Friday, June 24, 2022

How pioneering women grew the renewables industry

Guest blogger Jarne Veronica

Guest blogger Jarne Veronica reflects on the crucial role played by women pioneers and inventors in the development of the modern renewable building sector. 

The amount of solar generation capacity installed in Europe grew by 34% last year with EU member states alone installing more than 25 gigawatts. This year, installations will provide enough electricity for around eight million homes, and that figure is expected to quadruple by the end of the decade.  

Demand for renewable electricity is also accelerating at record speed worldwide, according to the International Energy Agency. 

None of this would have been possible without the crucial work of inspirational female engineers. Solar power and the renewable market, as a whole, have many reasons to be grateful to women pioneers. 

In 1939, Dr Katherine Burr Blodgett led the way for today’s insulated windows. Blodgett essentially created the first non-reflective glass by developing a film that is only a molecule thick. This film has since been used on most of the glass found around our homes, including the triple-glazed insulated windows, which are a crucial component in retaining heat in modern, sustainably powered homes. 

Our ability to install solar panels on houses is also only possible because of an innovation that was first brought to the world in the 1940s by Mária Telkes, a biophysicist in Massachusetts, USA. 

When she set about building Dover House with two female colleagues, Telkes' design made use of 18 south-facing windows flanked by more glass and metal panels to trap the warmth created from the sun.  The energy was then funneled into insulated storage bins filled with sodium sulphate decahydrate, which is a heat-storing chemical. The system could hold enough heat to warm a house for ten consecutive days, making it the first solar-heated house and paving the way for today’s rapidly expanding market for solar homes. 

Thanks to continuous innovations, the price consumers are paying for solar panels and their installation has lowered significantly in recent years. As the initial outlay costs come down, that continued focus on progress will mean more people can enjoy lower energy bills, according to a solar report by Hoymiles. This is because the components are now far more energy efficient 

The newest panels will soon be fitted with Very High-Efficiency Solar Cells, co-invented by Dr Christiana Honsberg. Currently, panels are only about 15% efficient at capturing solar energy, but new panels fitted with this new type of cell will reach 50% efficiency. They will also make green energy more portable and cheaper to install because they are much smaller. 

Perovskite Solar Panels are another new technology that could take women’s green credentials further than ever. Although these panels require lead in the manufacturing process, Dr Paula Hammond and Dr Angela Belcher have discovered an eco-friendly option by using recycled lead from discarded batteries. This means less lead needing to be mined, which doubles down on the renewable benefits of this innovation. 

Some people may be surprised by this list of female innovators because women remain seriously under-represented in careers linked to engineering and building services. However, this is just more evidence that proves women have been playing a crucial (and often unsung) role in our sector for decades and, as representation improves, that influence will surely grow. 

This is the last in a series of ‘guest blogs’ produced for BESA to celebrate International Women in Engineering Day  

As well as illustrating the important role played by women in today’s building services engineering sector, the blogs were designed to inspire more women to consider our industry as, not only a great place to make their career, but as a place where they can change the world for the better. 

Join us! 

Find out more at www.theBESA.com 

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