Next Generation Renewables
By Mark Kleszczewski
Even though relatively low-cost natural gas has become a major player factor in today’s domestic energy market, it’s an exciting time for renewable energy. In the U.S., solar has become one of the fastest-growing energy sectors, biomass energy adoption is on the upswing and even wind power continues to see substantial activity in many parts of the country.
The “Smart Energy” paradigm is evolving from niche markets into a standardized part of the global energy portfolio, noted analysts at Navigant Research, formerly Pike Research, in a recent industry report. Oil majors, national governments and technology developers are realizing that a more diversified energy mix is critical to sustainable economic growth in the future. As a result of this direction, new energy sources and advanced technologies are entering the market.
As a new energy technologies compete for attention and development funding, communities focusing talent and resources at ambitious ideas in the sector stand to gain from the growing demand for fossil fuel alternatives.
Renewables Ride the Wave
As with solar and wind, emerging renewable technologies in the U.S. are benefiting from international experience. One example is across the Atlantic in Scotland, which is leading the way in renewable energy in the Pentland Firth area, an ideal site for harnessing hydrokinetic power.
“Scotland is a world leader in the development of offshore wind, wave and tidal renewable energy and has some of the best testing and R&D facilities in the world,” says Danny Cusick, president, Americas, Scottish Development International.
“Scotland has 25 percent of Europe’s wind and tidal capacity and will have a significant role to play in meeting the Scottish government’s target of 100 percent energy from renewable resources by 2020,” Cusick says. “In addition, the sector is also estimated to be worth a potential £1 billion to Scotland’s economy by 2020 — so it’s an opportunity we can’t afford to ignore.”
In April of this year, U.S. tidal power company ResHydro announced plans to establish operations in Glasgow, becoming the first American renewable energy inward investment in Scotland. Establishing a base there will allow the company to take its hydrokinetic energy generation technology closer to commercialization.
According to Cusick, the plans are to build an initial nine megawatt (MW) demonstration array of up to six underwater turbines by 2015. This will provide valuable environmental data for the subsequent phases and the wider tidal energy industry. When fully operational, the 86 MW array could generate enough electricity to power the equivalent of 42,000 homes.
Back in North America, Florida is a major driver of collaborations between academia and industry to move tidal and wave-based energy innovations from the lab into the real world.
Supported by a research grant from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council (FHTCC), scientists from the University of Central Florida (UCF) and Harris Corp. are developing a type of buoy that would harness wave energy for a number of oceanographic applications and could even provide clean power generation on a larger scale.
“We’re developing a buoy that moves with the tide, using its kinetic motion to generate electricity in a sustainable way and reduce the need of using ships to supply fuel to sensing and communication systems,” says Dr. Zhihua Qu, professor and chair, ECE division, University of Central Florida.
The project is currently in the modeling and engineering phase, but if researchers develop a method of mass-producing and storing the ocean’s energy, such technology could eventually lead to “buoy farms” that use continuous ocean currents to generate electricity and potentially provide power to buildings and other structures on land.
“Heavy oil and natural gas will be the primary energy sources utilized over the next few decades, until renewable capacity can be built up sufficiently to displace them,” says Mark E. Blue, chief technology officer, Harris Corp. “Our goal is to mitigate as much of that impact as we can. The best part about developing technology at Harris and in central Florida is the diversity of technical skills resident in our community. We are traditionally a high-technology region and our local culture is one that is open to innovation and the possibilities new technologies can present.”
Florida’s pro-business environment and favorable year-round physical climate, make it an ideal place to establish an algae industry that will contribute to the national need for renewable fuel production, while supplying the market with animal feed and fishmeal, according to Dr. George Philippidis, associate professor of sustainable energy at the Patel College of Global Sustainability, University of South Florida (USF).
In a public-private partnership that launched in 2011, USF has teamed up with Lakeland, Fla.-based Culture Fuels Inc. to develop a novel floating algae cultivation platform intended to serve the entire algae industry regardless of used strain and end product. The goal is to reduce both capital expenditures and operating costs, helping render algae cultivation more cost-competitive.
“Florida is in a position to accommodate the algae industry’s needs with a sizeable skilled workforce and unutilized or underutilized land, such as abandoned mines, aquaculture operations and wastewater treatment facilities,” Philippidis adds. “Moreover, industrial sites in Florida, where utility, cement and fertilizer plants operate, can provide all of the key ingredients of success for the algal fuel industry: land, wastewater and CO2.”
Moving north to Canada, strong support from the government and groups such as the Ontario Clean Technology Alliance are helping to overcome barriers and bring emerging renewable energy and products closer to the marketplace.
“A lot of technologies that look great in the lab just cannot scale,” cautions Duane Chung, president and CEO, Algaeneers Inc. “Many companies have basically folded because they can’t get to the level of commercial production. Especially for algae, it’s a very difficult proposition. So the main trend in the industry is to diversify and not just produce a commodity fuel. We’re looking at algae that can produce customized oils to make high-value goods, such health care and medical products.”
Chung cites Ontario’s historical strengths in pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, along with a strong academic base, good sources of feedstock and highly-trained, qualified people who are really good at working at the edge of genetic engineering as assets helping to fuel the company’s path toward economic success.
Profiting from Pollution
In addition to the possibilities of algal oil and hydrokinetic technologies, one type of renewable energy with a proven, growing market is anaerobic digestion, which turns waste streams into revenue streams.
“Anaerobic digestion provides a dependable, local power source that’s available around-the-clock,” says Paul Sellew, founder and CEO, Harvest Power. “The tiny microbes that feast on the discards from society are always working. That means fewer backup power plants are needed than with other renewable energy sources. Our Energy Gardens use trillions of naturally-occurring bacteria that produce biogas, a renewable and extremely flexible fuel that can be used to meet the energy needs of local communities — it can be converted into renewable electricity and heat, pipeline-grade natural gas and compressed natural gas (CNG) for vehicles.”
Sellew says the U.S. is far behind other countries when it comes to putting in place progressive policies and incentives to increase energy production of biogas through anaerobic digestion technology. In the U.S., solar and wind receive a lot of attention but in Germany, the portion of energy produced using biogas is larger than hydro, wind and solar combined.
The company, which currently operates over 30 sites in more than 15 different states and provinces, recently opened up the largest commercial-scale, high-solids anaerobic digester in North America in Richmond, British Columbia. The system is designed for that region’s waste stream: mixed green waste and food scraps. It was also a favorable site due to recycling policies set by the local government, clean energy incentives and a robust agriculture market. Another successful example of the technology’s flexibility Sellew points to is in London, Ontario, where it made more sense to build a low-solids anaerobic digester to meet the needs of the food processors in the region.
Fueling the Future
Emerging renewable technologies such as algal oil, hydrokinetics, biogas or even more commercially-mature alternatives like offshore wind play a very small role in the current U.S. energy industry. Among the challenges facing new and emerging forms of renewable energy include government and regulatory uncertainty, lack of investment and scalability, and variable demand-side policies regarding feed-in-tariffs and utility procurement.
Despite these and other obstacles, the growing adoption and viability of solar, biomass and wind energy have demonstrated that success is possible in developing alternatives to fossil fuels. As renewable energy becomes increasingly commonplace, communities will find that not only can involvement in the sector lead to economic opportunities, it’s a necessary investment in the future.
“There are some pretty major issues like fresh water, food supply, climate change and energy that we are going to face in future decades,” Chung urges. “They don’t impact us as much in the short-term so it’s hard to feel a sense of urgency, but at some point we have to have a long-term focus. Otherwise, our kids and future generations are really going to struggle, so it’s important to take this seriously.”
For complete details on the organizations featured in this article, visit: