Five Fascinating Energy & Sustainability Innovations

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From the first light bulb to the first car to the first man on the moon, every generation has had its own technological leap forward. Today we look to perfect and improve on existing technology while making new discoveries that benefit business, consumers and our environment. Here are just a few emerging energy and sustainability industry trends and innovations that we find fascinating.

1. Leveraging artificial intelligence to accelerate sustainability.

Data can help tell us about the health of our planet, including the conditions of our air, water, land and the well-being of our wildlife. It also helps businesses understand the ‘energy health’ of their facilities. But we need technology to help humans interpret this vast amount of data and convert it into actionable insights. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. At the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January, both the value and risks of AI were addressed in a new Forum-PwC report. Among the “game changing” applications for AI: autonomous vehicles that help reduce emissions through route optimization and eco-driving algorithms; improved distributed energy grids; smart agriculture that increases the resource efficiency of the industry, reducing the use of water, fertilizers and pesticides; next-generation weather and climate prediction; and even AI-designed intelligent cities. Among the risks, which need to be assessed and understood as we transition into an AI-enabled world, are poor decision making, bias, low transparency and, of course, job losses.

2. Hydrogen power.

Hydrogen has the potential to be our cleanest and most abundant fuel source. But actually extracting and storing it is so complicated and expensive, it has largely had to take a back seat to other renewable technologies such as wind and solar. But technological advances have put it back on the table for discussion, and Isabelle Kocher, CEO at ENGIE, recently published an article on hydrogen as the missing link in a 100 percent renewable world. ENGIE recently inaugurated the largest hydrogen utility fleet in France and an alternative multi-fuel station that will be used to refuel electrical hydrogen hybrid vehicles. HyTech Power, based in Redmond, Wash., and other startups are on the cutting edge of introducing new hydrogen solutions: as a zero-emission fuel source, as a retrofit for existing internal combustion engines, and as a stationary energy-storage product.

3. 3D printing for waste reduction.

Can waste management go digital? Although 3D printing is still in its infancy, GreenBiz has compared traditional manufacturing methods to additive manufacturing. In a traditional method, a product starts with a blank, and material is removed from the blank until the desired shape/product is achieved (and the remnants end up in a landfill). In additive manufacturing (commercial-scale production using 3D printing), a product is “printed” layer by layer with nearly zero waste. The thermoplastics used in 3D printing are also more sustainable… for instance, polylactic acid (PLA) is a sugar-derived polymer, most often made from corn (think about compostable cups and utensils). Thermoplastics can also be melted and reshaped into new products several times.

4. Green lighting.

Recently, Danish researchers started looking for light sources in an unusual place: the ocean. It’s bioluminescent algae, and when it blooms it glows an electric shade of blue. A company in Copenhagen, Allumen, is interested in leveraging the genes that make the algae grow as city streetlights, which would only need C02, sunlight, and water to illuminate. Although it’s a concept that’s far from reality, it’s an interesting idea to use nature to capture sunlight to be used as renewable energy.

5. Technology powered sustainable supply chains.

Supply chains relate to the way goods are moved, managed and monitored from where they’re made to where they are sold. Many companies—notably REI and Patagonia—that are focused on sustainability within their own business are also extending the same requirements to their suppliers. So modern supply chains are incorporating new technologies in order to create sustainability and transparency. A recent article in Information Age provided some of the highlights, including blockchain to track assets and logistics; fully autonomous “truck platoons” driven by smart technology; and automated warehouses with new skill training for human operators.