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Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham

Nick Cunningham is an independent journalist, covering oil and gas, energy and environmental policy, and international politics. He is based in Portland, Oregon. 

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Five Crazy New Forms Of Energy That Just Might Work

In this age of rising greenhouse gas emissions, everyone is looking for ways to scale up clean energy and cut back on fossil fuels. That typically involves the usual approaches: solar, wind, nuclear power, and hydropower.

But what if there are other technologies out there that could take a bite out of fossil fuels? There almost certainly will not be one silver bullet, but in the future there could potentially be a much broader portfolio of clean tech than just solar and wind.

Here are five technologies that may be a few years away (in some cases, many years away), but hold some promise of one day providing a significant source of pollution-free energy.

1.  Tidal and wave power. Although somewhat different technologies, tidal and wave power capture energy from the movement of the ocean. Tidal power generates energy from the tides moving in and out, and is a little further along in development. Wave power generates energy from the rise and fall of waves and is still in the experimental phase. A company called Ocean Power Technologies planned to build a wave power pilot project off the Oregon coast – and received federal and state grants to do so – but abandoned the project after costs became too high. But tidal power in particular offers a lot of promise since there is no shortage of coastline on which to build. A third potential marine technology uses thermal energy; Lockheed Martin is pioneering what it calls Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC), which uses the temperature differences between surface water and deep water to drive a steam cycle.

2.   High altitude wind. Similar to the land-based and offshore versions, high-altitude wind energy harnesses power from wind, but as the name suggests, from very high altitudes. Turbines are tethered to the ground via cables and fly hundreds of feet in the air where winds are much stronger and more consistent. There are more than 20 companies developing prototypes but none have yet produced a commercially viable technology.

Related Article: When the Wind Doesn’t Blow

3.  Solar roads. The possibility of a future in which roads are paved with solar panels created some buzz this spring when a couple in Idaho launched a crowd funding campaign to make that happen. The project also received lots of publicity when a YouTube video – “solar freakin roadways” – went viral and has been viewed almost 17 million times. Scott and Julie Bradshaw invented hexagonal solar panels durable enough to withstand vehicle traffic and the elements. They insist that if all 28,000 miles of U.S. roadways are covered in these solar cells, it would generate three times more power than the entire country uses. They won several contracts from the Federal Highway Administration to build a prototype solar parking lot, which is the first of its kind. They are confident it is a stepping stone to a much bigger market for solar roadways.

4.  Space solar. Solar is making major inroads in the electric power sector, but the one downside is that it doesn’t generate power constantly – the sun has an annoying tendency of not shining in the same spot all the time. Some scientists hope to get around that problem by building solar panels in space. Space-based solar power would generate power from the sun 24/7, and then beam the energy down to anywhere on earth using lasers or microwaves. A receiver can turn the energy into useful power. Although the technology sounds great in theory, costs would be steep and it remains a long way off.

5.  Sewage waste. Cities everywhere have to deal with human waste on an enormous scale. Treating water and disposing of waste costs a lot of money, but what if that waste could be turned into useful electricity? The idea is that human waste is taken to a treatment plant where it is heated and pressurized. Then microorganisms known as methanogens go to work on the waste, and methane is produced as a byproduct. The methane can be captured and burned as electricity. The District of Columbia is going to try it out. If it works. D.C.’s water treatment agency will use the electricity to power its own operations.

By Nick Cunningham of Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • Larry Lundgren on June 27 2014 said:
    I realize you are naming "new kinds" but the American puzzle - illustrated consistenly in the New York Times - is that one would never know that the Nordic countries use two technologies large scale that the Times, Barack Obamas advisors, and others refuse to mention: High tech incineration of municipal waste, which heats the Swedish city I live in and all others (mine Linköping) and Ground Source Geothermal (Heat Pump Geothermal). I write from Burlington, Vermont where at least state agencies and colleges (Saint Michaels and Champlain) are showing what is possible. See my comments at Ross Douthat (Times) 25 June and Only-NeverInSweden.blogspot.com
  • William Johnson on June 28 2014 said:
    All five of these technology dreams are recycled from earlier articles. The reporter should go dig into energy history before declaring anything "new".
    Wave and Tidal generators have been proposed since the 1950s.
    High altitude wind turbines on tethered kite/balloon systems were proposed in 1960.
    Solar power roads were proposed as soon as solar panels were invented.
    collection of methane from waste dispoal is being used by some cities already as collectors are installed in landfills. In the 1870s, Washington, DC had a sewer system which utilized anaerobic digestion. The producer gas was piped throughout the city for lighting and cooking fuel. It was replaced when pipelines from the vast gas fields of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana were far cheaper than producer gas. It was discontinued when Thomas Alva Edison and Nicolai Tesla made electrical lighting and power practical.
    A little search of history can bring amazing things to the light of day.
  • john tucker on June 29 2014 said:
    All of these ideas have been kicked around in the media for as long as I can remember, and that's a longer period of time than I care to admit.

    The basic problem, I guess, is that physics is not a required course in high schools in the USA, but evidently Disney Fantasy writing is....

    A single gallon of gasoline, which for the past 100 years has been simple and easy to obtain, contains the same potential energy that 414 strong men can exert in an hour. There's simply nothing else like it on earth and now we are running low....

    We never had it so good. And now, its mostly gone. People would do much better to start relearning the old skills, like blacksmithing and leather tanning and rope weaving, because the water mill, the horse and buggy, and the schooner, will be the tools society will need again to enact commerce. those few who survive, that is ....
  • noracoolgirl on April 08 2015 said:
    this is really cool and maybe this stuff will come out one day. Some of this has already have come out though.

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