As solar projects continue to surge, the horizons for development have expanded to less likely places, such as Tunisia. A German consortium is now building support for one of the world’s most ambitious solar power projects to date. The $573 billion endeavor, known as Desertec, would harness solar energy from fields of mirrors in the Sahara and convey power to a carbon-free network linking Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Munich Re, a German insurance company, is the driving force behind this major undertaking and has expressed interest in playing a role as an investor and insurer once the project gets off the ground. The technology envisioned would collect solar rays to produce steam for turbines that produce electricity, which would be transmitted through high-voltage direct current (HVDC) cables.

Opponents of the initiative argue that the economic and political risks are too great. In addition to the instability of the region, the project would require 20 or more cables, each costing up to $1 billion, to transmit electricity north beneath the Mediterranean. Supporters counter that the project could one day provide 15 percent of the energy used by Europe. Desertec could also empower countries like Morocco to export energy instead of importing.

The experts have yet to draft a business plan or determine financing of the project. The next step in Desertec will be to legally incorporate, which is planned for October 31.

Hydropower Gains Momentum with Boost from DOE

At the end of June, U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced up to $32 million in Recovery Act funding specifically for modernizing the hydropower infrastructure, increasing efficiency and reducing environmental impact. In July, DOE announced its plans to provide up to $30 billion in loan guarantees to companies investing in new renewable energy projects, including hydropower. The additional incentive of investment tax credits or grants has further insured a swell of hydropower improvement and advancement.

Hydropower is the nation’s biggest source of renewable energy and the DOE is committed to improving the technology. A major advantage to hydropower is the ability to store and release the energy on demand. On September 15, the DOE announced that 22 advanced waterpower projects will receive up to $14.6 million in funding, which includes conventional hydropower plants. Secretary Chu remarked that “these projects will provide critical support for the development of innovative renewable waterpower technologies and help ensure a vibrant hydropower industry for years to come.”

Queens Tests Con Edison’s Smart Grid Program On August 4 Consolidated Edison Company of New York, Inc., announced that Queens will be home to a $6 million smart grid pilot program. The program features sophisticated technology designed to improve the delivery of electricity to the residents and the utility’s ability to respond to customer use and power interruptions. Approximately 1,500 customers will participate in the project, which will run for a period of 18 months. Another 300 residents will have home meters that will gauge their consumption so they will have the option to manage their energy usage and thereby save money.

The City University of New York will also participate in the pilot by testing the integration of solar energy into the city grid. The energy will be collected from a 100kW photovoltaic system on the roof of LaGuardia Community College.

If the pilot proves a success, Con Ed hopes to bring the advances to the rest of the city. Since the announcement of the Queens project, Con Ed has applied for a total of $188 million in federal stimulus funds to support their overall $435 million smart grid program.

Farmers Cut Costs and Emissions with Legislation Pending

Climate change legislation has been the source of much debate in the agricultural community, but farmers have been making positive changes while lawmakers work out the details. Over the last few years, an increasing number of dairy farmers in Wisconsin have successfully lowered their operational costs with the use of biogas digester systems. The biogas engines generate enough power for on-site electricity needs and the excess power can often be sold back to the regional grid.

In January a bipartisan group of U.S. senators introduced legislation to encourage the development of biogas, the Biogas Production Incentive Act of 2009. If passed, the bill would encourage greater production of biogas for energy purposes by providing biogas producers with a tax credit of $4.27 for every million British thermal units of biogas produced. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, if the U.S. used half of its waste biomass, biogas could replace about 5 percent of the natural gas currently being used, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by another 45–70 million metric tons per year.

U.S. Military and Investors Help Algae Research Grow

On September 8 Solazyme Inc., a synthetic biology company specializing in algal biodiesel, announced that it had signed a contract with the Defense Department to develop 20,000 gallons of algae-derived diesel fuel for testing. This contract is a symbolic leap forward for the advanced research and development of large-scale advanced biofuel production from algae. Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded a $25 million contract to Science Applications International Corp. for the development of an algae-based jet fuel for the U.S. military. The military’s ultimate goal of energy independence continues to act as a catalyst for alternative energy pioneers like Solazyme.

Algae are among the fastest-growing plants in the world. Approximately 50 percent of their weight is lipid oil, which can be used to make biodiesel for cars, trucks and airplanes. Many others are investing in the promise of algae. In July ExxonMobil and startup Synthetic Genomics announced more than $600 million for a five- to six-year algae biofuels development program, including more than $300 million to be invested into the startup. Bill Gates’ Cascade Investment has funded Sapphire Energy’s development of auto fuel from algae. In early September, Sapphire Energy’s green crude powered the world’s first algae-fueled vehicle — a modified Toyota Prius also know as Algaeus. Although it is premature to say we will conquer our dependence on foreign oil with algae, recent developments demonstrate it is a fuel with great potential.