Though still small potatoes compared to fossil fuels, renewable-energy technologies are experiencing explosive growth worldwide. Wind turbines, for example, are propagating at a greater rate than any other electricity-generating technology: global capacity surged 25 percent just last year. And Europe, with its high fossil fuel costs and generous government subsidies of “green power,” is the epicenter of this growth, accounting for two-thirds of wind power facilities installed in 2003.
None of this has escaped the attention of General Electric, which is opening a new research center near Munich, Germany. The $52 million lab will largely be devoted to renewable-energy technologies, including hydrogen fuel cells, wind turbines, biomass fuels, and photovoltaics based on polymers. It will also develop the electronics needed to tame variable electricity sources like wind and solar for use in buildings and in the electricity grid.
“To see a company like GE buying into the idea that future power sources are going to be renewables – and invest the research dollars both in the U.S. and the European center – bodes well for all the renewable technologies,” says Robert Thresher, a mechanical engineer who heads wind technology research at the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, CO.
The new lab, on the campus of the Technical University of Munich in Garching, Germany, is also helping crack something of a Berlin Wall that has long divided corporate and university research in Europe. The university recently began collaborating with GE, developing better agriculture-based fuels for gas turbines. “GE came at the right time,” says Christoph Hirsch, a member of the university’s combustion technology group. “German companies are more reluctant to work with academic researchers. And if they do, they often insist on tight nondisclosure and expect the state to fund the research.”