Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Renewable energy?

Only if we find some decent damned batteries.

For all the talk of wind and solar power, the one issue usually glossed over is that both technologies are inseparable from a certain 18th-century invention called "Lead Acid" batteries. You know the type: heavy, temperamental, dangerous (no I'm not talking about Rosie O'Dykepants). Seriously, the use of these emerging technologies, to go along with electric and hybrid cars, has literally stalled out in anticipation of any real solution to the lead-acid problem.

That's where recent materials advances have started to make some headway in our search for efficient electrical energy storage. Sometimes technologies await complimentary technologies for their true potential to be reached. Amongst the contenders are a plethora of emerging technologies from ultra capacitors and metal hydride storage to large scale lithium-ion and lithium-polymer. All, if brought to market at reasonable prices, would be game-changers for sure.

But another school of thought within the renewable-energy debate is to avoid "game-changing" ideas all together, focusing on achievable improvements to existing technologies rather than Earth-shattering revolutions. The idea is that Earth-shattering revolutions are expensive, prone to hyperbole and rarely achieve expectations because they are usually Earth-shatteringly impractical to bring to market. Many require entirely new infrastructures and manufacturing processes. Take hydrogen: unless we can invent on-board conversion technology, where an existing fuel like natural gas can be converted to hydrogen on the spot, the delivery of pure hydrogen will require thousands of new hydrogen delivery stations and some ingenious safe hydrogen storage medium. Many of these issues are being addressed as we speak, but they are likely decades away.

So I like the approach that companies, like Firefly Energy --a spin-off of Caterpillar, are doing: bringing forth improvements in technology that will not require us to hang out in silver space-suits to enjoy. Their technology may be able to reduce the size and weight of lead-acid batteries by a factor of five, which would bring about a massive advance in all of the previously mentioned technologies. And they will have done it without billions in subsidies and the always-attached strings that come along with government scratch. They will also use existing battery factories to make their product. Sure, they may score a military contract or two, but their approach underscores how innovation should be done: market-improvement ideas brought about by real market need. And no, their batteries wont feed the poor.

Update: They do have some government-backed loans and tax breaks rolling through. What's funny is that many people on the left and right still believe it's some sort of government hand-out to let people not pay taxes or reduce their burden somewhat.

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