By Will Wade
And then there are the folks who were … less successful. They created systems that generated electricity, but not cheaply. They struggled to move from the lab to the factory. Some had great ideas that were just ahead of their time.
Here’s a sample of technologies that attracted considerable brainpower and resources, only to have us find that the world wasn’t ready for them yet. In the end, they were simply the wrong thing at the wrong time.
1. CIGS Solar Cells
Solar power is now one of the cheapest sources of electricity, but it wasn’t always this way. Most solar cells contain polysilicon, which was still very expensive a decade ago. Costs peaked at about $475 a kilogram in 2008, prompting the search for alternative designs. Some used a thin film of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) on glass or plastic.
The poster child was Solyndra LLC, which received $535 million in U.S. loan guarantees to develop glass tubes with CIGS films. Meanwhile, burgeoning demand for clean energy led to a boom in polysilicon production, and prices plunged. Solyndra couldn’t compete with its polysilicon rivals and filed for bankruptcy in 2011, triggering a political firestorm. Numerous other CIGS companiesfailed or were acquired in the following years. Polysilicon now costs about $9 a kilogram and dominates the solar industry.
2. Flywheel Energy Storage
Power grid operators like to keep electricity flowing at a smooth and steady pace. To adjust for surges in supply or demand, they would ramp generation up or down. But big coal or natural gas-fired plants could sometimes take several minutes to respond.
Beacon Power Corp. offered an alternative with its first commercial flywheel facility in 2011. Two hundred carbon-fiber cylinders, each weighing 2,500 lb. (1,134kg), floated on magnetic fields and rotated as fast as 16,000 times a minute. All the kinetic energy could be converted into electricity and transferred to the grid as needed. It could also absorb excess energy from the grid.
Grid operators liked the technology, which allowed them to respond to imbalances in less than a second instead of minutes. But Beacon was ahead of its time: Existing regulations didn’t make it possible for the company to charge different rates to provide a speedier alternative. Beacon ran out of money in 2011 while waiting for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to revise its rules. Its assets were acquired by a private equity fund.
The renamed Beacon Power LLC opened a second facility in 2014. In 2018 the two sites were acquired by a clean-energy developer. Today, the growing use of intermittent wind and solar power, which can fluctuate rapidly, has boosted demand for this type of service. But battery systems have emerged to quickly deliver power to the grid or absorb it.
3. Cellulosic Biofuels
The gas in your car’s tank doesn’t need to come from crude oil—you can grow it on a farm. That was the promise of a wave of companies that tried to develop cheap, renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Unlike the standard ethanol made from sugar in corn or sugar cane, this next generation would be produced from cellulose—the tough, stringy, indigestible fiber in plants or trees. That would be cheaper and easier to source than food crops. Biofuels produce fewer carbon emissions than oil because the plants suck up carbon as they grow and because it’s simpler to harvest plants than to drill for crude. The goal was to make a “drop-in compatible” fuel–one that could be used in a vehicle without modifying the engine.
It was a popular idea a decade ago as oil prices were well above $100 a barrel, but it became a tougher sell when oil got cheaper. Biofuels remained stubbornly expensive. Kior Inc., a once-promising startup backed by the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, made fuel from wood chips. With production costs above $6 a gallon, it went bankrupt in 2014. Renmatix Inc. sought to convert wood into fuel but shifted to turning plants into specialty chemicals for the food and beauty industries. Solazyme Inc. engineered strains of algae that could be processed into fuels but eventually followed a similar path into chemicals. In 2016 the company changed its name to TerraVia Holdings Inc., and a year later it filed for bankruptcy.
4. Solar Power Tower
The power tower might be the most dramatic energy idea: miles of garage-door-size mirrors focusing sunshine onto a boiler at the top of a tall tower to generate steam and produce electricity. It’s cool, but costly. California’s Ivanpah, the world’s biggest power-tower project with a cost of $2.2 billion, has 377 megawatts of capacity. That just can’t compete with photovoltaic solar. The beams of focused sunlight have also been known to fry birds midflight.
Bechtel Group, which built Ivanpah for owners BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google, has said power towers aren’t competitive with other sources of electricity. But the technology has one advantage over solar panels: Developers can add vats of molten salt that retain heat for hours, enabling the towers to produce electricity after sundown. That’s one reason the towers have the potential to provide electricity in remote areas, where it’s expensive. Construction on a project in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile was resumed last year, two years after former co-owner Abengoa SA put it on hold because of financial issues. SolarReserve Inc., which built the only other U.S. facility in Nevada, is developing projects in other parts of the world but this year canceled plans for Australia’s first power tower when it couldn’t line up financing.
5. Small Wind Turbines
You’ve probably seen homes topped with solar panels. What about rooftop wind power? Urban Green Energy Inc. tried that.
The company offered turbines small enough to be installed on homes, with curved blades that spun around a vertical axis. Larger models were provided for commercial rooftops, remote mobile phone towers, and public sites, and the company landed well-publicized deals to help power the Eiffel Tower and Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles football team.
But the concept faced challenges. Wind turbines convert kinetic energy—the motion of the blades—into electricity. Smaller blades produce less power. The vertical design was less efficient than standard turbines. UGE struggled with high costs and maintenance issues. In 2016 the company sold its wind operations and shifted its focus to solar.
6. Marine Energy
The ocean’s never-ending motion can be converted into electricity, but it’s not easy. The sea is a harsh environment for mechanical systems. Still, the idea of harnessing the kinetic energy of waves, tides, or currents to generate power has fueled several startups.
Ocean Power Technologies Inc. developed a power buoy that’s anchored offshore and moves up and down with the waves. The company teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2012 to build a large-scale wave energy project in Australia that would have used rows and rows of the buoys. Ocean Power pulled the plug in 2014, saying the project wasn’t “commercially viable,” and changed its strategy. It’s still pursuing the technology but is now seeking to power remote sites such as offshore oil rigs.
U.K.-based Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd. set out to build turbines on a barrage across Swansea Bay, in South Wales, that would draw power from the motion of the tides. The U.K. government rejected the £1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) project in 2018, in part because offshore wind could supply the same amount of power for about one-third the cost.
Other companies are having more success with grid-scale marine power. Simec Atlantis Energy Ltd. operates the world’s first commercial tidal stream project, the 6MW MeyGen facility that went into service in Scotland in 2016.