Meet Eight Young Energy Innovators With Ingenious Ideas

From community “solar gardens” to energy pellets made from coffee grounds to a phone-charging device that you plug into soil

David Amster-Olszewski
David Amster-Olszewski, founder of SunShare, at one of the "solar gardens" his company built in Colorado Helen Richardson, Denver Post

Inspiration can come from the oddest places. As often as not, the spark may occur during an otherwise mundane moment. But the difference between the truly inventive and the rest of us is that is that inventors zero in on something they've noticed and we don't give that something a second thought.

So it is with these eight young innovators. One man's business was inspired by a comment from his mother. Another developed his great idea after staring into a cup of day-old coffee, a third while standing next to a racetrack, still another while watching how fish swim in a school. Then there are the three Chilean women whose "Aha!" moment came when all of their cell phones ran out of juice. 

David Amster-Olszewski: Planting Solar Gardens

(David Amster-Olszewski, SunShare)

David Amster-Olszewski is glad he listened to his mother.

A few years ago, when he worked for a solar energy company in California, she told him that she would like to use solar power, but that installing panels on her home wasn’t really an option. That got him thinking.

Not long afterwards, he heard about a new law in Colorado supporting a concept called “community solar.” That spurred Amster-Olszewki, who's now 29, to move back to the Colorado Springs area, where he had attended college, and start a company he named SunShare. It was based on the concept of building a shared “solar garden”—like a community garden, except that instead of tending plants, a homeowner or business buys shares in a handful of solar panels. They then receive credits on their utility bill based on how much electricity their panels produce. If that turns out to be more than what the customer uses, the extra credit rolls over into the next month.  

SunShare’s initial solar garden, near Colorado Springs, was one of the first in the country, and it caught on quickly. In less than three months, the company sold all of its solar panel capacity there to 300 customers. The company moved its headquarters to the Denver area, where it built several more solar gardens. Then, in 2014, SunShare opened an office in Minnesota, where it hopes to finish a handful of community solar projects by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the solar garden trend has taken off in the U.S., largely because while the cost of solar keeps dropping, many homeowners and renters can’t install rooftop panels. Already, 89 community solar panel projects are operating in 25 different states.

Inna Braverman: Catching Waves

(Inna Braverman, Eco Wave Power)

When it to comes to sources of renewable energy, the wind and sun get most of the attention. Ocean waves, not so much. 

Inna Braverman wants to change that. 

She’s the 29-year-old founder and marketing director of Eco Wave Power, an Israeli company that has become a world leader in shaping the technology that allows companies to harvest the power of the sea. There’s clearly plenty of potential in wave power since the ocean is always moving. It's based on converting the motion of waves into pressure, which spins a generator to produce electricity. A wave farm that takes up less than half a square mile of ocean could, in theory, generate enough electricity for 20,000 households. 

But it’s a technology with its share of hurdles, including the cost, and concerns that transmission lines that transport the energy created by waves might harm marine life. There’s also the challenge of designing buoys that can efficiently capture the full power of wave movement.

After developing and testing different designs for several years—a project Braverman coordinated—Eco Wave Power created two devices, called the “Wave Clapper” and the “Power Wing,” which, it says, can automatically adjust to the different height of waves so they can generate energy more consistently. They also have sensors that can detect approaching storms and adjust the height of the floats so they’re out of harm’s way.

In late May, those innovative wave catchers were rolled out in the real world, installed on a small jetty along the coast of Gibraltar. It’s the first wave power station connected to an electrical grid in Europe. The next Eco Wave Power station will likely be installed off the coast of China, where the company is partnering with the Ocean University of China.  

John Dabiri: Swimming Fish and Wind Power

(John Dabiri, Stanford)

Mention wind power and what comes to mind are giant whirling turbines. But Stanford scientist John Dabiri has been saying for years now that there may be a better alternative, one based on tight clusters of much smaller vertical axis turbines that spin like a top.

It all goes back to his research on how fish move.

While a professor at Caltech, Dabiri, 35, noticed how fish were able to reduce drag in their swimming if they moved together in schools, rather than swimming alone. He wondered if the same effect would occur if wind turbines were arranged in a similar way.

His theory obviously wouldn’t apply to the massive wind turbines with their giant revolving blades. Those need to be spaced far apart, because if they’re too close together they create turbulence that makes them less efficient. But that distance between them results in a lot of wasted space—sometimes the turbines are as much as a mile apart.

So Dabiri began working on a model based on arranging the smaller turbines in a pattern more like the diamond shape that swimming fish form. If he was right, the less conventional vertical access turbines—standing 30 feet tall instead of 300 feet—could be packed together and make far more efficient use of available land.

This spring, Dabiri presented a study that backed up this thinking. It found that adding clusters of the smaller vertical axis turbines to a conventional wind farm boosted its overall wind power by 32 percent. It also made the large turbines 10 percent more efficient.

The research, while based on computer simulations at this point, may ultimately revitalize the small turbine business. They’ve fallen out of favor because they weren’t very efficient, at least in the way they’ve been configured in the past. If they do make a comeback, there’s another potential benefit: as Dabiri points out, the smaller turbines would be much less of a threat to birds and other wildlife. 

Arthur Kay: The Power of Coffee Grounds

(Arthur Kay, Bio-Bean)

Arthur Kay’s life began to change when he stared down into a coffee cup.

He noticed there was a thin, oily film on top of the coffee that had been sitting out overnight. It made him wonder where that came from, which prompted some research that told him that coffee has a higher caloric value than wood so it’s capable of releasing energy.

And that led Kay, now 25, to end his career as a young architect and start a company named Bio-Bean, built around the premise that one man’s trash—in this case, coffee grounds—could be another man’s energy source. Today, the London-based company collects grounds from coffee shops, restaurants, offices and train stations all over England and converts them into pellets that are then burned to warm ovens and even heat buildings.

Kay estimates that this year Bio-Bean will be able to transform 10 percent of the country’s coffee grounds—about 50,000 tons—into burnable products. There are the pellets, but the company has also begun selling coffee oil briquettes to be used for grilling and coffee logs for the fireplace. 

Not that they actually smell like coffee when they burn, but that’s not the point. Kay sees a lot of potential in all those discarded remains. In fact, Bio-Bean is now developing a bio-diesel fuel, and he imagines that London’s buses one day could run on the city’s coffee grounds.

Evelyn Aravena, Camila Rupcich and Carolina Guerrero: Soil Power

(Evelyn Aravena, Camila Rupcich and Carolina Guerrero, E-Kaia)

Watching your cell phone run out of power can lead to desperate thinking.

“Why don’t any of these plants have a socket?” Camila Rupcich mused to her two friends, Evelyn Aravena and Carolina Guerrero, as they sat in a courtyard between exams, all with dead cell phones.

Most people would have laughed and forgotten the notion of electric plants. But the three Chilean students didn’t let it go. A little research suggested that the idea wasn’t so far-fetched. During photosynthesis, plants convert sunlight into chemical energy, some of which goes into the surrounding soil. That’s where the device the women invented, which they named E-Kaia, gathers its power.

It’s a bio-circuit with an electrode that captures electrons in the soil. In short, you plug it into the dirt. That produces electricity without harming the plant. It’s not that much—about five volts—but it’s enough to charge a cell phone, or an LED light or fan, in about an hour and a half.

The team of women, now all engineers, received backing from the Chilean Economic Development Agency and hopes to bring their product to market by the end of the year.  

Sanwal Muneer: Capturing Traffic Turbulence

(Sanwal Muneer, Capture Mobility)

For Sanwal Muneer, the moment of inspiration came a few years ago when he was standing by a racetrack in Malaysia, and he felt the wind from the cars speeding by.

That made him think there might be something in the movement of vehicles he could tap into. Soon that thought evolved into a startup called Capture Mobility.

Its product is a helical turbine that’s placed in median strips or along highways where it captures wind and turbulence from passing vehicles and turns it into energy. Plus, there are small solar panels on the device. And, it’s equipped with removable filters that help clear some of the pollution from passing traffic.

It might not seem like one of these turbines could generate that much energy, but Muneer, 23, says that once its battery is fully charged, it can hold one kilowatt of power, or enough to run two lamps and a fan for 40 hours.

He thinks the device one day might be used as a source of electricity for rural communities in developing countries. In urban areas, it could power traffic lights or road signs.

The company moved from Pakistan to Scotland last year, and its first turbine is now being tested along a road in Dundee.