The Future of Renewable Energy
In case any of you forgot, 2018 was a rough year for us Earthlings. The incidence of extreme weather events has continued to trend upwards, and the costs associated — both financial and physical — have correlatingly increased. 18 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 2000. The world feels like it’s going through menopause! To put this in perspective, these climate-related disasters cost upwards of USD $225 billion in the year of 2018 alone. In the past 10 years, these escalating disasters have totaled over USD $1.4 trillion dollars, displacing, injuring or killing more than 1.7 billion people. And in December, 2018, an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change from UN reported a projected a catastrophic global temperature rise to 3° C rise by mid-century, which will only further aggravate our climate instability. Extreme floods, droughts, hurricanes, aquaculture extinction, agriculture decline, underwater cities and completely uninhabitable territories will be the consequence. By mid-century, nine former Winter Olympic sites will not be cold enough to host the Winter Olympics in the future. Even if you don’t like numbers, and don’t believe in science, the trend is irrefutable. The sky may literally be falling.
An Epic Failure:
While governments aren’t remiss in their addressing of these trends — the 2015 landmark Paris Agreement struck between 195 signatories — did in fact acknowledge the severity of the matter at hand. Commitments to limit global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels were at the forefront of the Agreement, and the world seemed to be in accordance for the first time on the subject.
Though what seemed to be a pledge to action, has resulted in far less doing and far more talking than is necessary. Four years later, we’re seriously lagging behind. In fact, carbon emissions rose by 2.7% in 2018, the first increase since a plateau in 2014. The three main offenders — China, whose emissions increased by 4.7%, the US, by 2.5% and India, by 6.3% — also happen to be the three largest countries, causing an outsized effect. And what’s worse, financial institutions are still investing in new coal developments and oil exploration. More than USD $478 billion was given to the top 120 coal plant developers in 2018 alone. This is the opposite of what we need to see happening — to the reach the targets set forth in the Paris Agreement, global energy consumption of renewables needs to scale from 12, to 80% — this means an additional USD $2.4 trillion in investments into renewables, not into coal.
But Fortunately, We Have Some Leaders…
Tomorrow is coincidentally the largest coordinated international student protest in history — with participation from over 82 countries and 957 cities. Students are skipping school around the globe to protest for their future. And they’re not alone. Some of the world’s most brilliant minds are dedicating their efforts and resources to inclusive and sustainable energy solutions.
Big business is beginning to see the value in sustainable business practices, emphasizing R&D to bring renewables to cost parity with fossil fuels, thereby increasing mass adoption by speaking the language of economics. And while technology is certainly not a panacea, it’s a good place to start. Let’s take a look at some of these leading technologies driving the energy transition.
The Future Technologies Helping Influence the Energy Transition:
Space-based Solar Power:
Every hour, more sun reaches us than we need of electricity in an entire year. Without atmospheric interference or night-time loss of sunlight, space-based solar farms could provide an inexhaustible source of clean energy. What are effectively giant mirrors reflecting solar rays onto massive concentrated bowls, space-based solar power would wirelessly beam energy onto Earth through a microwave or laser. The Chinese are already experimenting with these physics, announcing their intention to build an interstellar power station that could “reliably supply energy 99% of the time. The biggest challenge? These things are heavy — about 1,000 tons. And if you’ve followed all the hype with SpaceX recently, moving big objects up to space isn’t as easy as it looks. The proposed solution is to construct the station in space using robots and 3D printing — talk about the future!
Floating Solar Panels:
Floating solar projects are taking off in Asia for a few reasons: high population density and competition for available land. Consistent with the finding that solar panels work more efficiently in cold temperatures, the water has a cooling effect that optimizes the efficiency of floating solar arrays. Reflection from water can also increase solar cell efficiency, making these floating installations a great alternative for areas with limited space. Currently they’re being explored in several regions in Asia, with Google’s investment into a farm in Taiwan, Singapore’s latest tender, and China’s farm built on a lake formerly used as a coal mine.
Another major trend for urban spaces in the highly populated, typically vertically designed Asian mega cities, is the retrofitting of buildings to “greenify” them. Solar windows can provide the ideal solution for a country like Singapore, with minimal available land, but lots of big buildings. Quantum solar cell technology doubles as transparent windows, so every sun exposed window functions as a solar panel. Currently being trialed by the Abu Dhabi International Airport, this super glass not only generates electricity from solar radiation, but also blocks around 80 percent of heat, reducing the need for extreme air conditioning.
Algae — that slimy green stuff you find in still ponds — has become the darling of biofuels recently. Converting sunlight into energy and storing that energy in natural oils that can be transformed into biofuels, these gooey green plants can theoretically power anything that uses diesel or gasoline. They grow 10x faster than terrestrial plants, and live mostly on non-productive, non-arable land, so they don’t compete with other crops for land. These little Power Rangers don’t need fresh water, so they avoid intensive water usage and wasteful fertilizer runoff. And most excitingly, since algae needs CO2 to grow, it removes carbon from the atmosphere, effectively neutralizing any negative emissions in its immediate vicinity. Building algae farms next to power plants that use fossil fuels could help mitigate the CO2 exhaust they produce in the near-term, or at least until we’ve full transitioned away from the dirty fuels.
Flying Wind Turbines:
NASA is experimenting with flying wind farms and drones. Google, is experimenting with flying blimps, and MIT Labs just created the BAT (Buoyant Airborne Turbine). Three very big names in the technology game, meaning there is definitely something worth paying attention to here. These flying wind turbines are ballooned-like wind mills floating 1000 feet above ground, connected to Earth by strong tethers that transmit energy to a battery to be distributed to the grid. The BAT is so smart that it optimizes its height based on changing winds, and even disconnects itself when the weather is especially bad. But even more importantly, it’s easily transported and installed, and much cheaper than traditional wind power, meaning it can bring electricity to 1 billion people in rural areas where power is unavailable.
Creative Battery Options:
Here’s the challenge: the sun only shines in the day, and it’s not always windy. But, our always on, always connected modern world demands that we have electricity all the time, not just part of the time. The missing piece here is storage.
While historically not an especially sexy subject, thanks to a certain celebrity billionaire, batteries have made their way into the limelight and are significantly helping the renewable energy transition progress. While Mr. Musk is still using the traditional lithium-ion batteries that you’ve all seen in your devices, he acknowledges that there are some significant challenges with these little devices when we approach utility scale. Lithium-ion batteries only have the capacity of holding energy for a few hours, and as Tesla has reminded us, it’s not cheap.
However, there are some even cooler technologies coming out now. Think: 3D printed batteries powered by vegetable oil, liquefied metal, and iron flow batteries made entirely from the abundant (and safe) natural elements of water and iron. It’s my personal view, that whomever wins the energy storage race, will fundamentally transform the future of renewable energy and capture the global market.
As a matter of fact, it is anticipated that economies of scale and improvements in design will help drive down costs of energy storage systems by roughly 50 percent to 70 percent by 2025, doubling the industry’s valuation to approximately USD $3 billion by 2030. This is welcome news as cheaper energy storage would also open up a number of other opportunities in our cities’ transition to a carbon-free future, the most important one perhaps being transportation.
Vertically Integrated Blockchain:
Cryptocurrency — the name probably evokes a different emotional response in everyone here — maybe depending on how much money you lost last year! But the significance of cryptocurrencies for the future of energy, is it’s the unprecedented demand for energy that mining tokens requires. Bitcoin mining alone consumed nearly 125 TWh of energy in 2018, which puts it on par with entire countries like Norway and Vietnam. A single digital token requires more electricity than is needed to power a Singaporean household for two years! But while the crypto world may be experiencing dwindling popularity at the moment, its underlying technology — the blockchain — is definitely the cool kid on the playground.
Enter, Soluna — a wind farm in Morocco that is powering its own blockchain computing facilities. As a blockchain infrastructure and mining company, their on-site wind farm fully powers the facility for full vertical integration. As a result, Soluna can mine cryptocurrencies more cheaply, rendering its environmental impact immaterial. And since blockchain is probably here to stay, Soluna offers a blueprint for best practices in the blockchain future.
The Future Looks Futuristic!
Clearly the pathway to reduced reliance on carbon-based fuel sources is not linear or immune to obstacles, but improved technologies and reduced prices can go a long way. It’s likely that a combination of solutions — rather than a silver bullet — will keep us from setting the planet on fire. So it’s time that the old stuff gets a makeover, and the new stuff gets ready for prime-time. Change is coming, and it’s coming with a bang!