It can sometimes be a little unclear (especially first day of a new year) how the previous year changed the world. No one guessed in 1946 that the Magnetron Spencer Percy was developing for use in a RADAR system (and that subsequently melted a candy bar in his pocket) would one day become the microwave oven. But I like to think that we can make some pretty good guesses about which of this year's innovations are going to be with us, and changing our world, for a good long time.
Here's my list of the top ten clean tech innovations of 2008.
You know how you can capture and produce radio waves with antennas? Well, what if you could built an antenna so small, it could capture and emit light? The first large array of these nano-antennas was produced this year, and the possibilities for them are endless. They may become efficient light sources, efficient solar panels, or simple ways to transfer energy we feel as heat into energy that we don't feel at all, making them a kind of passive climate control system.
President Barack Obama
Maybe not an innovation in the traditional sense, though, I like to think that it took some innovative thinking to get this man elected president. But President Obama's Administration has already grown to include clean technology advocates and researchers, and carries with it promises of green collar jobs, carbon markets, and restored protections for many of our imperiled ecosystems.
EEStor Begins to Emerge
The power storage company, EEstor, which we're still not 100% sure isn't full of crap did finally begin to tell us some things about their miraculous-sounding power storage technology. If true, vehicles could have batteries lighter than gas tanks, that could charge in five minutes and would never degrade. These ceramic "electrical energy storage units" have not yet seen the light of day (or independent verification) but they do already have contracts with Lockheed Martin and plans to deliver their first unit to an electric car company shortly.
The Gas Crunch
Hey...remember back when gas was freaking ridiculously expensive? Well, while the market may not (the Ford F-150 is, once again, America's most popular vehicle) the innovations that poured into the market to try and help consumers deal with high gas prices will not go away. Better hybrid systems, more efficient engines, massive investments in biofuels, the re-emergence of diesel in America were all direct implications of skyrocketing gas prices.
Solar at Grid Parity
The cost of delivering electrons to the grid has gone up a little bit in the past year, and the cost of delivering electrons to the grid using solar power has dropped dramatically. The first solar electrons costing roughly the same amount as natural gas electrons were produced this year. There's no reason to think that this trend will end, as natural gas gets more expensive, and solar systems get more efficient. In fact, one company is already promising solar power at the same price as coal!
Project Better Place Expands Wildly
While I'm still not 100% sure that Better Place, with it's many battery swapping stations, cell phone-like payment plans and "one sized battery fits all" platform makes the most sense, they have managed to get a lot of governments to bite. California, Hawaii, Australia and Denmark have all signed deals with Agassi's gigantically ambitious electric car program. It could all become extremely passe if EEStor's technology pans out. But otherwise it's one of the few solutions that will work now, instead of waiting for battery technology to catch up with our goals as car drivers.
Pickens Counterbalances Gore with a Real Vision
We've tired of Al Gore. The love affair was great while it lasted, but he's been attacked from too many angles to really latch onto his message anymore. But what about an ultra-conservative, Texas oil man? Now that's the kind of champion clean technology needs! And not only does he provide a different perspective, he provides a clear plan for how he wants to change our energy future. And while it might be a plan that would make him one of the richest people in the world, it's also actually a pretty good plan.