You are currently viewing our desktop site, do you want to download our app instead?
Moneyweb Android App Moneyweb iOS App Moneyweb Mobile Web App
Join our mailing list to receive top business news every weekday morning.

Green flops: Why some promising cleantech ideas didn’t work out

Six inventions the world was never ready for.
The power tower may be the most dramatic, yet cool and expensive idea. Garage-door-size mirrors focus sunshine onto a boiler at the top of a tall tower to generate steam and produce electricity. Picture: Jacob Kepler, Bloomberg

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

The annals of green energy are filled with people who devised brilliant solutions to vexing problems, delivering more power for less money, making things cleaner, easier, and better. Many became rich and famous in the process.

And then there are the folks who were … less successful. They created systems that generated electricity, but not cheaply. They struggled to move from the lab to the factory. Some had great ideas that were just ahead of their time.

Here’s a sample of technologies that attracted considerable brainpower and resources, only to have us find that the world wasn’t ready for them yet. In the end, they were simply the wrong thing at the wrong time.

1. CIGS solar cells

Solar power is now one of the cheapest sources of electricity, but it wasn’t always this way. Most solar cells contain polysilicon, which was still very expensive a decade ago. Costs peaked at about $475 a kilogram in 2008, prompting the search for alternative designs. Some used a thin film of copper-indium-gallium-selenide (CIGS) on glass or plastic.

The poster child was Solyndra, which received $535 million in US loan guarantees to develop glass tubes with CIGS films. Meanwhile, burgeoning demand for clean energy led to a boom in polysilicon production, and prices plunged. Solyndra couldn’t compete with its polysilicon rivals and filed for bankruptcy in 2011, triggering a political firestorm. Numerous other CIGS companies failed or were acquired in the following years. Polysilicon now costs about $9 a kilogram and dominates the solar industry.

2. Flywheel energy storage

Power grid operators like to keep electricity flowing at a smooth and steady pace. To adjust for surges in supply or demand, they would ramp generation up or down. But big coal or natural gas-fired plants could sometimes take several minutes to respond.

Beacon Power Corp. offered an alternative with its first commercial flywheel facility in 2011. Two hundred carbon-fibre cylinders, each weighing 2 500 lb. (1 134kg), floated on magnetic fields and rotated as fast as 16 000 times a minute. All the kinetic energy could be converted into electricity and transferred to the grid as needed. It could also absorb excess energy from the grid.

Grid operators liked the technology, which allowed them to respond to imbalances in less than a second instead of minutes. But Beacon was ahead of its time: Existing regulations didn’t make it possible for the company to charge different rates to provide a speedier alternative. Beacon ran out of money in 2011 while waiting for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to revise its rules. Its assets were acquired by a private equity fund.

The renamed Beacon Power opened a second facility in 2014. In 2018 the two sites were acquired by a clean-energy developer. Today, the growing use of intermittent wind and solar power, which can fluctuate rapidly, has boosted demand for this type of service. But battery systems have emerged to quickly deliver power to the grid or absorb it.

3. Cellulosic biofuels

The gas in your car’s tank doesn’t need to come from crude oil—you can grow it on a farm. That was the promise of a wave of companies that tried to develop cheap, renewable alternatives to petroleum-based fuels. Unlike the standard ethanol made from sugar in corn or sugar cane, this next generation would be produced from cellulose—the tough, stringy, indigestible fibre in plants or trees. That would be cheaper and easier to source than food crops. Biofuels produce fewer carbon emissions than oil because the plants suck up carbon as they grow and because it’s simpler to harvest plants than to drill for crude. The goal was to make a “drop-in compatible” fuel–one that could be used in a vehicle without modifying the engine.

It was a popular idea a decade ago as oil prices were well above $100 a barrel, but it became a tougher sell when oil got cheaper. Biofuels remained stubbornly expensive. Kior, a once-promising startup backed by the venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, made fuel from wood chips. With production costs above $6 a gallon, it went bankrupt in 2014. Renmatix sought to convert wood into fuel but shifted to turning plants into specialty chemicals for the food and beauty industries. Solazyme engineered strains of algae that could be processed into fuels but eventually followed a similar path into chemicals. In 2016 the company changed its name to TerraVia Holdings Inc., and a year later it filed for bankruptcy.

4. Solar power tower

The power tower might be the most dramatic energy idea: miles of garage-door-size mirrors focusing sunshine onto a boiler at the top of a tall tower to generate steam and produce electricity. It’s cool, but costly. California’s Ivanpah, the world’s biggest power-tower project with a cost of $2.2 billion, has 377 megawatts of capacity. That just can’t compete with photovoltaic solar. The beams of focused sunlight have also been known to fry birds mid-flight.

Bechtel Group, which built Ivanpah for owners BrightSource Energy, NRG Energy, and Google, has said power towers aren’t competitive with other sources of electricity. But the technology has one advantage over solar panels: Developers can add vats of molten salt that retain heat for hours, enabling the towers to produce electricity after sundown. That’s one reason the towers have the potential to provide electricity in remote areas, where it’s expensive. Construction on a project in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile was resumed last year, two years after former co-owner Abengoa SA put it on hold because of financial issues. SolarReserve Inc., which built the only other US facility in Nevada, is developing projects in other parts of the world but this year canceled plans for Australia’s first power tower when it couldn’t line up financing.

5. Small wind turbines

You’ve probably seen homes topped with solar panels. What about rooftop wind power? Urban Green Energy tried that.

The company offered turbines small enough to be installed on homes, with curved blades that spun around a vertical axis. Larger models were provided for commercial rooftops, remote mobile phone towers, and public sites, and the company landed well-publicised deals to help power the Eiffel Tower and Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Philadelphia Eagles football team.

But the concept faced challenges. Wind turbines convert kinetic energy—the motion of the blades—into electricity. Smaller blades produce less power. The vertical design was less efficient than standard turbines. UGE struggled with high costs and maintenance issues. In 2016 the company sold its wind operations and shifted its focus to solar.

6. Marine energy

The ocean’s never-ending motion can be converted into electricity, but it’s not easy. The sea is a harsh environment for mechanical systems. Still, the idea of harnessing the kinetic energy of waves, tides, or currents to generate power has fuelled several startups.

Ocean Power Technologies Inc. developed a power buoy that’s anchored offshore and moves up and down with the waves. The company teamed up with Lockheed Martin Corp. in 2012 to build a large-scale wave energy project in Australia that would have used rows and rows of the buoys. Ocean Power pulled the plug in 2014, saying the project wasn’t “commercially viable,” and changed its strategy. It’s still pursuing the technology but is now seeking to power remote sites such as offshore oil rigs.

UK-based Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd. set out to build turbines on a barrage across Swansea Bay, in South Wales, that would draw power from the motion of the tides. The UK government rejected the £1.3 billion ($1.6 billion) project in 2018, in part because offshore wind could supply the same amount of power for about one-third the cost.

Other companies are having more success with grid-scale marine power. Simec Atlantis Energy operates the world’s first commercial tidal stream project, the 6MW MeyGen facility that went into service in Scotland in 2016.

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P.


Sort by:
  • Oldest first
  • Newest first
  • Top voted

You must be signed in to comment.


If you EVER want to learn how costly these things are, just look at all the FAILED attempts under Barry Obama. The amount of money ABSOLUTELY WASTED on green initiatives. Here’s one Solyndra.
P.S. I love the coal fired electric cars


The energy for EV need not come from coal. Not all countries are as backward as SA and US and Australia – Norway is 98% renewable, Germany over 30%, France is mainly nuclear, etc.

Also, for the size of a carport worth of solar, you generate enough energy to run an i3 35,000km per year for 25 years.

Johan. Norway may be 98% renewable but BUT 96% of this is hydro. “Backward” (your words) countries such as US, SA and Australia don’t have this option. One cannot simply put a turbine on the Vaal Dam and power Gauteng. Hydro is the one renewable source that does provide base load.

Where do you get so much power from a carport size solar cell? Certainly not in Germany. Btw, the Germans pay much more for electricity than the French, because of the very expensive renewables compared to nuclear.

Hun : a 6 x 3 carport would be about 3.25kW of solar. Where I live (and drive my i3) a kW of solar yields about 1625kWh per year. My i3 averages 7km per kWh so 37k km a year. Sure, Scotland would probably be half, but then just put down more solar.

For cost, that carport worth of solar incl inverters and cabling and labor would cost about R40,000. Not bad for a 1,000,000km or so – and shade…

Johan_Buys …..Norway 98% renewable?

Where is the big elephant? Northsea oil & gas …..that provides most of the cash pumped into the wealth fund ….globally the largest?

They have hydro in summer and wind power but Norway can heat its homes on renewables. Just isn’t happening in a land with 9 months of weather colder than your Chinese made refrigerator

Renewables are a leftwing nutjob idea. Germany cannot and will not give up coal and neither wants nuclear

Coal , Gas and Oil will be here for sometime until battery power is vastly improved on charge times

Until then ….enjoy your ranger or fortuner

@Leah Buchanan
“They have hydro in summer and wind power but Norway can heat its homes on renewables. Just isn’t happening in a land with 9 months of weather colder than your Chinese made refrigerator”

You can easily heat Norway with renewables, in fact they have already started, ever heard of heat pumps?
A gas furnace would have a efficiency of around 85%
But heat pumps can be 300% efficient (Not over unity because its just moving heat from one end to the other)
But don’t take my word for it, just have a look at Drammen in Norway doing exactly that:

“Renewables are a leftwing nutjob idea. Germany cannot and will not give up coal and neither wants nuclear”
Nope they are not some “leftwing nutjob idea”
They make perfect economic sense where applicable, wherever you have a high source of renewable energy it will always be cheaper than coal.
In Norway they happen to have very bad solar potential but lots of Hydro, and over here in sunny SA we have little hydro potential but lots of solar potential, I have done the math over and over again but here it is again:

One 330W solar panel will generate an average of 4 sun hours per day:
330W x 4 = 1.3kWh per day
1.3kWh per day x 20 year lifetime
= (1.3 kWh x 365) x 20
= 9490kWh over its lifetime.
With a price tag today of around R1800
So that means we will buy power for the next 20 years at R1800 / 9490 = R0.18 cents per kWh.

Coal however, JUST for the coal, No transport, no salaries, no power plant, just the pure cost of the mineral works out to:
1 Ton of coal = 2300kWh of energy
1 Ton of coal = 48.8 USD = R746 per ton
R746 / 2300kWh = R0.32 cents

So yeah sure, if you want to pay more for power be my guest, I will however enjoy the R0.18 per kWh that the big fusion reactor in the sky provides us with everyday, and I will also hopefully soon have my EV and then charge my car for free at work and at home.

“Until then ….enjoy your ranger or fortuner”
Why so?
There are multiple EV’s today that have over 400KM’s of range and if you go to the crazy end you will even find the new Tesla roadster that will shame any hypercar fossil car and also get 1000Km range on a charge.

We are on the cusp (4-6 years) away from the start of a massive transition in transport.

Currently your answer is speculation. They are coal fired OR tell me where they get the electricity from?? Nice thought thou.

@Johan_Buys, You write “would be” in your comment. Does this mean that your figures are theoretical or have you done the installation? The problem with using carport covered with solar cells that most of the power is generated during the working hours. So unless you are working from home or on permanent night shift you have to invest in several kwh battery backup to be able to use it pushing up the cost drastically.

Coal only represents 25.6% of energy production in the OECD

But don’t let facts get in the way of a good story.
In fact its more accurate to say that with Hydro (13.4%) + Nuclear (17.7%) = 31.1%, EV owners have Hydro and nuclear powered cars.

Also just to add to my big message, if you need baseload, go nuclear, for everything else renewables all the way.

What about the wind pumps of yesteryear pumping free water for years, why not fit them with generators at an affordable price to the public. The only drawback of such a project would be that it only costs thousands and not billions.

Nowadays you don’t see many old style “windpompe” – they are replaced with a few solar panels, very efficient pumps in the borehole. Simple, very little maintenance, cheap

CIGS is not quite as dead – refer Solar Frontier of Japan. They now have 23% efficient and produce about a 1000MW of panels per year.

Most failures or not catching on had roots in old powerhouses of oil and gas. The greatest yesterday threat/today, nuclear, is grafted in ushers mind as expensive dangerous. South Africa decided on coal, massive, with Koeberg running. Same old powerhouses making sure in advising the right [ coal/gas ] direction. With going nuclear this country will have been leading the continent. Someone told Zuma. Remember the explosion, revolt, of his silly idea. Way to expensive and dangerous. Out he was.

Johan_Buys These wind generators ( pumps) will be able to work efficiently with wind speeds up to 80 km/h generating electrical power for immediate use and to charge batteries (day or night) whenever the wind is blowing at +5km/h. My point of argument is that the technology to create these contraptions already exists for years and with a little bit of ingenuity could be changed into a low cost electrical lifeline for farmers in areas like the northern cape.

End of comments.





Follow us:

Search Articles:Advanced Search
Click a Company: