GE challenge stirs radical ideas for cleaner grid

Smart-grid challenge brings a flood of innovative approaches to making the grid work better and more cleanly. In about a month, the winners will be announced.

It's like a giant online science fair hosted by a giant corporation. And it's generated some a flood of ideas.

General Electric's $200 million Ecomagination Challenge, launched in July with four venture capital companies, ends tonight after 10 weeks of receiving submissions. People from around the world have offered ideas for making the electric grid cleaner, more efficient, and more reliable. Now a panel of judges gets to pick the winners.

By the end of October, GE will announce the contest entrants with which it plans to pursue commercial relationships. There will be five $100,000 awards for innovation and entrepreneurship based on popularity. The person or company that receives the most votes online will get a cash award of $50,000.

A solar roadway idea would put solar panels over electronic roadways. The inventors have built a prototype.
A solar roadway idea would put solar panels over electronic roadways. The inventors have built a prototype. Solar Roadways

Here's a sample of some of the clever ideas being proposed from researchers, engineers, and energy entrepreneurs. Over 2,5000 ideas have been submitted and over 100,000 votes taken by more than 50,000 site users, according to GE.

DC microgrids. The top-ranked idea as of today comes from Nextek Power Systems, which has developed a system for optimizing on-site power consumption by feeding direct current from a DC source, such as solar panels or batteries, to lights, motors, and electronics. Eliminating the switch from direct current to a building's alternating current and then back to direct current would make the grid operate more efficiently.

Battery swapping for e-buses. Second on the list today is a submission from China to have stations for swapping out batteries for electrically powered buses. Some commenters noted that battery-swapping stations are already being developed commercially (it's one of the idea behind electric car services company Better Place.) The submitter said the e-station has already been successfully used for special events in China, including the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Net Zero Energy Home. Future House Canada was ranked third this morning for the concept of a home that generates as much energy as it uses. The houses would be built for efficiency and use a range of green building techniques, including building-integrated solar photovoltaics, solar thermal walls, highly insulated walls, and storm water capture and treatment.

Solar Roadways. A more radical idea is proposed by engineers from Idaho to turn the country's highways into power plants. The group has built a prototype of a system for building roadways out of solar panels. If the country's roadways and parking lots were covered with solar panels with 15 percent efficiency, it would produce three times the energy the country uses annually and an electronic roadway could include signage.

Liquid solar concentrators. From Spain comes an idea for an improved solar concentrator that can be used to generate electricity or steam for industrial purposes. The company behind the idea says that improvements in solar capture, using lenses held in special liquid, and the heat transfer mechanism mean that these systems can provide usable energy 24 hours a day.

Many of the ideas were for novel approaches for local power generation, such micro wind turbines or waste-heat generators. But some were focused on new business models, not necessarily technical breakthroughs.

GeoHuddle, for example, submitted an idea for installing community-scale geothermal heating and cooling systems. Another high vote-getter was Welectricity, which seeks to combine energy monitoring with social networking.

Some of the ideas highlighted by GE itself were making hydrogen from garbage using a special membrane, or using networks of electric car batteries to stabilize the grid.

As of this morning, the ideas were still coming. Although most will never see the light of day, at the very least, the contest has motivated people to bring their ideas out into the open and spurred a healthy discussion.

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