Sunday, March 15, 2009

Is there anything new under the sun?

I am always amazed at the number of innovative ideas related to renewable energy out there. As an aspiring design engineer and PhD student, I personally have spent many, many hours trying to come up with an original idea for renewable energy harvesting device, and I have not given up! But, whenever I think I have produced an original idea for such a device, I have always discovered other people who have had the same basic idea that I have.

One idea I had related to capturing the energy in jet streams. Jet streams are narrow (1-3 miles wide) corridors of fast-flowing air--around 300 mph, and relatively constant. I was thinking about how wind turbines that are higher-up can harness more power, but that there is a fundamental structural limitation present when turbines are bult from the ground up. The idea is an "airborn wind turbine" that is tethered to the ground by a strong and electrically conducting cable and suspended high in the air by a balloon containing some lighter-than-air gas, such as helium. Original? Apparently not. Magenn has been working on large, inflatable turbines. Similar but embodied differently, Kite Gen wants to use kites to make electricity. And these passionate folks have been working on a power-generating rotorcraft since 1980!

More recently I was thinking about solar desalination and how it seems like a good use of solar energy. I started thinking about how this process could be improved. There are a few other energy resources available on the coast—what if wave power, wind energy, and solar energy could all be used together to generate electricity or desalinate water? I’m picturing some clever design which harnesses all three of these forms of energy at the same time to accomplish some useful end. But, after a few Google searches, I found a number of people who have the same idea. There’s a wave and wind power hybrid device that combines two out of three energy sources. Closer still to my vision, somebody has proposed floating “energy islands” which will harness wave power, solar energy, wind power, and ocean thermal energy conversion.

Both “energy islands” and kite power seem like good ideas, and are attracting some investment, and may, in fact be important parts of our energy future. There is also ample room for designers to create innovative embodiments of these ideas, which could, in the end, make or break a high-level idea. But I still wonder about something.

Shai Agassi is a software/business guy who has attracted incredible amounts of capital and a whole country (Israel) in which to test his idea. Basically he wants to revolutionize the auto industry by selling electric cars at a big discount, but then charging for “subscriptions” to charge the cars at special power stations. It’s essentially the same business model as cell phones—profits from the device (the car) pale in comparison to profits from long-term subscriptions (ability to charge the car at a charging station) that people must buy to use the device. Agassi’s idea is not a single device—in fact, very few original devices need to be designed to embody his idea. The innovation is not in any particular device, but in the way these devices are used to make money.

So I’m putting some questions to the group—do we already have most of the technology we need for renewable energy to completely take over? Where should efforts to have innovative ideas be applied? What types of innovative ideas are really needed at this point?


John Saville said...

I believe that most of the energy conversion processes that we know of and use now are the ones that will continue to sustain our society for centuries to come. However the technology advancements will help these processes become more easily implemented. For example instead of building larger bigger dams we will instead use run of the river small hydro to power rural farms.
I believe the future will be in decentralization of of our energy conversion sites.
Innovation should be focused on getting the public to want to buy these home energy conversion systems and developing business models to facilitate this shift.

rmk said...

As I read your blog entry I thought of Edison. While he did not invent the light bulb, he made enormous contributions by developing a better filament and improved vacuum pump technology such that light bulbs could be increasingly practical for more widespread use. You may also find your way to make such a contribution!

While I would imagine that there must be plenty of technological leaps still waiting in the wings, it seems that what we really need is technology that is dramatically more "sustainable" relative to it's ability to deliver the high power demands that we are increasingly accustomed to.

I wish you inspiration!