Future of energy: Renewables

This story is part of a series on Stanford collaborations helping to create the Future of Energy.

Energy from renewable sources like the sun, wind, microbes or geothermal resources is already part of the energy mix in some markets, but current technologies only capture a limited amount of what those sources potentially offer. Continuing to expand renewable energy sources will require developments that lower prices and improve performance.

I think a lot of progress is being made in renewable energy; the prices are coming down and it’s very exciting,” said Steven Chu, a professor of physics and of molecular and cellular physiology and former U.S. secretary of energy. “Part of the transition to carbon-free energy will rest on science and technology and innovation, and part of that are new materials.”

Cheap, efficient solar energy

Materials scientist Michael McGehee and other faculty members including chemist Hemamala Karunadasa have been experimenting with inexpensive materials like crystalline perovskites as possible replacements for the more expensive materials in existing solar panels. With these, the team hopes to rival the efficiency of traditional solar cells at a fraction of the price.

Go to the web site to view the video.

Video by Mark Shwartz

Likewise, engineer Jennifer Dionne is developing a technique that transforms lower-energy light to higher-energy waves to enhance the performance of solar cells. A different technology involves harvesting heat as well as light from the sun to boost energy capture.

While each approach targets different aspects of solar-energy capture, the idea is that some combination of these and other improvements could ultimately make high-efficiency solar energy more affordable, and several faculty members have founded companies to move that research forward.

Improved wind energy

In the area of wind energy, engineer John Dabiri has designed a compact wind farm, inspired by the movement of birds and fish, using wind turbines that spin on their vertical axis like eggbeaters. Positioned correctly, the devices capture more energy from the wind by taking advantage of vortices created by others in the group. Dabiri developed his novel turbine concept while on the faculty at the California Institute of Technology. In 2015 he came north to become part of the burgeoning energy community at Stanford.

Student works on wind turbine)

Graduate student Shaun Milke installs electronics for a wind turbine designed by engineer John Dabiri in Igiugig, Alaska. (Image credit: Courtesy of John Dabiri and Jifeng Peng)

A wind turbine in Igiugig Alaska)

A vertical axis wind turbine developed by engineer John Dabiri at a test site in Igiugig, Alaska. (Image credit: Courtesy of John Dabiri and Jifeng Peng)


Dabiri is now testing his technology at a site in California and in a small town called Igiugig, Alaska, where people rely on expensive diesel for energy. Dabiri and his group have been experimenting with different designs for how to construct the turbine’s foundation and the tower, and exploring the best number of blades for the spinning rotor. The group is currently developing a microgrid that can combine the electricity produced by the wind turbines with energy from the diesel generators.

“Our goal is to be able to shut off the diesel generators entirely for parts of the winter when the cost of diesel fuel is highest but heat and light are essential,” Dabiri said.

Research advances in renewable energy

Perovskite solar cell design shows promise

Researchers have created a new type of solar cell that replaces silicon with a crystal called perovskite. This design converts sunlight to electricity at efficiencies similar to current technology but at much lower cost.

Stanford scientists improve perovskite solar-cell absorbers by giving them a squeeze

Adding pressure could improve the performance of solar cells made of perovskites, a promising photovoltaic material.

Roadmaps for an all-renewable energy world

A new study lays out a roadmap for 139 countries to convert to 100 percent clean, renewable energy for all purposes.

Stanford engineers develop ‘invisible wires’ that could improve solar cell efficiency

Making the electrical wiring on top of solar cells nearly invisible to incoming light, using silicon nanopillars to hide the wires, could dramatically boost solar-cell efficiency.

What is sustainability? A conversation with Stanford Earth Dean Pamela Matson

Sustainability efforts today are critical to meet the needs of people now and over the long term, and Stanford has a leadership role.

New solar cell inspired by insect eyes

A new solar cell inspired by the compound eyes of insects could help scientists overcome a major roadblock to the development of solar panels based on a promising material called perovskite.

Stanford engineers invent transparent coating that cools solar cells to boost efficiency

The hotter solar cells become, the less efficient they are at converting sunlight to electricity, a problem that has long vexed the solar industry. Now, Stanford engineers have developed a transparent overlay that increases efficiency by cooling the cells even in full sunlight.

New process could yield better solar cells, faster chips

Silicon isn't the only chip-making material under the sun, just the cheapest. But a new process could make the alternative material, gallium arsenide, more cost effective.

The movements of fish and birds inspire wind power generation improvement

By studying how animals swim and fly, an engineer finds new ways to design and place wind turbines.

Stanford scientists use DNA to investigate cleaner energy sources

Stanford researchers found that DNA-embedded nanoparticles can survive the harsh environments of geothermal energy systems, allowing for better mapping of cleaner energy sources.

Geothermal research unlocks the clean energy beneath your feet

A conversation about the innovative technologies that allow us to harness the heat from deep within the Earth and convert it to clean energy.

New solar energy conversion process discovered by Stanford engineers could revamp solar power production

A new process that simultaneously combines the light and heat of solar radiation to generate electricity could offer more than double the efficiency of existing solar cell technology.

Global solar photovoltaic industry is likely now a net energy producer

Clean electricity from all the installed solar panels has likely just surpassed the energy going into the industry's continued growth.