Renewable energy is one of the fastest growing and most interesting areas of innovation. The number of patents issued for renewable-energy technologies has risen sharply over the last decade. The number and size of investments in research and development, as well as in the growth of markets for these products is driving innovation. Here are some examples of renewable energy innovation from 2013.
A new type of electronic circuit was developed in 2013 that may help to improve the performance of solar panels. Typically cooler, slower, mellower electrons don’t have enough energy to produce a usable electric current. Ultrasolar has developed an electronic circuit (ideally built into an inverter) that passes a very high frequency signal backwards through the DC wires into the solar module and cells. The slower electrons catch these waves and are turned into hot and fast electrons for long enough to escape the crystal matrix and generate a useful current. This could lead to inverter efficiencies of over 100 percent.
Conversion Efficiency Record for Thin Solar Cells
In 2013 a new record was set for the conversion of
sunlight into energy. Typically the numbers for thin film solar run
between 18.7 percent and 24 percent, but Alta Devices, a Silicon Valley
solar manufacturer, set a new record of 30.8 percent conversion
efficiency. The downside is that it costs more, the upside is that the
new solar cell can generate more electricity from a smaller surface
area. This could prove to be a useful technology for portable devices.
Robots and Solar Panels
Robots are far more efficient than people at doing
repetitive tasks that require a high level of precision. Solar panel
installing and cleaning robots can be an ideal application for massive
solar power farms which will both reduce costs and increase efficiency. A
pair of robot workers named Rover and Spot, both from Alion Energy,
have begun installing and cleaning solar panels in 2013.
Providing Power When There is No Sun
A new technological innovation in solar energy can help to produce solar power even when there is no sun. In October a new innovation at Solana’s 280 megawatt (MW) solar plant demonstrated how a ‘salt battery’ can keep generating electricity even when there is no sun. This is the first of its kind thermal energy storage system in the US partners with the world’s largest parabolic trough mirrors to concentrate solar energy. This project was realized with the help of the Department of Energy’s loan program.
Providing Power When there is No Wind
There has been a breakthrough in wind turbine technology that addresses the issue of intermittent wind. In May 2013 GE released wind turbine innovations that predict wind availability and gauge power needs so that wind turbines can be optimally positioned. Batteries built into the turbine store power which can be used when there is no wind.
Offshore Wind Turbines Using Concrete Spheres
A new approach to energy storage for offshore wind
turbines was developed by researchers at MIT in 2013. This innovation is
ideal for producing electricity when there is little or no wind. This
concept employs huge concrete spheres which would anchor wind turbines
to the sea floor. When a wind turbine produces more energy than is
needed, power would be diverted to drive a pump attached to the
underwater structure, pumping seawater from a 30-meter-diameter hollow
sphere. Then when there is no wind the water would flow back into the
sphere through a turbine attached to a generator, producing energy.
Floating Offshore Wind Turbines
Typically offshore wind turbines cannot be located in
waters more than 60 meters deep but a new floating wind turbine design
from Norwegian-based oil and gas company Statoil, can be put in water up
to 700 meters deep. In 2013 they began work on the world’s largest hub
of floating wind turbines off the coast of Scotland. This new innovation
significantly increases the size of areas where wind turbines can
operate. Two additional floating turbines are also planned off the coast
of Fukushima, Japan, along with the world’s first floating electrical
Harnessing the Power of Waves to Produce Energy
Although the technology has been around for a while, in 2013 the United States began generating electricity from its first commercial, grid-connected underwater tidal turbine off the coast of Maine. The company behind the Ocean Renewable Power Company (ORPC) has invested more than $21 million into the project. A March environmental assessment found no detrimental impact on the marine environment. Along with the US Department of Energy, two more devices are planned for 2014. In November, ORPC was chosen to manage a wave-energy conversion project in remote Yakutat, Alaska.
Harnessing the Power of Waves to Produce Fresh Water
A new desalination plant near Perth, Australia, is currently being developed will draw energy from the power of ocean waves. Carnegie Wave Energy’s plant will use the company’s underwater buoy technology to harness ocean wave force to pressurize the water, eliminating the need for fossil-fuel-powered electric pumps. This will be the first carbon-free desalination plant. It is both efficient and low costs. The plant will supply 55 billion litters of fresh drinking water per year.
Better Battery Technology
A new battery is being produced that is safer, lighter and stores more power. These factor are of major importance for the widespread proliferation of electric vehicles (EVs). The current generation of batteries have limited charge capacities and this severly restricts the distances that they can travel. This is known as range anxiety and it is a major obstacle inhibiting the widespread adoption of EVs. The new lithium ion technology out of Oak Ridge National Laboratory uses nanotechnology. They have also combined the approach with lithium-sulfur battery technology, which could further enhance cost-effectiveness.
Datacenters Using DC Instead of AC
Direct current (DC) has advantages over the dominant source of electricity which is known as alternating current (AC). DC is cheaper, more efficient and works better with renewable energy sources like wind and solar. It does not require adaptors that waste energy and heat. Facebook, JPMorgan, Sprint, Boeing, and Bank of America have all built datacenters that rely on DC power which are 20 percent more efficient, cost 30 percent less, and require 25 to 40 percent less floorspace.
Homes Using DC Instead of AC
Residences will soon new USB technology that can deliver 100 watts of power. This is ideal for low voltage personal electronics, and it will save homes energy while providing cost savings.
Energy from Plant Waste
The US is gearing up to produce energy from plant waste. Two cellulosic biofuel plants came online in 2013 and two more began construction. INOES Bio’s cellulosic ethanol plant in Florida and KiOR’s cellulosic plant in Mississippi began commercial production last year. Other cellulosic plants began construction in 2013 including one for Iowa and another in Kansas. With these four plants in operation, the 2014 cellulosic fuel mandates of 17 million gallons will be easily surpassed.
© 2014, Richard Matthews. All rights reserved.
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