Over the last couple of years, we have seen a large number of green and clean tech concepts go from idea to prototype to finished product, and because of the many environmental challenges (and consequent opportunities) facing us, it seems as if that trend is set to continue in the near future.
A revolution in green materials has been entering the consumer market, with products made from recycled and eco-friendly components appearing in everything from food packaging to automobile interiors, and many customers want to see more of that.
Some of the innovations that could also have a big potential impact on the environment and in people’s lives over the long-term aren’t nearly as well known as so-called “green” consumer goods, and yet they are just as important, if not more so, than recycled office paper and organic cotton clothing.
From renewable energy and cleaner transportation to food production and water issues, companies are developing more sustainable solutions for meeting the world’s needs, and many of them fall under one or more of the following green or clean tech categories, which address specific challenges.
This list of green tech trends to watch in 2013 is by no means exhaustive, but rather offers examples of industries and markets that seem to be ripe for development.
Renewable Energy Investment Marketplaces and Crowdfunding:
If you wanted to invest some of your money into a specific clean or green tech project, instead of just buying general stock in the company behind it, there weren’t a whole lot of options up until fairly recently. You might be able to loan money to an individual or contractor for financing a specific project, or you could invest in something closer to home, such as installing your own solar power system. But thanks to a couple of renewable energy marketplaces, such as Milk the Sun and Mosaic, as well as crowdfunding platforms such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, are changing all of that.
While differing in some of the details, both Mosaic and Milk the Sun are working to connect investors with solar energy projects, and project developers with investors. Users can invest in the projects they desire, and then as those completed projects come online and earn revenue, interest and principle are repaid to them.
Crowdfunding sites can be quite effective in raising money for specific products and projects, although most successful campaigns seem to be consumer-oriented goods or services. Kickstarter and Indiegogo are probably the most well known platforms, but SunFunder, GreenFunder, and GreenUnite are some other options.
Smart Home Automation and Energy Efficiency:
Our homes and offices are the main point of contact that most of us have with energy consumption, and they also happen to be the places that are accumulating more gadgets and appliances that need power. Consequently, home and office automation (“smart home” networks) and energy efficiency applications are two ways that get at the same end result: reduced energy and resource consumption.
For smart homes, products such as the Nest thermostat, the Wattio system, and Belkin’s Echo Electricity and Water systems allow homeowners and building managers to more efficiently analyze and manage the overall energy use, as well as control and automate individual devices. The “Internet of Things” is getting extended through a variety of sensors and platforms that connect the computing power of the web with the real-time data-gathering and control possibilities of home wireless networks.
Energy efficiency apps such as Verde, Kill-Ur-Watts, and StopWattch are allowing users to see where and how they are using electricity, even phantom loads that are still drawing power even when the appliances are not in use. These types of mobile energy apps are also coming to electric vehicle owners for monitoring the health of the batteries and managing charge cycles, and with the push toward more electric transportation options, we’ll probably be seeing many more entries into this market.
Alternative Modes of Transportation:
Hybrid and electric cars are starting to reach a wider market, but they certainly aren’t for everyone. The price point for buying a vehicle that is ultra-efficient, such as an EV, is quite high if your budget doesn’t have room for a new car payment in it, and unless you live in an area with plenty of public charging stations, taking longer trips can be more difficult. And you may not need a full-sized car all of the time, but advances in electric bicycle and small personal EV technology, including scooters and motorcycles, are ushering a whole new era of green transportation.
Cost-Effective and Efficient Energy Storage:
Creating solutions for storing and releasing energy efficiently is a huge challenge for green technology (just look at the short lifespan of most batteries on mobile devices), and there are a number of ways that companies are innovating on that front, from building better consumer gadget batteries to constructing efficient grid-scale energy storage.
Recent research into technology such as graphene supercapacitors hints at a future where batteries can be charged in the blink of an eye and still retain a high storage capacity, and power sources such as fuel cells will generate renewable energy with no toxic or carbon emissions.
Grid-scale energy storage has seen some interesting concepts recently, such as using electric trains and gravity to manage energy flow, or using giant concrete spheres and water pressure to store and release energy on demand. Advances in battery technology, such as new kinds of “flow” batteries and innovations in lithium batteries, may also figure into grid-scale energy storage in the future.
Small-Scale Clean Energy:
It just makes sense to have more small renewable energy sources that are both portable and personal, well-suited the power needs of the user, that don’t require a huge financial investment. And the trend for micro-solar photovoltaic cells and systems reflects that. From small portable solar units with rechargeable power packs to devices with integrated solar cells, the opportunity for harvesting the sun’s energy for our electronics is getting much easier. Advances in small fuel cells and kinetic energy harvesting devices are also being explored for potential application for consumer goods.
Vehicle to Building Technology:
As batteries in electric vehicles improve, and as EVs reach a wider adoption rate, the emerging field of vehicle-to-building technology is looking to use electric cars as an energy storage medium, absorbing energy from the grid while charging, and then releasing it back to the building as needed. In addition to serving as an emergency power source, electric vehicles connected to the grid through an “intelligent building” can take advantage of time-of-use pricing, demand charge avoidance, and other energy pricing schemes from utilities in order to reduce the energy costs of buildings.
High-Tech Urban Agriculture
Everybody eats, and because a large portion of the population lives in or near urban areas, the movement toward growing some of the food locally for local businesses and residents helps to cut down on transportation costs (and associated carbon footprint), as well as increase the freshness factor of available produce. Companies focusing on high-tech indoor growing techniques, such as hydroponics and aeroponics and aquaponics, are leading a new agricultural revolution inside warehouses and shipping containers, and supplying fresh greens, mushrooms, herbs, and vegetables to local markets.
Water Filtration, Desalination, and Wastewater Reclamation
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, you might be forgiven for now knowing that we are headed toward “peak water”, but if you’ve been paying attention to the issue, water conservation and reuse are hot topics right now. A couple of the challenges are in supplying potable water to places with extreme water shortages through solar distillers, atmospheric water generators, and desalination or filtration devices, as well as finding methods to reclaim and reuse wastewater from both industrial and municipal sources. Companies that are focused on water issues will capitalize on these opportunities by finding effective methods for reducing overall water consumption, creating cost-effective water harvesting and filtration systems, and developing smart water metering solutions.
Resource and Waste Reclamation:
Everything we don’t immediately have a use for is waste, until it’s not anymore, and a variety of companies are developing technologies to reclaim and reuse resources that have previously been just discarded. Items such as the plastic waste that seems to accompany every purchase we make, and automobile tires that need replacing every couple of years, are two examples of waste that is being reclaimed and turned into feedstock material for new goods or even turned into fuel. Common waste items, such as organic matter used vegetable oil from kitchens, restaurants, and coffeeshops are being recycled into nutrient-rich compost for growing mushrooms or building soil fertility in gardens and on farms. Businesses that focus on repurposing, recycling, and reclaiming elements in our waste stream could see huge potential financial opportunities over the next few years.
The Sharing Economy:
It’s been said that we’ve been suffering from ‘affluenza’ in the Western world, and that some of our desires, such as having a car all to ourselves, or being addicted to the latest gadgets, or living in too large of a house, are responsible for wreaking havoc on the environment, in terms of resource extraction, pollution, and fossil fuel energy consumption. But a new trend has arisen recently, dubbed the ‘sharing economy‘ or ‘collaborative consumption’, and it’s enabling us to have access to things such as a vehicle or an office space without having to be the sole owner of them. The development of crowdsourcing apps, coworking spaces, ride- and car-sharing apps and services, bicycle libraries, and websites for swapping gear or selling unneeded items are all up and coming trends that could potentially change the way we look at ownership and financing of a wide variety of aspects of modern life.
These green tech trends are well worth watching over the next year and beyond, and are great opportunities for investment, innovation, and industry disruption as we move closer and closer to a clean green future.
What other green or clean tech trends do you think are worth paying close attention to?
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