When environmental history is written, 2010 could be seen a disaster for the clean technology industry. The year dawned just after the disappointment that was December’s U.N. global warming summit in Copenhagen, where the nations of the world failed to produce a comprehensive treaty to cut carbon emissions — the sort of agreement that could have given business the long-term confidence to invest in clean tech. It didn’t help that the overblown controversy known as “climategate” — which involved allegations of fraud by climate scientists — undermined trust in global warming science, letting skeptics back into the debate. Worst of all, the Senate failed even to vote on a bill that would have capped U.S. carbon emissions and produce a market designed to kick start clean tech. In America, at least, green tech seems to have gone backwards.
But that’s a myopic view. In Europe, which already has a carbon market, investment in clean energy — including wind and solar — isn’t going away. China has emerged as a major player in clean tech, investing hundreds of billions of dollars in renewable energy and energy efficiency. In doing so, it’s positioning itself to lead the world in the industry of tomorrow. And even the U.S., for all its political problems, hasn’t stood still: the Department of Energy, under Nobel Prize-winning physicist Steven Chu, has begun directly supporting innovative clean tech companies and pumping more money into basic research and development. Most important, the U.S. — and especially Silicon Valley — is still home to what might be the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs in clean tech. These folks are not short of smart ideas, as you’ll see here.
If you want to provide off-the-grid power for your own home, there’s only been one solution: solar panels. Wind power is usually deployed on a utility-scale, in vast farms of mighty turbines that feed directly into the grid. That’s a scale that helps explains why more than 10,000 MW of wind power were installed in the U.S. in 2009. Solar has always been the choice for homeowners who want to stop paying electricity bills and start generating their own juice.
But if wind can do big, it can also do small — and it does rooftops as well. The startup Windtronics is developing mini-wind turbines that can be installed on any flat root, either alone or in larger arrays. Each turbine measures about 6 ft. in diameter and looks like a large, circular window fan, but it can generate an average of 1,500 KW/h a year, with more or less depending on wind strength. And unlike utility-scale turbines, the Windtronic turbine contains no rotating gearbox to generate electricity, and is thus much quieter. In an ordinary wind turbine, the blades moves the gears, the gears turn a generator, and the generator creates electricity. With a Windtronics model, the blades are equipped with magnets at the tips and are enclosed in a wheel that contains coiled copper, so the entire turbine is an electric generator. That makes the Windtronics turbine silent — something your neighbors will appreciate.
Sometimes high tech can start out low tech. Fuel cells are an old and basic technology; they generate electricity within a cell through the reaction of a fuel and an oxidant. Essentially they’re a kind of chemical battery, and your average high school chemistry class can make one. Unlike batteries, however, they can’t store electricity; you need an outside fuel source that has to be replenished over time. But their simplicity has also made them useful for certain purposes; NASA has long used hydrogen fuel cells to power its spacecraft.
Inventors have tried to use hydrogen fuel cells as a cleaner way to create electricity commercially. Honda and other car companies have made hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars, for example, but they’ve always been limited by the cost. That’s beginning to change, however, thanks to a California startup called Bloom Energy. The company exploded onto the public scene earlier this year with the release of its Bloom Box, a system that uses fuel cell technology to provide off-the-grid power. The Bloom Boxes — about half the size of a shipping container — use solid oxide fuel cells, which generate electricity by oxidizing natural gas. The technology has existed for awhile, but Bloom figured out how to carry out the reaction at a relatively low temperature, making the Bloom Boxes safe to use in corporate offices — which is exactly where they’re being put to work now, by companies like Google and eBay that can use the lower carbon power as an off-the-grid back up to conventional grid electricity and as a way to reduce their own carbon footprint.
Our electrical devices may be 21st century, but the electrical grid we plug them into is strictly 20th. The grid is inefficient and prone to breakdowns — as anyone who remembers the great East Coast blackout of 2003 would know. Improving the grid is going to be a vital part of helping clean energy scale up: better transmission lines are needed to carry wind-generated electricity from the middle of the U.S. to the more heavily populated coasts, for example, while a more flexible grid can better handle the intermittency of renewable power sources.
But the first installment on a smarter gird will be smarter meters. Right now the electric meter in your home tells you — and the electric company — only the most basic information. The majority of utilities won’t even know that homes have lost power in a blackout until enough annoyed customers call them. But smart meters connected to a network can relay that sort of information instantly, giving utilities and customers alike a real-time picture of how much power is being used at any given moment. And as new appliances are networked into smart meters, we’ll be able to use them much more efficiently — programming our washing machines to run only during times of low power demand, say. By smoothing out the electricity demand curves, smart meters can help utilities get more out of the power plants they already have — and avoid building more.
There are two ways to harness energy from the sun. One is through photovoltaic panels, which transform sunlight directly to electricity. But — news flash — the sunlight also produces heat, which can be concentrated using mirrors to produce steam, which then drives electric turbines. It’s this second form — called solar thermal or concentrated solar power — that has the most potential for utility-scale power generation. In fact, there are already solar thermal plants operating in the deserts of Nevada and California, using low rows of curved mirrors to concentrate sunlight.
But Bill Gross at eSolar thinks that he can improve on that fairly basic technology. Instead of rows of mirrors, eSolar uses vertical mirrored towers of that perfectly concentrate sunlight on a ground target. Using sophisticated software that Gross helped write himself — he was an Internet entrepreneur before breaking into alternative power — the mirrors perfectly track the sun as it crosses the sky, maximizing the amount of electricity that can be produced. The result is a relatively compact but power utility-scale plant that gets the most out of that free source of energy called the sun.
But utility-scale solar companies are working on ways to store the energy they produce during the brightest days. One option: molten salt. It can be used in solar thermal, which employs powerful mirrors to focus the sun’s heat to create steam, driving an electric turbine. The surplus heat produced during the day can be used to warm up massive amounts of salt, which can absorb significant amounts of heat. When the sun goes down — or when it’s simply cloudy — that heat can be used to generate steam and run an electric turbine. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best battery that’s been developed yet for utility-scale solar.
For something that looks like pond scum — actually, it pretty much is pond scum — algae are extremely useful. Just ask the San Francisco startup Solazyme. Like countless other companies, Solazyme is working to create algae biofuel for cars, trucks and planes. Unfortunately, that market has yet to materialize, and because fuel is such a low-margin business, companies like Solazyme will need to sell a lot of their product before they can begin making a profit. It’s classic chicken-and-egg economics.
But Solazyme’s chemists stumbled on another use for their algae: food. The company’s living products can be used to replace the eggs, butter and oil in cakes, cookies and more — except that the algae flour has a lipid profile that is much closer to healthy olive oil. It might sound gross, but the results are excellent — snacks that taste like snacks, but lower in fat calories and higher in protein. It’s a perfect combination — as long as you can convince consumers to eat pond scum.
High-tech may have a clean image — all smooth-edged iPhones and liquid crystal displays — but the elements that go into mobile phones, computers and TVs can be polluting to the environment and dangerous to human health if incorrectly disposed of. And that’s exactly what happens in parts of the developing world, where the poor take apart your phone with little protection, exposing themselves to mercury, lead, cadmium and other dangerous metals so that they can get to the gold, copper and other valuable materials within. So-called e-waste is the fastest growing part of the solid waste stream, and some 20 to 50 million metric tons of it are thrown out every year.
But there are ways to recycle e-waste, reducing the need to mine more of the metals that go into high-tech items, and preventing the environmental consequences of poorly processed electronics. CloudBlue, based in New Jersey, helps tech companies take care of their e-waste, arranging for direct pickup and processing, ensuring that valuable metals can be reused and recycled for future electronics. For customers like banks that have to worry about sensitive data that might be encoded on old computers, CloudBlue can also process the waste onsite. With all this, the company can ensure that no e-waste will ever end up in a landfill — or worse, poisoning a child in Africa or China.
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