Wars in the Middle East and oil rig blowouts in the Gulf have given us gasoline that is starting to hit $5 a gallon. Growing concerns over asthma-inducing pollution from coal fired power plants, not to mention mercury pollution in food supplies and greenhouse gas emissions, have resulted in the termination of numerous coal projects, and even the TVA recently announced it would soon close 18 existing coal facilities. It's time for a new power source.
The transition from digging carbon out of the ground and setting it on fire to make electricity or power our horseless carriages won’t die from a single technology. There is no one silver bullet in cleantech that will solve all of our problems. But we do have silver buckshot, and with enough different pieces, we won't need one silver bullet. Here are some game changers to track over the next few years, especially as the economy rebounds and global markets demand greater efficiency and new ways to power the world.
Wires: Distributed generation. Neither governments nor private industry have enough time or money to build the massive transmission lines we will need to connect disparate clean energy sources to meet future energy demands, so "distributed" generation will replace wires as the primary means of electrifying our communities and factories. G24 Innovations, for example, manufactures solar panels in the U.K. Founder Bob Hertzberg didn’t want to power the company with coal (smart man!), so he installed a wind turbine at the factory to harvest clean energy, immediately adjacent to where it’s consumed. In another example, the U.S. military spends up to $800 per gallon to deliver diesel fuel to generators in war zones such as Afghanistan. So a company called ZeroBase makes "regenerators" that charge batteries with wind, solar, or other distributed sources of power, paying for themselves in weeks, and saving both fuel and lives. These nifty devices also eliminate the heat and noise signals that make diesel generators easy targets for enemy rocket fire.
Wheels: The hydrogen-powered Honda Clarity. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz recently told me about a cabinet meeting in the early 1980s. President Regan expressed alarm that a quarter of our oil was imported and declared that anything more would be a threat to national security. Today, we import 60% of our oil, so President Obama recently called for a 33% reduction of oil imports by 2025. Where’s the technology to help us achieve anything close to that target, when America has been moving in the opposite direction for more than three decades? Battery powered cars will fill a niche for many applications, but not as the primary vehicle for most American families. Compare the Clarity (pictured above) to the Nissan Leaf. According to the EPA, the battery powered Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon; a 73-mile range on a full charge; and takes seven hours to recharge the batteries. USEPA says the Clarity gets 60 mpg with a range of 240 miles on a full tank of hydrogen, which takes about seven minutes to refuel. Both technologies rely on electricity, so any large number of vehicles will demand new power plants to create the fuels. Battery cars will need expansion of already-strained electrical grids and high voltage charging stations to reduce charge times. The small network of hydrogen fueling stations will need to be expanded for fuel cell cars. But given all of that, the Clarity and its competitors from Toyota, GM, and several Chinese automakers are likely to win the long term battle for the next technology to replace burning oil in inefficient internal combustion engines as our primary form of getting from A to B.
Waste: A thing of the past. Nine billion people—the estimated global population in 2050—can't live healthy, productive lives on the amount of resources we have left on this planet. But some companies are starting to realize that there is money to be paid in what others have thrown away. Universal Lubricants has developed a process it calls re-refining, in which it takes used motor oil and converts it back into quality oil. Another company, ReCommunity, engineers a variety of fuels and products from mixed municipal waste streams.
My bet is that these emerging trends and companies will scatter so much silver buckshot that even the heartiest dinosaur will soon fade to black.
Photo from Flickr user roblisameehan