Explainer: Ten hot green-energy trends to watch
From the rollout of sexy new electric vehicles to technologies that convert turkey poop to electricity, green energy is the source of constant hype and buzz. What do green-energy experts have on their radar screen? To find out, we checked in with Dan Kammen, director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley; and Ron Pernick, co-founder and managing director of Clean Edge, a research firm with offices in Oregon and California. Click ahead to learn about 10 trends they say are worth watching.
Solar prices are dropping
Prices for solar energy are dropping and will keep dropping, Kammen and Pernick say. For Kammen, the trend means that solar will finally start grabbing significant market share away from energy sources such as coal and oil — and catch up to the deployment of wind power, which itself is forecast to become as big as nuclear.
Lump all three sources of energy together, and "we are now starting to talk about more than half of our energy coming from clean carbon sources," he says, noting the caveat that nuclear has its own concerns, such as waste storage that lead to questions about its overall cleanliness.
According to Pernick, the price drops in solar — as much as 50 percent from 2008 highs — will lead to cost parity with other energy-generating technologies. "That is the big Holy Grail … and we are going to get there," he says.
A meet-up of energy and information technologies
In a "Jetsons"-like future, refrigerators will know when we're low on items such as cheese and beer and send a message to our GPS-equipped cell phones to remind us to pick up a wedge and a six-pack the next time we walk into our favorite grocery store — and thus prevent an extra 20-mile jaunt in our 2,000-pound car for a few items. Such a future is just around the corner, Kammen says.
"Smart hardware won't solve our consumption addiction, but it will allow us to be much more efficient," he says. "And movement of goods around is a big deal."
Kammen and his colleagues are currently matching up energy and information technologies with a smart phone application that lets people take a virtual test drive of an electric vehicle such as the Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt. The app sits on a GPS-equipped smart phone and rides along with drivers in their current car. Then, the users can go online, upload their data, and learn what their energy consumption would have been if they were driving an electric ride.
China starting to win the clean energy game
Global competition for dominance in the green energy industry is fierce. Industry insiders are watching the fight and keeping score, according to Pernick. "China is starting to beat out almost all other nations on a lot of different clean energy counts," he says. Sectors where China has a leading edge include solar photovoltaic manufacturing and deployment of wind turbines. The Chinese are also players in the electric car market, a sector traditionally dominated by the U.S. and Japan.
Call for clean-energy funds getting louder
Titans of U.S. industry, including Microsoft chairman Bill Gates and Bank of America chairman Chad Holiday, issued a call this June for an annual $16 billion investment in clean-energy innovation.
To get there, according to Pernick, will require government subsidies and regulations that promote clean energy instead of propping up the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries.
"The naysayers will say, 'Well, you know, if you can't compete against oil and gas, then why bother?' And that's either an ignorant or disingenuous statement," he says. "There is not one energy source on this planet that is not both subsidy- and regulatory-dependent."
Energy development in the developing world
"Few research labs innovate for other people; they innovate to meet their own needs," says Kammen, explaining the importance of energy development and innovation that is evolving in the developing world. Shown here are solar panels on a gas station in Algeria, for example.
In Central America, plans are under way for a power grid that connects together everyone from Panama to Mexico. While the grid will be powered by all kinds of energy, solar and wind will be part of the mix. "We need more developing countries prioritizing their own needs, not just waiting for whatever happens to spill over [to them]," says Kammen.
Transportation starting to go electric
To those sick of the hype over electric vehicles such as the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, shown here, Pemnick says ... get over it. The buzz over electrified transportation is only going to get stronger, he says, with a build-out of high-speed rail networks and a resurgence of streetcars joining the mix.
Kammen hopes to see a shift in behavior from personal cars to use of more mass transit, but isn't ready to call it a trend. "There are options there," he says, "but they are not real yet."
Growing investment in smart grid and grid infrastructure
The electricity grid brings energy from wherever and however it is generated to the people who use it. Lots of technologies have emerged in recent years that promise to make use of this electricity more efficiently, such as sensors that shut off unnecessary appliances when demand spikes, and meters that let people know when rates are lowest for energy-intensive activities such as washing dirty clothes.
Investment in these types of smart grid technologies is destined to grow, according to Pernick, whose firm recently launched an index to track the sector. In addition, the grid itself is bound to grow in coming years as utilities shuttle new sources of generation, such wind energy from rural, windy locales, to people in big cities on the coasts.
Carbon dioxide, a value-added product?
Pernick sees signs of a nascent industry that uses carbon dioxide from industrial operations such as coal-fired power plants and breweries to create products such as calcium carbonate, a key component of Portland cement, and algae fuels.
"This whole idea of industrial ecology that has been around for decades hasn't really reached an inflection point yet," he says, "but I think we're close — where all of the sudden waste streams become value-added products and services."
Megaprojects delayed but not all dead
The economic downturn and engineering obstacles have derailed green megaprojects such as Abu Dhabi's planned Masdar City, a carbon-neutral, zero-waste community in the oil-rich nation, shown here in an artist's rendering, and Texas oil-tycoon T. Boone Picken's much-hyped plan to build 1,000 MW of wind power in the Texas panhandle.
But not all green megaprojects are dead in the water, according to Clean Edge. For example, the clean-tech research firm has its eyes on 2,000 megawatts worth of concentrating solar power plants under construction in China, a 1,000-megawatt wind farm in India, and the rollout of smart meters and distributed solar throughout Southern California.
Biofuels gain prominence, green cred still questioned
Electric utilities are burning more forest trimmings and agricultural waste to generate electricity and heat — a sign, according to Clean Edge, that woody biomass is growing up from a niche business to one that could become a significant player in the energy mix.
However, as deployment of the technology scales up, so do questions about its green credibility — it gobbles up land and still emits carbon dioxide, for example.
"We will certainly have more biofuel," says Kammen, "but whether we have biofuel that in fact is sustainable or not, I'm not sure. And if we have lots of biofuel but it is not deep green, not significantly cleaner than fossil fuel, why bother?"
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