NEW IDEAS IN NEW ENERGY
USA Today profiled 4 cutting-edge New Energy concepts currently getting attention from a lot of the venture capitalists scouting the field for the new new thing.
The ideas: (1) Fast printing of thin-film solar panels; (2) Turning biomass into E-coal, a dense solid coal substitute; (3) Algae-derived ethanol; (4) Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)
Nanosolar’s is one of many mass production techniques being tested in the thin-film marketplace and there is no certainty it is THE technique. One will certainly emerge.
The NewEarth E-coal concept definitely beats coal. But just because chemotherapy and radiation therapy beat death don’t make them things anybody would volunteer for except under the direst of circumstances. There are limits on capacity potential and cost effectiveness but it is has short term applicability.
Algenol’s algae-derived ethanol is interesting but the real value of algae is as a source of high-density liquid energy. Algae can be refined into anything petroleum can be refined into, which makes them potentially invaluable as heavy vehicle and jet biofuels and as plastics feedstocks. Current massive U.S. subsidies for ethanol might make the Algenol concept a potentially good short term bet. The long term future of personal transportation is electric vehicles.
PSEG Global’s Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) might be really useful (see COMPRESSED AIR ENERGY STORAGE – FURTHER ON) but it reinforces the idea that wind energy needs storage to be workable whereas the truth is that the Department of Energy recently affirmed wind is capable of providing 20% of U.S. electricity without ANY storage capacity. Wind is predictable and when there is enough built and grid-connected, power from where the wind is blowing can readily be moved to where the winds have calmed.
Schematic of an Algenol plant. (click to enlarge)
Energy Innovators: 4 creative solutions to energy problems
Paul Davidson, September 8, 2008 (USA Today)
Nanosolar; NewEarth Renewable Energy; Algenol (Paul Woods, CEO) ; BioFields; PSEG Global (Stephen Byrd, president)
4 new Energy technologies selected for the promise they show: (1) Fast printing of thin-film solar panels; (2) Turning biomass into E-coal, a dense solid coal substitute; (3) Algae-derived ethanol; (4) Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES)
Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) - dispatchable wind energy. (click to enlarge)
- 2007: The wind and solar industries each grew 45%.
- June 2008: The U.S. consumed 633,000 barrels of ethanol/day, 43% higher than June 2007.
- First 6 months of 2008: Venture capital investments in New Energy was $980 million, - 92% more than the investment in the first 6 months of 2007.
- 2010 or after: Solar energy expected to be cost competitive.
- Cellulosic ethanol is several years away.
- Algenol expects to make ethanol from algae in 2009 and generate 20 billion gallons of ethanol by 2020.
- CAES would store wind energy as compressed air during off-peak hours and release it at peak periods to run turbines and generate electricity.
- 1991: The only U.S. compressed-air generator was built.
- Nanosolar is based in Northern California.
- Nanosolar opened a factory in San Jose in December 2007.
- NewEarth Renewable Energy is based in Seattle.
- Algenol is based in Maryland.
- BioFields will use Algenol technology in a saltwater algae farm in Mexico's Sonoran Desert.
- Algenol wants to build 20 plants in sunny areas such as Texas and Florida.
(1) Most thin-film makers cut costs by reducing the amount of silicon they use but it is still expensive to attach the silicon onto a base. The Nanosolar technique embeds tiny silicon particles in ink and coats a layer of ink on mile-long rolls of aluminum foil that is then cut into solar panels. It turns out panels at 100 feet/minute, 20 times faster than present processes at 1/10 the cost. Nanosolar opened a factory in December 2007 with a 430-megawatts/year capacity, comparable to an average coal-fired power plant. It will make huge solar panels for cities and other utility-scale users this year and target businesses and homes next year.
(2) NewEarth Renewable Energy’s E-Coal is biomass made from plants and organic waste. It is a substitute for coal but gives off only the greenhouse gas emissions it absorbs by growing. It usually yields only 1/3 to ½ coal's energy but NewEarth boosts its energy content by burning it in an oxygen-deprived chamber at 250 degrees to a condensed solid.
NewEarth has also made the process cost-efficient by using Nile reed. The process does not require coal plants to be upgraded and costs 5% to 40% less than regular coal. It will be blended with coal initially but can eventually replace coal.
(3) Corn-based ethanol is a lost cause. Algae, mostly used as biodiesel, can also be made into ethanol. BioFields will use Algenol technology in an $850 million saltwater algae farm in Mexico's Sonoran Desert and make 100 million gallons of ethanol/year as a gas substitute for Mexico's state-run oil monopoly. Algae are made into biodiesel by killing them to extracting their oil. Algenol adds enzymes and sunlight to enhance their ability to convert sugar into ethanol. It grows the algae in 50-foot long tubes filled with seawater. Ethanol is captured as a gas and condensed into liquid. The algae aren't destroyed and keep producing ethanol. The cost is half of corn ethanol’s. It will wholesale for $1 less than gasoline. An NREL scientist calls it "definitely doable" but points out algae-ethanol does not have the high energy content of other oils.
(4) Batteries can compensate for wind’s intermittency but are expensive. CAES uses wind power during low demand periods to compress air into underground caverns or above-ground tanks and then releases the air at peak demand periods to run turbines and generate power. The newest system, 25% less costly than previous prototypes because it uses off the shelf parts, is half the price of batteries. It also generate electricity in 5 minutes instead of the 20 minutes required by current prototypes. It is designed to supplement intermittent wind or solar power by storing low cost, off peak power and supplementing the grid at times of high demand. Success depends on finding and using cheap, efficient storage containers.
click to enlarge
- Martin Roscheisen, CEO, Nanosolar: "It's all about higher throughput [to cut costs]…"
- Paul Maycock, consultant, Photovoltaic Energy Systems: "[Nanosolar's systems] could be one of the more exciting products [in solar energy history]…"
- Ahava Amen, CEO, NewEarth: "We can produce (clean) fuels that are pound-for-pound replacements for coal…"
- Paul Woods, CEO, Algenol: "We don't have any limitations, because we're not competing with the food supply,"
- Stephen Byrd, president, PSEG Global: "[CAES] really is likely to further enable the growth of renewable[s]…"