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Nov 22, 2011
Renewable energy isn’t all doom, gloom and Solyndra. Check out three new, exciting technologies in the field of clean energy. The science is there; it’s just a matter of getting the money and creating demand.
SPACE SOLAR STATIONS
Quick, what’s in space and produces solar power? If you said the sun (oh, you cad) or the International Space Station, you’re right, but only partially (if you said the Death Star, what’s the matter with you?). A 272-page International Academy of Astronautics report completed in August and in wide distribution this week has determined the feasibility of orbital power plants that collect solar power and beam it down to Earth. The short answer: doable but expensive.
The study suggests large (several-kilometer-wide) arrays that can collect sunlight 24 hours a day be put in orbit and have the energy they collect be converted into microwaves or lasers and shot down to Earth’s power grid. Aside from the monstrous costs associated with building these huge arrays and launching them into space, another possible problem laid out in the report is space junk. The authors of the study believe subsidies from multiple governments will be key to realizing this project; private capital just won’t cut it.
From orbital, back down to sub-orbital: the first commercial American jet to be powered by biofuel touched down in Chicago on Nov. 11. Continental Airlines flight 1403 was propelled by fuel derived in part from algae. Not content to let Continental have all the fun, Alaska Airlines announced it would run 75 flights in November alone with fuel made from recycled cooking oil.
The problem, at least for Alaska Airlines, is the cost of the fuel: just a bit over five times as expensive as standard jet fuel. The best part is that neither of these fuels are made from corn. It is typical American arrogance (as well as a powerful corn lobby and, for a little longer at least high government subsidies) that make us think we can use 25 percent of our 110,000 square miles of corn for fuel when almost a billion people worldwide went hungry in 2010. Folks, corn is for eating, not for driving and, at least for now, not for flying either.
AIRBORNE WIND TERMINALS
Have you ever flown a kite very close to the ground? Of course not; it’s no fun and you’d look like an idiot. You get the kite up high where the wind’s blowing stronger. That’s the principle behind airborne wind terminals.
Makani Power recently won Popular Mechanics’ Breakthrough Award for its design. The company has received about $15 million worth of grants from Google.org and another $3 million from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). The advantages of airborne terminals include less materials used to build the terminals (since they don’t need to be supported on the ground) and much more generation; at 2,000 feet, where the turbines will fly, wind blows much stronger and more frequently. The turbines would be connected to the ground by a tether, allowing it to float and generate power for as long as the wind keeps up.
These advances in renewable energy have the potential to drastically change our environment. What's your favorite renewable energy source, and why?
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