If you read Winds Of Change regularly, you may have come across the work of John Atkinson. He’s the fellow who compiles their monthly feature “New Energy Currents”and he makes a pretty good job of it too. I haven’t missed one since he started them and they have never yet failed to put me on the trail of an unexpected and pleasing development.
This latest effort is no exception. It’s a real grab bag, so I can’t give you an exhaustive recap, but a couple of my personal favorites involve sun and wave power.
Nanosolar is hinting that their printable plastic solar cells will be ready for deployment within the year. Mr. Atkinson provides a link to Monkeysign, who was justifiably sceptical of some of the figures he’s seen quoted, primarily because they don’t account for balance-of-system costs. It’s a good thing to be wary of outrageous claims.
On the other hand, I find myself agreeing with a comment by Engineer-Poet.

I think this is only a small issue in the long run. NanoSolar may indeed be blowing smoke, but there are so many developments along so many avenues (semiconductor nanoparticles with conversion efficiencies up to 60%, to name just one) that something is certain to lead to a breakthrough.

To borrow a term Virginia Postrel is fond of, there is a plenitude of fascinating research going on behind our backs. Our boffins are plumbing the depths of natural arcana with a subtlety and craft that must surely astonish the receptive observer. One would hope so, anyway.
But I digress. Returning to our narrative thread, we find a putative nanosolar VIP leaving a comment at Monkeysign.

Hi there — thanks for your interest in what we’re up to at Nanosolar. We very much share your passion about this topic and surely wish we could tell you all right now. But I obviously cannot preannounce our product/technology/solution here. Still here’s a few hints:
– The balance-of-system argument made above is a popular one. But one that turns out to be wrong too. Or said differently: There’s more innovation than you assume.
– We’ve heard “impossible” so many times from so many people — fortunately often only after we made it happen already.
– Solar electricity will be dirt cheap, yes. Soon. Very real. And when we launch the product, you’re going to read about it in the WSJ.

Good news, if true. I’ll strive earnestly to hold my enthusiasm in check. More on this here and here.
Now for those waves…

UK company Ocean Power Delivery has signed a contract to build the world’s first commercial wave energy project off the coast of Portugal. The project will begin with a 3-machine, 2.25 MW capacity test installation that, if successful, will be followed by the addition of 30 more machines with 20 MW capacity by the end of 2006.

Huh. They all look so happy and Scottish don’t they? Let’s see what the dour Northland is up to…

A Norwegian company has developed a new wave energy device called the Seawave Slot Cone Generator (SSG). Details are sketchy on both, but there’s certainly a lot of technical innovation going on in this relatively young field.

This energy concept is based on storing potential energy of the incoming waves in several reservoirs placed one above the other. The incoming wave will run up a slope, and on its return it will flow into the reservoirs. After the wave is captured inside the reservoirs, the water will run through the multi stage turbine.
The multi-stage turbine has the advantage of using different heights of waterfall on a common turbine wheel.
This technology will prevent any start/stop sequence on the turbine even if only one reservoir is supplying water to the turbine. From tests carried out by this company, a 500m long full scale SSG construction along a coastline with a 15kW/m wave climate will be able to produce 18 GWh/year. And this without any plume of smoke in sight.

Let’s give thanks for our enthusiasts. We have them here in America too. Check out the permanent magnet linear generator buoy.

An electric coil surrounds a magnetic shaft inside the buoy, and while the coil is secured directly to the buoy, the magnetic shaft is anchored to the sea floor. When waves cause the coil to move up and down relative to the fixed magnetic shaft, voltage is induced and electricity is generated. Each buoy could potentially produce 250 kilowatts of power, and the technology can be scaled up or down to suit a variety of energy needs…

Mr. Atkinson is a credit to the Winds of Change team, as are so many others. Yesterday was his one year blogiversary, so mosey on over and check out his place. There’s much more than tech there.
If you can spare the time, here’s a bit of Kunstler bashing from another Winds of Change contributor, Cicero.

Mr. Kunstler leaves out human ingenuity in his dire predictions. He discounts how well Americans respond to crisis and change when confronted with it. Crises are history’s great motivators, forcing humanity to adapt and leap forward. Modern technology, such as it is, has convinced me of one thing: Anything’s possible. We shouldn’t be so smug as to presume we can predict the future in this era.

Precisely my own thoughts. Thank you. They’re echoed (to a degree) over at Peak Oil Optimist. I very much enjoyed his post on Peter Gordon. The Optimist refers to Kunstler as his b?te noir and links to this article, which contains the following Gordon quote about Kunstler and the New Urbanism.

“This Doomsday stuff is always wrong…People who are ignorant of the previous track record of Doomsday forecasts blithely go on making them, which is fine. But it’s when they prescribe harsh measures for the rest of us to live by that we ought to take serious notice.”
Gordon says the New Urbanist model of living has one crucial flaw: People actually like suburbs.
“What I define as a livable city is where real people are choosing to go. That’s the only way I can define it…That may not jibe with the image of what’s livable to certain writers…”

Peak Oil Optimist has a couple of other posts that are well worth a fellow optimist’s while.
First up is a new (to me) mode of electrical power storage that might someday be useful for load leveling and off-grid power storage. For some commercial applications it’s useful today. It uses an electrolyte of sulphuric acid and emulsified vanadium, generating electricity (and recharging the electrolyte) with a proton exchange membrane. The system is sealed (no effluent), and the electrolyte is re-usable more or less indefinitely.
Very sweet. It would be nicer if it cost less. Wouldn’t everything?
Also available is this post on latter day ocean thermal power in Hawaii, linking back to an article in Wired.
I’ve never really thought OTEC was a realistic primary power source, but if you check out the project website, you’ll find that power is almost an afterthought.

… the initial site-specific developments of CHC have been focussed on an integrated deep ocean water system…of which electricity is only a small part.
This facility now demonstrates air conditioning, industrial cooling, agriculture, and desalinization. A vineyard and a chill house are now under construction and an aquaculture facility will soon be initiated…all of the components of any possible Cold Ocean Water system that CHC is advocating can be examined at…NELHA or at the CHC demonstration facility.
These include the commercial production of spirulina, lobster, various sea “vegetables”, shrimp, shell fish, flounder, a cold bed aquaculture garden, the “hurricane tower” for desalinization, industrial cooling and air conditioning, etc.

From the Wired article…

Running the frigid pipes through heat exchangers produces unlimited air-conditioning that costs almost nothing. Draining their sweat yields an endless supply of freshwater for drinking and irrigation. The cold water also creates a temperature difference between root and fruit that Craven believes speeds growth. And by turning the flow on and off, Craven has found he can further accelerate the plants’ growth cycle by forcing them in and out of dormancy – he can get three crops of grapes a year and pineapples in eight months instead of the usual 18…
“What the world doesn’t understand,” says Craven… “is that what we don’t have enough of is cold, not heat.”

Fascinating stuff.

A thermal gradient between root and fruit is produced which pumps nutrients into the plant at a rate which is perhaps three times greater than that produced by nature in spring or fall.
Although the experimental scale of operations has not permitted quantification of the cost of this form of agriculture, the cost of water for the half acre demonstration farm is negligible.
Amortized costs for deep ocean water will run about 10 cents for 1000 gallons. This compares with about $1.00 per 1000 gallons in dry climate areas. Of greater significance is the fact that once chilled the ground loses very little heat and the water flow required to maintain this temperature is consequently small.
More than 100 fruits, vegetables and herbs have been tested in the CHC garden. All have rapid growth, high yield with high sugar and aromatic content. One ought not make any decisions with respect to the value of this subsystem without a visit to the CHC garden. Although much evidence appears on the CHC web, the description of the nature of this agriculture tests credulity unless a site visit is made.

This Craven guy reminds me somewhat of my dad. Just another retired navy guy, pottering happily about in his garden. Also, they have the same regrettable taste in poetry. Lucky is the man who can retire as a mad scientist in Hawaii.
I honestly don’t think this technology is going to save the world. I never have. The notion of sipping electrons out of the oceanic thermal gradient always seemed impractical to me. Just as well then that it won’t have to, that we have better options available. However, for certain limited applications it looks promising. And fun.
Not to beat the subject to death, but there is a vast number of passionately engaged enthusiasts in the world, beavering away at a remarkable assortment of pet projects. This profusion of hopeful creation that we see around us is one of the main reasons I find the Kunstlers, Ehrlichs, and Rifkins of the world so distastefully misguided.
Whether it’s flying cars, or salt water farming, or electronic retinas specifically, isn’t so very important, its the sheer relentless amount of originality that clinches the argument. Our “fragile” civilization is an adaptive system, to a degree unknown and unachievable by any precursor culture of which I am aware. We really are living in a golden age.
Of course, it could be better.
Last on my itinerary today is a former fan of hydrogen powered cars. Like so many others, he thought they made good sense in terms of cleanliness and renewability, but no longer. These days, he favors a more exotic auto fuel.
He thinks we should be burning boron. And he makes a great case for it.

The case for boron as fuel begins with a safety advantage. Although very combustible, it also is very hard to light. Spools of boron fibre like those shown could not be lit even if a loose end were attacked with a blowtorch. Not in air.
Risk reduction through the use of this fuel that won’t burn can be realized if combustors provide an unearthly environment where it will: pure oxygen, high pressure. Hard though this may be, it will yield other benefits.
In a four-mile, sub-four-minute dash a hydrocarbon car might produce 1.43 kg of carbon dioxide. That’s most of a cubic metre, enough to make many cubic metres of air unbreathable. But if it could be reduced in volume a thousandfold, and made to cohere in a lump that wouldn’t stale any air, it might begin to resemble the equivalent shown here: 1.25 kg of boria. This 184 mm piece of glass is near in size and mass to an Olympic women’s discus…
Ash in boron cars would start out as similarly lustrous, transparent ingots. They wouldn’t be thrown anywhere, rather, they would go back to nuclear or solar power plants to be de-burnt. “Boron Decombustion” proposes a thermal method. The boron would be sent forth to be fuel again…
What is unusual, and helps make this alternative fuel truly an alternative with a difference, is its high energy density, per pound and especially per gallon. A chamber for it plus a bin for all the glass ingots it will become would together be not much larger than the liquid hydrocarbon tank they replace. Sections “Boron the Dense” and “If a Car Retains All Its Ash” give comparative data.
A compact energy reservoir should mean plenty of range. Release of the energy in a hot flame at high pressure should mean good ratios of power to mass in boron motors, and quickness in boron cars. People who read about global warming will want them, but so will people who don’t read the papers at all. Voluntary customers will line up around the block.

Hmmm. No Effluent. Total Enclosure.
My uninformed intuition tells me that it’s too radical a shift for society to buy into. Too much change is required, too quickly. Still, it’s fun to think about. I would bet that if we don’t end up burning boron, it will be because we found something else that’s as good or better. Someday.