Move over Star Trek: Here comes Energy

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By Elisa Wood

September 22, 2010

Remember when the idea of generating electricity from wind turbines and solar panels seemed really cool? No denying their benefits, but they are sooo last year.

Energy folks have gazed with envy at those who work in telecommunications for a long time. They invented the cell phone. Energy wanted its own thingamabob that would completely revolutionize its market.  Now, with all of the thought, money and politics backing energy tinkerers, forget the cell phone. I suspect Energy is approaching a “Beam me up, Scottie” breakthrough.

Here are a few of my favorite new contraptions and concepts.

  • My commute, the power plant: The public relations person who emailed me this information wrote in the subject line, ‘Very Cool Smart Grid/Transportation Announcement.’ I thought, ‘Oh sure, how many times have I heard that from a PR person?’ But yeah, it is.

Viridity Energy and Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority are tapping into the growing use of waste energy. (We in the US apparently waste about as much energy as the Japanese use in total.) In this case, Viridity software works to capture the energy created when a train brakes. The excess power is stored in a battery and then sold to the power grid.  The first test will occur at Philadelphia’s busiest subway line. If it works, it may spread to public transportation systems across the country.

“The project will pair the latest 21st century technologies and energy optimization practices with one of the country’s oldest transportation systems, dating back to the deployment of electric trolleys in 1892,” says Viridity’s news release. “Mass transit systems across the country are striving to maintain high quality service while facing growing fiscal challenges which are further compounded by rising energy costs.  The pilot represents a large and untapped potential for transit systems to help meet these challenges and at the same time improve grid reliability in highly populated urban neighborhoods.”

  • My knee, the power plant: I heard about this prototype a couple of years ago. As far as I know it’s not commercially available yet. But when it is, I want one. This gadget uses “biomechanical energy harvesting.” You wear it on your knee and it captures energy wasted from knee movement as you walk. “We believe that when you’re slowing down the knee at the end of swinging the leg, most of that energy normally is just wasted,” said its creator, Arthur Kuo, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, in a Renewable Energy World article. Your knee won’t light up cities, but it might charge your Ipod. At the time the article was published in 2008, Kuo thought the knee brace was still too bulky and he was working on streamlining it.
  • Wireless electricity: To think, we were all so impressed with cordless phones. Now a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology says we may soon be able to toss out our electric wires as well. No more looking for where to plug in the televisions, stereos, lamps and computers.  As Paul Hochman put it in his Fast Company article, it is “a breakthrough that portends the literal and figurative untethering of our electronic age.” Several companies are working on commercial applications.
  • Wired cows: Cows seem to hold some special place in the heart of green energy fans. It’s not unusual to see promotional photos from wind power companies with cows grazing by wind turbines. Now some Hewlett-Packard researchers are proposing that dairy farms power our energy hungry data centers. It involves cow manure, waste heat from the data center and a combined heat and power system. I’ll say no more because further details are in an article I have written on hybrid power systems for the September/October 2010 issue of Renewable Energy World International magazine. Watch for it here.

Those are just a few of the cool energy concepts that I’ve seen.  Please let us know what you’ve come across.

Elisa Wood is co-author of “Energy Efficiency Incentives for Businesses 2010: Eastern States,”

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. […] then of course, someday we’ll all have wireless electricity. Some […]