15 cool energy projects of 2011

Solar trains, plane, automobiles and even spacecraft among advanced 2011 undertakings

There have been some challenges for the alternative energy world this year as the economies of many countries continue to be sluggish, keeping some large projects on the back burner. Still, a number of interesting developments took place this year, here’s a look at some of them.

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Handout . / Reuters

The decommissioned USS Paul F. Foster destroyer conducts a successful demonstration of shipboard alternative fuel use while underway in the Pacific Ocean on a 50-50 blend of an algae-derived, hydro-processed algal oil and petroleum F-76.  The military has made significant strides to reduce its dependency on oil-only products this year.

REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

In this Reuters item, German Chancellor Angela Merkel (C) stands outside the first fully functional "Energy Surplus House". The single-family house of around 130 square meters, efficiently saves energy by using photovoltaic cells and heat pumps using the earth as heat source to heat and cool the building. The surplus energy is cumulated in high-capacity batteries and used to recharge electric vehicles.


Solar thermal collectors are seen against a backdrop of public housing flats on the roof of a building at the United World College of South East Asia East Campus in Singapore. The installation by Austrian firm SOLID GmbH is the world's largest solar thermal cooling plant, with the total installed capacity for cooling and heating of approximately 2,730 kWth, according to the company.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

The single seat, solar powered aircraft known as Solar Impulse flew across Europe this year with an eye toward possible transamerican, transatlantic and round-the-world flights in 2013 and 2014.  Solar Impulse HB-SIA has a wingspan of over 200 feet - about as large as an Airbus commercial jetliner - weighs about 4,000 lbs  and relies on 12,000 solar cells for clean powered flight.

Ho New / Reuters

It won't be easy to run a national railway on renewable energy like wind, hydro and solar power but that is what Germany's Deutsche Bahn aims to do.  The railway has partnered with wind and hydroelectric power suppliers and its exploratory moves into harvesting solar power from the roofs of its 5,700 stations.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

Windmills are seen at a wind farm in Palm Springs, Calif.  The state wants to slow climate change by putting a price on carbon -- a low, low starting price. According to Reuters, the carbon pricing program is the last, step in a controversial half-decade push to green the state's business.

NASA this year picked five companies to begin exploring the feasibility of using solar electric propulsion to power future spacecraft. According to NASA, multiple studies have shown the advantages of using solar electric propulsion to transport heavy payloads from low Earth orbit to higher orbits. This approach could facilitate missions to near Earth asteroids and other destinations in deep space, NASA said.  The five companies included: Analytical Mechanics, Associates, Ball Aerospace & Technologies, Boeing, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company and Northrop Grumman Systems.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

A Toyota FCHV-ADV hydrogen fuel cell car is seen at the sixth annual Alternative Transportation Expo and Conference. Toyota says  the car has a range of more than 400 miles (644 km) on one fill of 6kg of hydrogen, with hydrogen selling for $3-10 per kg.

The government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) agency is funding a number of initiatives that could develop some game-changing energy projects. One of its projects, known as Plants Engineered To Replace Oil (PETRO) aims to develop plants that capture more energy from sunlight and convert that energy directly into fuels. If successful, PETRO will create biofuels for half their current cost, finally making them cost-competitive with fuels from oil. Up to $30 million will be made available for this program. Plants such as Camelina (pictured) are being raised as a potential biofuel.

Another ARPA-E project known as High Energy Advanced Thermal Storage (HEATS) aims to develop revolutionary cost-effective thermal energy storage technologies. At MIT for example, researchers are developing a system  for storing the sun’s heat in chemical form — rather than converting it to electricity or storing the heat itself in a heavily insulated container — has significant advantages, since in principle the chemical material can be stored for long periods of time without losing any of its stored energy.

ARPA-E is also funding research known as the Solar Agile Delivery of Electrical Power Technology (Solar ADEPT) program, which focuses on integrating advanced power electronics into solar panels and solar farms to extract and deliver energy more efficiently. Specifically, ARPA-E aims to invest in key advances in magnetics, semiconductor switches, and charge storage, which could reduce power conversion costs by up to 50% for utilities and 80% for homeowners.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory early this year said it had completed the first 25 of 125 solar-assisted electric vehicle charging stations between Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn. The Department of Energy lab is behind the demonstration project and long-term plans call for 2,535 electric charging locations to be built in Tennessee and a total of nearly 15,000 in Oregon, Washington, California, Arizona, Texas and the District of Columbia. The DOE has a variety of projects underway to deploy 22,000 charging points in residential, commercial, and public locations nationwide by December 2013.

Despite reports of dwindling financial interest in some places, the U.S. Department of Energy this year said it would spend $43 million over the next five years to speed 41 wind energy projects across 20 states. The money is expected to advance wind turbine design tools and hardware and accelerate the deployment of offshore wind by reducing market barriers such as supply chain development, transmission and infrastructure, the DOE stated.

Google this year invested $168 million in a solar energy plant known as a power tower that uses directed mirrors to concentrate the sun's rays onto a solar receiver at the top of a tall tower. In this case, a 450 foot tall tower using 173,000 mirrors. Solar energy firm BrightSource will be building the tower, which it claims will be the largest solar power tower in the world when completed in 2013.

NASA this year awarded what it called the largest prize in aviation history to a company that flew their aircraft 200 miles in less than two hours on less than one gallon of fuel or electric equivalent. Their aircraft is the Taurus G4 by Pipistrel-USA.com. The twin fuselage motor glider features a 145 kW electric motor, lithium-ion batteries, and retractable landing gear.