Let’s take a break from regularly scheduled programming—and all the bleak and bleaker news coming out of Japan and Libya—and focus on some promising developments and breakthroughs in the arena of clean energy generation.
Last week, as part of World Water Day, the Global Wind Energy Council took a moment to tout the water conservation benefits associated with wind power. In a statement released on March 22nd (World Water Day), Steve Sawyer, Secretary General of the Global Wind Energy Council, pointed out that “Unlike most other power sources, which consume huge amounts of water that could be used much more productively for human consumption and agriculture, wind power generation does not use any water.”
In fact, 75% of electricity generation requires water—either for cooling, or for the steam that powers turbines in conventional, and nuclear, power plants. In contrast, wind power requires almost no water for maintenance or operation. This is a significant difference when you consider that nuclear, natural gas, and coal consume about 3 cubic meters of water per megawater-hour (3m3/MWh) compared to 0.0 cubic meters of water (according to research by Vestas Wind).
In the near future we may get a chance to see how wind energy can elevate and empower countries in the developing world. In Kenya, the Lake Turkana Wind Power Project (LTWP) is “poised to provide 300 megawatts of clean power to Kenya’s national electricity grid by taking advantage of a unique wind resource in Northwest Kenya near Lake Turkana.” The project, which will begin construction this June, consists of 353 wind turbines—each with an 850-kW capacity—to be installed in Northwest Kenya near Lake Turkana. It is anticipated that the LTWP will be able to provide Kenya with up to 300 MW of power by July 2012, adding 30% more to Kenya’s current power capacity. This leapfrogging of technology is quite common in many parts of the world where technological advancements allow countries to skip the developmental phase and go straight to implementation. In this instance, it’s quite possible that success by the LTWP will inspire increased investment in renewable energy in Africa and other parts of the developing world.
And out of MIT comes news that a new synthetic form of photosynthesis could eventually allow us to generate enough electricity from 1 gallon of water to power an entire household of energy users. The artificial leaf created by researchers at MIT is about the size of a playing card, with separate chambers for hydrogen and oxygen—which are emitted by the leaf and can be used as a power source. According to the researchers, the “leaf” is 10 times more energy efficient than its real-world counterpart, but they anticipate increasing efficiency dramatically as their research develops.
Finally, in the search for better biofuels, researchers have found that the lowly E. coli virus may be able to provide us with the ultimate conversion process. In the March 7 issue of Nature Biotechnology, James Liao and colleagues were able to create engineered bacteria able to synthesize biofuels from proteins. Although currently we get biofuels from plant carbohydrates (like corn), these new “biofuel-producing microorganisms” could instead conserve proteins to use for growth, and therefore, “provide a solution to present limitations in biofuel production.” Liao was able to achieve this switch by changing metabolic pathways in E. coli so that “the engineered bacteria are able to efficiently remove nitrogen groups from amino acids—the building blocks of proteins—to produce alcohols, which in turn are converted into biofuels.” For biofuel production, the ability to use proteins instead of carbohydrates would expand the list of sources for biofuel—including industrial byproducts—because proteins are more abundant than carbohydrates.
So what do you think? Could there be a silver lining to some of the recent disasters we’ve weathered? Could events like the Deep Horizon Oil Spill, the March 10 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan (and the ongoing nuclear crisis it triggered), and unrest in North Africa and the Middle East inspire increased investment in the development of alternative energy sources? Or are we better served by buckling down and dealing with our current crisis instead of dreaming about a better future?