Innovate: A Magazine Column That’s Half Man and Half Machine

Innovate’ is a cyborg of a column I write for Sierra magazine. Each issue I explore the boundaries of renewable energy — the ragged edges where entrepreneurs are figuring out how to run our industrial economy much more efficiently and with sources of energy that you may never have thought of. Solar blimps, energy-harvesting windows, 650-foot-long mechanical snakes that make electricity from ocean waves. They may seem strange, but they are the leading edge of our next industrial revolution. One day they may be as commonplace as coal plants and gas stations.

Where does the cyborg come in? Well, this is a revolution of both machines and men (and women). The first half of the column is an infographic that illustrates the technology in pictures, produced in concert with a graphic designer. The second part is a profile of one of the visionaries who is creating our low-impact future, often with meager resources and at tremendous risk.  That’s ‘Innovate.’ A strange combo, I know, but compelling enough to win a MAGGIE Award in 2010.

Enjoy exploring. I welcome your comments through the Facebook chat at the bottom of each column on Sierra‘s website, or through my Contact page.


January/February 2014: Super Solar

Infographic: Today, most rooftop panels convert only about 15 to 20 percent of the solar spectrum into electricity, while the very fanciest—the kind that power spacecraft—achieve efficiencies of about 30 percent. Here’s how tomorrow’s solar panels might bag more rays, from low-energy infrared to high-energy ultraviolet. super solar screenshot
harry atwater Profile: Harry Atwater, Physics Professor, California Institute of Technology: In Harry Atwater’s career working with solar cells, he has seen fancy electronic devices, like mobile phones and lasers, transform from clunky, expensive oddities into reliable, low-cost essentials of modern life. By comparison, the photovoltaic (PV) solar cell has progressed at a crawl. Atwater thinks that a radical redesign is needed. 


November/December 2013: Algae Haus

algae haus
Infographic: On the Frankenstrasse, in the German city of Hamburg, stands a new apartment building whose walls are covered with green slime. The Bio Intelligence Quotient house, or BIQ, is the result of a daring $6.5 million quest to transform a four-story facade into a living power plant.
Profile: Jan Wurm, Associate Director, Arup: Jan Wurm’s fascination with glass began when he was a teenage carpenter’s apprentice building wintergartens in Heidelberg, Germany. Stiff yet fragile, glass became the basis of his architectural career. His biggest challenge came in March 2010, when his company was part of a team that won Hamburg’s International Building Exhibition. jan wurm


September/October 2013: Clean Energy from Old Mines

Infographic: Is there a second life for an abandoned mine whose rocky tailings can leach poisons like lead and arsenic into waterways for centuries? The United States has 80,000 to 250,000 retired mines wasting away that could be ideal sites for big renewable energy projects. old mines innovate screenshot
nathan lindquist Profile: Nathan Lindquist, Planning Director, City of Rifle, Colorado: When Nathan Lindquist arrived in Rifle, Colorado, in 2007, housing was nearly impossible to find. A natural gas energy boom was under way, and workers were pouring into the mountain town in search of a quick buck.The next year, the recession hit and plunged Rifle into a bust. Similar booms for oil shale had whipsawed the town’s economy in the 1920s, the ’50s, and the early ’80s. “The economy here has always been based on some sort of energy extract or another,” Lindquist says.


July/August 2013: The Power of Microgrids

Infographic: One obstacle to using cleaner, more local, renewable power is the power grid itself. Our antiquated system of regional grids is, for the most part, hardwired to route electricity from big power plants. In fact, utilities have warned that the grid could go haywire if local “decentralized” power exceeds 15 percent of supply. Microgrids offer an intriguing path to semi-independence.
Profile: Alan McDonnell, Chief Engineer, Pareto Energy: Pareto Energy, a Washington, D.C., company, is trying to retool the hardened and centralized infrastructure of the 20th-century power grid into doing something it was never designed to do. “Could we be up when the grid is up, and be up when the grid is down, and transition seamlessly between those two states?” asks Alan McDonnell, Pareto’s chief engineer. McDonnell mugshot



May/June 2013: Wearable Watts

Infographic: Imagine if the energy you used to summit Mt. Shasta could be harnessed to light up your tent at night. Such a possibility is within reach: An active human can generate enough kinetic energy to power a 100-watt incandescent bulb.While energy devices that require human force (like hand-cranked radios) have existed for decades, researchers are developing contraptions that can harvest electricity from everyday activity. For the recreational hiker, wearable watts could power such gizmos such as headlamps, GPS devices, cameras, and cellphones — giving “power walking” a whole new meaning. wearable watts detail
Elias Siores Profile: Elias Siores, Chemical Engineer, University of Bolton: As a boy, Elias Siores cavorted on Greece’s sun-splashed shores and played water polo and kayaked in the Gulf of Corinth. Siores, 50, now huddles in Bolton, England, northwest of Manchester, where more than two inches of rain can fall in June. The inclement weather weighed heavily on Siores’s mind when he moved to England to head the University of Bolton’s Institute for Materials Research and Innovation, which is known for its breakthroughs in textile design. He wanted to join the renewable energy revolution, and even in the gloom of England he saw a glimmer of opportunity.


March/April 2013: Look, Ma, No Blades!

bladeless wind power detail Infographic: Giant wind turbines are, like cows, a feature that many people would rather see dotting the distant countryside than taking up space near home. Their blades create noise and a flickering shadow, and have a way of dominating the landscape. But what if a wind harvester could be incorporated into a building’s skin or fit into the city’s grid? A new generation of wind harvesters, from the tiny to the extraordinarily huge, may help wind devices become part of the built-up landscape.
Profile: Daryoush Allaei, Founder, Sheerwind: Daryoush Allaei grew up in Abadan, Iran, where a breeze off the Persian Gulf, 33 miles away, sometimes delivered relief from the hot summers. While the smokestacks of one of the world’s largest oil refineries distinguished the skyline, Allaei was more impressed by far older Persian structures that looked like chimneys but served an entirely different purpose: the neighborhood wind catchers. Daryoush-Allaei


January/February 2013: Solar Designs from Nature

Infographic: In the quest to draw power from the sun, nothing is more motivated than plants and insects. What’s “alternative energy” for us is essential energy to, for example, a butterfly. Solar energy is the key ingredient in photosynthesis and delivers the main source of heat to all creatures without warm blood. Scientists have recently identified some of the ingenious ways that nature maximizes solar harvest. The lessons are directly applicable to the creation of more efficient solar panels, more powerful solar installations, and perhaps even high-yield electrofuels.
Profile: Jong Bok Kim, Postdoctoral Researcher, Princeton University: One sunny day in May 2010, Jong Bok Kim sat outside his Princeton University office staring at a shrub. A postdoctoral researcher in chemical and biological engineering, Kim wanted to find the best skin for a solar cell. Would the most electricity be produced by a surface of tiny strips, pyramids, or mirrors? Then he realized that the shrub held the answer.


September/October 2012: Electricity in the Air

Infographic: Despite the initial excitement, electric cars have been rolled out at an underwhelming pace. Even those drivers who yearn to say goodbye to the gas pump have some doubts. Researchers may have discovered one way to address the so-called range anxiety over electric cars. A technology called resonant magnetic coupling could one day transmit power wirelessly from the electric grid to an EV, allowing batteries to charge without being plugged in.
Profile: Marin Soljačić, Physics Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Marin Soljačić grew up in Croatia revering one of the country’s towering figures, the odd and brilliant electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. A century ago, Tesla made some earthshaking breakthroughs, like discovering alternating current, and came up with one spectacular dud: an 18-story tower he built on Long Island that was meant to transmit power wirelessly around the globe.


July/August 2012: It Came from the Deep

Infographic: Tropical oceans get balmy warm on the surface, as any sunburned vacationer can attest. But sink a half mile below and the water is a frigid 39 degrees Fahrenheit. The gap between these temperatures can be used to produce a form of renewable power known as ocean thermal energy conversion, or OTEC.
Profile: Ted Johnson, Vice President, Ocean Thermal Energy Corporation: For nearly 25 years, Ted Johnson has waited for the world to wake up to the opportunity of using cold water from the deep seas to make cheap electricity. Now the goal is tantalizingly close.


May/June 2012: The Mud-Powered Robot

Infographic: Here’s how an oceangoing robot might power itself one day: Sensing its battery is low, it sinks to the ocean bottom and gets a revitalizing stream of electricity by sticking a graphite arm into the muck. That’s it. Done. Back to counting manatees or testing water quality.
Profile: Dr. Leonard Tender, Electrochemist, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory: Dr. Leonard Tender’s claim to fame is that he invented the first working microbial fuel cell to be powered by river mud. Two years ago, his device summoned a trickle of electricity from the floor of the Potomac River just outside his Washington, D.C., office for seven months—until winter ice destroyed it.


March/April 2012: Manure to Money

Infographic: Since the advent of domesticated animals, farmers have been squinting at mounds of poop. What to do with it all? The traditional answer is to spread it on the fields as fertilizer. But with the rise of anaerobic digesters, farmers are now finding that cow patties can be nearly as valuable as cows. Manure hosts microorganisms that produce methane, a powerful global-warming gas that escapes into the atmosphere as fecal matter decomposes. But when the manure is diverted to an airless tank known as a digester, the methane is burned off to create energy, and the entire waste stream becomes a commodity.
Profile: Steve Reinford, Dairy Farmer: One of the worst parts of Steve Reinford’s job was spraying raw manure onto his crops. He didn’t mind the smell—it’s part of being a dairy farmer—but he couldn’t abide the complaints from his neighbors. “The number-one thing I had to do was something for odor control,” he says.


January/February 2012: Train to Tomorrowland

Infographic: When a train rushes into a station accompanied by a hair-flopping breeze and a squeal of brakes, some engineers think, “What a lot of wasted energy.” Train system managers are starting to agree. Here are the creative ways in which technology can collect extra power from hurtling tons of steel.
Profile: Andrew Gillespie, Chief Power Engineer, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority: Andrew Gillespie’s love for electric trains is a complicated thing. As the chief power engineer for SEPTA, he yearns for those gleaming bullet trains found in Japan and Germany. But he’s in Philadelphia, where the electric rail lines are a century old and the system is perpetually short of money.

November/December 2011: Lean, Green Data Machines

Infographic: Hidden behind every Google search and Facebook update is an energy-guzzling data center. As the globe’s computing migrates to “the cloud,” the electricity-powered facilities that do all that number crunching will generate more and more heat. Now, some sharp minds are trying to make the centers smaller, cooler, more efficient, and able to “friend” cleaner power sources like solar and wind.
Profile: Christian Belady, General Manager for Data Center Research, Microsoft: Frustration over escalating energy bills made Christian Belady toss some computer servers into a tent in 2007 to tough out the Seattle winter. Belady, a data center expert at Microsoft, knew that servers are hardy machines. But the industry engineers who set air-conditioning standards had decreed that data centers operate best between 68 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit—a cautious edict that caused hundreds of megawatts to be wasted on unnecessary cooling all year round. Belady had grown up camping in national parks, and figured that data centers could benefit from fresh air too…

September/October 2011: Solar Flotilla

Infographic: Around the world, thousands of square miles of “industrial water”—cooling ponds, reservoirs, irrigation channels, and aqueducts—lose precious acre-feet as they evaporate in the hot sun. Why not slow the evaporation and create electricity by launching a flotilla of solar panels?
Profile: Phil Connor, Co-Founder, Sunengy: Phil Connor first realized the power of solar panels in 1963 at the age of 13. He found a little five-inch solar wafer at military-surplus store in Sydney, hooked it to his transistor radio, and listened to a new band called the Beatles.

July/August 2011: Home-Style Energy

Infographic: Deep under West Virginia, below the infamous coal seams, is a mass of hot rock that could help power the state for millennia. But getting to it is no easy feat. If engineers can find a way to affordably reach into West Virginia’s geothermal pocket, then the trick can be repeated almost anywhere on the planet.
Profile: Brian Anderson, Assistant Professor, West Virginia University: Anderson could have gone almost anywhere after earning a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he returned to Appalachian coal country. It just made sense to a guy who’d grown up among oil pumps and coalfields.

May/June 2011: Forecast: Profitably Sunny

Infographic: Pick a cloud on the horizon and try to guess whether it will eventually cover the sun. Then guess exactly when the cloud will pass overhead and how long it will be before the sun comes out again. This game becomes a profit-sapping frustration if you’re the manager of a solar farm, when a partly cloudy day could lose you precious megawatts.
Profile: Dr. Carlos Coimbra, Associate Professor, University of California, Merced: Carlos Coimbra does his most dangerous solar forecasting off the job, while astride his motorcycle. Crossing the Nevada desert on Interstate 15, he watches the thunderclouds on the horizon and wonders whether he should seek cover or risk playing slip-and-slide with the semis in the rain.

March/April 2011: Windows that Generate Energy

Infographic: Skyscrapers have to work hard to protect themselves from the sun. Their vast glassy surfaces absorb so much heat that the air-conditioning pumps all day, sometimes even in winter. One solution may be an integrated, concentrating solar facade—an array of miniature generators that follow the sun like a field of transparent sunflowers.
Profile: Peter Stark, Technical Director, HeliOptix: Bracing for disappointment, Peter Stark headed into a meeting with another one of those starry-eyed solar people. In the room was architect Anna Dyson, who had an idea for a window system that could harvest 80 percent of the sun’s energy—a number some considered theoretically impossible. “Give me an hour,” Dyson pleaded.

January/February 2011: Power from Tides

Infographic: The swift, powerful tides that can make oodles of electricity are surprisingly rare. In the United States, only a few places—including the Gulf of Maine, Washington’s Puget Sound, Manhattan’s East River, and the waters under the Golden Gate Bridge—create a muscular flow near cities with sizable power needs.
Profile: Dr. Huijie Xue, Professor of Oceanography, University of Maine: Huijie Xue grew up in Ruian, a town on China’s coast where life moved with the rhythm of the tides…

November/December 2010: The Age of the Airship

Infographic: A shadow falls from above, and you glance up to see what looks like a giant marshmallow lifting off of the roof of a skyscraper, loaded with a shipment of solar panels. This is the future that “helium heads” envision: lumbering but graceful airships taking some of the load off trucks, trains, freighters, and even jets while expending little or no fuel.
Profile: Mark Summers, Founder, Helios Airships: When Mark Summers released his 15-foot-long homemade blimp into the Utah sky one Sunday morning in 2009, it seemed nothing could go wrong…

September/October 2010: Solar Power from Space

Infographic: When it comes to sunny, no place on Earth compares to space. The National Security Space Office estimates that a one-kilometer-wide belt of space around Earth receives in one year an amount of solar energy equal to the world’s oil reserves. A space-based solar station could stream power day and night, in any weather, to any latitude, in an amount that would dwarf the output of terrestrial solar and wind farms.
Profile: Gary Spirnak, Founder, Solaren: Early in his career, Gary Spirnak decided he’d rather build a spaceship than ride in one. “I worked around a lot of astronauts, and it didn’t seem that glamorous,” he says of the days in the 1980s and ’90s when he coordinated space shuttle flights for the U.S. Air Force.

July/August 2010: A New Wave of Energy

Infographic: Waves are a vast and inexhaustible source of power, but just try making them run a Roomba.
Profile: Brent Dehlsen, CEO, Ecomerit Technologies:Brent Dehlsen grew up sailing a 48-foot Cheoy Lee ketch with his father off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. But if the conversation turns to the energy of ocean waves, don’t expect him to get all misty-eyed.

May/June 2010: New Designs in Wind Power

Infographic: We live at the start of an energy era when virtually any wind turbine has a halo of virtue. But evidence is gathering that one day we’ll look at the whirling Popsicle sticks on our hillsides as awkward first tries.
Profile: Eddie O’Connor, Founder, Mainstream Renewable Power: “I found out I was Ireland’s leading polluter,” O’Connor recalled, “and I had to ask myself what I was going to do about it.”

March/April 2010: Energy for the Developing World

Infographic: Inexpensive devices that harness the sun and wind can supply small amounts of power, come from local materials, and create local jobs. The developing world’s population is expected to grow by 2.5 billion over the next 40 years, so these innovative energy savers can’t come soon enough.
Profile: John Barrie, Founder, Appropriate Technology Collaborative: “There are 200,000 people in the world designing cell phones, and 20 people in the world designing things for the 2 billion poor people on the planet,” Barrie says. “I have a lot of clients.”