Top 5 very Strange Ways to Make Renewable Power

by Leslie Berliant for EnergyBoom

Someone told me recently that the most important equation in understanding energy is E=MC2.

That’s because if we could learn to extract the total amount of energy contained in any particular mass – and in a way more efficient than burning it - we could get energy from anything.

Well, we still haven’t figured out a better way than heat, but it does seem that we are learning how to get energy from anything and everything.

So here are 5 very unusual ways to create renewable energy.

#5 Molten Salt 


United Technologies and U.S. Renewables are developing a solar-power plant that will use molten salt to harvest and store heat from the sun. They claim that solar plants that use the molten salt technique will be able to produce as much as 500 MW of peak power or operate nonstop at 50 MW.

According to Sandia National Laboratories, here’s how it works; The molten salt is a mixture of 60 percent sodium nitrate and 40 percent potassium-nitrate, or saltpeter. The salt melts at 430 F and is kept liquid at 550 F in an insulated cold storage tank. The salt is them pumped to the top of the tower, where concentrated sunlight heats it in a receiver to 1050 F. The heated salt then flows back down to a second insulated hot storage tank. When electricity is needed from the plant, the hot salt is pumped to a conventional steam-generating system to produce superheated steam for a turbine/generator. 

#4 Urine

Who knew that pee can be turned into hydrogen? And for cheap, too! As previously reported here, a team of researchers at Ohio University have developed an inexpensive nickel-based electrode device that produces hydrogen from urine. They say a pee powered vehicle could potentially travel up to 90 miles per gallon, which is a little less than my brothers could do on cross-country trips when we were kids (yeah, I was the one always having to stop and they were the camels).

And researchers think it will be cheap enough that even if your piss poor, as long as urine is plentiful, you can get to where you need to go.

#3 Poop

It ain’t pretty. And apparently neither are Rwandan jails, overcrowded since the Rwandan genocide. But they did win the Ashden Award for sustainable energy in 2005 by using prisoners’ feces to create combustible methane biogas that can be used for cooking.

The process requires putting human or animal waste into a "digester," which ferments it using bacteria to release methane gas that is captured and burned as fuel. The technology was developed at the Kigali Institute of Science, Technology and Management and they say it has reduced the annual prison wood fuel bill of $1 million by 60%. It’s rehabilitation of something ugly on two levels; it’s turning human waste into a useful product, and by including some of the perpetrators of the genocide in this renewable energy project, they are helping them become part of something noble.

Plus, it gives human powered energy a whole new meaning!

It’s not only human feces that are being used, though. San Francisco is turning doogie droppings into biofuel, Riverside, California is using cow manure to create home energy and Minnesota is using poultry litter. Everybody’s dooing it! 

#2 Onions

They’re said to be good for the lungs, lower cholesterol and inhibit strokes. They can also generate some serious energy.

Gills Onions in Oxnard, California has been converting 1.5 million pounds of onion waste a week into energy and cattle feed. As Alison Pruitt reported, “the company’s system converts methane from fermented onion juice into energy burned in two fuel cells. The energy operates the company’s refrigerators and lighting, saving $700,000 annually off the electric bill and $400,000 a year on waste disposal costs.” It’s not just onions that can be used for energy.

The government of Canada put up $1.6 million for Seacliff Energy to build a cogeneration facility using vegetable waste from local farms and greenhouses. Vijayawada Municipal Corporation in India launched a similar program in 2002 with money from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Union ministry of non-conventional energy sources (MNES) using 16 tons of vegetable waste and four tons of slaughterhouse waste to generate 3,256 units of power a day through a bio-methanisation process.

And coming in at #1 Beer (and wine)!

As eBoom writer Emily Gertz discovered last week, the Germans are making biofuel from beer waste.

Of course they are! And so is California brewer Sierra Nevada. Like with onions, it reduces waste and energy costs for brewers. Not to be outdone, the French and Italians have been making ethanol from surplus wine. Apparently, you can make your own fuel from wine, too. With 2 buck chuck at Trader Joe’s cheaper than a gallon of gas, it might make sense!

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  • Posted on July 30, 2009. Listed in:

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