Solar panels, electric cars, high-efficiency washing machines — these are the "green," or earth-friendly, technologies that you probably see every day. But there are also many lesser-known tech devices out there designed to reverse the negative effects of human activity on the environment. And in 2015, you can expect to see some of these under-the-radar technologies entering into the mainstream, according to experts.
The newest wave of green technologies is aimed at the average, environmentally conscious person, and features products and services that will give consumers greater control over the carbon footprints of these tech devices. From apps that let you know where you can buy the most sustainably grown vegetables to remote-control windows that shut out heat on demand, here are some green technologies that could take off in 2015.
Being green is easier when everything from your electric meter to your refrigerator is connected to the Internet. Connected appliances and meters — which collectively make up part of the so-called Internet of Things — allow people to keep track of how much energy they use in their homes or offices every day, so they can develop more efficient habits, reducing their energy bills in the process. [Top 10 Emerging Environmental Technologies]
Smart-home technologies aren't new, but they might finally find their niche in the new year, said Michael Nardi, president of GreenTech Consulting, an Indiana-based company that provides technology and clean-energy consulting to businesses. In 2015, both home and business owners will rely more heavily on Internet-connected products such as smart thermostats, Nardi told Live Science.
Smart thermostats "remember" the temperatures you prefer and can sense when you're not around and will automatically adjust the climate in your home to save energy. And because the devices are Wi-Fi-connected, they can be controlled remotely from a tablet or smartphone.
Maximizing the energy efficiency of your home with smart technologies is a worthwhile endeavor, but even with data about your energy use in hand, becoming more efficient might be easier said than done, said Mark Peters, the associate lab director at Argonne National Laboratory's energy and global security directorate. That's why Peters predicts that, as more people jump on the Internet of Things bandwagon, new technologies will also arise to make sense of the data collected from Internet-connected products.
"As you start to see more and more smart [products] online, you start to deal with an immense amount of data that has to be managed, and you have to empower the consumer to be able to take advantage of this data," Peters told Live Science. That means combining advanced computing with user-friendly interfaces, he added.
That's exactly what products like Lucid Design Group's new BuildingOS aim to do. This cloud-based application gives users the tools they need to analyze the efficiency of any building. Designed with offices in mind, not homes, BuildingOS provides a central hub where the data from all of a building's systems (e.g. water, electric, gas, solar power) can be processed and understood. If the experts are correct, you'll likely see many similar applications emerge for homeowners in the new year.
A few years ago, eating local, organic produce or boycotting shampoos containing parabens might have been considered trendy. But in 2015, consumers with these eco-conscious habits will be part of the mainstream, not part of a passing fad, according to GreenTech's Nardi.
A slew of apps will gain popularity this year that will help "green" consumers make environmentally friendly decisions, Nardi predicted. For example, Think Dirty is an app you can use in the beauty aisle or cosmetics store to compare the ingredients in different products. Just scan a product's bar code to see whether any of its ingredients are known carcinogens, hormone disruptors or neurotoxins.
Then there's Food Tripping, a GPS-based app that helps you find local juice bars, farmer's markets and healthy cafes when you're away from home. Nardi also mentioned iRecycle, an app that lets you know where you can properly dispose of just about any household item — from gas grills to old cell phone chargers.
Not all of the green technologies due to take off in 2015 are based on computing power. Some of them run on an older power source: the sun.
Joule is a Massachusetts-based company that harvests the energy in sunlight to create fuels such as ethanol, diesel and gasoline. In the company's specially engineered photosynthesis process, nonpotable water is combined with microbes that produce particular fuels when exposed to sunlight and carbon dioxide.
Known as artificial photosynthesis, this method of creating fuels and chemicals could one day curb society's need for fossil fuels. It's also a process that demonstrates the many potential uses of solar energy, according to Peters.
"I think there's really exciting things going on in this area, especially on the science side, that will make progress in 2015," Peters said. However, it's going to take a while for this green technology to become commercialized, he added. So don't expect your gasoline to come from a solar energy plant anytime this year.
Solar gets serious
Harvesting sunlight to create fuels is a fairly new idea, but harvesting sunlight to create electricity isn't. But despite the fact that it's abundant and environmentally friendly, solar power has yet to take off in earnest in countries such as the United States. But all that might be about to change, according to Peters, who said that renewables might finally hit their stride in the new year.
"You're going to continue to see improvements in the materials and technologies that go into enabling solar and wind, but I think the most exciting thing that will happen in 2015 is how renewables will fit into the bigger system — how they integrate with [the existing power] system and how they're integrated with energy storage."
Peters and his colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory are currently looking past traditional energy-storage solutions (i.e., batteries) to options better suited for storing solar power and releasing it into the power grid. One of these options is the flow battery, in which anodes made from solid materials are replaced with liquid materials. Such batteries are relatively inexpensive. They're also long-lasting and safe, which make them good candidates for use with a large power grid.