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Cradle of Innovation: A Golden State of Mind

California was long ago picked clean of its gold, but the state continues to foster a prospector's mentality and a willingness to sift through the swift current of ideas for one more discovery that will further cement its place as the world's center for innovation.

It’s been done in recent decades in electronics, computing, and through the rise of the dot-com and telecom industries. It’s where social media blossomed and where Google became a verb. The Golden State has also been home to some of the most novel approaches to energy — ideas that originally extended beyond the traditional power plant, but ones that ultimately circled back as mainstream solutions.

It’s also where failure is seen as an acceptable part of the exploration process, much like the many gold-diggers who paid small fortunes only to come up empty-handed. It’s this pioneering mentality that has long fueled the state, spurring equal parts risk and business acumen.

This spirit of invention remains alive and prosperous today in California, an economic giant that by itself represents the world’s eighth largest economy. And no industry in this state offers as much transformative potential than those companies and institutions pushing the boundaries of clean energy, and those looking to create new pathways to getting there.

It is widely recognized that most new technologies will fail to deliver on the promise  envisioned at the outset. Often times, though, the discoveries far outlive their inventors, and the new products and new methods created forge a path for even bigger and greater achievements.

Below, you will find a collection of projects that are working to change the landscape of our energy future. Some were born and raised in the labs of small companies. Others received funding from the federal government, which saw the technology as worthy of investment. Some are outwardly daring. Others provide subtle shifts to established technologies. For all, their potential is great and their mission is unwavering.

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Solar

California is known for its wide expanses and long commutes. But one short 10-minute car trip will take you across the solar spectrum. On one side of Santa Barbara, a tourist haven known to some as the “American Riviera,” is a solar company reinventing how the sun is captured by a solar cell. On the other side of town is an equally entrepreneurial venture where solar power is being used to create, of all things, a form of natural gas.

Solar3D sees efficiency as the Holy Grail for the industry. According to the company, solar panels have a couple of serious limitations that impact their efficiency. First, 30 percent of the sunlight that strikes the surface of a traditional silicon cell is reflected. Many of the electrons that are impacted by the remaining sunlight are absorbed by the material and don’t ultimately contribute to the electrical current. And the contacts themselves are often on the surface of the panel, creating a shadow that limits a portion of the cell.

The company is working to overcome all three challenges. It is using an optical element on the surface of the panel to essentially trap the light within the cell. It is also using thinner collection areas to reduce efficiency lost through the materials and it is locating contacts beneath the surface to eliminate shadows. Still in the development stage, these design changes will increase the price, but the company says the increased efficiency will give the product a higher return on investment.

In preliminary testing, the company says it has surpassed 25 percent efficiency, surpassing the levels reached by current technology in the marketplace. The company is working on a prototype and is hoping to enter production by the end of this year.

On the other side of town, Hyper Solar is taking a new approach to creating natural gas by turning direct sunlight into a renewable fuel. Once in the production stage, the company could conceivably source carbon from emissions from coal and natural gas power plants to make its product, reducing greenhouse gas emission while creating a renewable product.

To get the natural gas, Hyper Solar mimics photosynthesis with billions of nanoparticles that use sunlight to separate hydrogen molecules out of water. The free hydrogen is then reacted with carbon dioxide to produce methane. In its vision of “world-scale operation,” the company says it would install acres of low-cost reactors on vacant lands and then pipe the renewable natural gas to homes, vehicle filling stations, industrial facilities and even power plants.

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Wind

In the quest to better manage the intermittency of wind, researchers must look no farther than California’s Tehachapi Pass. The area is vital to the state’s long-term goal of high levels of renewable energy integration. It’s also home to some of the country’s most consistent wind resource, and today you can find wind turbines with a collective capacity of 700 MW lining the rugged landscape. With expansion plans for sprawling wind farms, such as the Alta Wind Energy Center, coming to fruition, the area will soon be home to 3 GW of wind power capacity.

That balance of supply and demand was one of the reasons that the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., chose to make the Tehachapi Pass a focal point of its Department of Energy-funded WindSENSE program, which aims to use data mapping to better understand the extreme events that most disrupt grid operators.

The question researches are grappling with is, “Can you look back at past events to better predict when ramp events may occur?” Armed with this information, control room operators would be better able to manage the delicate balance between supply and demand.

According to lead researcher Chandrika Kamath, getting the right wind speed prediction — especially during a ramp event when the energy can change by more than 1,000 MW in a hour — is vital to the success of an operation.

While the Lawrence Livermore lab continues to work with AWS Truepower on a wind modeling system that can be used by operators in the short-term, other companies in California are taking a much longer view of the wind industry. For a company like Alameda-based Makani Power, that means a virtual reinvention of the wind turbine.

The industry is racing against itself to reach new heights, literally, because that’s where the best wind resources can be found. But that almost always means taller turbines that come at a greater cost in materials, construction and environmental pushback. Makani is working on the Airborn Wind Turbine, which in theory works like a traditional turbine. But the Google-backed company’s 10-kW prototype veers from the norm in its execution. Instead of longer and longer blades affixed to a hub, it uses a kite-like wing tethered to the ground to achieve the large circular areas that are capable of generating more power. The energy extracted from the “blade” drives small wing-mounted high-speed generators, which then transmit energy to the ground via conductors in the tether.

The company sees itself as a lighter-weight, less-expensive and higher-efficiency turbine, especially deep offshore and in areas where traditional turbines would be unable to access the stronger more consistent winds found at higher altitudes.

In development since 2006, Makani reached a milestone in the fall when it demonstrated the wing’s onboard computer system, which guides its circular path and allows it the ability to hover during periods of low wind.

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Biofuel

Researchers across the industry are mining plants — both onshore and offshore — for the potential to create low-cost biofuels. So far, the gains have been consistent, but a viable economic model has been elusive. It’s not that they can’t convert the switchgrass or algae into biofuels — it’s that they can’t do it directly and at a low-enough cost to achieve the scale required.

To help in this effort, researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto are taking a hard look at a bacteria universally maligned for its ability to make us sick. From the scientists’ perspective, however, it also has the ability to make our cars move. E. coli is touted because it can convert plant sugars into biofuels. But how to get the bacteria to work faster and more effectively remains a challenge. To better understand this, researchers are going inside E. coli in a quest to engineer a better germ. By tweaking the internal functions of the bacteria, they hope to move past the biological limitations and toward a more cost-effective model.

Similar work is being carried out by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute, which is based in California. The group in late November announced a milestone in which it engineered strains of e. coli that can digest switchgrass and synthesize its sugars into gasoline, diesel and aviation fuels without the use of enzyme additives, which today adds a costly and time-consuming step.

The developments at both labs are seen as significant steps toward achieving a long-term vision of a viable alternative to petroleum.  

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Geothermal

By California standards, the Salton Sea is not prime real estate. For the geothermal industry, though, the region is a fertile area for growth.

A couple of hundred feet below sea level in the vast, dry expanse north of the Mexican border, the region sits atop the San Andreas Fault. Its geothermal potential is unsurpassed in the United States. Its mineral makeup, though, has long posed some challenges, leaving the development of that geothermal potential to a select few.

El Centro-based EnergySource is putting the finishing touches on the Salton Sea area’s first standalone geothermal plant in 20 years. The 49 MW Hudson Ranch I project is expected to come online by the end of the first quarter, and the company plans to start drilling for Hudson Ranch II, also 49 MW, at some point this summer.

The project, which will represent the first geothermal plant to come online in the U.S. since 2010, is employing the best available technologies previously used in the Salton Sea area, according to EnergySource President and CEO Dave Watson.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is how it plans to deal with the high levels of mineralization that defines the region. To overcome the hurdles, the company has teamed with Bay Area-based Simbol Materials, which will help extract minerals such as lithium, manganese and zinc, which the company could then export to battery developers. Those batteries, created partly from minerals extracted from the geothermal brine, could conceivably be used for battery storage for other renewable technologies.

The relationship between the two companies solidifies both as they strengthen their positions in the Salton Sea region. The region has up to 2 GW of long-term potential power generation, but so far existing plants represent a nameplate capacity of about 350 MW. So there is immense potential for growth, and perhaps the Hudson Ranch project will pave the way for more developments that manage to turn the high mineralization into a valuable resource.


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Hydropower

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is the sixth largest publicly owned utility in the U.S. It’s also, perhaps, the most aggressive — public or private.

In 2008, it set off on an ambitious course that by 2050 would cut its greenhouse gas emissions from electrical generation to 10 percent of 1990 levels. In 2010, the utility supplied 24 percent of its retail sales with renewable energy, and its 2020 goal of 37 percent is four percent higher than the state’s already lofty goal.

Central to that long-term renewables strategy is the work it is doing on the hydro front, and two projects were awarded seven-figure grants by the Department of Energy. The bigger of these is the Iowa Hill Pumped Storage Development, which received nearly $5 million from the DOE. If the project receives state approval, the DOE grant will help the utility address construction challenges related to underground excavation. According to the DOE grant application filed by SMUD, the facility will break ground on two technologies — the variable-speed turbines and a lining to eliminate leaks in the upper reservoir.  

The project would use the existing Slab Creek Reservoir as a lower reservoir and it would build a 6,400-acrefoot reservoir atop Iowa Hill. It would then dig underground shafts and a cavern to enclose a 400 MW powerhouse and pumping facility inside the hill.

Once complete, the volume presented by the pumped storage facility will give SMUD the dispatchable capacity to respond quickly to shifting demands. Even more importantly from SMUD’s perspective, the project will be central to the utility’s stated renewable energy goals, and it creates the flexibility to take on more and bigger projects from intermittent sources like solar and wind.

If history is any indication, the growing appetite for renewable projects within the utility’s territory will spur more growth and will take the industry in a new direction. And much of that innovation is likely to happen in California.

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03/01/2015
Volume 18, Issue 3
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