(This article is the second in a series about the Smart Grid and Green Technology) 

Fortune Small Business recently cited, “From 2002 to 2008, according to Ernst & Young, private investment in clean technology grew by 65% a year, reaching $4.7 billion last year.” 

The demand for renewable energy is here, and innovative companies and entrepreneurs across the nation are responding. 

As states throughout the U.S. increasingly adopt renewable energy standards (30 states have already committed to acquiring up to 20% of their state’s energy portfolio from renewable sources), the pressure is on for utilities and renewable energy companies to deliver.

Through the new Smart Grid’s capability of storing and transporting energy from renewable sources—such as wind, sunlight, waves, and geothermal—it will foster a new culture of innovation in the energy and technology sectors.  According to the Department of Energy’s report, “The Smart Grid: An Introduction”, the Smart Grid will create “new opportunities and markets by means of its ability to capitalize on plug-and-play innovation wherever and whenever appropriate.” 

More than a few companies are currently experimenting with what is possible and practical, bringing the future of ‘green’ technology to the present.  Here are some innovative ideas and technologies featured in the recent Harvard Business Review article titled, “On the Horizon: Six Sources of Limitless Energy?” that could potentially usher us into a more sustainable world:

  • Wind

Wind turbines have been around for centuries (remember Don Quixote fighting off the giants?), and for good reason.  Wind energy is free and relatively easy to collect, but companies are becoming increasingly creative with the shapes and locations of wind turbines.  Some of my personal favorites are beautifully integrated into existing infrastructure—making for self-sustaining buildings and even cities.  However, some companies are going above and beyond the obvious.

While your average wind turbine rests from collecting energy when the breeze stops blowing, Magenn Power’s high-altitude turbine could collect strong, unabating winds up to 1,000-15,000 feet in the air.  Magenn Power, located in Ottowa, expects to launch the world’s first turbine of this sort (a 60-foot-diameter blimp filled with helium) by 2010. 

Image by Chris Radisch

According to the Harvard Business Review, “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.”  While this is an exciting idea, like many of these new technologies, it must also be technologically feasible and worth the cost of its creation and maintenance for it to be a viable solution.

  • Algae

Over 60 U.S. companies, including Sapphire Energy, Synthetic Genomics and Solazyme, are engineering algae to produce oil that works just like petroleum.  According to Fortune Small Business, if these companies and others “can grow enough algae, the oil generated could replace petroleum and the organisms themselves could help save the planet by eating excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

Image from www.biofuelsdigest.com

Whereas biofuels derived from plant oils require multistep harvesting and processing (often taking more energy to create than they produce), genetically engineered algae streamlines the process by continuously secreting oil that can be refined for direct use in cars, buses and planes that were built to use petroleum.  However, further research and development must be conducted to reduce the amount of energy required to extract the oil from water in which the algae is grown.  If this is accomplished, algae oil could be substantially more energy efficient to harvest than other biofuels that need to be mixed with standard petroleum for use.

Individuals and organizations of weight—including Bill Gates, aerospace firms and oil companies—are investing heavily in algae.  The US government alone allocated $50 million for algae research and development in 2009, according to the Harvard Business Review.

  • Waves

Wave motion energy can be captured by all different sorts of contraptions to power electrical generators.  A Greentech Media/Prometheus Institute analysis projected that the market for ocean-wave energy will be worth $500 million annually by 2014.

The world’s first commercial wave farm, built in 2008 off the coast of Portugal, uses Pelamis Wave Power’s unique snake-like device to harness wave motion energy.  According to the Harvard Business Review, “Each 13-foot-diameter machine can supply enough electricity to power 500 homes.”

Image from www.cdnn.info

Image from www.nmfs.noaa.gov

  • Geothermal

Enhanced geothermal systems (EGS) don’t just collect heat energy from the Earth’s surface like conventional geothermal plants.  They pump water two miles or more into the earth’s crust to super-heat it—a process that can work almost anywhere.  According to the Harvard Business Review, “Dozens of R&D projects on EGS are underway internationally,” including Geodynamics of Australia, which expects to open one of the world’s largest pilot plants in early 2010.

Sources: Department of Energy and Altarock Energy, Inc. Image from news.cnet.com

  • Solar

It seems as though sunlight-collecting panels are showing up everywhere, especially due to the ease with which they can be added to existing infrastructure.  But as the Harvard Business Review aptly put it, “Solar cells on the ground are hampered by clouds, dust and nighttime darkness.  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.”

While this may not be the easiest or most cost-effective solution, NASA and the US Department of Energy have spent the past 30 years and around $80 million studying this concept.  The company Solaren currently has a contract with California’s Pacific Gas and Electric to provide the first electricity from space in 2016.

Image from www.consumerenergyreport.com

Consumer Technology

The above technologies provide visions of a possible future in which renewable energy is the norm.  But a more sustainable future cannot solely rely on the newest and greatest technology; public behavior must change as well.  If human beings do not change their energy consumption habits, then even the best technology cannot save us.  So how do we go about changing our deep-seated habits? 

Some companies and utilities are betting that if consumers are given more information about their day-to-day energy consumption and its cost, then they will be more likely to lower their consumption.  While this may be true for consumers who care about their environmental footprint or for people on a tight budget, companies are creating the technology to test this hypothesis.

Companies including Tendril, eMeter and Google’s PowerMeter have developed computerized systems for helping consumers track their electricity use.  Consumers can program their monthly power budgets and the systems can warn consumers when they are about to overshoot.  With the demand for energy quickly outstripping supply, a more efficient system of communication between utilities and households is in the best interests of utilities, consumers and the planet.

Google PowerMeter image from news.cnet.com

Switching It On

The Smart Grid is largely recognized as the platform for all of these technologies to work together to keep our nation running in the 21st century.  But how do we turn it on?

The renewable energy economy is currently dominated by small firms, but the big energy companies are turning their heads.  GE’s Ecomagination has an interactive website devoted to the Smart Grid and its applications.  But it’s not just the energy and technology sectors that need to be plugged in.

For the Smart Grid to be truly smart, it needs to be connected to smart buildings, smart transportation and smart infrastructure of all kinds.  And ultimately, legislation will need to be passed in order for the Smart Grid to operate across state borders and for the marketplace to be open for productive competition between these forward-thinking companies.

Look for the third and final article in this Smart Grid and Green Technology series to find out more about the current status of Smart Grid legislation and the opportunities and challenges associated with it.