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Recently I have been confronted by many fossil fuels and nuclear energy advocates citing that solar and wind energy won't replace fossil fuels and nuclear energy. They are correct. Wait, are they correct? Yes, but no — fossil fuels and nuclear energy will be replaced by a rainbow of green solutions.
The reality is that future distributed generation and smart grid do not discriminate on the nature of the Joules they possess. Um, energy is energy? True, but not all energy is generated equally. The reality is that many forms of energy generation will eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear energy, not just solar and wind.
It's fun to watch some "older" energy generation designs becoming more cost competitive by leveraging the latest in design science. As innovation improves mechatronic controls systems and green materials science, once "inefficient" energy designs are now becoming viable green solutions. For example, by leveraging nanomaterials science, incandescent light bulb technology is currently more efficient than current non-nano LED technology. Old dogs, meet new tricks.
The idea that energy independence can be achieved by only using solar and wind is a dishonest statement made by many that wish to ignore our concurrent and simultaneous multifaceted industrial revolution. As scientists successfully apply new tricks to old dogs, a new pack of green puppies is being unleashed to lead, hunt down and eliminate toxic, and more costly, dirty* energy.
What's Green, Climate-Flavoured Juice?
One of my long-time green design favourites is the fuel cell. This technology has been burdened by materials science issues since the late 1900's — lifecycle reliability, high-temperature vibration, economies of scale in manufacturing, etc.
Fuel cells are great solutions for space shuttles and international space stations — low-volume and very specialized for one-off applications — but, competing economically with traditional economies of scale in manufacturing has left fuel cells in need of innovation. Dirty energy has made the economic choices, until lately.
Fuel cells can convert feedstock to energy with very high electrical efficiency, making them a "greener" solution than combusting that same feedstock. A fuel cell is better than a dirty diesel generator at generating more energy per unit feedstock, of course, there are less toxic emissions and noise pollution, as well. More less-bang for the buck!
Fuel cells don't burn fuel to generate electricity — the process is electrochemical. Fuel cells come in a few different flavours, mainly high temperature and low temperature. Depending on the application, a minimum operating temperature is required to "start the magic". Fuel cells can be tricky — dirty* feedstock can spoil the whole bowl of punch. Using feedstocks such a biogas to fuel a fuel cell requires an extra step to "scrub the gas"*. When we do the math, feedstock generated by GMO corn isn't cost competitive — full cost accounting reveals the totals.
Understanding the importance of feedstock quality allows the design of the fuel cell to take shape. If the feedstock is "pure", the fuel cell system doesn't require expensive and profit-zapping feedstock scrubbing and costly maintenance. A chemically pure feedstock simplifies the system, thus lowering cost and manufacturing economy of scale. Keep it simple!
What's Green, Climate-Flavoured Juice?
The design of a system that uses seawater to create pure hydrogen peroxide will create a quality feedstock for a hydrogen peroxide fuel cell. These fuel cells have been tinkered with since the 1930's. Some of these systems were used to power "silent" submarines since fuel cells do not create the same mechanical vibration signatures that can reveal a tactical location. Since cost is no object for toys of war, these systems did the trick — very specialized and costly versus the dirty energy competition.
Being able to generate hydrogen peroxide that was cost competitive with either fossil fuels or nuclear energy hasn't been an option, until now? New technology has been developed to generate energy from seawater using a hybrid system. Given the volume of seawater on Earth, this new technology is one of many green game changers — this system can also be modified to produce pure water, add some minerals and clean drinking water becomes a system output.
The advantage of these new green hybrid systems is of course cost, but such solutions can also eliminate the need for expensive transmission infrastructure which will lead to smart, clean, secure and locally generated electricity ready for smart grid technology. For local conditions that require constant energy transportation, either fossil fuels or nuclear energy, new green hybrid systems will become the new green winner — do the math and make more green**!
I can think of over 20 technologies that will be directly competing with both fossil fuels and nuclear energy. As we see from recent sales figures, both solar and wind are winning the free market, so, when we add in another 20 new players, how can dirty energy compete? Is it always just about the money? Yes, so, bye-bye dirty energy!
* - Sulfur, etc — any chemical that impedes or destroys catalyst materials that make the fuel cell electrochemical reaction work. Some fuel cells will lose electrical efficiency over the total lifespan. Some systems must replace the fuel cell stack when efficiencies can't maintain operational profitability.
** - Money.