Technology Innovation, Research Spark Renewable Energy Development

Renewable energy advocates are too often called upon to defend the sector against unfounded or, in some cases, dishonest criticism that is either based on misinformation or is simply manufactured to protect conventional energy interests. Often lost in the boisterous public debate are the less visible but highly innovative technological advances generated by research and old-fashioned entrepreneurship by people who want to see this nation move to a clean energy future.

Technological breakthroughs are being made at breakneck speed in the development of solar cells and the materials used to make wind turbines, progress that is bringing down the cost of energy generated from those sources to a level comparable with, if not lower than, that from legacy electricity sources.

While solar panels remain the prevalent mode of capturing power from the sun (a new solar PV system is installed every four minutes in this country), new technology is producing thin solar film which can be manufactured in rolls, reducing the cost and installation of power-generating materials even more. Thin film, for example, enables the integration of solar power capability in roofing materials.

Also windows are being treated with a coating made up of incredibly small solar cells (they are dwarfed by a grain of rice). The coating remains see-through, yet has the ability to convert sunshine to energy with no need for specialized production systems.

And with an eye to the future, the DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is funding research that recognizes that new solar technology must not only improve efficiency, but must also store the electricity it generates until it is demanded.

On the wind energy front, GE Global Research, the technology development arm of the General Electric Company, and DOE’s Sandia National Laboratories earlier this month unveiled research that will significantly impact the design of future wind turbine blades. Utilizing high-performance computing to perform complex calculations, engineers have overcome previous design constraints, allowing them to begin exploring ways to design re-engineered wind blades that are low-noise and more prolific power-producers.

Earlier this year, a 36-megawatt (MW) wind energy storage and power management system, the largest in the nation, was put into full operation at the Notrees Windpower Project in West Texas. By increasing the supply of renewable energy available during periods of peak demand, the system helps stabilize the frequency of electricity traveling throughout the power grid.

The Texas project underscores the value of new storage technologies, many of which are said to be on the edge of the wide commercial market and offering solutions to renewable energy intermittency. The rising development of microgrids – small-scale versions of the central electricity system – is a response to wider system shutdowns in severe weather (think Hurricane Sandy) and is driving the energy storage market.

A University of Michigan research team has combined a fungus and E. coli bacteria to convert hard-to-process waste plant material into isobutanol, a biofuel that matches gasoline’s properties. The team used corn stalks and leaves to make the fuel, but says other agricultural byproducts and wood-harvesting residue can be used with the microbial duo.

These are among hundreds of advances that have come about with the help of federal and state policies and funding mechanisms that must be sustained to encourage private investment in a new energy future. Advocates can find many new discoveries within their respective renewable energy fields and share them with policy makers, who, in turn, can enable wider development of clean energy technologies that boost the economy, enhance the nation’s energy security and improve the environment.

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