Renewable Runts: Lessons from Alternative Solar, Torrefied Wood, and Tidal Power

Renewable technology can come in many shapes and forms. There are a few that have everyone’s bets: solar, the golden child, and its precocious sibling wind. But what about the runt technologies?

Before going into some of them, let’s look at what can aid and what can hurt emerging green industries.

“The problem is you’re competing against well-established, large commodity markets for hydrocarbons,” said Brad Ives, vice chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill’s Finance and Administration office. Because of the capital intensity of research and development, “It’s easier to do this from a large corporate [group] or to work out of government labs, because a lot of the technologies are going to take tens of millions of dollars to prove whether they’re right. It’s a very tough way to finance things out of the private capital markets.” The distribution will also be easier.

Ryan White, an undergraduate researcher of material science, agreed.

“There is kind of this paradoxical relationship,” White said. “When a new material is made, nobody invests because they don’t know if it’s good or not because it hasn’t been studied, and it’s hard to study because nobody will invest.”

Technologies’ success is influenced not just by its operation but also price, image, policy, and infrastructure. Some of the questions that get ask are: What are the government’s incentives? Disincentives? Can you keep supply steady? Who will be attracted to this product? How much will the status quo have to change to accept it?

Sometimes technologies fail because they are too “whizz-bang,” science experiments. Sometimes they fail because they are not whizz-bang enough. Research does not always take into account demand, and even investors can get it wrong.

“That’s just part of the nature of venture capital,” said Ives. “Well less than 50% of clean technology investments are successful, it’s probably more the order of 5 or 10% at the most. So if you think about that, that’s one in ten or one in twenty companies maybe make it.”

Here are some technologies that, while not dead, may never take off.

 

Alternative Solar – Will the Sun Come out Tomorrow?

“I think solar energy’s the future. I think that’s the technology,” White said. “The sun’s not going to burn out for millions of years.”

Solar energy seems like a strange thing to have on this list. Many people agree with White, and there’s something about the sun that captures the imagination.

But traditional solar panels are taken for granted. Why are those the harvesting technology of choice?

“What’s really worked with solar is traditional mono-crystalline silicon, for the most part. And it was just figuring out how to make it cheaper,” Ives said. “There are a couple technologies that were a bit more whizz-bang, out there, thin film technologies—that ultimately succeeded. But for the few companies that have done that there’ve got to be hundreds if not thousands of companies that had ideas that failed. They weren’t as cheap in the end as silicon.”

Thin film has some hope. Cadmium telleride film is doing well. But CIGS thin film (copper, indium, gallium and sellenide) has been called the “black sheep” of solar. Solyndra made these films, after all.

Markus Beck, CTO of Siva Power, explained the difference between traditional silicon photovoltaics and their technology.

“CIGS came out of academic institutes. They know what they’re doing but they never had an operational focus, a manufacturing focus,” Beck said. They had to develop the tech, tools, and distribution chains from scratch. Traditional cells used prior semiconductor tech for its jump start.

But despite several companies crashing, the latest this summer, this runt may still grow. It tried to go too big too fast. But with interest in solar still constant, there is room in the market.

Another solar technology having trouble is concentrated solar power (CSP), also known as solar thermal power. After all, the sun doesn’t just give off light. This technology uses mirrors, often times fields worth of them, to create and store energy. That can be in steam power, molten salt, and so on. A promise of round the clock energy excited many years ago.

But now MIT says, “concentrated solar could be a fading technology.”

It is often water intensive, but works best in hot, barren places. It takes up room. It needs capital, and that is always hard to come by. A $2.2 billion project called Ivanphah in California has been consistently underperforming since opening. Simply put, the gamble is not working out.

The investment website Motley Fool sees the struggles of both CIGS thin film and CSP as indicative of the green industry at large. Rather, renewable companies as “stodgy” as they get are safer bets.

Travius Hoium of Motley Fool writes, “Investors should look more for known technologies than new technologies to disrupt the industry. Because the history of these promising breakthroughs leaving holes in investors’ pockets is a bad one.”

 

Torrefied Wood Pellets – What’s Its Fuel Potential?

Wood is a contradictory fuel. It is an ancient source, but not used to full potential. It is not clean, but is renewable. Wood pellets or briquettes are a new form of biomass fuel.

Ives likes to think of wood torrefaction like roasting coffee beans.

“So torrefaction is the way you roast coffee, same technology. You’re heating something up in an absence of oxygen and causing it to become brittle. Think of a green coffee bean, if you put that on a desk and hit it with a hammer, you get this mushy, fibrous stuff. But if you take a coffee bean that’s roasted and hit it with a hammer, it powderizes it,” he said.

Then you create a pellet or briquette. This makes it a perfect substitute for coal, with basically no change needed to power plants.

“Then you wouldn’t have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars at modifying the coal plant to have a different way of burning wood pellets… You want it to be as much like coal as possible,” Ives continued. However, “The question became how you pack this stuff back into pellets or briquettes. And that’s been a huge technical problem the market’s not been able to solve.”

UNC-Chapel Hill’s Director of Energy Services, Phil Barner, said the university has been considering wood pellets for a long time.

“Because of [UNC’s] plant size it would be difficult to try and do some of those more mainstream biomass opportunities. So we really kind of settled on torrefied wood and have been struggling with that market and what has happened with that market, which is not much,” Barner said, with a laugh. “We’re talking of costs that are two to three times more what we pay for coal, typically where we’d be in. It’s really hard to justify… You expect some of that, as these things develop to come to commercial, but it’s lasted a lot longer with torrefied wood.”

Wood pellets worked best as a coal substitute, with far less pollution; think the veggie burger to coal’s McWhopper. It can store, grind, and burn the same.

The International Energy Agency noted a long series of issues to improve on if torrefied wood will get anywhere. The sector is lucky that policies, image and infrastructure work for it, but no investors are coming along, especially when natural gas is so much cheaper.

 

Tidal Power – The Current Isn’t Strong

The wind power of the sea, but powered by the moon’s pull, there are a lot of things going for tidal power. Its source is constant and strong and it is out of sight.

There are a lot of forms of this technology. The most common is underwater turbines, which, thanks to water’s density, produce well even at low speeds. Tidal barrage installations instead use a sluice gate to create a water differential between tide times, storing the energy. Then there are tidal kites, screws, and so many more ideas. They can be attached to vessels, or float, or attach to the sea floor.

Perhaps that very variety undercuts tidal energies. The technology also got off to a late start. And it works best on rocky coastline, benefiting Scotland, Alaska, and their sort of places more than others. The installation and materials cost a lot to withstand their power production. However, it has no image problem, nor policy problem—it’s hardly known.

Robert Thresher, a fellow at the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory, admitted drawbacks.

“People thought that, given the wind turbine experience, the tidal technology would be fairly simple,” Thresher said in the Boston Globe. But it has proven far less successful, at least so far.

 

Conclusion

Alternative solar, torrefied wood, and tidal power are all successful energies in theory and in labs. However, they have not taken off. In the case of alternative solar, the sector seems dominated by those first on the scene. Torrefied wood cannot totally replace coal nor compete with natural gas. Tidal power is simply not garnering much interest.

Think of the energy industry as a forest. Fossil fuels are the well established trees, throwing shade around. But as they get chopped down, there are opportunities for new technologies. The problem is, it gets Darwinian.

Investments in green technology have a lot of factors to juggle. Appeal, infrastructure, and policies are just a few hurdles. Sometimes there just isn’t the time or capital to make a promising technology work optimally.

But let’s remember the failures as the successes grow strong, for a humble history of renewable visions.