Renewable Energy, The Action-Adventure Thriller

September 9, 2013 by  
Filed under Green Energy News

The cleantech whizzes who are also badass athletes.

Anyone who has read Daniel Yergin’s The Prize knows that the history of oil is an adventure story full of high-stakes gambles, from the cockpits of Japanese Zeroes over Pearl Harbor to the speculators who drilled gushers in the flatlands of Texas and the deserts of Arabia.

No such authoritative account yet exists of the crusade for clean, fossil-free energy. That’s a shame, because the settings for a great story are there: exotic solar plants being built in the blast furnace of the Mojave Desert, strange metallic creatures swimming the chilly shores of Scotland, tidal devices submerged among the lobsters of Maine, carbon-fiber raptors flying the winds of the Pacific. It has the globe-hopping sweep of a Bond movie, with fortunes to be made and catastrophes to be avoided.

It was with an eye toward helping to fill this gap that I wrote “Electrify the Elements,” a feature in the current issue of Sierra magazine that profiles four remarkable innovators in renewable energy who are also genuine action heroes.

These four are not merely scientists, engineers or entrepreneurs who are smart and doing important work. They lead the way in harvesting electricity from one of Earth’s primary elements — wind, waves, tides or sun — and are remarkable outdoorspeople whose adventures are propelled by a corresponding element — wind, waves, tides or sun.

They are:

Andrew Scott, a project and business-development manager at Pelamis Wave Power, the Scottish firm that is a leader in capturing electricity from ocean swells. Every chance he gets, Scott hops in his surf van and heads to the Orkney Islands or the Outer Hebrides to surf some the most powerful and coldest waves on the planet.

Gayle Zydlewski, a fish biologist at the University of Maine who is an expert on how tidal turbines affect fish. Her quest to know what lies beneath the surface extends to her other passion: fishing in salt water, fresh water, and the tidal zones between them.

John Woolard, a director and the former CEO of BrightSource Energy, a company that is now finishing up the world’s largest concentrated-solar plant in the Mojave Desert. The intensely focused Woolard also happens to be an elite whitewater kayaker who has done several first descents in Chile.

Johnny Heineken, the reigning national champion in kiteboarding and the 2012 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year. In his day job, he prototypes aircraft components at Makani Power, the wind-power company that was recently acquired by Google X.

I will be posting about each of them individually over the next couple of weeks because there is lots of fascinating material that didn’t make it into the story. I’m also on the lookout for other eco-innovator-athlete types, so if you know of one, please let me know.

These four were stimulating to interview because the conversation flicked back and forth so easily between the technical and the recreational. One minute you’re talking about direct solar irradiance, or the coefficient of drag, or the wattage embedded in a cross-section of wave. The next you’re on to the stoke of dropping down a 10-foot face, or the experience of shredding at 50 miles an hour across San Francisco Bay, or the best bait to catch a sailfish. There ought to be a special term for this marriage of brain and brawn.

Some great tales about clean energy have been told, such as Alexis Madrigal’s Powering the Dream, Peter Asmus’ Reaping the Wind and of course Yergin’s The Quest, which attempts to give clean energy the same sweeping treatment that oil got in The Prize. But the fact is it’s too early yet.  Someday, when the renewable-energy field is more than a century old, the authoritative armchair version will be written. In the meantime, let’s celebrate the fragmentary pieces we can glean from the thick of things.

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