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Energy

The Year in Energy

Technical advances jump-start electric cars, wind turbines, and solar power.

When oil prices shot to $145 per barrel this year, supporters of alternative-energy technologies of all kinds cheered. Spirits fell, however, especially at some advanced biofuels companies, after oil prices plummeted to $40, a contingency considered at the beginning of this year in our realistic assessment of biofuels.

Capturing more light: A startup called 1366 Technologies says that it has found a way to significantly increase the efficiency of silicon solar cells. Ordinarily, the flat wires on the surface of solar cells that are used to collect electrical current prevent light from reaching the active material in a cell, reducing efficiency. The company’s new design traps much of the light that would have been reflected. In the picture, some of the red light from a laser is redirected from the wire to areas on the cell where the light can be absorbed. The new approach dramatically helps improve the performance of solar cells without increasing costs.

Yet the year has seen some remarkable advances in energy technology, and many of the innovators in this area remain hopeful that the coming decade won’t be like the 1980s, when a drop in oil prices snuffed out interest in alternative energy.

A number of improvements to wind turbines could increase the amount of power that they produce and make wind power cheaper. Among the improvements were new blade designs inspired by whales, as well as better generators and a new enclosed design that could double power output.

Electric vehicles and plug-ins also took steps forward with better batteries, as well as with an ambitious plan by a company called Better Place to develop a vehicle-charging and battery-swapping network that will begin in Israel and Denmark. More recently, the same company has announced projects in Australia, California, and Hawaii. One of the cars that could be a part of this system was announced by Renault–indeed, all of the major automakers have confirmed projects for plug-in hybrids or electric cars.

Solar panels continue to improve. Experimental solar concentrators could make solar power as cheap as electricity from coal. Modifications to conventional solar cells could lower prices even sooner. A basic research finding could lead to a cheap way to store solar power–and, for that matter, any other source of electricity. That could be a boon to the power grid and allow renewable sources to supply much more of our electricity. (See David Talbot’s “Lifeline for Renewable Power.”)

Meanwhile, as the United States lurches along without an energy policy, oil-rich sheikhs in the Middle East are pressing forward with the construction of a car-free, zero-emissions city in the desert.

While predictions of a deep recession, as well as continuing low oil prices and credit woes, during the upcoming year remain worrisome, the United States has a new administration that, going by its rhetoric and cabinet appointees, will strongly support alternative energy. And already, technological advances have made renewable-power prices competitive with prices for conventional power in many places worldwide, allowing sources such as wind and solar to thrive even without government support.

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