Power Up

Ten innovative clean-tech and energy companies to watch.

By 2030, the world’s total energy use is projected to increase by 50 percent, with coal, natural gas, and petroleum as the main suppliers of this power. At first glance, it would seem the international energy outlook is unlikely to change all that much, in terms of the types of fuels we use. But tremendous advancements are being made in the renewable field. Demand for wind, solar, and biofuel power is growing, albeit slowly. To really understand the shifting energy landscape, one must look at the industry’s innovators in clean technology.

In the past seven years, clean-tech companies around the world have received regularly increasing sums of venture capital for research and development. Europe is leading the field in the production of electric vehicles, in wind-power generation, and in climate change policy. Germany is the world’s leader in solar-panel production and wind-power generation, with more than 20,000 installed turbines. And almost every country in the EU is responding to a push by the European Hydrogen Association to promote hydrogen as an energy resource.

The Obama administration’s New Energy for America plan contains an extensive list of initiatives and financial support for clean-tech advancement in the U.S., such as $11 billion for a “smart grid,” $2 billion for electric-car battery R&D, and $3.4 billion for carbon capture and sequestration projects (an effort to generate “clean coal”). Elsewhere, Israel is jumping into the fray by declaring that it will be oil-free by 2020. And while many people deride China for its lax environmental standards, it too is investing heavily in green energy; the government recently announced plans to spend $1.5 billion to $3 billion on clean tech demos across the country.

Wind and solar power, biofuel alternatives, and the proliferation of electric transportation — there is undoubtedly a revolution coming in the energy industry fueled by innovative technology and creative thinking. design mind chose 10 companies that are poised to play a role in that revolution in the coming years.

Australia, Denmark, Israel, United States | www.betterplace.com

The mission
To develop an infrastructure that supports zero-emission vehicles.

The technology
Better Place does not make cars, but it partners with car manufacturers, battery companies, governments, and utility companies to develop an electric recharge grid that includes battery exchange stations, recharging spots, and software that automates the experience, so that electric cars can become more reliable and convenient.

Pros and cons
The good news is that Better Place has a commitment with Renault-Nissan to manufacture 100,000 cost-efficient electric cars. The bad news is that no car manufacturer has solved the battery dilemma: Electric cars still can’t go very far on a single charge. General Motors’ Chevy Volt, which will hit the market in late 2010, can travel only 40 miles between charges and will retail for $40,000. Looking ahead, many other car companies plan to bring electric models to market by 2012, which is putting pressure on cities and local jurisdictions to build and support an electric car infrastructure like the one proposed by Better Place. The company is currently working with local governments in Australia, Canada, Israel, Denmark, and the United States.

United States | www.aurorabiofuels.com

The mission
To yield biodiesel from a particular strain of optimized algae. At full scale, the company plans to be capable of producing biodiesel at $55 to $60 a barrel.

The technology
Aurora Biofuels has researched algae strains to develop a high-yield microalgae, which is fermented into bioethanol. This microalgae is grown in specially engineered open ponds that provide a favorable, carbon-dioxide-rich environment for rapid production.

Pros and cons
The use of biofuels instead of fossil fuels as an energy solution is gaining traction. The argument against them, however, is that they can be less efficient in their conversion of fuel to energy than the fossil fuels they are replacing, not to mention the challenge of planting, watering, and harvesting these crops on a large scale. Algae-based fuel has benefits over corn- or soy-based fuels because its manufacturing process doesn’t require nearly as much land, water, and energy. Algae also grows up to 15 times faster than both corn and soy, and can feed on carbon dioxide, making it a valuable CO² sequesterer. And the algae mash left over from the fermentation process can be used as protein-rich animal feed. Aurora recently received $25 million in venture funding.