Renewable Energy

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Introduction to the Green Technology Industry

The phrase “Green Technologies” implies the application of advanced systems and services to a wide variety of industry sectors in order to improve sustainability. That means that the goals could include: reduction of waste, spoilage and shrinkage; improvement of energy efficiency and energy conservation; creation of systems that are energy self-sustaining; the reduction carbon emissions; a reduction in the production of toxic waste and the emission of toxic gasses such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs); creation of products that are biodegradable; enhancement of water conservation and water quality; and promotion of the reuse and recycling of materials of all types.

The application of such technologies, systems and practices need not be especially high tech in nature. For example, better design and engineering is creating packaging for a wide range of products that is lighter in weight, more recyclable and less reliant on petrochemicals. This improved engineering is also leading to both products and their related packaging that have a smaller footprint—thus more units can be shipped in one shipping container, cutting down on the total amount of energy used in transporting a large volume of units.

The global consumer class (the “middle class” segment of the population—those with at least enough income to make a modest amount of discretionary purchases) is booming. The middle class grew from about 1.1 billion in 1980 to 2.0 billion by 2011, and is expected by to soar to 5 billion by 2030. This rapid expansion will put tremendous pressure on resources of all types, including energy, water, food, construction materials and industrial materials. Moreover, this soaring demand will put powerful upward pressure on prices, which, in turn, will make the cost of greener conservation and efficiency technologies increasingly easier to justify.

In general, the technologies and related services in the “green” sector can be grouped into the following categories:

Energy

  • · Renewable and alternative energy production
  • · Energy conservation
  • · Energy storage

Water

  • · Water conservation
  • · Water recycling
  • · Production of water from alternative sources, such as desalination

Environmental and Pollution Devices and Services

  • · Waste management, disposal and recycling
  • · Toxic waste elimination, remediation
  • · Emission control
  • · Inspection, engineering, testing and consulting
  • · Product and systems design and re-engineering

Other Resources

  • · Recycling and conservation of metals, woods, paper, chemicals and plastics
  • · Conservation of land, waterways and wildlife habitat

Primary industry sectors targeted for the application of green technologies include:

  • · Agriculture
  • · Food processing and distribution
  • · Energy
  • · Manufacturing
  • · Transportation and Shipping
  • · Construction, building operation and building maintenance
  • · Power generation and distribution
  • · Water systems

The broad field of energy will be focused on conservation and efficiency as well as the development of new energy sources. In fact, throughout the green technology sector, conservation is where the low-hanging fruit lies. The easiest green solutions will be in better insulation in buildings; lighter materials in cars, trucks and airplanes; reduction of today’s massive leaks in municipal water systems; and better storage, in the emerging world, of agricultural products in order to reduce spoilage.

Simply making efficiency in material and energy use a consideration in engineering and design of all types is already having a dramatic effect on sustainability. For example, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer by far, recently set a goal for its suppliers to reduce packaging on average by 5% from 2008 to 2013. At first glance, this may not sound like much, but the fact is that the amount of packaged products that flow through Wal-Mart in a given year, with its $400 billion+ in annual revenues, is so massive that 5% will add up to a tremendous amount.

As part of this process, the company has created a sustainable packaging scorecard for more than 627,000 items that are sold in its stores and Sam’s Clubs. The scorecard evaluates environmental attributes of packaging, and enables its suppliers to measure how their packaging reduces energy consumption, cuts waste and fuels sustainability. The company even has an annual “Sustainable Packaging Expo” where its suppliers can meet with leading packaging manufacturers and designers to learn about the latest technologies and innovations. Long term, Wal-Mart has set a goal of being packaging-neutral by 2025, that is, recycling packaging and waste to the extent that it uses no more packaging materials than it creates.

Over the longer term, more advanced technologies and solutions will be developed and applied. Future answers to green challenges will be found in areas as diverse as highly efficient automobiles that virtually drive themselves, lighter aircraft bodies and changes in building materials. Convergence of multiple technologies (including nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technologies such as artificial intelligence and predictive analytics), along with the continuing advance of miniaturization, will guide these efforts.

The electric utilities industry has told us for decades that it is a lot easier and cheaper to conserve electricity through the use of efficient industrial systems, buildings and appliances than it is to build more capacity to generate additional power. However, conservation is not an immediate fix; instead, it is a long-term evolution. For example, a few decades ago, one of the major expenders of energy in a typical American home was the gas pilot light, burning 24/7 on furnaces, cooking stoves and water heaters. Today’s appliances don’t have pilot lights; they have on-demand electric igniters, so that no gas is burned while the appliance is idle. Likewise, today’s refrigerators use about 75% less electricity than the refrigerators of 1975, while holding 20% more capacity, because they feature better insulation and more efficient cooling systems. Otis, a world leader in elevator design and manufacture, recently introduced its Gen2 elevator, which uses up to 75% less electricity than previous models. These are good examples of simple, extremely cost-effective reductions in energy usage, but such changes take time—we didn’t see old-technology refrigerators tossed out of all homes in America at once.

Ever since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, factories have been burning such fuels as coal and natural gas to make steam, flame their furnaces and turn their engines, but historically they let the resulting excess heat escape through stacks. Now, with the concept of co-generation (or CHP, “combined heat and power”), this is less and less likely to be the case. In manufacturing plants, co-generation is being widely applied as a simple, relatively low tech method to capture and reuse factory heat that is generated by industrial processes. That salvaged heat may be used in any of several ways to power a turbine that creates electricity. The electricity can then be used by the factory, sold to the grid, or both.

Oil and gas fields are becoming much more efficient. For decades oil fields flared off excess gas in brilliant, multi-story towers of flame, even in Alaska, relatively close to the lower 48 states’ gas-hungry consumers. Today, except in the remotest fields, that is less likely to happen, as investments have been made in gathering systems and pipelines to bring the gas to market. Meanwhile, advanced technologies and practices are enabling older fields to be productive for much longer periods of time, greatly increasing the total amount of oil and gas that each well will produce over a lifetime.

Throughout the energy arena, the list of potential applications for nanotech to enhance production, storage and conservation continues to grow. For example, a lot of time and money is being invested in research using nanotube technology to create highly efficient energy storage devices—essentially giant batteries. Success could bring a significant breakthrough for the solar and wind energy industries, where storage solutions are vital to making alternative power generation more viable. Cost-effective ways to store electricity would mean that wind power could be captured when the wind is blowing and utilized later, and solar power could likewise be banked.

Nanotech will bring forth revolutionary new processes in the entire energy sector. A global oil industry conference on nanotechnology was held in November 2009. Discussion at the conference included the application of nanotech to such areas as improved drilling (for instance, the ability to withstand harsh environments, high temperatures and the high pressures of deep wells), drilling fluids, “smart” drill bits, enhanced methods for downhole measurement and monitoring, long-lasting coatings and improved post-drilling water filtration.

Tremendous strides in green technology are also being made throughout the transportation services and transport equipment industries. Lee Schipper, a Senior Engineer at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University, points out that air transportation in developed countries today uses 50% to 60% less energy per passenger-kilometer travelled than it did in the early 1970s, and trucking uses 10% to 25% less fuel per ton-kilometer. Additional developments in transportation include the use of natural gas to fuel public transportation and the development of energy-efficient light rail.

Renewable energy has emerged as a significant source in the global energy mix, accounting for around a fifth of worldwide electricity production. Much of this success has stemmed from economic incentives and significant policy effort by countries, particularly those in the OECD. Massive investment has taken place on a global scale, with costs for most technologies falling steadily. As a result, renewable energy technologies are becoming more economically attractive in an increasing range of countries and circumstances, with China, India and Brazil emerging as leaders in deployment.

While renewable energy has been the fastest growing sector of the energy mix in percentage terms, its continued growth will depend upon the evolution of policy and market frameworks. Further technology development, grid and system integration issues and the availability of finance will also weigh as key variables.