Green energy needs legacy tech to work

Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD



Alix Paultre, Editorial Director, PSD

One of the problems with the debate over the development and deployment of alternate energy is that people on both sides of the discussion act as if energy delivery is a zero-sum game. Whenever electric cars come up people act as if the end goal is 100% usage of one technology or the other. The same goes for wind, solar, and geothermal power in the grid. Much of the acrimony and bloviation on the subject is deliberately spun to confuse and muddy the real debate.

That kind of argument is like saying that since kinetic & RF energy harvesting in portable devices will never completely eliminate batteries, we shouldn’t be researching solutions based on those technologies and just stick to making batteries the way we’ve always have. This not only kills the development of the advanced tech, but also stagnates existing technology at its current state. This also adds to boom-and-bust business cycles as the legacy companies fail spectacularly from their own failure to recognize change.

One example in this is the resistance of some automotive companies to achieve higher fossil-fuel efficiencies by modernizing internal-combustion tech and using ultralight materials to reduce weight. Such zero-sum gamesmanship is both disingenuous and counterproductive to the advance of applied technology. We will never completely free ourselves from fossil fuels, but it is counterproductive (and in the loing term, self-destructive) not to use alternate technologies wherever appropriate.

The reality is that we should not only create new ways to produce energy, we should also be doing all we can to modernize legacy technologies and infrastructures. Only by improving our current core technologies while developing new ones will we ever achieve our goals and meet our future needs. We need more efficient fossil-fuel engines as well as advanced battery storage technologies, along with smaller powerful electric motors and intelligent software systems to manage them.

Take grid-level storage as another example. Even the most “green” technologies in existence need not only the legacy grid infrastructure to deliver their power to the people, proper integration and management of those variable sources will also require storage of energy to shift power from peak generation periods to those times when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow (geothermal does get a bit of a pass on this aspect).

We must all recognize that “Green” tech cannot exist at this point without legacy tech, and legacy tech needs the injection of innovation and challenge alternate technologies bring. While there are many low-impact technologies for energy storage like reflow batteries, flywheels, fuel cells, and hot rocks, much of this “grid stiffening” will continue to occur in old-school lead-acid batteries. Using the most effective mix of technologies to achieve a given goal is the best approach to take, and only by properly integrating complementary technologies and methodologies will we be able to create the Smart Grid we all envision.