Renewable energy and technology are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance in today’s society. In recent years, huge advances in alternative energy technology have brought us solar-powered houses, wind-powered businesses and everything in-between.
It’s an exciting time for the alternative energy industry, with even more innovations just around the next technological corner. During these times of expansion, however, it can be worthwhile to take stock of the industry, where it’s been and where it’s going. To that end, let us guide you through the history of renewable energy, where it is now and some exciting new technologies we may be seeing in the next few years.
The History of Alternative Energy Technologies
Fossil fuels have a long history as an energy source — records of China in 2000 BC describe Chinese people burning coal for heating and cooking, and natural gas usage goes back to around 200 BC, when the Chinese used it to make salt from brine in gas-fired evaporators. Petroleum oil also has its origins in China, where in the first century, it was refined as a lamp fuel, lubricant, and military tool.
Fossil fuels only really began to take over during the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, when coal took over as a primary energy source for steam engines and other applications. At this time, coal, petroleum, and natural gas were abundant and seemingly endless, and they provided sufficient power for the steam and combustion engines of the industrial revolution.
While recent history may make it seem like fossil fuels have been monopolizing the energy industry since the very beginning, this is far from the truth. In reality, renewable energy has been around just as long as fossil fuels, if not longer:
Hydro Power: Though the origin of the waterwheel is contended, these incredible machines were invented around 200 BC and quickly spread across Europe and the Middle East for use in mills, smithies and woodworking industries. These waterwheels often replaced human or animal labor, reducing the number of resources needed in the small industries of the day and streamlining production processes. These waterwheels stayed in the public eye, and they continued to be used regularly along waterways for centuries to come, without much change to their designs — that is, until the late nineteenth century.
In 1882, the first large hydroelectric plant started to work in Wisconsin, and further attempts were made at hydroelectric power plants. In 1935, Hoover Dam was built, becoming the largest hydroelectric power plant in the world until 1948. Further hydroelectric plants have since been built and improved upon across the world, maintaining hydroelectric power as one of the more popular electricity generation methods.
Wind Power: Windmills were invented in Persia in the tenth century, designed to grind grain and pump water from wells to help irrigate gardens. From there, windmills spread across the Middle East and Asia, eventually making their way to Europe. However, windmills reached new levels in the hands of Dutch engineers, who developed windmills of greater size and efficiency than ever before, causing a jump in popularity within and around Europe.
Eventually, the windmill made it across the sea to the Americas, where it became a popular tool for American homesteaders and railroad builders in the West, who needed a cheap and efficient way to pump water from wells. These water-pumping windmills gradually took over the West, with generous estimates placing their numbers at over six million by the end of the nineteenth century.
The first windmill to generate electricity appeared in 1888 when Charles F. Brush developed a gigantic windmill for producing electricity. This massive success was able to power a home with 350 incandescent lights, two arch lights, and three electric motors consistently, with the help of 408 storage battery cells. Eventually, the idea of electricity-producing windmills caught on, resulting in the first commercial electricity-producing wind turbines being sold in 1927. Since then, wind power turbines have further evolved and grown in popularity.
Solar Power: The first solar power system was developed in the mid-nineteenth century in France, originally intended to produce steam to drive machinery. This was a development in reaction to worries at the time about the possibility of fossil fuels eventually running out. Originally, these solar power systems used mirrors to direct heat at a water source, producing steam to drive machinery. Similar solar power systems are still in use today, though they are now designed to produce electricity instead of kinetic energy.
Purely solar-generated electricity, however, didn’t arrive on the scene until 1876, when William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered that selenium could start an electrical current when exposed to light. This discovery changed the face of physics and introduced the idea of pure solar energy to the world. Further advancements were slow until 1953, when the first silicon solar cell was developed in Bell laboratories. Since then, further advancements have made solar power one of today’s most promising alternative energy sources.
Biofuels: Numerous biofuels have been in use throughout history, from wood and agricultural waste to beeswax and ethanol. However, these energy sources stood dwarfed by the seemingly endless possibilities of coal during the eighteenth century, causing them to fall by the wayside during the rise of the Industrial Revolution.
Biofuels became especially hard-hit in the energy industry during the nineteenth century — despite ethanol’s surge in popularity over whale oil as a lamp fuel during the 1830’s, the ethanol industry was hit hard in the 1860’s when Abraham Lincoln introduced a hefty Spirits Tax to fund the Civil War, a tax which extended to ethanol. This tax caused industrial ethanol to all but disappear from the energy industry until the dawn of the 20th century, when Teddy Roosevelt convinced Congress to lift the tax and reintroduce ethanol as a competitor to the big oil companies.
With the tax lifted, the ethanol industry began to get going again. It also allowed research on ethanol to be pursued — and that research found alcohols such as ethanol, sported numerous advantages over petroleum fuels, including cleaner emissions. The use of ethanol was even promoted during the Great Depression as a cheap alternative to expensive oil. Since then, the ethanol industry has slowly grown to the energy giant it is today.
Geothermal: In relation to the other alternative energies listed, geothermal is a much newer system. The first geothermal heating system went into effect in Boise, Idaho in 1892, serving 200 homes and 40 businesses . After this point, the world gained interest in geothermal energy. The world’s first geothermal power plant was built in California in 1921, and from there, geothermal energy slowly gained ground.
While these histories are long, complex and interplay with one another greatly, they bring us to today, where fossil fuels are now recognized as the most environmentally harmful fuel source. Therefore, worldwide economies are pursuing alternative energies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere. This, in combination with the rapid technological advancement of our era, has resulted in further advancements in recent years, resulting in the booming alternative energy industry we enjoy today.
Alternative Energy Technology Today
Today, about 16 percent of global energy consumption comes from renewable resources, with 19 percent of global electricity coming from renewables. The industry is larger than ever, and it continues to grow each year, partially due to the incredible advances made in alternative energy.
Some of the industries benefitting from these technological advances include the following:
Wind Energy: Wind energy harnesses the kinetic power of the wind and uses it to run electricity-generating turbines. This form of energy production is slowly gaining steam across the world, with a consistent global growth rate of about 20% per year. This growth is primarily because wind power is one of the cleanest forms of energy.
Despite its cleanliness, wind energy isn’t yet perfect. The primary concern with wind energy is the variation in weather conditions — wind may not always blow in the areas where turbines are located, which can cause power shortages during particularly still days. Additionally, there are some concerns as to the effects turbines have on local ecosystems, such as changes in local weather and animal behavior, though these effects are barely understood.
One of the recent solutions posed by scientists is the creation of floating windmills placed 15,000 feet in the air. These crafts would be kept afloat by four propellers, which would double as turbines and feed electricity back to earth through a cable. These floating windmills would not only reduce the impact on local weather, but they would also provide more consistent energy production, as high-altitude winds blow stronger and more consistently.
Similar to these floating windmills are wind blimps, known as the MARS (Magenn Air Rotor System). These extremely lightweight wind turbines are lifted with helium and tethered to the ground to stay in place. The tether not only acts as a grounding tool, but also as a cable to transfer the generated electricity to a connected power grid or battery. Though not intended for very strong winds, the blimp is easily transportable and well-suited for remote locations.
With advances in technology and architecture, additional possibilities in integrating turbines into buildings are now available as well. The first instance of this was in the Bahrain World Trade Center, which had wind turbines installed in 2007. The twin skyscraper is designed with three wind turbine blades supported by bridges between the towers. In all, these turbines provide approximately 11 to 15 percent of the building’s energy needs , which approximates to enough energy to power 300 normal-sized homes for a year.
Solar Energy: Like wind energy, solar energy requires no additional fuel to run and produces no pollution. In solar power systems, the sunlight either is captured as heat or is converted into electricity using photoelectric cells.
While desirable and sustainable, solar cells are prohibitively expensive for many, and the space needed for solar cells are often more than most people care to donate. Additionally, the productivity of these panels are subject to the weather and air conditions from day to day.
To handle these drawbacks, solar cell production companies have been developing progressively thinner solar cells, some of which come in the form of roofing tiles. Though still expensive, these roofing tiles eliminate the unattractive solar panels of the past, integrating them completely with the roof of a house so the owner doesn’t have to sacrifice aesthetics for functionality.
Furthermore, commercial solar power companies are pursuing alternative designs for solar collection panels to mitigate the effects of negative weather. For example, the Archimede of Sicily is the world’s first solar power plant to use molten salt as a transfer fluid.
Within this system, parabolic mirrors concentrate solar rays onto heat-resistant pipes carrying the fluid salt. This fluid is then collected in tanks and used to produce steam, which is then used in electricity generation. Unlike the synthetic oils used in traditional solar plants of this type, molten salt can work at much higher temperatures, storing enough energy to continue generating power at night or on cloudy days.
Hydro Energy: Moving water can be harnessed to produce electric power and is both an efficient and popular way to generate electricity. At current estimates, hydropower supplies about 16 percent of the world’s electricity.
The more common hydroelectric plants come in the form of artificial dams, where the movement of water through the dam system moves an electricity-generating turbine. While these hydroelectric dams are common, they do come with a few major drawbacks — greenhouse gas emissions and population relocations.
It was recently discovered that hydroelectric dams can produce serious amounts of greenhouse gasses, primarily carbon dioxide and methane, through the decay of submerged plant material. In more extreme cases, these emissions rival those produced by fossil fuel-burning plants. Additionally, the creation of these dams usually involves the relocation of significant populations — during the recent construction of the Three Gorges Dams Project in China in 2009, 1.9 million people were relocated by the government and several historical sites were submerged.
Technological advances have resulted in major strides in hydroelectric technology and several alternatives to the typical hydroelectric dam. One of these alternatives is known as a Wave Snake, a British-made floating tube which harnesses the energy from the up and down motion of waves to produce enough energy to power more than 1,000 homes.
Geothermal Energy: Geothermal energy comes from heat stored within the earth and is harnessed using geothermal electric plants, typically built near tectonic plate boundaries. In these areas, geothermal resources tend to be closer to the surface of the earth, making the energy easier to access.
The largest group of geothermal power plants in the world are known as the Geysers and are located in the Mayacamas Mountains in Northern California. These plants use dry stream as an energy source, providing about 60 percent of the region’s electricity demand.
Biomass Energy: Biomass energy, also called biofuel, produces around 10 percent of global energy. This common energy production process involves the release of chemical energy from organic matter, usually through burning or conversion into alcoholic fuels, such as ethanol. Wood, agricultural byproducts, and animal waste are all organic products used in this process.
Though this source of energy is renewable, it is not clean. Burning organic matter produces large amounts of carbon dioxide, similar to burning fossil fuels. Scientists are currently looking at ways to either minimize or offset this carbon production — perhaps by growing trees more quickly than we can burn them or by breaking down biomass into hydrogen for use in fuel cells.
As an example, the world’s largest biomass power plant, located in the Netherlands, runs solely on chicken manure. The plant converts around 440,000 tons of chicken manure into around 270 million kilowatts of electricity per year, enough to power 90,000 homes. Not only does this plant use a renewable energy source, but it removes the excess chicken waste in the country, which produces the greenhouse gas methane.
Advancements continue to be made in each of these fields to mitigate costs and byproducts. However, the energy needs of the world continue to rise, which is why scientists worldwide are still studying new energy production methods beyond the more traditional alternatives.
New Technology in Renewable Energy
While traditional energy alternatives continue to advance, many scientists are looking into new ways to generate and store energy. Though many are still in the theoretical or prototypic stages, the following are the newest renewable energy technologies being studied:
Antimatter Energy: While it may sound like something from a sci-fi novel, antimatter is real, and it is already being used in modern technology. Antimatter is the physical opposite of matter, consisting of the same mass, but with opposite atomic properties. When matter and antimatter meet, they cancel each other out, releasing an enormous amount of energy. Currently, it is being used in medical imaging as a component of PET, or positron emission tomography, scans.
While we have yet to harness antimatter as a fuel source, physicists believe it to be possible. The primary drawback? There is very little antimatter in the universe, and though it can be created in labs, it can only be created in small amounts — at a hefty price. Storage is also an issue, considering the material’s volatility. While these issues have yet to be addressed, they are currently being researched by NASA and top scientists as a potential fuel source in space flight and beyond.
Fuel Cells: Hydrogen fuel cells are far from a new technology — invented by William Robert Grove in 1838, the fuel cell, originally called the ‘Grove cell’ was a hydrogen-based battery, designed to generate energy without the use of coal. Though an old technology, fuel cells are experiencing a surge in interest, considered to be a possibility for future energy storage. These fuel cells generate electricity using only hydrogen and oxygen, running more efficiently than fossil fuel-run combustion engines while only emitting water as a byproduct.
The only drawback to this energy source is the fact that most of the earth’s hydrogen is bound with oxygen to create water. To separate them, we need other energy sources. If those energy sources include fossil fuels, the environmental benefits of fuel cells are moot. Additionally, hydrogen can’t be compressed easily or safely, meaning it requires large tanks for storage, making it impractical for vehicles. Hydrogen also tends to bleed through its containers, structurally weakening them while simultaneously losing fuel.
Ocean Thermal Energy: Ocean thermal energy conversion, or OTEC, exploits the 70 percent of the Earth covered in water collecting solar energy, using the temperature difference between the warm upper and cold lower portions of the ocean to generate electricity.
The way in which this is accomplished usually depends on the type of cycle being used at any given plant. Closed-cycle OTEC plants use a liquid with a low boiling point, like ammonia and place it into warm seawater to boil. The resulting steam operates an electricity-generating turbine, after which point the vapor is cooled with cold seawater.
In an open cycle, there is no intermediate liquid — the warm seawater is converted into low-pressure vapor and then used to generate electricity before being cooled into fresh water. Hybrid systems use a closed system to power an open cycle.
While these systems serve three duties as electricity generators, fresh water sources and marine life cultures, the OTEC plants operating today are only one to three percent efficient, making them very cost-inefficient. Until they are altered to improve upon this inefficiency, they’re unlikely to be pursued by larger alternative energy companies.
These are only a few of the many novel alternative energy sources being pursued today by scientists and energy companies across the world. While these new technologies are still being perfected, however, advancing the technology for more traditional renewable energy sources is the focus of many within the industry.
Choose Summit Steel & Manufacturing
If you’re looking for a manufacturer for your next alternative energy project, Summit Steel & Manufacturing can help. We provide precision manufacturing services for the renewable energy industry, serving companies in solar, wind, hydro and geothermal energy. Our 125,000 square foot facility uses the latest technology to fabricate parts with the highest quality and consistency, all while reducing lead times and production costs.
Some of the alternative energy industries we’ve served include:
- Solar: We specialize in turning raw materials into precision parts, and our solar energy parts are no exception. Our incredible fabrication capability can bring your solar project to life on time and within your budget, ready for installation and implementation.
- Wind: Wind energy enterprises need a manufacturer they can depend on for quality parts at reasonable prices. Not only do we have the equipment and technology to manufacture the highest-quality wind components on the market, but we can offer design, prototyping, packaging, shipping and logistics services as well to help support you and your company.
- Hydro: We’ve taken part in large-scale products, and we can take on custom orders for even the largest hydroelectric plants!
- Geothermal: If your geothermal plant is located across the country, no problem! We’ve partnered with businesses both in our own state of Pennsylvania and across the nation!
Summit Steel & Manufacturing has been a leading innovator in the manufacturing industry for over 20 years, and we continue to pursue excellence. If you’re looking for experience, speed and efficiency in your alternative energy manufacturing, look no further than Summit Steel & Manufacturing.
Contact our team today for a complimentary consultation to see how Summit Steel & Manufacturing can help you on your next alternative energy project.