Wars in the Middle East and oil rig blowouts in the Gulf have given us gasoline in the range of $4 to $5/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 announcing it would soon close eighteen existing coal facilities.
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. No silver bullets in cleantech, only silver buckshot. That said, 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 massive transmission lines to meet future energy needs, 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 UK. Founder Bob Hertzberg didn’t want to power the company with coal (duh!), so he installed a wind turbine at the factory to harvest clean energy instead, immediately adjacent to where it’s consumed. In another example, the US military spends up to $800/gallon to deliver diesel fuel to generators in war zones such as Afghanistan. ZeroBase makes “regenerators” that charge batteries with wind, solar, or other distributed sources of power, paying for themselves in weeks of 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 Honda Clarity. Former US 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 to the Nissan Leaf, for example. According to the USEPA, the battery powered Leaf gets the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon; a 73-mile range on a full charge; and takes 7 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 7 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. Two examples of technologies that are ending the concept of waste come from Universal Lubricants, a company converting used motor oil back into new quality oil, and ReCommunity, which engineers a variety of fuels and products from mixed municipal waste streams.
My bet is that these emerging green trends and companies will scatter so much silver buckshot that even the heartiest dinosaur will soon fade to black.