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Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba

Haley Zaremba is a writer and journalist based in Mexico City. She has extensive experience writing and editing environmental features, travel pieces, local news in the…

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The No.1 Bottleneck For Clean Energy Tech

Battery lab

Today’s energy tech scene is on fire. The sector is in the midst of an absolute flurry of activity and innovation, with new and novel devices, approaches, and cutting-edge software, and hardware popping up more and more frequently. As the need for clean energy alternatives becomes more urgent, with global leading experts like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that the tipping point towards catastrophic environmental damage is right around the corner, clean energy researchers have responded in kind, publishing a litany of research pointing to a myriad of potential solutions for replacing fossil fuels. So why is the world still running on oil?

Let’s back up and take a look at some of the incredible energy innovations that have been unveiled in recent years. We’ll start with one that’s currently a hot topic, as it’s being touted as one of the most exciting prospects for clean power production, and that’s wave energy. This novel technique harnesses the ebb and flow of ocean tides in order to produce an extremely clean form of renewable energy. Interestingly enough, wave energy is in itself a form of solar energy and wind energy combined. As explained by World Finance, “when the Sun’s rays hit the Earth’s atmosphere, they heat it up. Around the globe, a difference in temperature naturally occurs, causing air to move from hotter regions to cooler ones, resulting in wind. As winds move across the seas, some of their kinetic energy is transferred to the water, creating waves.” Creating energy from harnessing the vertical movements of the ocean holds major potential for transforming our energy landscape for the better. As Sea Wave Energy CEO Adamos Zakheos told World Finance, “Wave energy, when harnessed correctly, can produce an abundance of environmentally friendly, cheap, renewable energy, significantly reducing the dependence on fossil fuels. We all see the effects of global warming; by exploiting blue energy, nations can take a responsible step towards securing a brighter future for their citizens – and their heirs.” 

Speaking of water, it’s already been five years since Cynthia Sin Nga Lam, one of the brilliant teen finalists in Google’s 2014 Science Fair, developed a device that cleans polluted water and produces energy at the same time, with major potential health and economic benefits for impoverished communities lacking both potable water and energy sources. As Fast Company explains, the device works as following: “Dirty water goes in one end, and a titanium mesh, activated by the sun, sterilizes the water and sends it through an extra filter. The photocatalytic reaction also splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen–so someone can flip a switch and start feeding a hydrogen fuel cell to produce clean power. Detergent, soap, and other pollutants in the water help make more hydrogen.” While Lam has moved on to other ventures since her high school days, however, her idea is not dead in the water, so to speak--a team of scientists at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia are working on a similar device mounted on a solar panel that also cleans water and produces energy simultaneously. “While the solar cell harvests sunlight for electricity, heat from the solar panel drives evaporation in the water distiller below. That vapor wafts through a porous polystyrene membrane that filters out salt and other contaminants, allowing clean water to condense on the other side,” reports Science News Related: The Race To Develop A 50 Billion Barrel Oilfield

Even solar panels, which are no longer really considered new or innovative as they’ve become a household name and even a household item for many, have seen amazing advances with major potential for improved efficiency and performance. As OilPrice reported last December, one of the most promising technologies still somehow flying under the radar in the world of solar panels is something called concentrated photovoltaics. “Concentrated photovoltaics utilizes a combination of lenses and curved mirrors to focus the natural sunlight it gathers onto compact and extremely efficient multi-junction solar cells, and often comes equipped with solar trackers and a cooling system for an even more efficient and streamlined process.” 

And then there is the “anti-solar panel” developed at Stanford, which has the ability to harness energy from the night sky. The thermoelectric generator-based device works by capturing energy from the variance in temperature between Earth and outer space by use of “a passive cooling mechanism known as radiative sky cooling to maintain the cold side of a thermoelectric generator several degrees below ambient” according to the researchers’ report, poetically titled “Generating Light from Darkness.”

These examples are really just a tiny, tiny sampling of what’s happening at the cutting edge of clean and renewable energies. Apart from these promising breakthrough technologies, there are also incredible developments with Artificial Intelligence, nuclear waste cleaning robots, hydrogen fuel cells, and much, much more (even jellyfish are involved!) So why are these amazing technologies still flying under the radar? What is keeping them from being adopted into the mainstream energy sector? Related: Vigilante Offers $100,000 Bounty To Hack Oil & Gas Companies

In a word: funding. An article last year from the MIT Technology Review titled “Why Bad Things Happen to Clean-Energy Startups” reported that “By now [bankruptcy] is a familiar phenomenon in clean energy. Companies must make a massive up-front investment to develop new hardware and scale up manufacturing, all while chasing moving price and performance targets as incumbent technologies improve. Faced with such challenges, vanishingly few succeed.” 

While global investment in renewable energies has been increasing, growth has not been steady, and in the United States it remains largely stagnant and in terms of governance barriers it’s getting even worse. Almost all of the promising technologies outlined above explicitly cited the need for more investment as a barrier to scaling up. “The question is where such investments will come from,” says MIT. “The Trump administration has taken steps to dismantle the federal funding program for clean-energy startups, and venture capital investments for such technologies have dropped nearly 30 percent since 2011, from $7.5 billion to $5.2 billion, according to a recent report from the Brookings Institution.”

In order to avoid catastrophic climate change, “a third of all oil reserves, half of gas reserves and over 80% of current coal reserves would need to remain in the ground”--and that was as of 2015. Now the situation is even more dire. While there is still no silver bullet solution to boundless clean energy that would be as reliable and cheap as fossil fuels, there is no more time to stall. There is a wide and exciting field of clean energy technologies already available, and it’s growing all the time. The science is there, the reasoning is there, and the urgency is there. Now we just need the funding. 

By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com


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