10 Things You Need to Know From The Economist's Energy Report

The Economist has an awesome primer this week on what the world’s clean energy landscape could look like, called “The Future of Energy: It’s Closer Than You Think.” But hey, it’s 14-pages long (Economist pages!) and we know in these digital times you just might not have the time or attention span to get through it all. You should read it, but here’s what we thought were 10 important notes and tidbits from the report:

How Are Infotech and Cleantech Markets Different?: The energy market is $6 trillion per year — or about a 10th of the world’s economic output. Infotech is in the “mere hundreds of billions.” The Economist says infotech is disruptive in that it replaces the existing infrastructure (think VoIP to phones), in comparison to the fact that new wind farms don’t replace coal plants. (We beg to differ. As prices of alternative power and fuels become the same price or less than coal power, that will be disruptive and power-generators could choose it as a replacement.)

How are Infotech and Cleantech Markets Similar?: It’s the same people back again. The report names all our daily fodder — Elon Musk, Vinod Khosla, John Doerr, Google founders, Richard Branson. And this choice quote points out the biggest similarities: “This renewed interest in energy is bringing forth a raft of ideas, some bright, some batty, that is indeed reminiscent of the dotcom boom. As happened in that boom, most of these ideas will come to naught. But there could just be a PayPal or a Google or a Sun among them.”

What Regulation Do We Need?: The Economist says, “If the world were rational all of these measures would be swept away and replaced by a proper tax on carbon.”

Carbon Storage Is Experimental and Expensive: Capturing carbon emissions and storing them underground is iffy and costly, concludes the report. We like their easy explanation of how the storage part actually works: the report says that the appropriate place to store carbon is “1 km underground,” the rock has to be porous enough to accommodate the carbon, and has to be covered over with non-porous rock so the carbon won’t leak out. The three places where carbon capture and storage is actually happening, according to the report, are Weyburn-Midale CO2 Project, the Salah Gasfield Project in Algeria run by BP, and a site run by Norwegian oil company Statoil.

Details on Solar Startup 1366 Technologies: The report profiles solar guru Emanuel Sachs of MIT who invented the string ribbon solar manufacturing technique, which Evergreen Solar commercialized, and who is working on a new startup, 1366 technologies (we wrote about it here). The report points out that Sachs and his crew are looking to make solar cells 27 percent more efficient at a cost below $2 a watt, by using nanotech to redesign the surface of the silicon crystals to keep light “bouncing around inside a cell until it is absorbed;” he’s doing the same to the wires, too.

Geothermal is Being Neglected: Geothermal systems, or what the Economist explains as “controlled, artificial volcanism,” are being neglected because the technology is largely invisible. The report quotes an MIT researcher Jefferson Tester that says spending $1 billion on demo geothermal projects over the next 15 years could help create 100 gigawatts of geothermal in the United States by 2050. The report also notes that the Phillipines gets a quarter of its electricity from underground heat!

Biotech Is the Answer to Biofuels: The Economist’s biofuels section focuses on how biofuel startups are using biotech to manipulate microbes, enzymes and crops. “Biotechnology may have cut its teeth on medicines, but the big bucks are likely to be in bulk chemicals. And few chemicals are bulkier than fuels.”

The Most Radical Thinking is Going on In Biofuels: The report names at least 15 biofuel startups and says the sheer number of participants means that “the most radical thinking” in renewable energy is going on in biofuels. Companies named include: Amyris, Ceres, ArborGen, Synthetic Genomics, Choren, Range Fuels, Coskata, Iogen, Abengoa, Mascoma, LS9, Marathon Oil, Codexis, Danisco and Virent Energy.

The Material Genome Project: An interesting tidbit that we hadn’t looked at before — there are about 30,000 inorganic chemical compounds that would be good to make into electrodes, the problem is going through that big ol’ list in the lab. MIT battery scientist Gerbrand Ceder thinks something called the “Material Genome Project,” which uses computer modeling to do the calculations, can help significantly.

Venter’s Synthetic Genomics Working on Algae: The report says genomics scientist Craig Venter and his startup Synthetic Genomics (which we’ve written about here) is genetically engineering algae to secrete its oil as soon as it’s been produced it. The company’s algal cells expel the oil to the surface of the pond, which allows it to be easily collected.


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