Electric highways and tiny Tesla houses: the best green innovations of the week

In a week of warnings for the UK's green economy, edie rounds up the latest low-carbon technologies and innovations that could help to accelerate the global shift towards a prosperous low-carbon future.

edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package

edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package

The latest round of Brexit negotiations and speculations may have revealed that the Government plans to keep visa-free travel for EU travellers, but reports have warned that a Hard Brexit could spell trouble for the nation’s green aspirations.

While researchers have warned that a Hard Brexit could disproportionately threaten the green economy in the North of England, waste specialists Suez claimed that the UK is faced with a "potential disaster scenario", where Brexit exacerbates a shortfall of waste treatment infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Those warnings emerged after the revelation that the UK has spent more than twice as much overseas support on fossil fuels projects as on renewable ones so far this decade. Research revealed that 46% of Britain’s £6.1bn energy spending in developing countries between 2010 and 2014 went on oil, coal and gas-fired schemes.

That’s not to say that post-Brexit Britain is doomed from the start. Some will find solace that the UK will no longer need to export used batteries across Europe, thanks to the development of a new plant which will allow the country to be self-sufficient in battery recycling.

There is still the business crusade to champion sustainability in the UK to consider. Marks & Spencer (M&S) announced it will become Neighbourly's first retail partner to extend its food redistribution scheme to include non-food product donations.

Elsewhere, the UK's largest commercial property developer flicked the switch on a giant rooftop solar system at a shopping centre in Leeds.

Even in a polarising political landscape, the business case for green growth remains strong. And with all of that in mind, edie has once again pulled the best innovation stories of the week into this neat and tidy little green package for you to enjoy.

Sun and salt in the Outback

Things may not look too rosy in the UK right now, but on the opposite side of the globe, Australia just made a big commitment to the solar sector. Fresh from the news that Tesla had struck a partnership to help solve South Australia's energy crisis, the country has announced another large-scale scheme.

The world’s largest solar thermal power station will be built in Port Augusta in South Australia. The Aurora Solar Energy Project will have an installed capacity of 150MW once completed in 2020 by US firm SolarReserve.

The project uses tracking mirrors to collect more energy from the sun, and heated molten salt is used to create steam to either store energy or power a turbine for collection. It is believed the facility will provide 1,100MWh of stored electricity as a result.

Highway to hellectric

As the rise of electric vehicles continues, there is a risk that heavy duty trucks and vans could be left behind. Battery technology isn’t overly suitable for trucks, with fleet operators focusing on biofuels instead. However, a new trial from Siemens could assist the electrification of these vehicles.

The technology firm is expanding on its eHighway initiative, which first launched in 2012, in an attempt to double the energy efficiency of trucks, compared to those that run on gas. The project is being delivered as part of Germany’s electrified, innovative heavy freight transport on autobahns (ELISA) initiative.

A 10km stretch of highway located in Hesse, Germany will be fitted with overhead charging cables to power hybrid trucks temporarily, before they switch back to conventional fuels once they’ve departed from the cables.

Those in glass houses…

The built environment is under pressure to transition to the low-carbon economy, with the World Green Building Council calling for every building to be “net-zero” carbon by 2050. Researchers at the University of Exeter believe they have developed the building blocks of this aspiration.

A new start-up has been formed in an attempt to commercialise the Solar Squared, a block that is designed to collect solar energy while it acts as part of a building’s architecture. The blocks are designed to replace bricks or existing glass blocks in buildings and allow daylight to seep into a building to lower lighting costs and energy use.

However, each block is fitted with intelligent optics that focus incoming solar radiation onto small solar cells inside the block, which is then used to power the building or be stored. The Build Solar team claim the blocks have better thermal insulation that traditional glass blocks and are looking to take the prototype to market in 2018.

The WALL-E of waste

Waste segregation in offices can be tricky to manage. Even champions of the circular economy, such as PwC, have trouble explaining to staff members where different types of waste should be discarded into specialised recycling bins.

Marcin Lotysz and Jakub Lubonski were encountering similar problems, based on the fact that only 10% of Polish waste was actually recycled. In order to combat the issue, the innovators have combined autonomous technology, sensors and the Internet of Things to ensure that all waste is segregated properly.

The Bin-e is being trialled in select offices over the coming months. Users put waste into the bin and an internal camera and sensor scan the waste before moving it into the right compartment. Waste is then automatically compressed to create more space. Once full, a signal is sent to a disposal company to collect the bin. Based on the success of the trials, Bin-e could be moved into public areas.

No chair off my back

The UK’s need to embrace the circular economy goes beyond batteries, and should ideally be applied to all waste streams. Thomas Howell-Jones, a product design student at the Birmingham City University, has applied the circular way of thinking to old office chairs.

More than 810,000 office chairs go to waste in the UK annually, and Howell-Jones has found a valuable resource amongst this waste. The backrests of all of these chairs can be transformed to create durable and waterproof impact bags.

The product, called Rest, is a hard-shell backpack that can be worn or mounted onto a bicycle, creating a second life for the resources. Howell-Jones is already examining what other waste materials can be transformed into everyday products, with a current focus on bicycle inner tubes.

House of cars

For a company that has released a mass-market electric vehicle and integrated solar roofs, a house measuring approximately 20 x 7 x 13 feet in size may not sound like much to shout about. But that is exactly what Tesla is doing, by exhibiting the Tesla Tiny House across Australia.

Towed on the back of a Model X, the house acts as an exhibition for Tesla’s products, enlightening the public on how to generate renewable energy and store it within their own home. The building is cladded in locally-sourced, chemical-free wood and is 100% powered by renewable energy.

Fitted with a range of Tesla products, although not the roof tiles, the home has a 2KW solar system and Powerwall, as Electrek explains. Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk even turned to social media to declare his desire to own a version of the house. Unfortunately for Musk, it isn’t on general sale, but towns can request that it appears on tour in their area.

Read all of edie's 'green innovation of the week' round-ups here.

Matt Mace


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