From big corporate to grass roots, new (and old, but recycled) energy technologies under the banner of cleantech are changing the way we relate to energy and the earth. The ones to watch:
- Solar Energy – The worldwide solar photovoltaic industry installed 1,400 megawatts of new capacity last year, almost enough new power to supply the city of Berkeley, California. With billions of dollars of investment from companies like BP, Applied Materials and startups like Nanosolar which raised a $75 mm round earlier this year, solar energy is not going away any time soon. And watch this space, venture capitalists are now funding a new crop of technologies like solar concentrators (see our earlier blog) and thin film, that could make solar mainstream.
- Large Wind Farms – The only technology as hot as solar is wind power, and major manufacturers such as General Electric are building systems (GE just announced a plant in China), and can’t keep up with the demand. A growing part of the electricity we use already comes from wind power in many regions (see our blog on Wind in Texas), and in Europe it is even bigger. Second only to natural gas in new capacity additions last year in the US.
- Household Wind Power – Wind is not just for the big players, small but growing companies like Southwest Windpower, and Bergey WindPower are making micro wind systems for our homes and businesses. While not highly efficient, and not likely to be major source of power, they are an intriguing way for individuals to go green.
- Superconductors – Invented in the late 1980s, high temperature superconductor wires (in this case high temperature still means really, really, cold) are 100x more efficient than the copper wires in our motors, power lines, and electronic products. Companies like American Superconductor in the US, and Trithor in Germany (part of Zenergy Power, which my firm has backed) are developing this technology. While still expensive today, the costs are coming down as providers move toward 2G – thin film deposition techniques, and the results could fundamentally change the way we use our electricity.
- Fuel Cells – Driven in the 1990s by automotive companies including GM and technology developers like Ballard Power in Canada, fuel cells are the heart and soul of the hydrogen economy. While still too expensive for mainstream use, and facing an investment community jaded somewhat by struggles to develop the technology, it makes major leaps every year. Within the fuel cell arena – watch for the continued efforts of major players like GM and the Japanese automotive companies, and watch for the continued rise of exotic fuel cells – chemical and non-hydrogen fuels, exotic materials and designs like direct carbon, silicon or biotech based fuel cells.
- Ethanol – Cleaner than gasoline, ethanol /gasoline blended fuel cars are the fuel of choice (at least until the hydrogen economy arrives). Major agricultural companies and Wall Street are pumping money into building new ethanol plants. GM has launched an aggressive campaign to build and market hybrid ethanol /gasoline (called E85) vehicles. This show may be a bubble, but it’s a bubble with legs.
- Bio-diesel – Bio-diesel is emerging as the grass roots favorite and alternative to ethanol or E85. With the support of activist/entrepreneurs including country singer Willie Nelson, and venture backing (see Seattle Biodiesel’s recent financing by Nth Power, Technology Partners and Paul Allen as example) bio-diesel is winning support from home brewers, home conversion enthusiasts, farmers, and truckers. It may smell, and serious observers question the availability of feedstock to scale, but it sure is green.
- Gasoline/Electric Hybrid Cars – Everyone has seen the explosion of hybrid cars, with over a dozen designs on the market now. This technology is only getting more and more mainstream. Toyota, the market leader in hybrid car technology, is targeting an all hybrid fleet in the future. I had the opportunity to test drive GM’s Saturn View Greenline, a mild hybrid and GM’s first hybrid consumer vehicle that is hitting the showroom shortly. Part of an aggressive launch by Saturn from its successful Vue SUV line, it promises to be the lowest cost Hybrid SUV and best mileage SUV on the market. And watch out for the bio-diesel or E85 / electric hybrid next!
- Plug-in Hybrids – My personal favorite, though still a ways out, “plug-in” or “gridable” hybrids are hybrids like the Toyota Prius that have been modified with extra batteries and an AC power adapter to recharge from an electric wall plug in your garage. Success with plug-ins would mean we could fuel switch from renewable electric power sources like solar, wind, and hydro to bio-diesel to ethanol. Frankly, that is hot. Groups like CalCars.org in California are pushing this concept, and the interest continues to rise. Our blogger Felix Kramer is part of CalCars.
- Blogs – There are now literally thousands of blogs on sustainability, environmental issues, and clean energy and technology. The blog world is helping to fuel a grass roots push towards a greener world. Let’s keep it up.
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