Brave New Energy


At the same time that the US Congress is approving the US$700 billion (AU$840 billion) bailout for the finance sector which may or may not work, the Centre for American Progress has released a report which argues that if the US were to invest just $100 billion dollars over two years in six key areas of green and sustainable development — including advanced biofuels — the result would be the creation of 2 million "high-paying" jobs across nearly all sectors of employment.

With this in mind, it seems like the right time to get excited again about renewable energy. Zero-emission energy is (like, actually IS) the future. As this fact becomes more obvious to more people, we thought it might be a good time to explore further, beyond even the proven alternatives that we already know will work, like wind, solar and tidal. This week in Blogwatch we take a look at the most inspiring, bizarre and potentially game-changing technologies in the world of renewable energy.

The Sahara Forest Project has grabbed our attention. The technology combines "Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) and Seawater Greenhouses, to produce renewable energy, water and food in an area of desert known to be one of the hottest places on earth." The revelatory part of this project is that the two technologies "are being used together in the same place, to support each other and optimize their operating capacities to produce energy and water and by proxy vegetation."

This remarkable project will cover 20 hectares of land at a surprisingly modest cost of 80 million euros, and is capable of not only producing some greenery but also significant electricity output — which has caught the attention of investors in Kuwait, Oman, the UAE and France.

The project is an extreme test for technology which the team hopes will be used in areas which have suffered deforestation and the exhaustion of water resources, and it works best in hot climates. Besides all that, it just sounds so cool. (And on the subject of "eco architecture porn" have a look at the new California Academy of Sciences, here.) 

Less glamorous perhaps, but just as curious, is the role some people are seeing for algae in reducing carbon emissions from breweries, coal fired power stations (if any survive) or ethanol plants. As they say at Pigs will Fly blog, "All living plants convert carbon dioxide into oxygen, but the difference with algae is that it grows much faster and thrives in a carbon dioxide rich stream of emissions," this has "the ability to convert up to 85 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions [from a coal power plant]into oxygen". (Thanks to reader "ecoeng" for adding this link on the site last week.)

The stored carbon can then be converted into biofeuls which mimic crude oil or even diesel depending on the species and processes used. The usefulness of the algae doesn’t end there, as "residual protein left over after the oil has been extracted can be converted into fishmeal or other feed for livestock…Fishmeal sells for $1200 a tonne…even more than the price of biodiesel. Algae doesn’t compete with food sources, it creates them."

Of course, with some of these methods you’re still releasing carbon, but there are others innovation that are re-using old principals in emissions-free new ways. One of the most remarkable of these is a generator that resembles biplanes strapped to telegraph poles.

This alternative to wind turbines, named WindWings, uses the same principals as aeronautics, with the wind lifting the wings, whose movement generates electricity. It is a "more efficient energy generator than the propeller turbine (converting 40-60 per cent of wind energy compared to 5 per cent for conventional turbines)," and each costs about one tenth the price of its conventional cousin, according to The Renewable Minute.

The Energy Blog has discovered that the American Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been working on another solution.

The team will bombard a gold cylinder the size of a ball bearing containing a pocket of hydrogen isotopes "with 192 laser beams simultaneously (containing a total of 1.8 million joules of energy, about 500 trillion watts) for a few billionths of a second", that is 1000 times the generating power of every power plant in the United States bombarding the golden capsule in an instant. The hydrogen isotopes will heat up, fusion will occur, creating a fleeting "miniature star" generating heat "far hotter than the surface of the sun" according to director Ed Moses.

Critics though, believe that fusion may not be a viable energy source, and that US Government investment in the project may more about studying nuclear reactions without detonating a nuclear weapon — a shrewd circumvention of nuclear testing treaties.

Kevin Rudd’s $100 million to fund "clean coal" may (or may not) improve the carbon emissions for old technology but many of the new technologies out there are aimed at avoiding these traditional energy sources altogether. This includes an enormous range of ways to more efficiently use the power we’re generating. Al Gore has repeated his recommendation of an electranet which encourages home owners and local communities to generate their own power and put excess and unused power back into the grid. Interestingly, Gore has also called for civil disobedience to stop construction of new coal fired plants.

Meanwhile Fort Atkinson School District in Madison, Wisconsin, is currently using geothermal energy. This has been a saving of $40,000 in the past year and a saving of $80,000 is expected this year whilst heating and cooling the school with a geothermal well running below the football field (the swim team’s swimming pool is heated using solar panels).

For those playing at home, you can start today by building a solar powered computer.

And finally, as Nathan "Broom-broom" Rees tries to convince debt-ridden NSW to spend $90 million on a V8 racing car competition at Sydney’s Olympic Park, perhaps he could do worse than suggest the race goes ahead but for sustainable vehicles only

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.