Greening the Green: Advancements in Renewable Energy0

Ysabel Yates | Thu Jun 7 2012

Renewable energy has come a long way in recent years, and all trends are pointing to a further decrease in costs, increase in popularity and efficiency improvements.

But, as with all technology, renewable energy has some room for improvement. Even zero carbon energy sources have environmental impacts, whether it’s conflicts with wildlife, competition for land or technology that isn’t yet mature. The scientific community has been seeking solutions to these challenges – often by looking to nature for solutions.

To see how far we’ve come, and to get a better picture of where we’re going, we’re shining a spotlight on some of the many advances happening now in renewable energy technology.

1. Wave Energy

Why we like it: Waves hold an enormous amount of power, and, if harnessed effectively, the amount of energy generated could be comparable and competitive with conventional energy sources.

The challenge: Underwater energy generation makes lots of noise, though much of it takes place below the surface. Scientists believe this noise may harm marine life by interfering with hunting, communication, and migration.

Meeting the challenge:
Energy firms are experimenting with bubble curtains, which dampen underwater sounds by altering the shape of the noise wave. In addition, a promising new research study found that some whales have a built-in mechanism to adjust their hearing, which protects them from their own clicks and noises while they hunt by echolocation. Researchers studying this natural mechanism hope they can one day use it to protect whales from harmful man-made noises.

2. Plant-based biofuels

Why we like it: Biofuels make things easy on the consumer because no new technology needs to be added or changed when they are used instead of fossil fuel. They are also cleaner, and release fewer toxins than fossil fuels, and can be made from a wide variety of biomass, including plants and waste products.

The challenge: The bulk of commercial biofuel is produced using cropland, raising concern that biofuels take up too much land and resources to be scalable. Added to this is the fact they have a lower energy output than fossil fuels, meaning larger quantities are needed to produce the same amount of energy.

Meeting the challenge: Recent advances in the production of algae-based biofuel point to a promising future for this green energy. Algae is a good candidate for biofuel because it sequesters a lot of carbon, which gives it more energy potential. It also doesn’t take up valuable land resources because it is grown in water, and is efficient at converting sugar straight into lipids and oils.

3. Solar Power

Why we like it:
Solar panels are a low maintenance, silent, versatile, and popular renewable energy resource. They are readily available, simple to install, and have a long lifespan.

The challenge: While panel efficiency (the rate at which panels convert sunlight) has been improving rapidly, the top panels still range from the teens to low 20 percent.

Meeting the challenge:
Taking a cue from the best photosynthesizers on the planet, researchers are modeling new solar cells after plants. The latest advances in creating the artificial leaf is helping to both improve efficiency and reduce cost.

4. The Smart Grid

Why we like it:
Although not strictly a renewable resource, the smart grid has many of the same benefits: a reduction in carbon emissions and conservation of non-renewable energy. A smart grid will be crucial to integrating more intermittent energy sources, such as wind and solar, into the grid.

The challenge: The smart grid is lacking connections to many sources of renewable energy, which are often far out.

Meeting the challenge:
A recent report from Pike Research projects the next several years will see more renewable energy sources become integrated into the smart grid. This will both increase the market for renewable energy sources and open a new market for technology that enables the use of renewable energy.

Top image: Courtesy AgriLife.