When it comes to alternative and renewable energy, it's not enough to have the coolest non-oil-using eco-friendly widget.
By its very nature, the renewable-energy industry is one of the most innovative around. Solar power, wind power, fuel cells -- all are the result of technologies deployed mostly in just the past decade. But what makes this generation of upstarts truly exciting isn't the power (literally) of their inventions, but the manner in which those innovations came to be.
Check out the winners of this month's Innovation Scorecard, a project by Fast Company and the Monitor Group to identify the most innovative companies in key industries. Changing World Technologies compresses millions of years of decomposition into just a few hours. Just as impressive, its oil-from-junk works just fine with current fuel systems. Likewise, Konarka Technologies doesn't require a rethink of existing technologies: Its foldable solar cell will power any number of cell phones or laptops.
Energy Innovations' solution to the low efficiency of solar cells is to focus 25 times more light on them with mirrors. And Ballard Power Systems is keeping its edge through tight partnerships with carmakers and an Edisonian approach, incrementally testing new designs to ensure its ideas don't go the way of the dinosaurs.
Speaking of dinosaurs, what are those big oil and gas companies up to?
Fowl to Fuel
Changing World Technologies
West Hempstead, New York
Brian S. Appel doesn't sell snake oil, but he could. A veteran entrepreneur with experience pitching chocolates, concert tickets, and perfume, Appel runs a venture, Changing World Technologies, that can convert just about anything -- from turkey scraps to tires to used cell phones -- into oil.
CWT has discovered a shortcut to a process that normally requires millions of years. The company takes fats, bones, feathers, and grease hauled from ConAgra's Butterball plant in Carthage, Missouri, and blends the material into sludge. After a few hours of extreme heat and pressure, voila! One ton of turkey scraps yields 640 pounds of heating oil, 100 pounds of methane, and 60 pounds of fertilizer (plus another 1,200 pounds of, um, leftovers). Appel says the $31 million plant goes through about 250 tons of biowaste a day, producing 20,000 gallons of fuel that's sold to a local industrial customer for heating.
It sounds too good to be true -- and indeed, some observers say the thermal depolymerization technology is far from proven. (Appel fielded a call in 2003 from a Securities and Exchange Commission investigator concerned that the company was hyping its science in advance of an IPO. No offering was planned, then or now.) But on a small scale, it shows remarkable promise.
CWT's secret to innovation? It thinks inside the box. "We look for where we can take advantage of existing infrastructure," says Appel. Some alternative energies such as hydrogen fuel cells and biodiesel, he points out, require customers to adopt new machinery and practices. But "you can't alienate the people with the existing infrastructure. That's a self-serving boutique mentality."