By Philip Newell

In the least electrified parts of rural Africa, over 90 percent of people do not have access to electricity. To address this problem, Solar Nexus International (SNI) has designed a contained system of solar power generation that can be installed relatively quickly and easily.

Solar Nexus connects all the distinct components of an off-the-grid electricity system. (Image credit: Solar Nexus International)

The heart of this operation is the SolarNexus, a small device that links wires, transformers, converters, inverters, and batteries required in an off-grid electricity system. Through this device, Solar Nexus hopes to fulfill its mission for “solar empowerment through market-based development of local solar energy resources worldwide.”

Typically, it takes a fair amount of knowledge and training to set up an electricity generating system. Whether solar, hydropower, or wind, transforming captured energy into useful electricity requires a variety of different hardware, not always available in rural communities in developing countries. If any of this hardware is improperly installed, or if wires are not the proper size, the efficiency of the system suffers severely. When these systems are installed in developing countries, high-grade wires are usually not used because they are too expensive or not available, and as a result less electricity is available for use. In order to overcome this problem, Solar Nexus International custom-designs a system for each client, and then ships out a container that includes all the wires and materials needed for a U.S. code-compliant system. Once the shipment is received, the provided instructions allow local electricians to install the system. As a result of high quality and correctly sized wiring and components, communities will be able to generate more electricity from the unit, sacrificing much less to poor wiring.

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Africa, Innovation, renewable energy, solar power, sustainable development, technology series

For the millions suffering through the recent heat waves blanketing the United States, geothermal heating and cooling systems may be of interest. Although such systems are by no means new, they have experienced tremendous growth recently. Last year alone, 50,000 new systems were built in the United States, increasing the total number of U.S. geothermal heating and cooling installations to 150,000.

The frequent and extreme heat waves and cold spells of the past decade have put utilities under greater pressure. Just last week, three regional transmission organizations (RTOs) set all-time highs for daily electricity demand. Unfortunately for electricity consumers, rising electricity demand also translates into rising electricity prices. So what does this have to do with geothermal energy? For home and building owners, geothermal systems offer an opportunity for cleaner and cheaper heating and cooling services.

What services can a geothermal heating and cooling system provide?

As the name might suggest, geothermal heating and cooling systems provide heating and cooling for buildings. Less obvious is that these same systems can also provide humidity control and water heating services. This means that installing a geothermal system lowers the demand on furnace, air-conditioning, and water heating units.

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emissions reductions, energy efficiency, Green Technology, Innovation, renewable energy, technology series

Metros with clusters across the United States

There are 2.7 million clean economy jobs in the United States, according to a recently released report by the Brookings Institution entitled “Sizing the Clean Economy: A National and Regional Green Jobs Assessment.” Brookings hosted an event to announce the release, at which one panel explored the fascinating and increasingly important role that Regional Innovation Clusters (RICs) play in fostering the clean economy.

The report shows that the majority of green jobs (defined as jobs with a direct or indirect environmental benefit) are in conventional sectors like manufacturing, waste management, and mass transit. But the fastest growing sector is clean technology, which includes renewable energy, smart grid, and energy efficiency. While 64 percent of green jobs in the U.S. reside within the 100 largest metropolitan areas (which hold 66 percent of the U.S. population), the same metros hold an outsized 74 percent of the clean tech jobs created from 2003 to 2010. The Brookings report takes this as evidence that metros have strong industry clusters that boost clean economy growth.

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brookings, clean economy, cleantech, clusters, economic development, emissions reductions, energy, energy efficiency, finance, green economy, green jobs, Green Technology, Innovation, low-carbon, nortech, Obama, regional innovation clusters, renewable energy, renewable energy finance, sustainable, technology series, United States

Some cities have enacted idling bans

If your car is idling for as little as 10 seconds, you would save gasoline by turning it off. Americans waste 1.4 billion gallons of gasoline per year from voluntary idling (idling that doesn’t result from traffic congestion), emitting over 12,000,000 metric tons of CO2. Utilizing what is called start-stop technology, already common in Europe and costing as little as a few hundred dollars to include with a new car, would eliminate this and other gasoline consumption at no inconvenience to the driver.

In a car with start-stop technology, sometimes referred to as a mild hybrid or micro-hybrid, the engine turns off when the car comes to a stop instead of simply idling. When the accelerator pedal is pressed or, in a manual car, the clutch engaged, the engine turns back on automatically. While the engine is off, stored energy in the battery keeps the car’s auxiliary functions—lighting, heating and air conditioning, and the radio, for example—running normally. Estimates (by automakers, start-stop system manufacturers, and industry analysts) of the fuel economy improvement from this technology range from 5 to 15 percent.

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Innovation, technology series

This entry is the latest in a Worldwatch blog series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Natel's SLH turbine, courtesy of www.natelenergy.com

According to BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy for 2011, global hydropower consumption set an all-time high by growing 5.3 percent in 2010, led by China and Canada. The 2010 International Energy Outlook, developed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, projects that renewable energy will be the fastest growing source of electricity through 2035, 53 percent of which will be hydropower (mostly in non-OECD nations). But in the United States—the world’s second largest consumer of electricity—hydropower potential is almost fully tapped, and the future of energy is in natural gas and other renewables.

Isn’t it?

A recent innovation by Natel, a California-based engineering firm, can produce power from ‘low head’ dams and other existing structures.

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electricity, emissions reductions, energy, hydro, Innovation, low head, Natel, renewable energy, technology series

Solar Compactors in Chicago

This entry is the latest in a Worldwatch blog series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Like any major city, Philadelphia generates a lot of municipal solid waste (MSW). The trash cans in the central downtown area collect 30–40 tons every day. Where that waste goes, and how it is dealt with, are important issues, with greenhouse gas and other environmental ramifications. But simply managing the waste collection is a daunting task as well.

Until recently, Philadelphia had to make pickups in the city center three times a day, which stretched the city’s already thin municipal resources. Installing solar-powered trash compactors, however, has allowed Philadelphia to reduce its trash pickup burden dramatically, with associated savings and ancillary benefits such as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, less crowded streets, and increased recycling.

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Innovation, technology series

The ability to store energy efficiently and cheaply would solve one of renewable energy’s greatest challenges. Many renewable resources, such as wind and solar, cannot provide steady energy output. This represents a challenge to distribution networks, which have been designed to be fed with a steady electricity supply from centralized power plants but which encounter problems when supply fluctuates.

From Renewable Energy to Methane - The Process explained

Energy storage would allow dispatchers to “flatten” power peaks and “fill” gaps that occur with use of renewable energy. In reality, this means that electricity is stored when too much of it is produced, and consumed later when not enough power is available.

Today, pumped hydropower is the most widely used energy storage technology, although other technologies also are available, including compressed air storage or electrical batteries. But the storage capacity of existing technologies is limited, and researchers and companies are working to develop alternatives. Some of them are really promising; others deserve at least the label “interesting”.

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energy, energy efficiency, energy storage, Fraunhofer Institute, Germany, natural gas, renewable energy, Renewable Methane, technology series

That's some heavy lifting (authorstream.com/Heindl)

One of the main barriers to the diffusion of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power is their inherent variability. If excess energy produced could be stored cheaply and used during times of lower production, this issue could be largely mitigated. Several technologies are under development as possible options for storing energy from the grid, including batteries that store energy in chemicals, mechanical flywheels that store energy as rotational energy, and hydroelectric dams that convert mechanical energy into electrical energy by retaining and channeling rivers.

And, on the bizarre end of the spectrum, we can find a hydraulic water storage system proposed by physicist Dr. Eduard Heindl, a professor at Furtwangen University in Germany.

Heindl’s idea is to store potential energy by using water as a hydraulic fluid to transfer power underground. A project would involve carving out a gigantic cylinder of dense rock, such as granite, by drilling two underground circular tunnels with 500-meter radiuses, one tunnel several hundred meters deep and another at a 1-kilometer depth directly underneath the first. A saw mill would be lowered into the tunnels connected to a saw mill at the surface via a wire saw. The saw mills would work away at the rock to separate the cylinder from the deposit. A seal would then be placed within the first tunnel to close off the system to prevent the loss of potential energy.

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energy storage, grid infrastructure, technology series

This entry is the latest in a Worldwatch blog series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

Soon to be obsolete?

The Nissan Leaf proudly advertises that it can go 100 miles on a single charge. Chevrolet, Toyota, and other car companies have promoted their plug-in gas-electric hybrids as the more rational alternative, since you can switch to the gasoline option when you need extra range. But what if charging your electric car were as easy as filling your gas tank?

For electric vehicles to become the dominant mode of personal transportation, the charging process will have to evolve: it will need to be either much faster, or far less frequent. In a recent article in Nature Nanotechnology, scientist Paul Braun and his research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign describe their blueprint for a new battery with a greatly reduced charging time. Their most successful lithium-ion prototype reaches a 90 percent charge in just two minutes.

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battery, electric vehicles, Innovation, lithium, lithium-ion batteries, nickel-metal hydride batteries, Nissan Leaf, technology series

This entry is the latest in a Worldwatch blog series on innovations in the climate and energy world.

This SARTRE at least provides an exit

Have you ever seen The 6th Day? It’s a forgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger movie about human cloning, and the one thing I remember from seeing it a decade ago is that it imagines a future of not just “6th day violations,” but automated cars as well.  I can’t speak to human cloning, but a group of scientists and engineering in Europe is now attempting to move us one step closer to self-driving vehicles.

The Safe Road Trains for the Environment (SARTRE) project, a partnership of companies based in the U.K., Spain, Germany, and Sweden, is tasked with examining the viability of vehicle “platoons” as a method of future highway transport. The concept is relatively simple: a lead truck or bus operated by a professional driver guides a coordinated ‘train’ of cars and other trucks/buses along a highway, sharing the road with vehicles driven manually. Each vehicle in the train would be outfitted with equipment to wirelessly track and mimic the movements of the car in front of it. Cars would have to constantly gauge the distance between themselves and the forward car, as well as that car’s speed and direction, using a combination of cameras, drive-by-wire technology, and car-to-car communication.

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autonomous driving, fuel efficiency, google, Innovation, platoon, road safety, road train, sartre, stanford, technology series, transportation, volkswagen, volvo