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5 Renewable Energy Projects That Could Be Game Changers


With oil prices spiking (again), we highlight five projects that could lead to a brighter, more secure future.


In recent months, the promise of green energy has become a tainted subject for many Americans, mainly thanks to some high-profile cases of liquidity problems at government-funded energy firms. Solyndra (see Solyndra Folds, and So Does Dream of US Leadership in Alternative Energy) captured the most attention when it handed US citizens a tax bill of roughly $549.3 million last September.

Other US companies abandoned green energy projects altogether. BP (BP) cut its solar energy business in 2011 after concluding that it cannot turn a profit competing against Chinese companies, and Google (GOOG) has exited the alternative energy business to divert more resources toward battling its rivals.

The green energy sector also has to now compete with a new kid on the block, the fracking industry (see 5 Things You Need to Know About Fracking), which has fueled a rebirth of hydrocarbon fuel production in the US. Despite these challenges, individuals and institutions are designing new, greener technologies. Spiking oil prices have also provided an impetus for research. Investors and lawmakers hope to avoid a derailment of the economy by finding alternative means of energy if the price of gasoline goes well north of $4 a gallon. Listed below are five ideas being developed.

1. Hot Volcanic Rocks
Many of us equate volcanoes with danger, but scientists investigating dormant volcanoes in Deschutes National Park in Bend, Oregon, hope to discover a way to harness their geothermal energy. As Susan Petty from AltaRock Energy told NPR last month, AltaRock Energy and Davenport Newberry plan on using the heated rocks near the surface of volcanoes to heat water, and then use the heated water to produce electricity.

AltaRock Energy calls the process Enhanced Geothermal System, or EGS, and AltaRock hopes to begin testing it in July or August of this year. The process begins when 73 to 142 million gallons of cold water are poured into the cracks of the volcano, causing the cracks to expand. As the cracks expand, the water will fill up the cracks, creating little reservoirs. The hot volcanic rock eventually heats the water to about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, sending vapor up through the ground. From there, either steam or liquid turbines can be used to generate electricity. After the water cools, the system injects it back into the volcano, restarting the process. The entire system is analogous to a "diffused and controlled" underground nuclear reactor.

AltaRock has received $21.4 million in grant funds from the Department of Energy. AltaRock and Davenport Newberry put up the other 50% of the money, or $22.4 million. According to DOE information, the project is less than 50% complete and $1,810,815 of the funds have been utilized as of December 31, 2011. The DOE also lists the information for the sub-awards and the vendors who receive the grant money from AltaRock and Newberry here.

Here's a video explaining the process:


2. Floating Wind Turbines
The roughly 30 international companies of the DeepCwind Consortium, led by a team at the University of Maine, have looked to offshore wind as a source of energy. The researchers hope to plant floating turbines on the ocean's surface to capture the untapped energy. The US team is working on 2.4-megawatt turbines with 180-foot-long blades that will stand as tall as the Washington Monument. Scaled versions of the turbines are currently being tested for storm scenarios. With good fortune, the team will construct a small wind farm by 2017 and a 500-megawatt wind farm by 2020.

Habib Dagher, director of the Advanced Structures and Composite Center at the University of Maine, says that within 50 miles of the Gulf of Maine exist 150 gigawatts of unused wind capacity. To put this into perspective, the state requires a vastly smaller sum of 2.4 gigawatts during the summer months. Residents of Maine's shores will also appreciate the absence of the types of eye sores that often plague offshore energy projects. At 20 to 50 miles, the turbines will function beyond the view of people's vision due to the earth's curvature. The consortium is currently experimenting with the three different models depicted below.

To date, the consortium has received $25 million in federal funding, including money from the Federal Recovery Act. The DOE provided $7.1 million in 2010, also through the Recovery Act. The Commerce Department's National Institute of Standard Technology has channeled $12.4 million to the consortium for the construction of its new deepwater offshore wind energy research and testing facility in Orono, Maine. According to the government, as of the end of 2011, the projects stand at more than 50% complete and a little under $5.9 million of the funds have been used.

Main(e) International Consulting released an updated report in January of this year of the underwater turbine projects currently under development in the US, Europe, and Japan.


3. Vibrational Energy
Students at Cornell University are building upon an older idea for energy: vibrational energy.

Professor Emeritus Francis Moon of Cornell's Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department leads the school's Vibro-Wind Research Group, which aims to design low-cost methods of transforming vibrations into electricity. The energy itself would be derived from oscillating blocks of foam, moved by wind, and attached to the sides of buildings and other structures. (See photo below.) Such installations would take up much less space than traditional wind turbines. They could also be designed by architects to reduce or eliminate any eye-sore factor.

The toughest part of this process? Converting the vibrations into electricity. The research team now uses a piezoelectric transducer, a device made of a ceramic or polymer that emits electrons when stressed. They're also experimenting with electromagnetic coil to make the conversion.

The Cornell Center for a Sustainable Future's Academic Venture Fund provided a $100,000 grant to help fund the project in 2010.

Source: Cornell University's ChronicleOnline

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