byrne said. “In Paris, we realized it was time to stop the obsession with the perfect and look for the good. It’s going to take multiple strategies to address this issue. What was remarkable about Paris was the incredible level of sharing across communities.”

Planning for future collaboration

On the second day, in preparation for writing a white paper, a focus group addressed electrochemical and photoelectrochemical processes, PV systems integration and design, and reaction routes and catalysts.  

The planned white paper, to be presented to the DOE, other funding agencies, and the community, will highlight research areas of need and assist to identify and develop future funding solicitations. 

About the workshop

The workshop was organized by the University of Delaware (IEC director Robert Birkmire, IEC associate scientist Kevin Dobson, and Yushan Yan, Distinguished Professor of Engineering) and Columbia University (Daniel Esposito, assistant professor of chemical engineering). 

It was sponsored by the University of Delaware Energy Institute (UDEI) and the National Science Foundation.

Speakers included:

Article by Diane Kukich

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Doug Baker

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