How Will We Power The Digital Economy?

Danielle Beurteaux

This summer so far has been a season of heat waves and power outages across the country, Wind farm in fieldcreating worry that energy grids aren’t up to the challenge of supplying the demand for energy.

As the digital economy grows, there are concerns that this will become the new normal because the digital economy uses up lots of energy. We need very stable energy infrastructure and sources to support its evolution and growth. Thankfully, the digital economy is also enabling next-generation energy.

Green tech saw vigorous growth until a few years ago, as investors became hesitant to back capital-intensive startups. Now, they’re more likely to invest in smaller ideas targeted on the consumer end of energy use.

But there is still some momentum in the industry, specifically specialized, green-tech-focused VCs and larger, established companies’ increasing interest in the space.

The good news is that there is plenty of innovation happening to create stable, green sources of energy. A report from MIT found that the global number of renewable-energy technology patents has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly in wind and solar.

Blown away

Wind turbines have been the subject of much debate over how they look, their potential effects on wildlife, and quality of (human) life issues. Some countries are making wind energy work, but there’s still resistance in many places.

One company trying to create a different wind energy model is Altaeros Energies. The company’s Buoyant Airborne Turbine looks like a giant inflatable donut that floats a thousand feet in the sky (don’t worry, it’s connected via cables to the earth, which is how the energy is delivered) and takes advantage of winds at higher altitudes.

The battery battle is on

Tesla batteries pre-sold out within days of their announcement. The company’s Powerwall battery is a solar power-dependant off-the-grid home energy storage system. It promises to deliver consistent and less expensive energy. But there’s also competition, like UniEnergy Technology’s flow battery, which promises even better rates over the longer life of the unit. The gauntlet, it has been thrown.

Riding the wave

Hawaii is on the forefront of wave energy technology with the recent deployment of the Azura energy converter. Wave energy is in its infancy—at least compared to other forms of green energy tech—but it holds promise. For one thing, waves are consistent and reliable energy sources, as opposed to wind. Another benefit is the population concentration along coastlines.

Another recent project is a collaboration between Canadian and British researchers, funded by a government grant, to gather data on tidal effects and marine life which could potentially be effected by tidal technology. The U.K. has already greenlighted the development of tidal energy power plant in Swansea Bay, the first of its kind in the world.

Going nuclear

Nuclear energy has a bad reputation—it hasn’t recovered from 1986’s Chernobyl disaster, and, more recently, the Fukushima meltdown after Japan’s earthquake and tsunami in 2011.

But there are tech companies that believe in the value of nuclear. There’s been an increase in startups looking for nuclear energy solutions, from new methods of creating energy to using waste. One of those startups, Transatomic Power, just raised $2.5 million investor funding, bringing its total raised to $4.5 million. Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund was one of those investors. Helion Energy is a nuclear fusion startup that’s raised $1.5 million in seed funding last summer, followed up with $10.5 million in venture this month. Helion is focused on making smaller, efficient plants possible, instead of the typical behemoths.

But if you think those solutions are too far in the future, you can always work it out on the energy-producing dance floor.

Want more insight on our increasingly networked world? See 3 Ways The Networked Economy Is Changing Your Life [VIDEO].

Danielle Beurteaux

About Danielle Beurteaux

Danielle Beurteaux is a New York–based writer who covers business, technology, and philanthropy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and on Popular Mechanics, CNN, and Institutional Investor's Alpha, among other outlets.