Andreas Späth

Renewable energy innovations

2011-11-16 07:25

We live in the renewable energy century. Solar and wind power are well-established technologies now, with continuously improving efficiencies, decreasing costs and rapidly growing market shares all over the world. Perceived green energy weaknesses are being addressed by ongoing improvements of, for example, the “smart grid” and energy storage options.

Above all, the renewable energy sector is permanently abuzz with exciting new developments. Here are just some of the innovations we can look forward to in the future:

High altitude wind power

The energy carried by wind streams at elevated levels in the earth’s troposphere has been estimated at over 850 terrawatts (TW) and represents an incredible potential resource, considering that humanity’s total annual energy budget amounts to “only” about 17 TW. Capturing some of this high-altitude wind power is not a new idea, but the technology to do so is starting to become feasible.

An American company called Joby is currently evaluating designs for a high-flying, multi-winged kite that supports arrays of wind turbines producing enough electricity to supply some 150 homes. Makani Power, a clean-tech start-up backed by Google claims to have successfully tested a robot-controlled kite for the same purpose in Hawaii.

Artificial photosynthesis

A team of researchers led by MIT chemistry professor Daniel Nocera has manufactured an “artificial leaf” which mimics the photosynthesis process in green plants by turning the energy of sunlight into chemical fuel that can be stored and used to generate energy later. The device, which is made from relatively abundant and cheap materials like silicon, nickel and cobalt, splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The gases can subsequently be recombined to produce clean electricity in fuel cells.

Underwater kites

Computer-controlled kite-like devices, designed by Swedish company Minesto, are tethered to the seafloor and can be “flown” in figure-of-eight patterns in tidal currents. Operating out of sight well below the water surface, these underwater kites capture and magnify the energy of the tides by channelling water through an attached electricity-generating turbine.

Solar buildings

US company Dow Solar has recently started to mass-market roof shingles that consist of photovoltaic solar panels, while a Norwegian outfit called EnSol has patented inexpensive thin film solar technology designed to be sprayed on surfaces like windows and walls. The external surfaces of our buildings may thus become autonomous sources of electricity. Nissan has revealed a concept smart home that can be powered for two days from the battery of an electric car.

Cow power

A seven-year research project on six dairy farms in the US state of Vermont generated 12 million kilowatt hours of electricity annually from cow manure using anaerobic methane digestion.

Electric roads

Electric vehicles, which can be powered by green electricity, are making a comeback with major auto manufacturers from Honda to General Motors investing in the technology. In the UK, renewable energy provider Ecotricity is busy installing a network of charging stations for electric cars at highway service stations, extending the practical range of such vehicles well beyond the cities.

Scott Brusaw, an electrical engineer based in Idaho, has invented a road surface made of super-strong glass embedded with solar cells that could transform highways into power plants supplying electricity to roads signs, lights, electric vehicles and homes.

Greener flying

October saw the first commercial flights in the USA powered in part by biofuel derived from algae and used cooking oil, while Virgin Atlantic announced plans to fly commercial routes using a hybrid fuel made from the gaseous waste of steel mills.

Next-generation wind turbines

Several innovations promise significant improvements in the efficiency of wind turbines in the near future. These include an aerodynamic “wind lens” developed by Japanese researchers, turbines with telescopic arms suitable for a range of wind conditions, Swedish-designed offshore turbines that both generate and store electricity, wind farms with relatively short, tightly spaced vertical-axis turbines and “forests” of hundreds of “windstalks” made of piezoelectric materials that create electric current when they bend in a breeze.

- Andreas has a PhD in geochemistry and manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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