WSJ’s “Future of Energy” in brief

In case you missed it, the Wall Street Journal laid out the “Future of Energy” last week in a special report covering biofuels, solar, hydropower and more. While the entire suite of articles is worth a read, we pulled out some highlights for those of you in a time crunch. Enjoy!

The Hunt for Biofuels Looks Beyond Ethanol

Reporter Mara Lemos Stein explores the idea we are headed for a “post-ethanol” age in which fuels made from non-edible plant materials play a more prominent role. Here’s why people don’t like ethanol:

  • Efficient engines and hybrid or natural-gas vehicles better serve the environment and economy than traditional ethanol-blended gasoline.
  • Ethanol takes food crops—either corn or sugar cane—away from growing populations.
  • Food-based and cellulosic ethanol need to be processed with bacteria and other enzymes, which is expensive.


So what are the options? One is to find cheaper ways to produce cellulosic fuels—directly converting plant materials into a synthetic gas or bio-oil, for example (KiOR is one company working in this space). Some say cellulosic biomass might someday be used to fuel jet plans. Algae is another option. Unlike other crops, it can grow in desert and other undesirable climates. Stein points to companies like Solazyme and Sapphire Energy, which have produced crude oil from microalgae. But issues of cost and scale mean algae’s potential isn’t likely to be realized until after mid-century.

The Future Requires (Better) Batteries

Anyone who has been upset about a smartphone losing power may take small comfort in the work being done at the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research at Argonne National Laboratory, one of a group of labs, universities and companies the Dept of Energy has commissioned to design a battery that lasts five times as long at one-fifth the cost of current batteries. We did say small comfort, right? According to WSJ reporter Michael Fitzgerald, changes aren’t likely for five years or more.

Some challenges facing lithium-ion battery-makers:

  • Lithium-ion batteries aren’t great for storing and delivering power for cars. Some hybrid and electric car batteries average 150 watt-hours per kilogram, compared with gasoline’s 12,000 watt-hours. One MIT chemistry professor says 500 watt-hours per kilogram is optimal, yielding 500-mile cruising ranges.
  • Though they’ve gotten cheaper, their performance has improved only 5% a year.
  • They can cause fires.


Nevertheless, the Michigan company Sakti3 Inc. is trying to commercialize a solid-state lithium ion battery using a non-flammable material. Harvard University researcher Jennifer Lewis is producing miniscule batteries that can be used for medical implants and other devices requiring unconventional battery shapes. Meanwhile, University of  Washington researchers wrote a paper on how they powered a device using only “ambient backscatter” from cellphone towers and other energy sources.

Fitzgerald writes of some exciting developments beyond the lithium-ion battery and companies working to make them happen:

  • Flow batteries in which energy is created by the flow of dissolved chemical materials in a cell (UniEnergy Technologies LLC in Washington state)
  • Liquid metal batteries that create energy from molten metals (Ambri Inc. of Cambridge, Mass)
  • Zinc batteries that that use air as a catalyst (Eos Energy Storage, of Edison, N.J)


What Solar Power Needs for a Brighter Future

The solar power industry is experiencing an uptick, but solar power still remains a small part of the U.S.’s total energy mix—expected to rise from 1% to 4% by 2040, writer reporter Ucilia Wang. Still, there’s reason to get excited about the rooftop solar market. Here’s why.

1.    Prices continue to fall. Residential and commercial rooftop solar system installation prices dropped 40% between 2008 and 2012. The average installation price for a residential rooftop system is expected to decrease $2.88 a watt by 2017 from $4.45 a watt in 2012. But the time it takes to recoup a solar investment hangs on utility rates.

2.    Continued solar-friendly policies and subsidies. States offer rebates while the federal investment tax credit cover 30% of the cost of solar installation—but that credit is set to fall to 10% in 2016

3.    The development of ultrathin, high-efficiency solar cells. Ultrathin cells like those that power satellites offer the potential for more efficient energy conversion in rooftop installations—converting 30% of sunlight into energy rather than the 24% achieved with the best silicon cells. But they remain prohibitively expensive at $200 a watt (compared to $1 a watt for silicon).

4.    Better energy-management technologies. Increased use of solar technologies will require improvements in the communication system and inverter system that regulates electricity flowing onto the grid—but this will require billions in investment and coordination between the government and private sector.

5.    Finding profits in solar for utilities. Utilities could leverage long-standing customer relationships to sell solar installations. Solar leases and power sales contracts through which customers rent out their rooftops for discounted electric bills are also an option. But utilities need regulatory approval before making changes to the way they make money.

Going With the Flow

“Apparently, it’s safe to go back in the water,” writes reporter Lisa Ward, explaining how hydropower generation is expected to expand by two-thirds while maintaining approximately 15% of the share of the global electricity supply from 2010 to 2035. The majority of the growth will come from dams under construction or intended to be built in the developing world. China alone could account for more than a quarter of the growth we’ll see in the next five years, she reports.

While the World Bank ceased hydropower financing over environmental concerns, more eco-friendly practices have caused the organization and others to reconsider their position.  Meanwhile, dam updgrades and conversions of non-hydroelectric dams and canals could boost power by 20,000 megawatts in the U.S.—the equivalent of 20 nuclear power stations, Ward writes, citing a Dept of Energy official. Finally, pumped storage facilities, which generate power by sending water back and forth between reservoirs, are also expected to generate additional power in the coming decade, as are tidal turbine installations like one that began delivering power off the coast of Maine in 2012

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