If 2012 taught us anything, it’s that renewable energy isn’t a new shiny toy anymore. While the sector grew rapidly in 2011, it looks like it will actually end up having decreased by the end of 2012. But though Solyndra and other much-hyped "failures" spent a lot of time in the press, renewable energy continued to innovate in places that received less mainstream publicity.
While wind and solar get most of the attention in discussions of renewables, some of the major innovation is happening by getting power from everything else we have laying around. As the developing world continues to increase its appetites to Western levels, we’re going to become an even more consumptive society. And as that happens, it’s going to behoove us to find ways to turn everything we’re using—and wasting—into power.
And we are starting to, putting everything from coffee to coconuts to human waste through processes that let us use them as fuel. Check out those amazing stories, and other crazy places where we’re getting clean power, below:
People drink a lot of coffee, and that creates a lot of waste. But if that waste could be converted to power? Then one addiction (coffee) could help get us off our other (oil).
The tide is turning for marine power plants, especially in Scotland, which is serving as a test-bed for all sorts of underwater turbines and other crazy solutions to generate power from the waves and tides.
Instead of focusing on a moon-shot funded by the federal government, a look at America’s "energy innovation system" finds that a much more likely solution will come from marginal, local developments—and that’s where we should be investing.
It’s not a joke. Coconuts—and not much else—are plentiful on the islands of Tokelau. So they’re making good with what they have, and converting the entire region to solar and coconut biofuels.
Computers use a lot of energy to keep all their parts going, but a new chip from Intel is able to operate with the bare minimum amount of electricity—as much as could be drawn from a postage stamp-sized solar cell or even, yes, a spud.
Sanergy is a business full of waste. The startup—funded in part by the U.S. government—gives toilets away to business people in the slums, who charge for use. In exchange, Sanergy gets the… leftovers, which they convert into electricity and sell.
Installing wind turbines in deep, turbulent seas is a laborious and expensive project. Here’s an idea: Put them on a boat.
The U.S. has a lot of untapped renewable energy, from wind in the Midwest to solar in the Southwest. These maps show where we could maximize our clean power resources.
Kids have boundless energy. What if that energy could be put to some use besides just running around and having a good time. These new jungle gyms convert play to power.
What happens when a recycling plan is too successful? Sweden does such a good job recycling and turning its waste to energy that it has started importing trash from its neighbors.
Enough of the fields of turbines! The Windstrument offers a different vision of what wind power can be in urban areas.
The GravityLight gets power from the slow lowering of a weight. All it takes is enough elbow grease to hoist the bag, and you can light a room with nothing but a bag of sand.
It’s a question that’s puzzled electric car makers for decades—how do you effectively store enough electrical energy that will power them over long distances? Turns out, it might be as simple as making an omelet.
More 2012 roundups: