We’re surrounded by inexhaustible clean-energy sources—the sun, the wind, the ocean, plants, atoms, the earth’s core—but the technology and economic rationale for tapping them have lagged behind our imaginations. The world’s insatiable and destructive appetite for energy is now making some of the more far-fetched clean-energy concepts seem increasingly plausible and necessary. Here we survey six innovative energy technologies in various stages of development. Some of these ideas have been tinkered with by scientists and entrepreneurs for decades; others moved from drawing boards to pilot projects only recently. All have serious backing and profound potential—and none are a sure bet.
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1. HIGH WINDS
The idea: Conventional wind turbines stop when the wind dies. Turbine-bearing balloons or rotors could intercept powerful, reliable winds 1,000 to 15,000 feet up.
Key players: Ottawa-based Magenn Power expects to ship the world’s first commercial high-altitude turbine—a 60-foot-diameter helium-filled blimp—by 2010.
In fact: There’s potentially enough high-altitude wind energy to power the planet 100 times over. Whether technology hurdles can be overcome and the energy can be economically exploited remain to be seen.
2. GREEN CRUDE
The idea: Biofuels made from plant oils require multistep harvesting and processing. Genetically engineered algae could streamline production by continuously secreting oil to be refined into transport fuel.
Key players: Synthetic Genomics, led by human-genome entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, and Sapphire Energy, backed by Bill Gates, are engineering algae to produce a “biocrude” precursor to gasoline, jet fuel and diesel.
In fact: Algae fuel exists but can’t yet be economically produced. Still, scores of companies, including aerospace firms and oil majors, are investing heavily. The U.S. government earmarked $50 million for algae-fuel work this year.
3. NEXT WAVE
The idea: Wave-motion energy can be captured to run electrical generators.
Key player: At least three dozen companies are developing wave-energy technologies. Scotland’s Pelamis Wave Power makes the device that drives the world’s first commercial wave farm, commissioned in 2008 off the coast of Portugal. Each 13-foot-diameter machine can supply enough electricity to power 500 homes.
In fact: Though wave power isn’t yet competitive, a Greentech Media/Prometheus Institute analysis put the market for ocean power of all types at $500 million annually in five years, growing 100-fold to a gigawatt of capacity.
4. STAR POWER
The idea: Nuclear fusion—the atomic reaction that powers stars—could be used to generate clean energy.
Key player: In 2010, the U.S. National Ignition Facility will focus 192 lasers on a tiny hydrogen-filled capsule to ignite a fusion reaction expected to yield more energy than it consumes—a critical first on the road to fusion power.
In fact: Scientists have pursued this goal for 50 years; the U.S. government alone has spent more than $20 billion on fusion research. Even so, the first experiments using fusion as a power source may be at least 15 years off.
5. DEEP HEAT
The idea: Conventional geothermal plants can tap heat only near the earth’s surface. Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS), which inject cool water two miles or deeper into the earth for superheating, can work nearly anywhere.
Key player: Dozens of R&D projects on EGS are under way internationally. Australian company Geodynamics Ltd expects to switch on a one-megawatt pilot plant, among the world’s biggest, in early 2010.
In fact: With readily achievable technology improvements, EGS could become a major sustainable and economical source of power, says the U.S. Department of Energy.
6. ETERNAL SUNSHINE
The idea: Terrestrial solar cells are hampered by clouds, dust, and nightfall. Orbiting cells could capture the sun’s energy 24 hours a day, nearly every day of the year, and then beam it in radio waves to Earth.
Key player: Start-up Solaren has a contract with California’s Pacific Gas and Electric to deliver the first electricity from space starting in 2016.
In fact: NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy have spent about $80 million over the past 30 years sporadically studying the concept, concluding that it’s technically feasible but tough to make competitive.
Gardiner Morse is a senior editor at Harvard Business Review.
Extracted from Harvard Business Review, September 2009.
©2010 Harvard Business Publishing
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