When the words “energy” and “Chernobyl” appear together in a sentence, the topic is typically the 1986 nuclear energy disaster that left the Ukrainian city in shambles. Today, the abandoned site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster is no longer just a radioactive pile of rubble. It’s the future home of Ukraine’s first solar plant.
Roughly 100 meters (328 feet) away from the immense metal dome Ukraine placed over the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s failed reactor in 2016, workers have installed about 3,800 solar panels to support a one-megawatt solar power plant. Because the soil is still heavily contaminated in the area, the solar panels are attached to a concrete base.
Solar Chernobyl, the Ukrainian-German company that is leading these efforts, claims the project will be on stream in the next few weeks. Initially, the plant will be able to cover the needs of a medium-sized village (about 2,000 apartments), Solar Chernobyl’s head Yevgen Varyagin, told AFP. Eventually, the company hopes the plant will produce 100 times its current capabilities.
The company spent an estimated one million euros ($ 1.54 million) on the solar installation, and based on current projections, it may be able to pay for itself in as few as seven years.
Reviving a City
According to some estimates, the nuclear fallout from the Chernobyl disaster contaminated up to 75 percent of Europe. According to Ukrainian authorities, an area larger than 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) near the site of the disaster is so contaminated that people won’t be able to safely live there for 24,000 years.
While a dome couldn’t possibly cover all the contaminated land, the 2016 placement of one over the reactor, which contains highly radioactive magma, has reduced radiation near the plant drastically. According to official data, it’s now at one-tenth of prior levels.
While the land still can’t be used for agriculture, it is suitable for other projects, Ostap Semerak, Ukrainian Minister of the Environment, told AFP in 2016. The Solar Chernobyl plant is one such project, and others could follow.
Olena Kovalchuk, spokeswoman of the State Administration for the zone of Chernobyl, told AFP that Kiev has received roughly 60 proposals from foreign companies interested in participating in future solar developments in the area. The cheap price of land and closeness to power grids has made the Chernobyl site attractive for investors, Oleksandr Kharchenko, executive director of the Energy Industry Research Center, told AFP.
Though the site of the Chernobyl disaster may never again be the lively, populated town it once was, it can serve as a source of cost-effective renewable energy. While some are understandably hesitant about the project, if Solar Chernobyl can prove that it’s possible to safely install and maintain solar panels near the abandoned plant, a site previously synonymous with disaster could eventually come to represent the benefits of clean energy.
Within the past six years, British energy generated from coal has dwindled from 40 percent to a minuscule 7 percent. Not only has the country drastically reduced its dependence on fossil fuels, it has, in the same breath, adopted renewable resources on a much larger scale. In fact, currently, Britain generates twice as much electricity from wind power as it does from coal.
Not including Northern Ireland (which is calculated separately, as its electric system is shared with the Republic of Ireland) 15 percent of British energy came from wind in 2017, up from 10 percent in 2016. This increased wind power helped Britain to decrease its coal use and halt rising natural gas generation.
Increasing electricity generated from wind power is a result of both the creation of more wind farms and a windier year. Yet while wind will fluctuate over time, these newly built wind farms will remain pillars of renewable energy in Britain.
Wind power is making up a significantly larger percentage of electricity generation in Britain, with wind output increasing by 14 terawatt hours between 2016 and 2017. This amount of energy is enough to power 4.5 million homes. Additionally, wind power is becoming cheaper as a result of this increasing adoption. Within the government auctions for low-carbon electricity last year, two winning bids had a “strike price” of £57.50 per megawatt hour (MWh), which is considerably cheaper than a 2012 price of £92.50/MWh.
Renewable energy use is effectively pushing out fossil fuels in Britain. In October 2017, 25 percent of Britain’s electricity came from wind, solar, and hydroelectric power, a new record. Not only are more and more people and companies concerned about the growing realities and anticipated repercussions of climate change, but fossil fuels are becoming the more expensive option — and the bottom line is important to everyone.
Instead of producing another failing battery, Wolverton and Zhenpeng Yao, a PhD student in Wolverton’s laboratory, used computations to create a new formula that allows it to function. Specifically, they found the right balance of lithium, iron, and oxygen ions that enable the oxygen and iron to cause a chemical reaction that doesn’t result in the oxygen escaping, which would render the battery unstable.
“The problem previously was that often, if you tried to get oxygen to participate in the reaction, the compound would become unstable,” explained Yao. “Oxygen would be released from the battery, making the reaction irreversible.”
In the end, their battery not only works, but it’s rechargeable, cheaper than traditional lithium-cobalt-oxide batteries — as iron is one of the cheapest elements on the planet, and cheaper than cobalt — and has a much higher energy capacity. It could one day be used in smartphones and electric vehicles, thereby boosting their capabilities. According to Wolverton, their new battery could keep phones powered eight times longer “or your car could drive eight times farther.”
“If battery-powered cars can compete with or exceed gasoline-powered cars in terms of range and cost, that will change the world,” said Wolverton.
Wolverton and his team aren’t finished working on their battery. In fact, Wolverton has since filed a provisional patent with Northwestern’s Innovation and New Ventures Office. He and his team also intend to test other compounds and materials to see if their methods will continue to work. If so, we could see an even wider range of cheaper, more efficient batteries.