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Generating Energy Innovation: Disrupting the Alternatives

In just the last few years, innovation in alternative-energy technologies have gained significant footholds in product development lifecycles and are rapidly changing our individual roles as energy consumers and producers. Out of the box thinking and breakthrough discoveries are on the rise in solar, wind, biofuel, and other alternative-energy technologies. 

Such advances are certainly poised to further disrupt the conventional energy complex. Combined with the dynamic upheavals in the globalized economy, the impact of recent alternative-energy innovations may render much of the green agenda irrelevant and obsolete. 

In this article, we examine just a few of the recent innovations in alternative-energy generation that show great practical promise, not simply to replace conventional forms of energy generation, but that change our thinking about renewable energy.

Let the Sunshine In
For as long as I can remember, harnessing the power of our local G-type star has generally implied the use of photovoltaics (PV). Turning solar radiation into a direct-current voltage has gone from a grammar-school curiosity - introduced to my generation in Frank Capra’s Bell Science Films classic, “Our Mr. Sun” - to the world’s fastest growing energy-production technology. Photovoltaic device manufacturing doubles approximately every two years, and has been increasing on average by 48 percent per year since 2002. Efficiencies of PV arrays have increased, as have power densities per unit area (especially with recent advances in solar concentration). The price per PV-watt has decreased considerably in the last nine years, approaching $4.00 per watt. Major utility companies are ramping up PV deployments to their grids, and upping the percentage of all electricity generated by PV sources. Pacific Gas & Electric of California added 85.2 megawatts of PV-watts, the most of any U.S. utility company in 2009. By many metrics, it would seem that the current renaissance in PV adoption has a long run ahead of it.


Yet, conventional PV technologies have an innate Achilles’ heel. PV devices are made from materials such as silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium selenide just to name a few. Not all of these raw materials are available in equal abundance, nor are they easily recovered from secondary sources, to say the least of being globally replenishable commodities. Shifting our energy generation raw material requirements from one finite resource to another merely shifts the raw material supply-demand problem and its relative time-scales, and ultimately, doesn’t solve it. Very recently, there have been some fascinating emergent solar technologies that seek to harness solar energy in a renewable fashion, and at least one case does so in a way that might scale and compete directly with fossil fuels.

Joule Technologies, based in Cambridge, MA, on the surface looks like one of many startups that are exploring an alternative-energy business model based on biomass innovation. Looking a little more closely, what’s really going on is the development of a little solar-engine that could go an awfully long way towards competing with the fossil fuel industry on their own turf, and disrupt a key pillar of the green movement. Joule Technologies have created genetically engineered photosynthetic micro-organisms that use only sunlight and carbon dioxide to create diesel and ethanol. Unlike PV technologies, renewable photoreactors that consume only “super-system” resources are not subject to geo-political or market forces. In systems engineering terms, “super systems” are influences that are free, always available, and outside the control of the system or its environment. The first large-scale pilot plant is scheduled to begin operation this summer in Leander, TX. In as little as five years, economic concerns of dwindling petroleum resources and the risk of environmental damage as new resources are exploited through riskier methods - which the current crisis in the Gulf sadly underlines - could be eliminated by a new breed of home diesel gardeners.

The Summer Winds
Not to be left flailing in the breeze, recent advances in harnessing wind energy are also presenting major disruptive potentials to conventional power generation such as coal and diesel, and in the process, are rendering green-agenda benefits obsolete in the face of short and long-term renewable-economic gain. Two companies in particular, Makani Power of Alameda, CA and Kite Gen of Milan, Italy, are taking two approaches to harnessing high-altitude wind. Each company is banking on flying tethered turbines through dynamic windstreams, transferring the energy generated through their tethers. Makani says that its own flying generator sweeps through far more high-energy wind than a traditional stationary turbine would capture. Kite Gen’s current theoretical designs include a set of 12 kite generators that could produce up to one gigawatt of power, at a fraction of the cost of a traditional coal-fired plant. Both companies are well down the path of realizing an idea that has profound implications to how we think about wind as a renewable resource. Part of the problems of conventional wind-turbines include environmental concerns, NIMBY-ism (at least if your backyard has a view), and more practically, resolving the technical trade-off of getting the electricity from windy areas to the national electric grid. By developing methods of effectively bringing the wind to the grid, Makani and Kite Gen are examples of real innovation at work. If successful, both companies may eliminate the need for coal and diesel generated electricity entirely, based not on a green revolution, but simply on economic common sense.