Renewable energy and clean technology are rapidly evolving, with exciting concepts and inventions vying to play a role in the new energy future.
Continued investment in these innovative approaches could lead to a breakthrough in the global effort to supplant fossil fuels for many of our daily needs and industrial processes. While these technologies are not mainstream yet – and some may never be – they contribute to the creative, entrepreneurial spirit that propels the Energy Boom.
Here are just a few of the emerging technologies under development:
Huge amounts of energy are currently wasted due to antiquated electricity grids, poorly insulated buildings, inefficient lighting, energy-wasting appliances and other problem areas. A 2007 report from the international consulting firm McKinsey and Co. found that improving energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and factories could offset almost all of the projected demand for electricity in 2030 and vastly reduce the need for new coal-fired power plants.
The cost of making our buildings and appliances more energy efficient would quickly pay for itself in energy savings through lower energy bills. By making better use of the energy resources we already have, consumers and businesses can save money, and also reduce the need for new power plants. The cost of efficiency programs has averaged 2 to 3 cents per avoided kilowatt hour, which is about one-fifth the cost of electricity generated from new nuclear, coal and natural gas-fired plants.
In order to maximize the potential of renewable energy sources, existing electricity grids throughout the world need a 21st century overhaul.
For instance, the best locations to capture wind and solar energy are often found far from population centers, meaning that the electrons captured by panels and turbines at the source often need to travel great distances through transmission wires to reach customers. However, many of those electrons never arrive due to the outdated alternating current (AC) distribution and transmission system found across much of North America and Europe. AC systems lose huge amounts of power over long distances.
By upgrading to a high voltage Direct Current (HVDC) transmission system, the energy lost from source to point of use can be greatly reduced. The electrons would travel on the more efficient long-distance HVDC lines for much of the journey before reaching AC converter stations that would distribute electricity through existing regional transmission lines to customers.
The smart grid would also allow huge numbers of small-scale, local power producers - such as owners of rooftop solar panels and wind turbines - to feed surplus electricity into the grid seamlessly.
By replacing existing utility meters with digital smart meters that can communicate information about the energy demands or surpluses at an individual building or unit, electricity can be delivered where it’s needed and conserved where it’s not. The smart grid is also self-healing, since its advanced two-way communications capabilities enable utilities to anticipate and resolve disruptions and minimize the chance of blackouts.
Demand for electricity fluctuates throughout the day. A coal-fired power plant or a hydroelectric dam can usually operate 24/7 and generation can be increased to meet demand accordingly. But some renewable energy sources like solar and wind aren’t always available, and they might be generating best when energy demand is at its lowest. Developing methods to store energy until it is needed would improve the usefulness of many renewable energy sources.
Energy can be stored in various mediums, such as batteries, flywheels, hydro dams, compressed air, fuel cells and hydrogen. On a utility scale, energy can be stored at points along the transmission grid for use when demand is high. Several of the same storage methods can be used in the transportation sector to provide power for automobiles, trains and planes.
Ocean wave energy has tremendous potential to provide power to islands and coastal areas across the globe. Wave power devices extract energy directly from the surface motion of ocean waves or from pressure fluctuations below the surface. In many areas of the world, the wind blows with enough consistency and force to provide continuous waves. A variety of technologies are being developed to capture the energy from waves. Some of these include Attenuators, Point Absorbers, and Overtopping devices. Several promising designs are currently undergoing demonstration testing at commercial scales.
Slow moving ocean, lake and river waves can also be harnessed as an energy source. For example, a University of Michigan engineer has developed VIVACE (Vortex Induced Vibrations Aquatic Clean Energy), a device which applies the same principles fish use to swim efficiently in order to generate power from currents much slower than those required to drive traditional turbines and water mills.
Ocean Current Energy
The constant flow of ocean currents offers large amounts of energy that can be captured and converted to a usable form. While ocean currents move slowly relative to typical wind speeds, they carry a great deal of energy because of the density of water. Ocean currents are relatively constant and usually flow in one direction only, in contrast to the tidal currents found closer to shore. Some examples of ocean currents are the Gulf Stream (North America), North and South Equatorials (Africa and South America) and North Atlantic (Europe).
Engineers envision deploying water turbines (similar to wind turbines) to capture the energy of ocean currents found near coastal areas. Currently, only a small number of prototypes and demonstration units have been tested, and there are no commercial grid-connected turbines currently generating ocean current energy. However, for an example of the potential for this energy source, consider that scientists estimate that taking just 1/1000th of the available energy from the Gulf Stream would supply the state of Florida with 35% of its electrical needs.
Large underwater turbines designed to capture the kinetic energy in the ebbing and surging of ocean tides can produce electricity and other useful forms of power. Tides have the advantage of being more predictable than wind energy and solar power, increasing the reliability of energy from tidal energy collectors. Tidal power technologies include turbines, tidal fences, barrages and dams.
ADDITIONAL EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES
The clean tech sector is evolving at a rapid pace. Examples of other emerging technologies include:
- Offshore Solar Energy
- Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion
- Methane Digestion
Deepen your understanding of renewable energy technologies by browsing our embedded Wikipedia. It’s fully interactive and searchable.