9 Technologies Shaping the Future of Sustainability

9 Technologies Shaping the Future of Sustainability

From aerial drones to "smart" floor tiles, GM's Rob Threlkeld sheds an energy-efficient light on the latest sustainability technologies
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.@GM FastLane: 9 Technologies shaping the future of #sustainability from @RobThrelkeld, GM mgr of renewable energy http://bit.ly/1Bhy2BI

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Thursday, January 22, 2015 - 9:40am

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Technology is shaping everything we do.

From how we communicate to how we order food, it’s hard to overstate how technology has made our lives better.

More ideas are developed every day that are becoming increasingly vital to help sustain our way of life. Companies all over the world are coming up with new ideas to create positive change.

Indeed, we’re also seeing technology affect sustainability in positive ways.  And as our industry grows, it will become necessary to find new and innovative ways to help companies become more sustainable through the use of technology.

Here are nine little-known concepts that not only show how traditional technologies will evolve, but how companies are now considering the aesthetics of renewable energy deployment.

  1. Solar Shingles
    Already on the market, these can be installed on the roof of any home or building by traditional roofing contractors; installation requires no specialized training. The roof shingle doubles as a solar panel and are made of thin-film cells of copper.
  2. Solar Windows
    The panes of these windows are coated with solar panel technology smaller than a quarter of a grain of rice. The windows help to reduce heating and cooling costs while generating electricity. 
  3. Drones
    Drones collect aerial images or video to help companies assess land area, providing a different view than might be captured with ground-based photography. The drone can be used from early stages of surveying and monitor each stage of construction. 

    Our Tonawanda Engine plant leveraged drone technology when it built its bio-retention area and transformed a brownfield space into a green buffer.

  4. Bladeless Wind Turbines
    These turbines use thin metal disks to turn a generator. The disks are angled in a way that they spin regardless of wind strength or direction, and the entire moving system is screened in to prevent birds and bats from being injured. 
  5. Airborne Windmills
    The windmills stay below the flight paths of airplanes and above the altitude of bird flight, generating fifty percent more energy by capturing wind at a higher altitude. It’s essentially a tech-kite gathering energy to produce electricity. 
  6. Wind Stalks
    The concept is to have a field of reed-like turbines that move in the wind like stalks of wheat. The LED-lit carbon-fiber stalk would sway in the wind, collecting kinetic energy and creating a unique environment for the public to enjoy. 
  7. “Smart” Floor Tiles
    When installed in areas of high foot traffic, these tiles gather kinetic energy to produce electricity. The tiles generate electricity from employees and visitors who are traveling in, out and throughout the building. Energy would be collected throughout the day and stored in super capacitors at night. 
  8. Microgrids
    A microgrid, also called a “smart grid,” operates while connected to a main energy grid, but can also break off and operate on its own using local energy generation in times of crisis like storms or power outages. It can be powered by distributed generators, batteries, or renewable resources like solar panels.

    Smart grids have the potential to revolutionize the energy infrastructure by incorporating many green technologies to improve efficiency across entire power grids. We developed an award-winning microgrid at our Baltimore Operations that integrates electric vehicle, solar power and battery storage technologies.

  9. Vertical Farming
    Farms and food producers need to be sustainable, too.  Vertical farming focuses on nurturing plant life using techniques similar to greenhouses. Plants are grown on vertically inclined surfaces in buildings called “skyscraper greenhouses,” which allow in natural light with LED lights mimicking the sunlight. The technique allows for less land use, less pollution, and water conservation.

Some of these ideas already exist; others are still in development. But there is promise that all of the technologies and more will one day be commonplace. 

Sustainability technologies will shape the future and impact our daily lives.

As such, companies need to do all they can to reduce their impact, and that involves investing in new ways to do so.

When it comes to a carbon footprint, smaller is better. These technologies can make that happen.



Rob Threlkeld is General Motors’ manager of renewable energy.