Thursday, May 7, 2009

Once A Green Pioneer ....

[Images: The Santa Cruz Wave Motor, originally from Scientific American; via John Haskey].

Over the past year or so, much has been written about how Silicon Valley is reinventing itself as the centre of the green energy movement. VC money has been flowing thick and fast down that particular hill, especially when the gradient was steepened by oil being over $100 a barrel as it was until the economy fell off a cliff in 2008. However, despite the price collapse the long-term needs are clear enough that this particular wave continues to build, and green energy is therefore still a hot sector here in Silicon Valley.

What I didn't though realise, until a day or so ago, is that we've been here before. Silicon Valley was a leader in pioneering new forms of renewable energy over a century ago, a crown it's now starting to polish up all over again.

In the late 19th century, economic develop was a function of how much local access there was to one or more sources of energy. Without yet an extensive electricity generation and distribution system, the ability of individual communities to develop manufacturing businesses was therefore naturally very limited. However, the one thing you can be sure of in the USA in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, is that there is no shortage of creative thinkers willing to tackle even the most daunting of challenges, and so it was with energy supply.

As detailed here, there arose in California a whole series of machines intended to extract power from the sea in order to help foster industrial development along the state's extensive coastline, including right here in the Bay Area.

In 1877, an Oakland resident filed a patent for tidal-driven wave power. Over the next 20 years, a string of water-powered motors of various designs sprung up along the California coast from San Francisco southwards, including installations at Capitola and another in Santa Cruz.

Closest to home, the machine in Santa Cruz was up and running by 1898, providing, in this instance, pumped sea water for street cleaning and dust control.

The wave motor was basically a column inside the cliff, connected to the sea via another tunnel below the water lever. Inside the first tunnel was a float connected to a pump; as the water level inside this system rose and fell with the waves, so too did the float, allowing water to be pumped from a valve-controlled chamber up to street level.

This simple but effective system served the community well for 12 years, acting as both pump and tourist attraction rolled into one.

Just over one hundred years later, California is again looking to wave power to help float it's economy. PG&E has signed a deal to take electricity from a wave generation station due to go live in 2012. Furthermore, California has a plan to derive 33% of the state's energy requirements from green sources by 2020, so this is only the beginning.

Hopefully, the results this time around will be both better and longer-lived, but regardless it's amazing just how California is now sailing down routes that it has already explored long ago. Innovation, it seems, truly is part of California's genetic makeup, and access to abundant energy in order to foster economic growth remains an absolute priority.

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