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Solar power 'much more efficient' than biofuel

24th Jan 2013

As the world slowly comes around to the fact that fossil fuels are anything but a long term solution to our energy needs, the next logical question is obvious - what instead?

The answer so far has been a mix of different renewable energy sources.

Solar power generation of course is foremost among these. There aren't really any natural resources more abundant or powerful than the sun - in our solar system, at least.

There are other guests at the renewable energy dinner party though, and a new study has pitted solar against one of them to see which is more suitable to fuel one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters - cars.

Energy Matters reported this week (January 22) that researchers from the University of California - Santa Barbara found that solar panels are much more efficient than biomass when it comes to powering vehicles.

In fact, the researchers actually used three different methods to generate power, all originating from the sun's light.

The first was converting corn or other plants to ethanol, the second involved converting energy crops into electricity for battery electric vehicles (BEVs), and the last was using solar panels to directly power BEVs.

You'd think there couldn't be anything greener than vegetables - well, think again.

Solar panels were found to be much more efficient because they took up far less land mass.

"PV is orders of magnitude more efficient than biofuels pathways in terms of land use - 30, 50, even 200 times more efficient - depending on the specific crop and local conditions," said UCSB Bren School of Environmental Science and Management professor and LCA expert Roland Geyer.

The professor said that photosynthesis was "at best one per cent efficient" in producing biofuel, whereas today's thin-film photovoltaic technology meant efficiency rates of at least ten per cent.

This means solar panels can produce the same amount of energy in a fraction of the space required.

Many also argue that using crops to make biofuel is a gross misuse of land which could be used to grow food for the hungry in the world.

Another advantage of solar PV is that it doesn't use up this farm space - panels can be mounted in an astounding variety of places.

As for fuelling cars with solar, US car manufacturer Tesla has already spoken about the possibility of bringing solar powered 'Supercharger' charging stations to Australia as it introduces its electric cars here over the next few years.

Posted by Mike Peacock

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