Energy Innovators Just Wanna Have Fun

Chena power generationOne of our most striking discoveries while working on Earth: The Sequel was just how much fun energy innovators are having. (First came the book, and the Discovery TV show airs tonight at 10pm ET.)

Bernie Karl spent $20,000 building an ice hotel in the Alaskan interior, and another $700 a day on diesel refrigeration, and then the whole thing melted in the midnight sun. Forbes called it "the dumbest business idea of the year." Well, that was pure catnip to Bernie. So he built the whole thing again, only this time he hired a dog-mushing engineer named Gwen to figure out how to use the energy in his hot springs to keep it cold. All the experts said it would fail because his water wasn't warm enough, but Bernie made it work (and suggested that Forbes can "kiss my a-"). He went on to collaborate with United Technologies on a geothermal power plant capable of using the lowest temperature heat resource ever used anywhere in the world. That opens up more possibilities than you can imagine: to turn low-temperature industrial waste heat, or the waste hot water that comes up with oil from Texas wells, into electricity.

Jack Newman is one of three young founders of a remarkable biofuels company called Amyris , which genetically engineers yeast to ferment sugar — not into ethanol, but directly into diesel, jet fuel and gasoline chemically identical to fuels made from petroleum. They've assembled an incredibly multi-disciplinary team to achieve their mission, Jack says. "They just sort of ride that wave of energy of people wanting to do something interesting that's going to make a difference, and then it just becomes a great day at work."

For some, the fun is in realizing an opportunity to grow and make money even in these difficult times. Conrad Burke, CEO of a cutting edge solar thin-film company called Innovalight , says "I'm not an environmentalist; I'm a capitalist." In January, Innovalight installed the world's first solar production line using silicon ink, which is printed onto the substrate, making for high-throughput, low-cost manufacture. Amryis is also charging ahead: last year it opened its first pilot diesel plant in California, and formed a joint venture with one of Brazil's largest ethanol distributors to quickly scale-up production. SantelisaVale, the second-largest ethanol and sugar producer in Brazil, committed two million tons of sugar cane crushing capacity for the initial production of their "no-compromise" diesel. And this month, Raser Technologies began delivering geothermal power made in Utah using the technology Bernie helped develop to Anaheim California.

You can meet all these innovators and many more on the Discovery show, March 11, 2009 or in the book which just came out in paperback with a new afterword and illustrations.

photo courtesy of Sarah Shatz