The renewable energy boom
By Jenny Jedeikin
The new frontier
To explain the evolution that is currently underway in the clean energy industry, many people in “the know” like to make an analogy about what is happening; they compare the ramp-up in the renewable energy industry to the technological transformation that hit personal computers and cell phones throughout the last two decades.
“If you have a [smart phone], you’re holding the confluence of a whole new industry in the palm of your hand,” says Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group. “We’ve transformed how we do lots of things, in ways we couldn’t have imagined even five years ago. Now that same kind of technological confluence is coming to much bigger and slower moving industries, like energy, buildings and vehicles. They’re coming together to create a whole new wave of technologies that are going to be dramatically more efficient while creating whole new things we can all do.”
Makower, who writes about this topic on his high-traffic website, greenbiz.com, says that as the world shifts away from energy that relies on carbon-emitting fossil fuels, energy systems are going to become more complex and varied. “What’s interesting about the world of energy right now is that there is not going to be just one winner,” Makower says. “We’re going from a mono-culture of energy sources (coal and gas) to a much more interesting array. It’s no longer one size fits all. There’s going to be lots of sources serving different types of applications.”
Right now the United States relies on fossil fuels and natural gas to supply 93 percent of our energy needs. Only 7 percent comes from renewable energy. With growing concern about the environmental consequences of fossil fuels, as well the increasing expense of relying on foreign petroleum, the last five years have seen a dramatic shift in money and resources being poured into alternative energy sources and research. Earlier this year, President Obama made the announcement that by 2035,
80 percent of America’s energy will come from clean energy sources.
Renewable energy frontrunners
But what will those sources likely be? Vipin Gupta, a systems engineer and a principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories, breaks renewable energy into five areas—hydro: energy from water; solar: energy from the sun; biofuel: energy from waste; geothermal: energy from the earth; and wind: energy from wind. “One of the main impediments to renewable energy has been that it’s expensive. It hasn’t been cost competitive with fossil fuels. Well, that’s changing,” says Gupta.
At Sandia National Laboratories, Gupta is working on new photovoltalic solar systems that will cost four times less to make and use 10 times less photovoltalic material than current models, yet produce the same amount of energy as what is currently available. “We’re developing solar technology that can be readily integrated into things we are already familiar with, such as windows, or unrolled like carpet onto a flat roof.”
Additionally, Makower talks about billion-dollar projects in Southern California’s Mojave desert (as well as in China and India) to build enormous utility-sized solar plants, called concentrated solar plants. “These cells don’t turn photons into electrons the way a portable panel on your roof would do,” Makower says. “They basically concentrate the sunlight and focus it on a tower filled with some kind of special liquid that is used to boil water to make steam to run a turbine.”
Gupta also points to innovative technologies happening in wind power. Makani Power is a company that is designing kite-like devices that fly up in the sky to harness wind energy. The higher up you go, the stronger and the steadier the wind and the more energy you can grab. “These new, advanced type of wind energy technologies are becoming cheaper to deploy and can be deployed faster,” says Gupta.
But in order for these projects to succeed, Gupta says, our old-fashioned electric grid—the physical network that is currently utilized to send power to homes and businesses—has to be restructured. “The electric grid was designed to do one-way flow of electricity from a centralized power plant to the end use, your electric dryer or your TV. That’s it,” he says.
Gupta predicts a future power grid where you have a two-way flow, or multiple flows of electricity from various sources. For example, at your home or business you could be generating electricity on your roof, which then circulates on the grid and goes someplace else a few blocks down where it is used by someone else at a dry cleaners.
Job opportunities in renewable energy
“The thing that’s really fascinating about this opportunity,” explains Gupta, “is that electricity is something that is not readily imported. We can’t get whole bunches of electricity from China, India or elsewhere. We have to generate it and use it in the United States. Consequently, these are jobs that will be filled by Americans. And that’s in contrast with the oil industry. It’s a huge difference.”
So what kinds of jobs are going to be created? “The good news is that there’s [a] need for everybody,” says Makower. “There’s a need for power engineers and biochemists and physicists, and there’s also a need for accountants, lawyers, writers and technicians of every description. When we talk about green jobs, the possibilities are limitless.”
Gupta adds to the list a need for heavy lifters: “For building all these things, for installing solar panels on rooftops, for putting up wind towers, for drilling geothermal wells, all these require people in the construction industry. You also need people with business degrees, with accounting and with legal [degrees] in order to craft agreements on how power is going to be purchased from these different types of distributive renewable power plants.”
Hinrich Eylers, the dean of the College of Natural Sciences at University of Phoenix, couldn’t agree more. “This country is in search [of] a new basis for our economy,” says Eylers, who grew up in Germany. “The United States used to be based on retail and housing, and that’s not happening now; we need something new, and I think renewable energy has a good chance of being the new basis for job growth.”
When alternative goes mainstream
The transition to renewable is not going to happen tomorrow. “It’s going to take a while to get the technologies into place to replace an economy that is so totally and fully dependent on carbon fuel,”
How long will it take? “How fast all of this grows and when exactly it is going to go mainstream is hard to predict,” says Gupta. “One thing is clear—in contrast with coal, natural gas and petroleum—if you look at renewables, the price of generating renewable electricity is continuing to decline year after year. We are going to see at least one or two of these [types of energies] go mainstream within our generation.”
For Gupta and his colleagues, that’s a real blessing. “Everyone working in this field feels that one day renewable energy will become mainstream and fossil fuels will become the alternative.”
Jenny Jedeikin is a freelance writer and director of communications for national nonprofit cooltheearth.org.
Renewables around the world
|Biofuel in Kristianstad, Sweden
This innovative Swedish city with a population of 80,000 uses no fossil fuels or gas, and instead burns wood, waste and scraps from flooring factories to power an underground district heating grid and provide fuel for cars.
|Small-scale solar systems
in Kiptusuri, Kenya
In rural Kenya where 85 percent of people still live without electricity, villagers can now purchase small-scale solar systems for $80 to power their cell phones and lighting. As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper and more reliable, these tiny systems are playing a transformative role in people’s lives.
|Wind and hydropower in Lisbon, Portugal
With rising living costs and no national source of fossil fuel, Portugal was motivated to restructure its entire energy system to draw electricity from its abundant wind and hydro power. Now, in cities such as Lisbon, wind-driven turbines pump water uphill at night, the most blustery period; then the water flows downhill by day, generating electricity.
|Geothermal power in the Philippines
This Southeast Asian country already receives 20 percent of its energy from wells drilled deep into the earth. The wells tap steam or hot water that can power turbines. In the Philippines, geothermal heat is used directly for fish processing, salt production and drying coconuts and fruit.
|Tidal power in Scotland
Deals are currently being brokered in the United Kingdom to build the first commercial-scale tidal power systems, which will deliver enough energy to power more than 700,000 homes in Scotland within the next four years. Tidal energy relies on large underwater turbines to capture the kinetic motion of the ebbing and surging of ocean tides in order to produce electricity.