Everybody knows about solar and wind power, and using renewable energy was a big issue in the recent election. But a lot of amazing green technologies have been developed since solar panels and wind turbines captured the nation's attention. From algae-based biofuel to electric-vehicle batteries to garbage that creates ethanol, the ways we can push aside fossil fuels are multiplying at a rapid pace.
Follow the Continue link to read about the seven most promising green technologies that could be juicing us up in the near future.
1. Algae-Made Biofuels from Carbon Emissions
WHAT IT IS California's Sequesco uses microbes to capture carbon dioxide from power plants, converts it into feedstock for biofuel. Making biofuels from algae isn't new, but doing it in a closed environment without photosynthesis is. This tackles one of the biggest issues around today's energy generation — carbon emissions — while competing less with food production or natural habitats for biofuel production, like corn ethanol.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN If Sequesco uses emissions from an oil- or diesel-powered power plant, you could capture the emissions on site and turn it back into biofuels, running them through the plant again and again.
2. Nuclear Fusion Tokamak
WHAT IT IS Sure, nuclear fusion is great: Heat some hydrogen to millions of degrees Fahrenheit, and boom — a cheap, plentiful energy source for everyone, with little waste. But the problem with fusion is that it needs the right box to contain that superheated "fuel," or plasma, and right now it can burn through anything man-made. So researchers from around the world working on the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER) are trying to build a better plasma trap. The 17-meter-wide vessel, called a tokamak, will be surrounded by superconducting coils that create magnetic fields 100,000 times as powerful as the Earth's. They've got a $15 billion budget, or about half of what's needed to bail out General Motors.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN The feedstock for a fusion reactor — hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium — is readily available in our oceans. And the process produces some useful waste: helium, especially important if either zeppelins or making funny noises with party balloons is your thing.
3. Electric Vehicle Retrofitting
WHAT IT IS Hacking your old car to turn it electric has been a hobby for gearheads for a while, but San Francisco's ElectraDrive has created a process so it can retrofit virtually any fossil-fuel car to run on electricity. The company's electric drivetrain replaces your car's current gasoline-powered one, and can adapt almost any passenger vehicle to electricity, whether it's that gas-guzzling Hummer, a '60s muscle car, or that bland sedan you've become attached to for some reason. And their all-electric system promises the same or better performance. Each conversion costs about $20,000, but they figure it'll pay for itself in six years if you're a typical SUV owner.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN America has 250 million cars. Even if new electric vehicles were widely available tomorrow, it would take a while to replace that entire national "fleet." ElectraDrive makes repurposing those vehicles and extending their usable lives much easier, and its plans include certifying installers to do conversions.
4. Vehicle-to-Grid Technologies
WHAT IT IS Rather than build 100 new power plants, why not build several million small ones? Google's founders have been looking into the idea of using hybrid and electric vehicles as batteries to store energy to be used by the larger electrical grid at peak times, such as mid-day when the cars sporting those batteries are parked and plugged in, doing nothing. In October, Boulder, Colorado, launched a "phase one" project for vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, technologies, starting with 60 customers with hybrids. Technologies in development now will skip the plugging-in part, using wireless systems to tap your car's battery. Picture this technology allowing you to program how far you're traveling when you get into your car, then driving over roadbed transducers that will pull energy from your moving vehicle to power nearby office buildings, and you arrive at your destination with enough credit in your energy account money to buy lunch.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN "Distributed energy" is a concept you'll see a lot more of in coming years. This means that rather than replacing a coal power plant with a wind farm, why not replace it with 100,000 smaller systems that are already out there? This means a more secure power grid for everyone with redundancies built in.
5. The New Net Metering
WHAT IT IS Think of the vehicle-to-grid idea above. Now extend it to homes that produce renewable energy as well. 30 states have net-metering laws, meaning that utilities in those states are required to "net out" any excess power production generated by a customer — like one with a house with solar panels — against any power they've bought to keep the TV on at night. That fascinating spinning dial on the side of your house is nearly 100 years old, but that old-school meter can run backwards. Firms like Fat Spaniel are offering web-enabled, wireless monitoring system to keep an eye on your energy production and your efficiency of energy use.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN Some states have had net metering for a while, but if you couple distributed energy technologies with rewards for efficient energy use, you're well on your way to helping our national energy needs without enormous amounts of infrastructure. And unless people start putting their own coal-fired power plants in their backyard, it'll likely be adding only renewable energy to the grid.
6. Trash-to-Ethanol Plants
WHAT IT IS Biofuels have a problem: Making them can be more costly environmentally and economically than the benefits they give. But what if you could make biofuel from stuff lying around? Not content with just turning agricultural waste into fuels, Fulcrum BioEnergy wants to turn your home trash to waste, a la Back To The Future. Municipal solid waste comes into their plant. Any remaining recyclables would be pulled out, and the leftovers — your leftovers — are gasified through application of heat and pressure and turned into alcohols to be used as fuels. Since they're using something we pay to get rid of anyway, they have a "fixed-price, long-term, low-cost feedstock," meaning their ethanol production cost is less than $1 a gallon, or about 65% lower than corn-based ethanol.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN Biofuel production is great, but Fulcrum's concept does a lot more. Cheaper ethanol means wider adoption of gas-ethanol blends, and if every city of any size had a Fulcrum plant as part of the waste management stream, it would save transportation costs for refined gasoline.
7. "Run of River" Hydro Power
WHAT IT IS In the world of renewable energy, "intermittency" is the word that makes utility managers wake up screaming in the middle of the night. Solar and wind power require sun and wind — not something that's happening 24/7, and is especially weak at peak usage times, like at night… in winter… in the Northeast. Enter hydropower, the oldest renewable energy source we know. Until recently, its biggest nuclear-power-like drawback was the giant dams that made it possible. But now some utilities, especially in the Northeast, use smaller "run of river" hydro, where water is partially directed into a turbine and allowed to carry on without a dam, headpond, or flow interruption.
WHY IT'S THE NEW GREEN This is the ideal renewable energy choice. It provides clean energy with equipment that isn't too energy- or resource-consuming to make, generates power around the clock and doesn't create an environmental hazard to do it.