With a busy week behind you and the weekend within reach, there’s no shame in taking things a bit easy on Friday afternoon. With this in mind, every Friday TriplePundit will give you a fun, easy read on a topic you care about. So, take a break from those endless email threads, and spend five minutes catching up on the latest trends in sustainability and business.
Clean tech is a hot topic in sustainable business – combining sustainable thinking with high technology. To make sure you don’t miss a thing, this week we rounded up eight clean tech trends to watch in 2014. Have something to add? Tell us about it in the comments.
1. Falling prices, booming capacity in the solar market
Over the past three years, we’ve seen U.S. solar prices plummet, from 21 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010 to 11 cents by the end of 2013. As a result, last year was another banner, record-setting year for solar energy in the U.S., with 4,751 megawatts (MW) of new photovoltaic capacity installed–a year-over-year increase of 41 percent.
The solar industry continues to be a rare bright spot in terms of generating good jobs, as well as clean, renewable energy. Reports show that the solar job market is growing at 10 times the national average. Nearly 24,000 Americans got jobs in the U.S. solar industry last year, bringing the total number of U.S. solar industry jobs to 142,698 as of November 2013.
2. A new generation of batteries
Once prohibitively bulky and expensive, lithium-ion batteries have dropped significantly in both size and cost in recent years. Just this week, Tesla Motors announced that it will build a new “Gigafactory” to produce lithium-ion batteries at a rate able to support the manufacture of 500,000 electric cars per year. By 2020, the plant will be capable of producing as many lithium-ion batteries as the entire world produced in 2013.
The promise for the electric vehicle market is clear, especially given Tesla’s plans to release a mass-market, long-range EV, but the fate of the next generation in lithium-ion batteries holds potentially greater impacts for both people and planet. Both Tesla and SolarCity have already announced plans to offer energy storage systems, and documents filed with the SEC for the Gigafactory plant detailed that some of the lithium-ion batteries will be used for “stationary storage applications.” That is, batteries for storing energy for use in homes, commercial sites and utilities.
3. Offshore wind picking up steam
After years of squabbling over placement and regulations, offshore wind is finally becoming a reality in the U.S. Approved in 2010, Cape Wind, America’s first offshore wind farm, on Horseshoe Shoal in Nantucket Sound, Mass., received a boost in funding this month and is expected to secure the rest of its $2.5 billion budget by the third quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, the nation’s first offshore wind farm on the Pacific Coast cleared a crucial federal hurdle this month after Seattle’s Principle Power received approval to move forward on a commercial lease for the proposed $200 million, 30-megawatt project. In addition to clean energy benefits, a recent study shows that offshore wind farms may also slow down hurricanes–underscoring the multifaceted benefits of this clean tech trend.
4. Making waves in tidal energy
Yet to be explored in full, tidal energy holds potentially tremendous potential for clean power generation around the world. Picking up on the burgeoning trend, Lockheed Martin hooked up with Australia’s Victorian Wave Partners LLC earlier this year to begin the development of what’s billed as the world’s largest wave energy project. The 62.5-megawatt peak power wave energy generation project will be built off the coast of Victoria, Australia.
5. “Hybrid electric buildings” poised to transform commercial real estate
America’s commercial buildings may soon be radically redesigned into Prius-like hybrid energy centers. Earlier this month, Triple Pundit touched on this developing clean tech trend and its potential impacts for reducing commercial energy demand, lowering costs and boosting worker productivity.
6. The quest for nuclear fusion
The quest for an effective fusion reactor has been going on since the 1950s, but new developments suggest we may be on the cusp of turning the decades-long dream into reality. A recent piece in the New Yorker (which is worth a read in full) detailed the development of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER, in an Alpine forest in the South of France.
The complex machine will contain ionized hydrogen particles achieving temperatures more than ten times the sun’s sweltering core–with the potential to “solve the world’s energy problems for the next 30 million years.” It may sound like a science fiction movie, but researchers say the reality isn’t that far off. Thirty-five countries, representing more than half the world’s population, are invested in the project, and it’s first target date for experiment is set for 2020.
7. Smart thermostats bring big data to the people
Earlier this year, Google nearly broke the Internet when it announced its purchase of Nest, a 3-year-old startup that designs and manufactures smart devices like thermostats and smoke alarms, for $3.2 billion in cash. While the Nest, and other learning thermostats like it, hold vast potential for homeowner (as well as commercial) energy savings, sustainability may not have been a significant factor in Google’s big move.
A more likely motive is the company’s aspirations to deepen its involvement in the Internet of Things, “a world in which everything from household gadgets to cars, clothes and pets are connected wirelessly to the Web.” That’s not to say smart thermostats won’t continue to play a role in how homeowners and commercial buildings use their energy. But the smart thermostats of tomorrow may play an even deeper role–as one of many gateways into what soon may become an even more interconnected world.
8. The rise of Thorium
Following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, more attention is being paid to safety and strategy around nuclear power generation. Three years after the disaster, India’s Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) organized a national seminar on nuclear energy in New Delhi this week–with the topic of safety front-and-center.
What’s not being discussed much in the mainstream is a potential game-changer for nuclear energy: Thorium reactors, a form of nuclear power that supposedly overcomes many of the concerns associated with traditional nukes. Unlike conventional light water reactor designs, the liquid fluoride thorium reactor is a type of molten salt reactor (MSR) that is generally considered to be inherently safer, cleaner and more economically viable than conventional reactors, but was not chosen by DOE as the technology of choice because it did not produce weapons grade material as a byproduct.
The concept has been largely languishing in the dust since the 1960s, but India recently announced that it is developing world’s first mainly thorium-based nuclear reactor in Mumbai–indicating we may be on the cusp of a revolution in nuclear.
Image credit: Flickr/macinate
Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is an editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Earth911 and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.