New design in renewable energy sources

Nowadays we constantly hear about renewable energy sources (RES). How they should replace fossil-based ones and how good they are for the environment. Most of the time, many of us forget that natural power sources usage is not a new thing. People have been using solar power for thousands of years to cook and heat. Ancient Greeks started builiding their cities on southern sides of hills due to the energy crisis. Also, since ancient times wind and water power was used in mills. The discovery of turning light into energy in 1954 gave us new possibilities and started high-tech renewable energy generators.

We are all familiar with conventional solar panels and wind turbines, but what else is out there?

Big products for big energy

The new trend among RES companies is to get renewable energy sources to more inaccessible places. For off grid areas it is still most common to use diesel generators, which are quite expensive while sustainable energy is known to be way cheaper in the final outcome. For those areas Altearos Energies developed Buoyant Air Turbine (BAT). It is a wind turbine which floats in a helium-filled balloon shell, produced power travels down the tether that keeps the turbine connected to the ground. First prototype was designed by Altearos co-founder Ben Glass, MIT graduate. Now his main goal is to get BAT to full commercialization.

BAT is able to reach 600m. It’s over 300m higher than world’s highest tower wind turbine. Because the winds are stronger in higher zones, Altearos claims that BAT can produce twice as much energy as commercial tower wind turbines. BAT can also act like radio tower, it can provide area with mobile and internet connection.

The design looks a little bit like something out of science-fiction. Which is great because it brings us closer to our dreams of the future.

Another fame gaining flying generator is Google’s Makani Energy Kite. It is
a wing, that acts similar to conventional wind turbine blade, with small turbines attached to it that produce energy. Power goes down a tether just like with BAT. The small turbines also let the kite climb to the moment when it can start collecting energy. Makani Kite can fly between 100 and 400m, which, just like with BAT, allows to produce more energy than conventional turbines. Kite uses ground station for docking and also for navigating the flight that it produces the most energy.

Both BAT and Makani Energy Kite are amazingly efficient. It would be great to have them popularised in remote areas and maybe even in cities. I hope to see them in use in next few years.

In solar power another sci-fi like project is Rawlemon’s Beta.ray, designed by Andre Broessel, the founder of Rawlemon. The base for it is spherical lense that concentrates Sun rays. The second component is a tracking system with
a solar cell that collects concentrated energy. The idea is to use smaller surface to get more power. Beta.ray may be used in off grid areas as a main power source, and also as a supplementary source in cities eg. Rawlemonproposes it as a car charger. There is also a smaller version called Beta.ey that can act as a smartphone charger and also has a build in LED system so it can light up during the night.

Beta.ray with it’s modern/futuristic form will work great in cities without getting in conflict with urban estetique. Personally I’m only slightly concerned about the weight of the glass sphere. Of course Rawlemon must have thought about it and secured the system very well. The question is how long can it last.


Pocket divices for personal use

For modern hippies there’s a lot of possibilities to get clean energy for any device you have on the go. The most obvious: solar chargers dominated the market a few years back and still are the most popular with customers. But that can soon change.

HydroBee is developing its water-charging battery pack. Well, almost anything-charging really. It can be charged connecting with a turbine in
a stream, it can use heat power from your campfire or the power of your muscles. The energy pack was designed thinking of poor and off grid areas that may need storage of smaller power amounts, but it is also advertised to hikers and campers. HydroBee is a startup company currently crowdfunding their product via pre-orders online. And now they develop new additions for the energypack. The pack itself is consistent of generator that you can connect to a turbine, crank etc., battery and USB port section.

While the idea is genius and design is very simple Hydrobee haven’t gained
a lot of fame and is struggling with crowdfounding. My thought is they’re developing too many components and basing their marketing on that instead go for a strong campain and after thet develop new ideas.

Another multi-source power generator is Waterlily turbine. It can be exposed to either wind or water current. In comparison to HydroBee with turbine it is smaller so easier to carry around. They are also working on hand crank and
a bike mount for when it is not windy. Waterlily is in pre-order faze and will be shipping the devices in October 2017.

Waterlilly didn’t seem to struggle as much as HydroBee. Their campain started off with just a turbine and they started developing new components after putting themselves into a strong position on startup market. For me it’s design has a more “trustworthy” feeling to it than HydroBee though both companies assure their products work fine.

Public art for public energy

For last few years cities have organised competitions for artists to design structures for public spaces that would generate power. Pittsburgh-based Land Art Generator Initiative is collecting designs from those contests and trying to realise them.

All of the projects purpose is to generate clean power and educate public on renewable energy.

First is WindNest designed by Trevor Lee, originally for coastal site in Abu Dabi. The structure generates solar and wind energy from rotating pods. The collected energy can be used to charge phones or laptops. It’s estimated annual capacity is 8,000 kWh.

Next would be Windstalk, structure inspired by movement of wind through a wheat field. It generates power from the wind swaying the stalks. Estimated annual capacity: 20,000 MWh.

Another one is Solar Hourglass. It was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés for Copenhagen. It concentrates sunlight from upper half into lower one where it heats water, the steam goes to generators turbine and produces energy. Estimated annual capacity: 7,500 MWh.

All of these seem to be able to work as power generators, but apart from Solar Hourglass I’m not sure if I would like to see them in public space. Sure, they would be cool, a curiosity but I can’t think of many spaces where they wouldn’t feel alien: like a fun thing someone was desperate to show people.
I went trough some of Land Art Generator Initiative’s archives and these were the projects that I liked the most and thought they had the most potential. So it seems like renewable energy sources as public art structures have some way to go to get into our hearts. But maybe as works of art they don’t need to fit the space. If it’s art I don’t have to understand or like it. Or maybe for now we should stick to phone-charging solar light-up-benches.

Calling for designers

The renewable energy sector is developing quickly. As it gets more accessible it might need more designers attention. Though sustainability has been present in design and architecture for a while now RES are left behind. But with product designers attention soon enough every generator will be comfortable, accessible and eye-pleasing yet still practical, well-engineered and staunch. So engineers should team up with designers for more down-to-earth-user-friendly projects.