Setting goals to reduce carbon emissions and then figuring out a way to achieve those goals is difficult for any country. Now, imagine doing that for not just one nation but 139 of them.
That’s the enormous task a team of researchers led by Stanford University environmental engineer Mark Jacobson decided to take on. He and his colleagues built a roadmap for 139 countries across the globe that would lead to them relying solely on renewable energy by 2050, and they’ve published that plan today in Joule.
The 139 countries weren’t picked arbitrarily. The researchers chose them because data on each was publicly available through the International Energy Agency. Combined, the chosen nations also produce more than 99 percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions.
To develop their roadmap, the researchers first analyzed each country. They looked at how much raw renewable energy resources each one has, and then they determined the number of wind, water, and solar energy generators needed for that country to reach 80 percent renewable energy dependence by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050.
The researchers also calculated the amount of land and rooftop area such power sources would require, as well as how a transition to renewables could reduce each nation’s energy demand and costs. Aside from the energy sector, the team also took into account the transportation, heating/cooling, industrial, and agriculture/fishing/forestry industries of each of the 139 countries while creating their roadmap.
“Aside from eliminating emissions and avoiding 1.5 degrees Celsius [2.7 degrees Fahrenheit] global warming and beginning the process of letting carbon dioxide drain from the Earth’s atmosphere, transitioning eliminates 4-7 million air pollution deaths each year and creates over 24 million long-term, full-time jobs by these plans,” Jacobson said in a press release.
“What is different between this study and other studies that have proposed solutions is that we are trying to examine not only the climate benefits of reducing carbon but also the air pollution benefits, job benefits, and cost benefits,” he added.
Benefits Beyond the Climate
As each of these 139 countries is unique, their paths to 100 percent renewable energy are necessarily unique as well. For instance, nations with greater land-to-population ratios, such as the U.S., the E.U., and China, have an easier path to renewable dependence and could achieve it at a faster rate than small but highly populated countries surrounded by oceans, such as Singapore.
For all countries, however, the goal is the same: 100 percent dependence on renewables.
According to the study, this transition would lessen worldwide energy consumption as renewables are more efficient than their fossil fuel-powered counterparts.
It would also result in the creation of 24 million long-term jobs, reduce the number of air pollution deaths by 4 to 7 million annually, and stabilize energy prices. The world could potentially save more than $20 trillion in health and climate costs each year.
And these 139 nations now know exactly what they need to do to reach this goal and all the benefits that come with it.
“Both individuals and governments can lead this change. Policymakers don’t usually want to commit to doing something unless there is some reasonable science that can show it is possible, and that is what we are trying to do,” Jacobson explained. “There are other scenarios. We are not saying that there is only one way we can do this, but having a scenario gives people direction.”
For co-author Mark Delucchi from the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, the study sends a very clear message: “Our findings suggest that the benefits are so great that we should accelerate the transition to wind, water, and solar, as fast as possible, by retiring fossil-fuel systems early wherever we can.”
Meanwhile, China has already cleared its goal of reaching a capacity of 105 GW by the end of 2020. The country has now attained 112.34 GW, and as such has tweaked its forecast for 2017, now predicting that this year’s installations will total between 40 and 45 GW when all is said and done.
On August 21, solar power facilities across the US faced a big test when the sun was eclipsed by the moon for several hours between Oregon and South Carolina. Despite the unavoidable disruption, it seems that current infrastructure was well equipped to handle the situation.
Solar Edge tracked solar energy generation from over 300,000 systems to produce the video below. It demonstrates that while the eclipse did cause interruptions, panels were able to resume harvesting energy not long after the event, with systems as far east as Idaho and Utah reporting high levels of production by the time the totality was over South Carolina.
The day of the eclipse was also a great success for the California Independent System Operator, which operates the state’s bulk electric power system. California has more solar energy capacity than all other states put together, but the heavens aligned without major issues. Mild weather that negated widespread need for air conditioning, and plenty of water in the reservoirs used for hydroelectric pumps, helped engineers maintain power supply with any major outages.
Over on the east coast, in North Carolina, the story was largely the same. Even when the eclipse was at its most dramatic, and 1,700 of the 2,500 megawatts available in peak conditions were blacked out, Duke Energy was still able to service its customers.
Next Time Around
Solar energy is getting more and more popular around the world, but adoption rates in the US are expected to see a sharp uptick when Tesla’s cheap, convenient roof panels become available to homeowners. If this comes to pass, it might spur some extra considerations for the eclipse in 2024.
This time, the states that rely most on solar energy managed to avoid any hiccups, thanks in no small part to the skilled engineers responsible for operating the system. It’s worth noting that Duke Energy had natural gas generators ready and waiting in case it couldn’t meet demand in North Carolina.
Keeping an alternative source of energy in reserve is essential for this kind of scenario — but natural gas generators might not be so palatable if the country has shifted even further toward solar energy in seven years’ time. Instead, Duke is researching large-scale battery technology that could store energy while the sun is being obstructed.
“Solar energy, by definition, is an intermittent form,” says Lio Handelsman, the vice president of marketing and product strategy and co-fonder of Solar Edge, to Futurism. “Think of our water. Imagine a situation where the water company has to pump from the ground exactly the amount of water that was being used in every faucet in the country — that would be a very tricky thing to do.”
Water companies use reservoirs and elevated towers to keep water in reserve, and batteries are the equivalent for solar energy. Now that solar panels are becoming more cost-effective and efficient, it’s crucial that similar improvements are made to battery technology.
Our ongoing transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is good news for the planet, and for its population. However, figuring out how to handle periods when the sun, wind, and flowing water aren’t easily harnessed is essential if we want reliable access to electricity. We’re on the right path, but the more we depend on renewable energy, the greater the challenge.
Elgin Energy is the company behind a 13MW project in Perthshire that is currently Scotland’s largest solar farm, and the company is going to great lengths to ensure that the new build doesn’t interfere with the land’s current agricultural usage.
“Existing field boundaries will not be disturbed and mature hedgerows will provide generous screening for the site,” they wrote in a statement, according to BBC. All cabling for the project will be buried underground as well, allowing sheep to graze in and around the site.
The northeast of Scotland is well-suited for solar energy projects because it typically enjoys clear skies and long daylight hours. To take further advantage of these characteristics, Elgin Energy is also seeking planning permission for a 50MW farm near the city of Elgin.
A start date for the Moray build hasn’t yet been announced, but once completed, the amount of clean energy produced by the farm should help Scotland achieve its clean energy targets.
A Global Trend
Solar energy has reached a point where it’s both cost-effective and relatively straightforward to install. All over the world, the technology is being implemented on both the commercial and residential scale to help people meet their energy needs.
Last month, Indian Railways rolled out a train that’s topped with solar panels to provide power for its on-board lighting, fans, and other components, which is expected to save the company Rs41,000 crore ($6.31 billion) over the next decade.
Analyzing the impact of solar and wind energy in the U.S, the paper’s authors focused on how these renewables have saved both lives and money during a nine-year period (from 2007 to 2015). By reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increased dependence in solar and wind energy sources have improved air quality in the U.S., at a rate that varies between region to region.
“We find cumulative wind and solar air-quality benefits of … US$29.7–112.8 billion, mostly from 3,000 to 12,700 avoided premature mortalities,” the researchers, led by Dev Millstein from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, wrote in their report.
The premature deaths referred to here are from air pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that air pollution causes around 3 million premature deaths worldwide per year, and that 92 percent of people live in places with air quality that does not meet WHO standards for health. Deaths from air pollution increased globally in 2015, a separate study showed.
That wasn’t the case in the U.S., however, where particulate pollution in 2015 was down by 27 percent from 1990 levels — which matches Millstein’s findings. Thanks to an increase in solar and wind energy generation, the U.S. saw a drop a 20 percent drop in carbon dioxide, while fine particulate pollutants were down by 46 percent, the study showed.
Clean Energy, Cheaper Energy
Interestingly, solar and wind generation also led to what the study calls “cumulative climate benefits,” which cover energy use, changes in agricultural productivity, losses from disasters (like flooding) that impact human health, and general ecosystem services. The total monetary benefit of lowered carbon CO2 emissions from 2007 to 2015 , the study said, is at $5.3 billion to $106.8 billion.
The authors also noted that their “analysis does not incorporate benefits outside of air quality and climate benefits such as energy, capacity or transmission impacts.” It’s worth pointing this out, as other reports do cover these impacts. Nations have better access to renewables now compared to 2015, thanks to cheaper costs. Solar energy has become increasingly affordable because of drops in the price of solar panels, while wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels.
Undoubtedly, EVs are starting to take over the automobile market. International investment bank UBS thinks the first step in market dominance of EVs would be in terms of costs. In a report published on May, analysts from the bank’s “evidence lab” predicted that EV prices will soon match those of combustion-engine cars.
According to The Telegraph, the UBS report predicts that the “total cost of consumer [EV] ownership can reach parity with combustion engines from 2018”, a trend which would likely begin in Europe. “This will create an inflection point for demand. We raise our 2025 forecast for EV sales by 50% to 14.2 million — 14% of global car sales.” UBS reached this conclusion after tinkering with a Chevrolet Bolt EV, which it described as “the world’s first mass-market EV, with a range of more than 200 miles.”
Speaking of new vehicles, the recently launched Tesla Model 3 is expected to boost mass adoption of EVs with its relatively affordable price. While it’s currently the cheapest EV out there, Nissan’s 2018 Leaf promises to cost some $5,000 less than the Model 3. This doesn’t mean, however, that electric cars aren’t going to be profitable. “Once total cost of ownership parity is reached, mass-brand EVs should also turn profitable,” the report said.
The UBS report also noted that manufacturing EVs is cheaper than they previously thought — and there’s still more room for cost reduction through strategies like developing cheaper batteries and building more charging infrastructure. These measures will be important, since more and more countries are now opting for EVs. France will ban selling petrol and diesel cars by 2040, while all cars sold in India will be electric by 2030.
Electric cars aren’t the only clean energy tech that’s been getting less costly. Renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, continue to be cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts. The price of solar panels has, for example, dropped over the last few months. The decreasing cost of EVs seems to be part of a greater revolution towards clean energy.
The government of South Australia has announced plans to construct the world’s largest single-tower solar thermal power plant in Port Augusta. California-based solar tech company SolarReserve will be responsible for both the build and upkeep of the facility.
The Aurora Solar Energy Project is based on plans that were developed as part of the Rice Solar Energy Project in California, which stalled as a result of changes to tax credits related to renewable energy.
Once built, arrays of heliostats will focus solar energy onto a central tower, which uses molten salt technology to store that energy as heat. These molten salts will provide 1,100 megawatts of energy storage capacity, which equates to eight hours of full load storage. This will allow the facility to generate electricity during the night as well as during the day when sunlight is shining down.
Aurora is projected to have an output of 150 megawatts and an ability to generate 495 gigawatt hours of electricity each year. The station will be able to service 90,000 homes and is expected to be able to cater to around five percent of South Australia’s total energy needs. Construction on the $650 million plant will begin next year, with the expectation that Aurora will be producing electricity by 2020.
The Sun Sets on Coal
The Aurora Solar Energy Project won’t be the first major renewable energy project for South Australia. In July, the local government inked a deal with Tesla to install a Powerpack system that will work alongside the Hornsdale Wind Farm.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk has been very clear about the potential for solar to help the U.S. meet its own energy needs, asserting that the entire nation could be powered by an area measuring 25,600 square kilometers (10,000 square miles) filled with solar panels.
Despite these claims and the assertions of other experts, however, U.S. President Donald Trump appears determined to try to revive the coal industry.
Despite a lack of federal support, individual states and cities within the U.S. are committing to fossil fuel alternatives as well — just this month, Orlando, Florida, became the fortieth city in the country to make a commitment to completely transition to renewables within the next several decades.
A primary contributor to this increased adoption is cost. For a long time, a main argument against renewable energy sources has been their high cost when compared to fossil fuels.
Now, the solar panels that we’ve become accustomed to seeing atop residential homes have dropped in price significantly, and building a new commercial solar plant is also cheaper than building a plant that’s powered by fossil fuels. Experts are predicting that solar energy will actually be cheaper than coal within the next four years.
This increased affordability will no doubt lead to the creation of more projects like the one in Port Augusta, and that will go a long way toward helping the world meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and stem the damage we’ve done to the planet through the use of fossil fuels.
The fight against climate change continues, and the city of Orlando has now pledged their support to the cause. The city council voted unanimously on Tuesday to push for a resolution that puts Orlando on track to run solely on renewable energy by 2050. Orlando joins 39 other cities — including San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago — in adopting a 100 percent renewable energy goal.
The decision comes after the U.S. federal government opted to withdraw from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, which set carbon emission reduction goals to help stop human-made climate change. In the face of this lack of federal support, politicians on the local and state level have taken up the fight for a cleaner environment.
“This administration has decided not to honor our commitment to the Paris climate accord, but a lot of mayors around the country have picked up the reins to say if we’re not doing it at the federal level, it’s incumbent that we lead at the local level,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer after the resolution passed.
A Worldwide Appeal
In addition to the environmental implications of transitioning to renewables, the government of Orlando also recognized the economic benefits. Solar, in particular, has become very inexpensive.
“The power from the Sun is cheaper to produce electricity than the power from fossil fuels, including coal and even natural gas,” said Chris Castro, Orlando’s director of sustainability, following the vote. “What we want to do is maintain the affordability of our electricity rates. A lot of people think that just by going solar, it’s going to be more expensive, and that is not the case.”
The city is also keen on the job opportunities produced by renewable energy. Castro said that solar energy added 1,700 new jobs in Florida in 2016, growing 10 times faster than the state’s overall economy. Indeed, in the U.S. as a whole, renewables are providing more jobs than their fossil fuel counterparts and adding new jobs at a rate 17 times that of the overall economy.
Cities aren’t the only entities committing to clean energy targets. Various stateshave made their own pledges, with fourteen of those forming an alliance to keep the U.S. on track with the Paris climate accord’s targets. Nations beyond the U.S., including Scotland, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and 47 others, have all set their own targets of 100 percent renewable energy generation between 2030 and 2050. These pledges are very welcome as our planet needs all the allies it can get in the fight for a cleaner environment.
Given the dramatic impact human-made carbon emissions are having on our planet, cleaner energy sources have become increasingly popular alternatives to their fossil fuel counterparts. Currently, solar and wind are the most widely used renewable energy sources, but both are dependent on certain conditions. The former can capture energy only during daylight hours, while the latter is more unpredictable, but often peaks at night.
As such, there’s a mismatch between when solar and wind energy are available and when energy is needed. The world needs a way to maximize renewable energy usage, and that’s what Malta, a project currently brewing at Alphabet X, the “moonshot” factory by Google’s parent company, is hoping to provide.
The goal of Alphabet X is to develop technologies that could “someday make the world a radically better place.” The organization follows a three-part blueprint for their moonshot projects that starts with identifying a “huge problem” and then providing a “radical solution” that could be implemented using a “breakthrough technology.”
For Malta, the idea was to find a way to maximize the use of energy generated from renewables. Their radical solution is bridging the gap between renewable energy and grid-scale energy storage technologies using a breakthrough technology developed by Stanford physicist and Nobel laureate Robert Laughlin.
According to the project’s website, this technology is still theoretical and involves storing electricity as either heat within molten salt or cold within a liquid similar to the antifreeze used in cars. They claim this energy could remain stored for up to weeks at a time.
Essentially, Malta is hoping to develop clean and cost-effective energy storage devices, which is similar to the concept behind Tesla’s Powerpack. The difference between the Malta project’s tech and the Powerpack is mostly what’s inside. While Tesla’s energy storage device uses 16 individual battery pods, Malta’s relies on molten salt or the antifreeze-like liquid.
Additionally, the tanks used to store the salt used by Malta’s system could potentially last for up to 40 years, which the project claims is three or more times longer than other current storage options. That extended lifespan would make Malta a cheaper alternative to other renewable energy storage devices.
After two years of developing and designing their system, the Malta team is now gearing up to test the commercial viability of their technology. “The next step is to build a megawatt-scale prototype plant which would be large enough to prove the technology at commercial scale,” according to their website.
We now have multiple ways to generate energy from renewables, but if we ever hope to fully transition away from traditional energy solutions, we need better storage devices. Though they are clearly better for the environment, renewables aren’t as consistent as fossil fuels, and that unreliability is a huge barrier to widespread adoption.
Storage systems like those proposed by Malta could collect the energy generated by renewables and ensure it is available to power grids whenever needed, putting us one step closer to a future completely free of fossil fuels.
If you have seen or read The Martian, you may recall the stranded astronaut converting a hydrogen-based fuel into water. Well, we may have just discovered material that easily reverses this process. Researchers at the U.S. Army Aberdeen Proving Ground Research Laboratory were developing a high-strength aluminum alloy when they made a startling discovery. During routine testing of the alloy, water poured over its surface started bubbling and producing hydrogen gas.
This is an unusual reaction — typically, aluminum exposed to water oxidizes, creating a protective barrier to prevent further reactions from occurring. In this case, though, the hydrogen-producing reaction just kept going, signaling the possibility of a portable, affordable source of hydrogen for fuel cells and other energy applications.
This serendipitous discovery, announced in July, has the potential to reinvigorate the hydrogen fuel industry. Aluminum that could react with water in a sustainable way would be able to produce hydrogen on demand. This would make hydrogen fuel cells much easier to use since there would be no need to pressurize and transport hydrogen gas for use. Instead, simple, stable tanks of water and pieces of aluminum would be all you’d need.
Previous attempts to drive the aluminum/water reaction required catalysts or high temperatures, and they were slow. Ultimately, they were only about 50 percent efficient, and obtaining the hydrogen took hours. In contrast, the method that uses this new alloy takes less than three minutes to achieve almost 100 percent efficiency.
The new material is stable and remains ready for use indefinitely. The starting material for the alloy is inexpensive scrap aluminum, which is fairly plentiful and cheap. This and other metals are used to create micron-scale grains, which are then arranged in a specific nanostructure.
The Hydrogen Energy Solution
Hydrogen gas has been hailed as a clean fuel for some time, but its widespread use has been hampered for practical reasons. It is bulky, demanding pressurization, making it tough to transport and store. This is where the new alloy really stands apart.
“The important aspect of the approach is that it lets you make very compact systems,” Imperial College London fuel cell expert Anthony Kucernak, who did not conduct the research, commented to New Scientist. “That would be very useful for systems which need to be very light or operate for long periods on hydrogen, where the use of hydrogen stored in a cylinder is prohibitive.”
The army team has powered a small remote-controlled tank with this process, and they believe it should be feasible to scale up production significantly. The next step will be field testing, so that the researchers can ensure that the alloy would work in a practical setting.
If the discovery does prove effective in the field, it might be used in 3D printing. For example, the army could 3D print small robots or drones that could consume their own frames for fuel. This type of self-cannibalizing device would be ideal for one-way missions for intelligence-gathering. Drones or robots that could self-cannibalize for fuel might also someday be useful in delivering supplies into volatile areas of the world — and would disappear without hurting the environment they landed in.
At a panel discussion during the DS Virgin Racing Innovation Summit on Friday, Virgin Galactic CEO and founder Sir Richard Branson had a suggestion for the United States government. Instead of trying to revive the country’s declining coal mining industry — a promise U.S. president Donald Trump made in March as part of a “new era in American energy and production and job creation” — Branson suggested focusing on clean energy.
“Coal mining is not the nicest of jobs, and coal mining disappeared in Britain many decades ago,” Branson said, replying to a question by Yahoo Finance. “Pretty much every single one of those coal miners went into jobs which were far more pleasant, far less dangerous, far better for their health, and I doubt that there’s one coal miner that looks back thinking, ‘God, I wish I was down in a coal mine.’”
During the talk, Branson noted that clean energy jobs wouldn’t just benefit the coal miners. They’d also be good for the U.S. and the world as a whole. According to a study from the Michigan Technological University, the coal industry causes 52,000 American deaths each year due to air pollution, and transitioning to clean energy sources would decrease the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, helping the world in the fight against global warming.
How coal could compete with clean energy in the future has not been made clear by the Trump administration, and Branson sees the federal government’s lack of support for clean energy as a problem.
“Obviously, what’s happened in America, having an administration that put out the most bizarre statement on [the Paris climate agreement] is not good news because you do need governments to set the rules,” Branson told the audience in New York. ”And you do need to make it clear that clean energy should have a leg up over dirty energy. And you have a government that’s not setting proper differentials. That’s going to be tricky.”
“If you wanted to power the entire U.S. with solar panels, it would take a fairly small corner of Nevada or Texas or Utah; you only need about 100 miles by 100 miles of solar panels to power the entire United States,” Musk said. “The batteries you need to store the energy, to make sure you have 24/7 power, is 1 mile by 1 mile. One square-mile. That’s it.”
Why solar? Well, as Musk explained, as far as energy sources go, we can count on solar to come through for us: “People talk about fusion and all that, but the sun is a giant fusion reactor in the sky. It’s really reliable. It comes up every day. If it doesn’t we’ve got bigger problems.”
At present, about 10 percent of the U.S. is powered by renewable energy sources. To achieve a complete renewable energy power, Musk thinks solar is the way to go.
To start, he suggested combining rooftop solar and utility-scale solar plants. The former would be on the rooftops of houses in the suburbs, while the latter could power other areas. As we’ve seen with Tesla’s new rooftop solar unit, and efforts in other countries, like Australia, to build large-scale solar plants, this is a goal well within reach.
Next, while in transition from fossil fuel to solar, it’d be necessary to rely on other renewables. “We’ll need to be a combination of utility-scale solar and rooftop solar, combined with wind, geothermal, hydro, probably some nuclear for a while, in order to transition to a sustainable situation,” Musk explained.
Finally, the U.S. has to build more localized power sources, like the rooftop solar setups. “People do not like transmission lines going through their neighborhood, they really don’t like that, and I agree,” Musk said. “Rooftop solar, utility solar; that’s really going to be a solution from the physics standpoint. I can really see another way to really do it.”
Back in March, Elon Musk vowed on Twitter to provide a green energy source capable of helping an Australian state fraught with power issues. He also said that if it isn’t built in 100 days, he’ll provide it free of charge. Seems like it can only be good news for the country, right? Perhaps not: Elon Musk’s latest promise has revealed a deep divide in the motivations and forces driving Australia’s energy industry, which stem from a turbulent history.
Tesla will get the system installed and working 100 days from contract signature or it is free. That serious enough for you?
The root of the problem in Australia over the last decade or so is that, while the general population has professed that they want to move towards more renewable sources, the government remains committed to keeping energy prices low. They’ve primarily done this by continuing to promote the use of coal.
The Australian government’s attitude towards renewables has been worrisome for years: when Anthony Abbott was in power between 2013 and 2015, he described coal as “good for humanity.” He went on to cut the country’s goals for implementing more wind and solar sources by 2020, and eroded a levy on carbon emissions because they increased energy costs.
Since Abbott lost power two years ago, the government’s stance has softened, but it is by no means promising. Josh Frydenberg, the Energy Minister of the country, has said “when it comes to energy sources, ours is a technology-neutral and all-of-the-above approach” — which means there is no secure plan to phase out of the use of coal. Such a plan was proposed last month with the intention of increasing Australia’s dependence on renewables to 42 percent by 2030 — but it was met with staunch opposition.
Musk Wades In
Elon Musk’s intervention has had a polarizing effect on both sides of the energy production spectrum. Frydenberg has responded to Musk’s bid to introduce the worlds’ biggest lithium ion battery for energy storage by saying that it will have a negligible effect on the country’s green energy market. More specifically, Frydenberg responded with a colorful analogy: “A lot of sizzle for very little sausage.”
However, the move has also galvanized other parties in Australia into taking action against climate change. A neighboring state, Victoria, has announced that it will stop building coal power stations. In addition, Ali Asghar, an analyst with Bloomberg New Energy Finance in Sydney, has said that market forces may determine Australia’s fate. He stated “as solar and wind become cheaper and continue to undermine the economics of operating coal, investment in new coal plants become an even riskier proposition.”
Australia seems to be one of the few countries where Elon Musk’s energy solutions are met with governmental disdain: in the U.S., his solar roof tiles are sold out well into 2018, and Tesla’s Model 3 (their most recent and affordable EV) is being anticipated quite unlike any other car in recent memory. Let us hope, for the planet’s sake, that Australia’s attitude towards coal changes soon because, as Musk said during a recent visit, “Coal doesn’t have a long-term future. The writing’s on the wall.”
A street in London is being used as a petri dish for a futuristic technology that could make shoppers’ experience safer and more enjoyable. Among the installations on Bird Street, a small shopping street just off Oxford Circus, are Pavegen tiles which convert the force of footsteps into electricity to power bird noises and street-lighting as well as Airlabs filters that clean the polluted city air. Airlite paint that uses light-activated molecules to break air pollution down into innocuous salts is also being tested.
What is perhaps most promising about these technologies are their ability to be integrated into everyday city life as streets, decoration, or city benches — because of this they do not intrude on or complicate the running of the city. Experiments like these are vital to discover environmental solutions that can be easily integrated into existing infrastructure.
These kinds of solutions need to be implemented alongside changing our living habits in order to repair some of the damage humans have caused the planet. Innovation and individual responsibility have never been under more time pressure in the light of warnings from Stephen Hawking and others that we will soon cross the environmental threshold and become unable to repair our world.
The federal government in Australia has yet to commit to a renewable energy target, but that has not stopped the state of Victoria from setting its own. The state has developed a green energy plan meant to increase reliance on renewable energy while decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. This action plan was officially launched Thursday by former U.S. vice president and global clean energy advocate Al Gore.
The government of Victoria is dedicating $146 million to its plan, and the money will go toward several initiatives.
One is the creation of a battery storage facility capable of delivering four hours of power to the 100,000 people living in two regional towns in the state. $8 million will be used for various small-scale “micro-grid” initiatives, which would create local micro-grids that are independent from the national energy grid.
The state will buy $48.1 million in renewable energy certificates, as well, some of which will be used to provide solar power for Melbourne’s 410 trams. During the launch event, Gore rode one of those trams and spoke about the global shift toward renewables.
Victoria aims to have 40 percent of its energy needs met by renewables by 2025 and be completely carbon neutral by 2050. This action plan puts them on the path to achieving those goals and sets an admirable example for the rest of the world.
When it comes to renewable energy, generation and storage are two facets of technology that have to be tackled simultaneously. For the latter, the development of electric cars and lithium-ion battery storage projects seem to be the number one factor. Yet, when compared to their fossil fuel counterparts, the future of these technologies remain largely uncertain.
To this end, researchers from the Imperial College in London have developed a new tool that could facilitate the prediction of costs and outcomes for electric cars and home batteries. In a study published in the journal Nature Energy, the Imperial researchers demonstrated how their tool could be used. They predicted that electric cars could rival petrol by 2022, and that home batteries could become competitive by the 2030s.
“An informed understanding of the potential future costs of electricity storage technologies is essential to quantify their uptake as well as the uptake of low-carbon technologies reliant on storage,” the researchers wrote.
Towards a More Effective Adoption
Their prediction tool was the result of compiling data from the installed capacity and price of energy storage technologies — like Tesla’s Powerpack — over time. It could be used to figure out how the costs would drop in the future when investment would increase installed capacity.
“With this analysis tool we can quantify when energy storage becomes competitive and identify where to invest to make it happen, thereby minimizing investor and policy uncertainty,” lead researcher Oliver Schmidt, from the Grantham Institute and the Center for Environmental Policy at Imperial, said in a press release.
In short, this could help investors and policy makers make informed decisions when it comes to the future of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and energy storage devices. As another example, the team predicted that EVs could catch up with petrol in terms of costs by 2034 at the latest, given current oil prices. The introduction of Tesla’s low-cost EV, the Model 3, could also affect the outcome.
As co-author Iain Staffel from the Center for Environmental Policy explained, “This tool allows us to combat one of the biggest uncertainties in the future energy system, and use real data to answer questions such as how electricity storage could revolutionize the electricity generation sector, or when high-capacity home storage batteries linked to personal solar panels might become cost-effective.”
In “Renewable Energy: What Cheap, Clean Energy Means for Global Utilities,” a report published Thursday by financial services firm Morgan Stanley, analysts confirm that renewable energy is fast becoming the cheapest option.
“Numerous key markets recently reached an inflection point where renewables have become the cheapest form of new power generation,” the report noted. “A dynamic we see spreading to nearly every country we cover by 2020.” The report continued:
By our forecasts, in most cases favorable renewables economics, rather than government policy, will be the primary driver of changes to utilities’ carbon emissions levels. For example, notwithstanding president Trump’s stated intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accord, we expect the U.S. to exceed the Paris commitment of a 26-28% reduction in its 2005-level carbon emissions by 2020.
A Cheaper, Better Alternative
Indeed, the cost of renewables — particularly solar — has recently decreased significantly, with the price of solar panels dropping by 50 percent in just two years, according to the report. This certainly makes reaching the carbon emission limits set by the historic climate accord much easier, and the increased affordability is helping major polluters like India and China step up their renewable energy efforts.
The impact of renewable energy adoption extends beyond the environment — it also benefits the economy.
So, despite the U.S. officially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Morgan Stanley analysts believe that industries in the country will continue to see renewable energy as the more economically attractive and environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuels. Not even politics can stop this trend.
As a country with a huge demand for electricity, India is wise to step up its renewable energy game. The country recently announced plans to shut down more than 30 of its coal mines and is steadily veering away from coal-fired plants, so naturally, it needs an alternative.
As the country works to develop its renewable energy sources, perhaps its biggest achievement yet has come from nuclear energy, and its newest nuclear plant is a kind you may not even know existed.
For 15 years now, India’s nuclear scientists have been working on a gigantic nuclear facility in Kalpakkam, a city on the shores of the Bay of Bengal near Chennai. Unlike most facilities, this one is a fast breeder nuclear reactor, a technology India has been working to perfect for 27 years now, beginning with an experimental facility called a Fast-Breeder Test Reactor (FBTR).
Fast breeder reactors are different from conventional nuclear plants because the neutrons that sustain the atomic chain reaction travel at higher velocities. This type of reactor is capable of generating more fuel that it consumes, a behavior typically made possible by elemental uranium.
Prior to India’s PFBR, the only commercially operating fast breeder nuclear reactor was Russia’s Beloyarsk Nuclear Power Plant, located in the Ural Mountains. Russia’s fast breeder reactor utilizes elemental uranium, though, so India’s is truly one of a kind. China is also pursuing a similar program, but their technology is more than a decade behind India’s.
Other countries, such as Japan and France, have also tried to develop their own fast breeder technologies, but they haven’t been successful because of technical and safety reasons. However, Arun Kumar Bhaduri, Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam, told the Times of India that the technology is safe: “[F]ast breeder reactors are far safer than the current generation of nuclear plants.”
With the PFBR, India is pioneering a kind of nuclear technology that could potentially be the country’s greatest renewable energy source. That’s a big step, especially since nuclear fission remains the only kind of nuclear reaction we’ve managed to sustain, though efforts to make nuclear fusion viable are still in the works.
India is the world’s second largest contributor to climate warming gasses, behind only China. While the latter seems to be leading the world in harnessing solar and wind energy, India is determined to make nuclear energy work in their favor.
One street in London is about to get a whole lot smarter thanks to some innovative technology from Pavegen. Thursday marks the opening of the revamped Bird Street in the heart of London’s West End. A press release from Pavegen promises that “[v]isitors will be able to enjoy a traffic-free shopping and dining experience in an environment showcasing the latest in sustainable technologies.”
The pièce de résistance of the street is a ten square meter array of an energy generating walkway. The pathway is outfitted with technology that allows it to generate energy just by people walking on it. As we mentioned in earlier coverage of the tech, as pedestrians walk on the walkway, the pressure causes generators in the flooring to vertically displace. Electromagnetic induction creates kinetic energy which can then be used to power devices. In the case of Bird Street — as its name suggests — the pathway will be powering ambient bird calls and lighting.
Even more, the pathway will also utilize Bluetooth Low-Energy transmitters to deliver incentives for using the Pavegen system through branded apps. The street also goes even further with innovative sustainable technologies including Airlabs’ ClearAir benches, which clean the surrounding air of nitrogen dioxide. Surfaces are also covered with Airlite’s paint, which purifies the air of NOx gasses and bacteria. This street could be the start of similar initiatives in cities around the world.
Renewable energy and blockchain are two technologies that are worth betting on. The former is considered to be the most effective way to combat the world’s climate problem. The latter is a promising new technology whose potential for disruption of current financial and societal structures is yet to be fully realized. Here’s a thought: why not put the two together? That’s what Brooklyn-based startup LO3 Energy had in mind when it started a project that does just that, creating an innovative retail model for electricity.
“Oh, this is shared economy. This is Airbnb, this is Uber, this is 21st century,” Brooklyn resident Michael Guerra told Politico, recounting the time when LO3’s Sasha Santiago first introduced him to the idea. Back in 2012, Guerra installed 24 solar panels on the rooftop of his Park Slope home. Now, aside from providing him with a cheaper and greener way to power his air conditioning in summer, he’s also providing solar power to others in the neighborhood — and earning money in the process.
Essentially, the Brooklyn Microgrid runs an electricity-sharing ecosystem that’s maintained directly by consumers. Those with solar panels sell environmental credits, through a phone app, to residents without direct access. The entire setup is made possible by blockchain, the same technology behind the increasingly popular cryptocurrencies — such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, among others.
The Power of Decentralization
Thanks to the decentralized nature of blockchain as a digital information ledger, the transactions are very secure. Blockchain allows for meters to communicate with one another reliably, with the phone app acting as the bidder that gives microgrid consumers the power to control transactions.
“The idea is that it isn’t just rich people with solar panels selling energy to each other, but really, it’s the entire community,” LO3’s director of business development Scott Kessler explained to Politico. “So if you’re low-income and you need the cheapest power you can get, we’ll still provide that to you. We don’t want to be dictating.”
After a successful trial run, LO3 plans to formally launch the microgrid later this year, with interest from 300 households and small businesses. Already, there are 50 generation sites throughout Brooklyn, mostly solar and one small wind turbine. “After I learned about it,” Guerra said, “I thought, ‘This is definitely happening. This can’t not happen.’”
The Brooklyn Microgrid is “a glimpse of the future,” Duke University economist Campbell Harvey told Politico. “The idea with blockchain is that everything is done peer to peer. With a microgrid, people that have solar panels can actually trade amongst themselves. They don’t have to have a centralized person in the middle that is taking a piece of the action.”
Now, in a historic demonstration, one of China’s northwestern provinces just ran on only renewable energy for seven consecutive days. The trial took place in Qinghai, the country’s fourth biggest region with a population of roughly 6 million people, and as of May 2017, about 82.8 percent of the province’s 23.4 million-kilowatt capacity was already being generated by wind, solar, and hydro power sources.
According to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, the province received 1.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity — roughly equal to burning 535,000 tons of coal — from renewable energy sources from June 17 to 23. Of these, 72 percent came from hydro plants, while the rest was divided between solar and wind.
The reason behind the week-long demonstration is simple: China wanted to show that it’s possible to power a province using just clean, renewable energy sources.
“Clean energy is the ultimate way. We need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel, improve our energy structure, and reduce carbon emissions,” Han Ti, vice general manager of Qinghai’s grid company, told Xinhua.
Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, renewables are also economically sound, even more so than fossil fuels. China plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan (roughly $370 billion) into renewable energy, which would generate more than 13 million jobs according to the National Energy Administration. Meanwhile, the solar industry in the U.S. is creating jobs at 17 times the rate of the rest of the economy.
Truly, clean energy does appear to be the best path forward for both our planet and our society.
Scientists consider nuclear fusion the “holy grail” of energy production for good reason. Not only could it provide a virtually unlimited amount of energy, the energy would also be clean.
To that end, nuclear scientists have been hard at work since the dawn of the Atomic Age to replicate this energy that feeds the stars, and just this week, a team from the Chalmers University of Technology published a new study in Physical Review Lettersthat outlines a way to eliminate one of the biggest remaining obstacles.
While nuclear fission creates energy by splitting atoms, fusion works in reverse. By combining two light nuclei, usually hydrogen atoms, nuclear fusion generates several times more energy than fission. Sustaining this reaction, which occurs within conditions of intense pressure and high temperatures, is difficult on its own, and the matter is further complicated by runaway electrons, which can damage or even destroy fusion reactors.
The Chalmers researchers came up with a method to manage these runaway electrons. They found that injecting heavy ions in gas or pellet form into the reactor slows down the erring electrons by colliding with them. “When we can effectively decelerate runaway electrons, we are one step closer to a functional fusion reactor,” study co-author Linnea Hesslow said in a university press release.
A Renewable Game Changer
As efforts to improve the world’s renewable energy sources continue, many see nuclear fusion as having the most potential. It can provide clean energy, with virtually zero carbon emissions, and it isn’t seasonal like solar and wind.
“Considering there are so few options for solving the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way, fusion energy is incredibly exciting since it takes its fuel from ordinary seawater,” Hesslow added.
“Many believe it will work, but it’s easier to travel to Mars than it is to achieve fusion. You could say that we are trying to harvest stars here on Earth, and that can take time,” Hesslow explained. “It takes incredibly high temperatures, hotter than the center of the Sun, for us to successfully achieve fusion here on Earth. That’s why I hope research is given the resources needed to solve the energy issue in time.”
Solar power is among the easiest ways for individuals to hop on the clean energy generation train. There are many incentives afforded to homeowners who are looking to make the switch to solar power. Even more, it is only getting cheaper to produce, install, and operate this technology. And with the advent of Tesla’s solar power generating roofing tiles, the process is getting a welcome aesthetic upgrade on top of all of the fantastic vertical integration their technology provides.
This boom is going to continue pushing solar power to the forefront of clean energy initiatives, as the cost of solar energy is expected to drop 66 percent by 2040. Furthermore, a report from Bloomberg states that in just four years’ time, solar power will finally be cheaper than coal “almost everywhere.” The report also claims that by 2040, up to 20 percent of Brazil’s power will be generated by the sun, and Germany will be at 15 percent.
Beginning in the 1880s, the personal and professional feud between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla became a team sport. Business leaders and other scientists joined in the chant, battling over the creation of the electrical grid of the growing United States: would it rely on direct current (DC) or alternating current (AC)?
The War of the Currents was fought as wars typically are, with dirty tricks on the ground. Edison, whose DC patents were earning him a nice income, had a vested interest in DC being the answer to the riddle of the grid, and indeed DC was the earliest standard in the U.S. However, DC is not able to convert to different voltages easily.
Tesla both hated Edison and knew that AC was the answer to this problem. AC changes directions periodically, in the U.S. 60 times per second. It is easy to change voltages using a transformer, and it can power much larger areas, while DC was pretty much stuck within a one mile radius of the source.
While Edison resorted to electrocuting stray animals to keep the public in fear of AC, the Chicago World’s Fair really decided the issue in 1893. General Electric and George Westinghouse competed for the contract to power the fair. GE could have done it using DC for $554,000, but Westinghouse only needed $399,000 to power the fair with AC — and this turned the tide. By 1896 GE was also using AC, and the rest is history.
DC and Renewables
By the 1970s, power transmission technology improved, making DC an attractive option once again. For lines greater than 300-500 miles, DC is able to outcompete AC, going the distance without power loss. Today, DC is making a comeback, thanks to renewable energy sources. Many of them, such as large wind farms and solar arrays, are in rural areas, away from city centers.
These sources also naturally produce DC power, which is what many household devices run on. Electronic devices, including computers, flat screen televisions, LEDs, microwaves, and some variable speed devices with DC motors like fans, all run on internal DC power. In fact, up to 50 percent of total household power consumption may be DC power within 20 years. All of these factors fuel renewed interest in DC power.
In the near future, the few DC transmission lines which are now scattered all over the country may be connected by nine or more new long-distance lines. These high-voltage DC (HVDC) lines are a reflection of the geography of renewable power trends. Rural areas such as the Midwest now produce a large quantity of renewable energy that urban centers need — and power companies need to get it there.
“You have remote resources, and there’s just not enough infrastructure to move that energy to the market,” Clean Line Energy Partners executive vice president of engineering Wayne Galli told Scientific American. His organization plans to build four HVDC lines.
Building these lines will also help the renewable energy industry grow; this is why entities like Clean Line Energy Partners are investing in them. “Using DC lines is a much better solution for moving power from big, remote wind or solar farms,” University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Energy and the Energy GRID Institute director Gregory Reed told Scientific American. “It’s a rapid change in where we’re getting our resources from.”
A new report shows that earlier this year, renewables broke energy records in the United States for the first time. The data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) Electric Power Monthly demonstrated that the monthly electricity generation from solar and wind sources made up 10 percent of the country’s total generation in the U.S. during the month of March.
The date from the EIA showed that around 8 percent of the total electricity generated during that month came from wind, and the other 2 percent was from solar sources, including residential and utility-scale solar panels. The EIA noted these two renewable sources are highly seasonal: wind generates increased in electricity during spring and solar output reaches its highest numbers in the summertime.
It’s been just two weeks since the last time the United Kingdom set new records in renewable energy. However, last May 26’s record was just with solar energy, and this week’s is for a combination of all the U.K.’s renewable energy resources.
According to the National Grid’s Control Room, solar, wind, and nuclear power each supplied more electricity than coal and gas combined at 1 p.m. on Wednesday (June 7) — the first time such an event has occurred in the U.K. On the record-setting day, wind generated an estimated 9.5 gigawatts, nuclear power giving about 8.2 gigawatts, and solar contributing roughly 7.3 gigawatts. For reference, gas only provided some 7.2 gigawatts and coal did not generate any electricity at that time.
In another record, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass, and hydro also generated about 18.7 gigawatts combined. This was more than 50 percent of the nation’s total electricity demand, capable of powering about 13.5 million homes.
#Renewables (wind, solar, biomass, hydro) breaking another record at 1pm today providing 18.7 GW (50.7% of demand)
Although the record-breaking figures didn’t last long, it’s a sign of things to come. For one, it showed that renewable energy can sufficiently supply the electricity needs of a country — provided they be given the opportunity. Last Tuesday’s breakthrough was, indeed, because of a such an opportunity.
Aside from its economic benefits, the environmental consequences would be undeniable. Dependence on renewable energy entirely would mean little to no carbon emissions. For any nation, that’s definitely a huge step forward in reducing planet warming gasses in the ongoing fight to curb climate change.
The LEGO Group has built the world’s largest wind turbine out of its popular little bricks. The company didn’t just do it to land a Guinness World Records title, though. The LEGO wind turbine was how the toy company chose to celebrate reaching its energy target of being powered 100 percent by renewable sources three years ahead of schedule.
The effort was four years in the making and involved two offshore wind farm investments worth DKK 6 billion (roughly $904 million). The completion and opening on May 17 of the 258-megawatt Burbo Bank Extension wind farm — 25 percent of which is owned by KIRKBI A/S, LEGO’s parent company — helped LEGO achieve its target.
“We work to leave a positive impact on the planet, and I am truly excited about the inauguration of the Burbo Bank Extension wind farm. This development means we have now reached the 100% renewable energy milestone three years ahead of target,” said LEGO Group CEO Bali Padda in a press release. “Together with our partners, we intend to continue investing in renewable energy to help create a better future for the builders of tomorrow.”
One Piece at a Time
LEGO joins the growing number of companies — including Intel, Kohl’s, Walmart, and Apple — already making huge strides toward the goal of 100 percent independence from non-renewable sources of energy. Tech giants like Google and Microsoft are also racing to becoming more dependent on renewables. In fact, the RE100 global initiative includes 96 of these committed companies.
Just like building with LEGO bricks, independence from fossil fuels starts with one piece at a time, growing bigger as those pieces come together. The popular children’s brand hopes that their example will inspire young people to do their part in the future. “We see children as our role models, and as we take action in reducing our environmental impact as a company, we will also continue to work to inspire children around the world by engaging them in environmental and social issues,” said Padda.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated. Previous versions listed the incorrect USD conversion.
The Beatles may have well predicted the future for their mother country as the Sun now shines bright in the United Kingdom. According to the National Grid, almost 25 percent of Great Britain’s electricity demand was served by solar at midday Friday. The clean energy source generated 8.7 gigawatts, which is more than the previous record set on May 10, when solar generated 8.48 gigawatts.
“We now have significant volumes of renewable energy on the system, and as this trend continues, our ability to forecast these patterns is becoming more and more important,” Duncan Burt, who oversees the National Grid’s control room operations, told theIndependent.
“This is a colossal achievement … and sends a very positive message to the U.K. that solar has a strong place in the decarbonization of the U.K. energy sector,” Paul Barwell, chief executive of the Solar Trade Association, pointed out.
As Barwell noted, this marks the first time solar panels generated more electricity in the U.K. than nuclear plants. Natural gas and coal remain the country’s top suppliers of electricity, however.
Stacking up on Renewables
This milestone is obviously a win for renewables and a sign that nations are moving toward cleaner energy sources.
The steady rise of solar energy is made possible in part by the decrease in the cost of solar panels. At the same time, it doesn’t hurt that the solar industry is also providing jobs in places desperate for them, such as the U.S. As Hannah Martin, head of energy for Greenpeace UK, told theIndependent, “All around the world, solar power keeps beating new records as costs come down and power generation goes up. In the U.S., more people were employed in generating electricity from solar last year than from coal, oil, and gas combined.”
While electric vehicles (EVs) are steadily gaining ground, the majority of the cars on the road today are still gas-powered. Gas prices, however, aren’t exactly getting cheaper. So, while we work towards transitioning from fossil fuel-based vehicles to cleaner alternatives, it certainly helps to find ways to make the cars we have now more fuel efficient. Students from the Université Laval might just have a solution.
As an entry for this year’s Shell Eco-marathon Americas, the Laval students developed a prototype vehicle that could run for 2,713 miles per gallon (mpg) on a Detroit, Michigan test track. Their vehicle’s outstanding performance landed them this year’s top trophy. The competition gives students a chance to design vehicle concepts that maximizes efficiency using various fuels, including everything from gasoline to hydrogen fuel cells.
“In winning the overall competition, Université Laval defeated 114 other rivals vying to see whose vehicle could travel the farthest distance on the equivalent of a gallon of gas,” according to a press release for the event. While the Laval team’s achievement was no small feat, it wasn’t able to outperform last year’s champion car from the University of Toronto — which covered an astounding 3,421 mpg.
A Renewable Future
Better fuel efficiency could translate to less fossil fuel vehicle consumption. While this could count as a win for the environment, fossil fuels remain one of the leading contributors to climate-warming emissions. As such, doing away with them completely is a the ultimate goal.
While it may feel like it, it’s not an impossible task: over the past months, fossil fuels are losing value in terms of price, and seeing reduced efficiency compared to their renewable counterparts. EVs, while still only covering a relatively small share of the automobile industry, are set for a major take over. The increased interest from veteran automakers like Volkswagen, Chevrolet, and Honda is a testament to the future of EVs. And soon, they may not even be the only alternatively fueled vehicles available: one automaker in China is working on a car that runs on solar power.
The device is a two-roomed photoelectrochemical cell. In one room of the cell, air is filtered in and purified using a photoanode. The process produces hydrogen, which is collected by a cathode behind the membrane that separates the two rooms. This hydrogen can be stored and later used as fuel.
“In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air,” explained Professor Sammy Verbruggen, an author of the study, in a university news release.
As it stands, the device is just a proof-of-concept design. It only measures a few square centimeters, so it couldn’t begin to take on our massive existing pollution problem. However, the idea behind the device is incredibly promising.
A Pollution-Free Future
While the researchers’ tiny device is still a long way from being useful against pollution, this type of thinking and innovation is the key to progress. Clean energy production and pollution are both massive and worsening environmental, financial, and medical issues. Climate change is not slowing down, and so our efforts to combat it should only be intensifying.
Thankfully, many of the world’s governments are doing just that. China, for instance, is a leading contributor of greenhouse gasses and air pollution. The toxins in the country’s air pose an immediate and serious health risk for its citizens. In response, the nation has been heavily investing in renewable energy sources and aims to improve emissions standards. Recently in Rhode Island, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. was installed, shutting down a nearby diesel plant, and countries like Germany, Costa Rica, and Canada are all making huge strides toward the elimination of fossil fuels.
Innovation and creative solutions like this air-cleaning fuel cell are part of the answer. Change is possible — we just have to be willing to embrace it.
Just the idea of any kind of incident at a facility housing nuclear material is enough to make most shudder. However, as with any unfortunate circumstance, not all are a cause for worry — at least not initially. Such was the case with an incident at the Hanford site in Washington State, where a portion of a tunnel housing nuclear waste contained in rail cars collapsed on Tuesday, May 9th.
The site was home to the Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX), which processed 70,000 tons of uranium fuel rods during its years of operation: 1956 to 1988. On Tuesday, some employees noticed a significant change in the topography of the site: a grassy area above the tunnel had sunk by more than a meter (about 4 feet). Precautions were taken and assurances were released saying there were no injuries, and that all the site’s employees were accounted for. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Energy also stressed that there is no evidence of a radiological release.
Incidents like this could understandably conjure images of disasters like 3-Mile Island or Fukushima. However, these radiologic fears are often misplaced.
We saw this message trumpeted after Fukushima caused a ripple effect leading to temporary shutdowns of nuclear reactors around the world. In reality, even the most deadly of nuclear power disasters pales in comparison to the annual deaths caused by fossil fuel use. According to the Global Burden of Disease project, 5.5 million people worldwide are dying each year as a result of pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
The biggest nuclear disaster thus far has been the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, which saw the deaths of 56 people directly attributed to the event itself, and additional 4,000 cancer deaths among those exposed to radiation as a result. While in no way intending to minimize the tremendous gravity of those losses, there are several mitigating factors that make fossil fuels a much bigger threat than nuclear power.
The most prominent factor is that nuclear disasters are outliers to the normal operation of plants. The last recorded fatality in the United States caused by an accident in a nuclear power plant occurred in 1961 when three people lost their lives after the explosion of a reactor in Idaho. Generating the deadly fine particulate matter that is responsible for millions of deaths each year is the everyday business for the fossil fuel industry.
James Hammitt of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis in Boston says, “From coal we have a steady progression of deaths year after year that are invisible to us, things like heart attacks, whereas a large-scale nuclear release is a catastrophic event that we are rightly scared about.”
If we focus our concern on the real danger that fossil fuels present, we can potentially save millions of lives. Nuclear power is just a single option among many means by which we can produce clean energy. Even more, if the threat of nuclear reactors is too concerning, there are plenty of renewable energy generation methods that do not pollute the air, nor do they rely on hazardous materials to operate. Investing in solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, or other clean energy solutions is the only way to ensure a future for energy that’s free from fear.
Late night tweets from Elon Musk are the best kinds of tweets. With his numerous ventures, you never really know what kind of Earth-shattering news he’s going to deliver. Did he begin construction on a Hyperloop connecting New York to Los Angeles? Did he send the first tweet from the surface of Mars? Is Tesla announcing an autonomous talking car to help David Hasselhoff fight crime?
Sadly, he hasn’t made any such announcements (yet). However, he is tweeting about how he is leading the revolution to overthrow fossil fuels once and for all. To this end, the mega-CEO just announced via Twitter that orders would begin for his revolutionary solar roof hardware later today (May 10th, 2017).
Tesla solar glass roof orders open this afternoon. I think it will be great. More in about 10 hours …
In another tweet a few minutes after the first, he promised that ordering would be available in most countries throughout the world. Musk clarified that people could expect to see delivery begin in the United States in late 2017 and that deliveries would roll out sometime next year for locations that are overseas, “Solar roof can be ordered for almost any country. Deployment this year in the US and overseas next year,” he wrote.
Last week, we discussed Musk’s talk at the TED convention. During this discussion, he did mention the imminent release of the first glass solar roof tiles, and he discussed how the first two styles would roll out. Ultimately, he stated that the first styles would be deployed approximately six months before the other style option. In response to another Twitter user, Musk explained, “Black glass smooth and textured will be first. Tuscan and French Slate in about six months.”
In the end, disruptions like these are precisely why Tesla acquired SolarCity in November of 2016. Tesla’s acquisition of SolarCity allows for a completely integrated home energy experience—all housed under one company.
To break this down, energy gathered from the roofing tiles can be stored in a Tesla Powerwall or Powerpack to provide energy for the home (or even to charge the Tesla Model 3 car sitting in your garage). And in this respect, Musk’s products have the potential to completely overhaul how the world is powered, as Tesla will completely revolutionize the way that we collect and store energy.
In fact, even its vehicles will benefit from this solar tile integration. The upcoming Tesla Model 3, for example, is slated to incorporate the solar technology in its roofing system.
Public transportation is an excellent way to reduce the cumulative emissions of the region it services. Fewer fossil-fuel guzzling commuter vehicles on the road lead to less pollution. San Fransico’s train service, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), is going to be completely revamping how the train operates to reduce its environmental footprint. The program will slowly roll out through 2045 with the goal of the system’s complete reliance on green energy.
The first phase of the initiative will target the gradual limiting of carbon dioxide emissions through 2024. A year later in 2025, the plan calls for at least half of the system’s energy to be drawn from renewable sources. Additionally, 90 percent of the total energy use must come from low or zero-carbon sources.
The requirement for the complete use of zero-carbon sources will be met in 2035. Finally, BART is to run on solely renewable sources by 2045.
And BART is just one option that environmentally conscience commuters have these days. As electric cars become more affordable and even come equipped with solar panels, green transport is accessible to to almost everyone — even those who don’t live in San Francisco.
Drilling and clean energy are concepts rarely used together in the same sentence, but when it comes to geothermal energy, drilling is a major part of the process. In Iceland, engineers have created a drill — which goes by the name “Thor” — that has drilled up to a record-breaking depth of 4,659 meters (almost 3 miles). While this drilling project is experimental, it could potentially produce 10 times more energy than conventional fossil fuels.
Geothermal energy comes from the Earth, and since the team is digging in volcanic areas, it’s abundant. These areas, when accessed with a drill like Thor, contain extremely hot (427 degrees C (800 F), pressurized liquids that give off enough steam to turn a turbine, which then generates clean electricity. This project, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), is still in its experimental phases, and has been given two years to demonstrate how successful and economically viable it can be.
A Geothermal Answer?
Iceland currently runs on 100% clean, renewable energy: approximately 25% geothermal and 75% hydroelectric energy. However, while geothermal energy is much more environmentally-friendly than the use of fossil fuels, it is not completely green. According to Martin Norman, a Norwegian sustainable finance specialist for Greenpeace, drilling for geothermal energy is not “completely renewable and without problems. As soon as you start drilling you have issues to it, such as sulphur pollution and CO2 emission and they need to find solutions to deal with it.”
While Iceland is making great progress with renewable energy, there are still improvements that can be made to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, according to The Institute of Economic Studies at the University of Iceland, due to their produced emissions, the country will not be adherent to the Paris climate agreement.
However, while Iceland still has a lot to accomplish in order to lessen their carbon footprint, this type of progress is what will make it possible for us to fight the progression of climate change.
According to a new report from the National Energy Board (NEB), in 2015, 66 percent of Canada’s energy was generated by renewable sources. Fifty-nine percent of that energy was created with hydro, making the country responsible for 10 percent of all hydro-electricity produced worldwide.
The other 41 percent of this energy was generated through a combination of wind, solar, and biomass, and Shelley Milutinovic, chief economist at the NEB, thinks that those sources are on the rise. “Now, as solar, wind and other technologies become more cost competitive, we expect to see a continuing increase in their adoption in the future,” she told The Independent.
As Canada and others lead the way, this increased adoption of renewable energy will go a long way to halting, and perhaps even reversing, some of the damage that’s already been done to the planet we call home — at least for now.
On May 1, Atlanta lawmakers approved a resolution committing the city to transitioning toward running entirely on renewable energy sources, including wind and solar, by 2035. The city council unanimously approved the measure, which will first transition all city buildings by 2025.
“We know that moving to clean energy will create good jobs, clean up our air and water, and lower our residents’ utility bills,” city council member Kwanza Hall said in a statement, according to The Huffington Post. “We never thought we’d be away from landline phones or desktop computers, but today we carry our smart phones around and they’re more powerful than anything we used to have. We have to set an ambitious goal or we’re never going to get there.”
Atlanta’s commitment comes just after a similar promise from the city of South Lake Tahoe, California, in April. This resolution makes Atlanta the 27th American city to commit to a 100 percent renewable energy plan, and the first in Georgia, according to the Sierra Club.
Ted Terry, director of the Georgia Chapter of the Sierra Club, issued a statement praising the city of Atlanta’s leadership and commitment to fighting climate change.
“Just days after hundreds of thousands marched for climate action across the globe, city leaders here in Atlanta are answering the call,” Terry said in the statement. “Today’s commitment will inspire bold, ambitious leadership from cities throughout the United States and pave the way for a healthier and stronger Atlanta.”
This move from Atlanta is part of a growing recognition that cities all over the world can take a tremendous bite out of climate change, even without much support from larger government. In fact, in March, a top New York City official called on other officials from city governments across the U.S. to keep fighting climate change with or without the help of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hopefully enough cities will follow suit to make a global impact.
In what is part of a growing trend, Europe is accelerating its shift away from coal and to more renewable alternatives. According to Bloomberg, companies all over Europe, such as Drax Group Plc, Steag GmbH, and Uniper SE, are closing or converting existing coal-burning generators.
The fast-paced phase out is a practical and economical choice, as the cost of renewable energy — particularly solar and wind — continues to drop. “It’s an entirely different fuel-price world,” explained analyst from the International Energy Agency Johannes Truby. Accordingly, the agency predicts that by 2030, European coal use will be left at a 114 gigawatts capacity. That’s a huge drop compared to capacity levels at 177 gigawatts back in 2014.
Of the record 10 gigawatts of coal closures in Europe, nearly half came from the UK, as a result of the government’s efforts to double carbon price. The country’s greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector dropped by almost a fifth, the government said.
An Environmental Cause
The UK isn’t the only one leading this shift. In Germany, a policy called Energiewende is focused on shifting energy production from coal to more solar and wind. Currently, there are about 27 coal plants in the country that are awaiting approval for closure. Similar efforts are being done in France, which plans to close down all coal plants by 2023, and in Denmark.
All of this is welcome, especially with climate change increasingly being experienced all over the world. Such efforts are key in order to reach the goals agreed upon at the historic Paris Climate Agreement. The future of coal is bleak, and that spells a brighter one for us.
This year we celebrated Earth Day with marches being held across the nation, including the capital and even around the world. The marches are set up to counter the anti-science policies that have been put in place by the current administration. The United States government is completely under control of a political party that is one of very few around the world that does not recognize the threat of global climate change. According to Paul Getsos, national coordinator of People’s Climate Movement, “It also sends a dangerous message to the world that the United States does not care about climate change or protecting front-line communities.”
One of Trump’s biggest campaign promises was to bring back coal, a fossil fuel that has a deleterious effect on the environment. This runs contrary to current trends in the energy market here in the US as well as around the world. The price of generating renewable power is rapidly falling and it’s starting to make more financial sense. Local governments and business are starting to embrace a switch from fossil fuels to more sustainable forms of power generation.
Cleaning Up Costs
Solar power is a clear leader in the renewable energy game. According to Bloomberg, “Just since 2000, the amount of global electricity produced by solar power has doubled seven times over.” The technology that makes it possible to collect the sun’s energy is getting cheaper to produce, partially fueled by increased innovation but also by governments’ willingness to invest and subsidize the tech.
However, not all of the world has the luxury of being able to easily move to renewable sources of energy. Many developing nations are focusing their energy on providing the infrastructure to get power to underserved regions.
Prices for renewable energy are already cheaper in more technologically advanced nations, but within the next decade those prices could be extended to all parts of the globe. Not all nations have the kind of space that solar power generation requires, therefore there is no single renewable source of clean energy that is one size fits all. Thankfully, the world is not relegated to a few choices, and there are already novel ideas developed that can cater to regions’ unique capabilities.
One such example is tidal wave generation. Scotland is a leader in this emerging field. The MeyGen tidal stream project off the northern coast of Scotland is the first of its kind. Each turbine in the planned 269 turbine farm can produce 1.5 megawatts of power, which is collectively enough to power 175,000 homes. This could be a great technology to further develop for small island nations who may not have the room to install other sources of energy generation.
As clean energy technology gains traction, the tech will continue to develop. Researchers are working to improve on existing technologies. There is even talk of the benefits of manufacturing solar panels in space to take advantage of the benefits of making panels in zero gravity. In the meantime, Elon Musk’s SolarCity has developed solar power generating roofing tiles. Other innovations such as transparent solar panels could turn entire metropolises of skyscrapers into mammoth solar farms.
Confronting Climate Change
A major piece (by no means, the entire puzzle) of tackling climate change is shifting our reliance on fossil fuels. Regardless of who sits in the oval office, climate change is real, and humans are to blame. The habitability of the only planet we can live on (at least at this point) is not an issue on which politicians can score political points.
This is not an issue that will be a problem for our grandchildren’s children to worry about; we are already seeing the ill effects around the world. The very landscape of the planet is changing all around us. Holding politicians accountable is not just an excuse to carry snarky signs in Washington on a single day in spring. Real change needs to happen, even starting at the level of personal decisions. We need to think globally but act locally.
There’s a new solar power gig in Dubai in a very unexpected location: a gas station. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) just built its first solar powered gas station on Dubai’s main Sheikh Zayed Road. Constructed by the Emirates National Oil Company (ENOC), the new service station is covered with solar panels capable of generating up to 120 kilowatt hours.
According to ENOC, the panels produce about 30 percent more energy than what the gas station actually needs. Therefore, the excess power the panels generate gets sent back into Dubai’s electric grid.What makes the development particularly fascinating is that Dubai is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, yet it’s been taking an active lead in pushing for renewable and cleaner energy.
Although Britain has historically run on coal-generated power, the country just went without any for a full 24 hours. This is a first for the area — and it will be the first of many such days to come.
The National Grid confirmed that April 21 was the first full day of coal-free power in 135 years, following a relatively long stretch of 19 hours in May 2016. This is not due to any one alternative power source, but to an increasingly varied range of power options.
Gridwatch observers estimate that about half of the energy used that day came from natural gas, while the rest of the power burden was shared by nuclear, imported, and renewable energy sources. In fact, half of the power in the U.K. on a day-to-day basis now comes from renewables and nuclear.
In other words, Britain didn’t go green for 24 hours, but it made a definitive step away from coal dependence. The U.K plans to close its remaining coal power plants by 2025 at the latest, which will mean longer and longer coal-free periods of time as we approach that deadline.
Renewables Powering Nations
The U.K. is far from the only country leading the way when it comes to renewables. According to Costa Rica’s National Centre for Energy Control, the last time fossil fuels were used in the country’s grid at all was June 2016, and before that, more than 98 percent of the nation’s energy came from green sources. Iceland runs on 100 percent renewable sources, 75 percent large hydro and 25 percent geothermal. Sweden is also 100 percent fossil-fuel free.
Other countries are coming close to 100 percent independence, too, and with so many ways to achieve freedom from fossil fuels, each country has to find the method that works best for it. As CleanTechnica points out, only two trends are shared by the countries leading in renewables: leaders who set, support, and invest in ambitious goals for renewable energy generation, and the recognition that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Much of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels — for now. More people are becoming aware of the damaging effects that relying such energy sources have on the world, particularly for the environment. This has led to a new trend. Overall fossil fuel consumption is on the decline, thanks to recent developments in renewable energy.
Now, researchers have developed a device that harnesses energy from heat by capturing infrared (IR) wavelengths, and they detail their work in the journal Optica. Their device aims to improve thermophotovoltaics, which are solar cells that rely on IR rays (or heat) instead of visible light.
Efficient Energy Production and Consumption
The tiny thermophotovoltaic device — an 8 × 8 array of individually controllable pixels, each measuring 120 × 120 microns — uses a man-made material with special properties, called “metamaterial,” to very efficiently absorb and emit IR wavelengths. The researchers also designed the device so that it could be reconfigured on a pixel-by-pixel basis.
While this device harnesses heat energy, its materials don’t actually change temperature. This means it can be used at room temperature, which allow the device to have many more potential applications outside of the lab.
“…this new infrared emitter could provide a tailored way to collect and use energy from heat,” explained researcher Willie Padilla in an interview for an Optical Society press release. “There is a great deal of interest in utilizing waste heat, and our technology could improve this process.”
An application for the technology could be to convert the heat generated by car engines into energy that could charge the vehicles’ batteries. It might also be used to even greater effect near furnaces, like those used in the glass industry, where it could generate significant amounts of power.
Additionally, apart from absorbing IR waves, this device could also be used as an IR emitter. The reconfigurable pixels allows users to control the pattern of absorbed and emitted IR energy. This versatility gives the multifunctional device a wide range of applications, researchers said. As an IR emitting device, it could be scaled for potential use as friend or foe identifier in combat situations, or as IR camouflage, as well as an IR scene projector.
As scientists continue to develop new technologies for harnessing renewable energy sources, we will have more ways than ever to reduce our carbon footprint and make a positive impact on climate change.
Atmospheric CO2 has hit more than 400 parts per million (ppm), the highest peak in 800,000 years, which has caused global surface temperatures to rise about one degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1880. 15 of the 16 warmest years in recorded history have occurred since 2001, and 2014, 2015, and 2016 have each taken the title of warmest year on record. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has acknowledged that climate change constitutes a serious problem for the U.S. government and merits a “whole-of-government response.”
Chicago is heeding that message, providing that response at the municipal level. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, leading a coalition of Chicago municipal agencies, announced on April 9 that the city has committed to transitioning all city buildings to 100 percent renewable energy use by 2025. Once this transition is completed, Chicago will be America’s largest city to supply its public buildings with 100 percent renewable energy.
In 2016, the city, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the Park District, Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), and Chicago City Colleges (CCC) together used almost 1.8 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity — about eight percent of the city’s total electricity use. This amount of energy would take 300 wind turbines one year to generate and could alone power around 295,000 Chicago homes. The city plans to meet their ambitious commitment through a combined strategy of on-site generation, utility-supplied renewable energy via Illinois’ Renewable Portfolio Standard, and acquiring renewable energy credits.
Cleaner Cities, Cleaner World
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution in many large cities around the world is well above guidelines, with almost 90% of people in urban centers breathing air that exceeds dangerous levels. In fact, around half of global urban populations endure pollution at least 2.5 times higher than what the WHO recommends.
Chicago and its agencies are working to ensure that its citizens are not among those statistics. In 2013, the city eliminated coal energy completely. CPS, CCC, and the Park District have been using solar arrays and other renewable energy sources since 2009 and they continue to expand their use of renewables. In addition, despite a 12% growth in jobs and a 25,000 person population increase between 2010 and 2015, the city managed to reduce its carbon emissions by seven percent.
One week before this announcement, Mayor Emanuel announced that the city’s Smart Lighting Project, which will replace outdated lighting fixtures with an energy-efficient management grid, will begin on the south and west sides of the city this summer. And, earlier this week, the city of Chicago was awarded a 2017 ENERGY STAR Partner of the Year Award by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its protection of the environment through outstanding contributions to energy efficiency.
“By committing the energy used to power our public buildings to wind and solar energy, we are sending a clear signal that we remain committed to building a 21st century economy here in Chicago,” Mayor Emanuel said in a press release.
War has long gone high tech. While we may not yet have artificially intelligent robot soldiers, plenty of innovations have made our soldiers more reliant on electricity. Modern forces are in need of reliable sources of this power to successfully complete their missions around the world. The Air Force Research Laboratory’s Advanced Power Technology Office (APTO) is working on solutions to meet that need.
Working with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, they hope to create “a totally deployable, self-sustaining power system.” They are making significant progress with a mobile renewable power station. The station is housed in a 10-foot long trailer and relies on a combination of batteries and solar panels. “We are taking what we learned and applying it to a rapidly deployable system,” says Air Force 1st Lt. Jason Goins, a project engineer. “We are looking at something that will be set up and deployed in an hour. If you can power a shelter in 30 minutes with affordable solar and wind, that’s spectacular.”
Air Force photo by Donna Lindner
The system is known as a microgrid. According to the APTO’s description, “Monocrystalline silicon solar panels are placed on top of each tent for energy production. A trailer, at center, holds the hardware, software, and lithium ion batteries that form the smart grid and provide energy backup should the grid fail.”
Having such technology in the presence of military operations provides some unique obstacles that your average solar farm may not have to consider. For this reason, the APTO is also working on making the solar panels bulletproof.
Renewable sources of power allow for a lot more than just a cleaner Earth: fossil fuel power generation simply can’t produce the kind of power possible with this type of technology. Diesel generators require constant refueling, which would be a serious physical burden on any mission.
The APTO plans to continue testing the tech and work with the Army to provide the best energy solutions for the U.S. military.
The Twitter debate brings up two important points. The first is exactly what Musk noted. In a free market, value isn’t focused on the past. To do so would not only limit innovation, it would be foolhardy.
Value is based on what investors can see happening in the future. Past performance plays a part in that, but so do many other factors. It’s one of the reasons the stock market is risky. Not only can you not control what other investors will do, you also can never be sure what anything will actually end up being worth when you make an investment.
The second point is this: Ford is just a car company. Tesla is a technology and energy innovation company that creates solar roofs, electric cars, power storage solutions, and other breakthroughs. The company even changed its name from Tesla Motors Inc. to simply Tesla Inc. earlier this year to make this distinction clear.
That focus on widespread energy innovation is why Tesla is poised to reach its ambitious target goal of delivering 47,000 to 50,000 vehicles in the first half of 2017 and why the Powerwall is going to come standard in all new Arden homes in Australia. The Tesla “one stop shop” model for sustainable energy is only going to become more relevant as non-renewable sources of energy get more expensive and eventually completely fall out of favor.
It’s easy to understand why investors see a high earnings future for Tesla. Failing to see that the company is going to continue to shape the future is perhaps short-sighted. Failing to understand how the market values companies is a bit more mystifying. Either way, Tesla and its investors are going to be laughing all the way to the bank — whatever form “the bank” takes a few decades from now.
Tesla has proven yet again that its share of the electric car market is no joke. According to the company’s earnings report for the first quarter (Q1) of 2017, it delivered approximately 13,450 Model S sedans and around 11,550 Model X sport utility vehicles. That total of more than 25,000 deliveries to date brings Tesla closer to hitting its goal of delivering 47,000 to 50,000 vehicles in the first half of 2017.
Tesla noted that these numbers could vary by up to 5 percent as they “only count a car as delivered if it is transferred to the customer and all paperwork is correct.” By the end of Q1, some 4,650 more vehicles were in transit to customers. Those will be counted under Q2 deliveries.
According to NASDAQ, this is the highest Q1 on record for Tesla, and it’s about a 69 percent increase over the same period in 2016. In terms of first-quarter production, Tesla built about 25,418 vehicles, which is another quarterly record for the company.
These numbers are good for Tesla, and the company expects to grow even more substantially as its lower-priced Model 3 draws closer to release. For now, its two existing vehicle models are doing fairly well in the market, and they may indeed help CEO Elon Musk hit his goals of delivering 200,000 cars by the end of 2017 and 500,000 by the end of 2018. For the latter target, the Model 3’s 200,000 pre-orders should make a significant contribution.
An Industry Leader
Building Tesla was no easy task for Musk, who was often met with skepticism over his famously optimistic goals. Over the years, he has repeatedly proven critics wrong, while simultaneously surprising Tesla enthusiasts. Though originally created as a vehicle manufacturer, Tesla has since grown into something greater — it’s become a renewable energy powerhouse.
“Tesla is not just an automotive company; it’s an energy innovation company,” according to its website. “Tesla Energy is a critical step in this mission to enable zero emission power generation.”
Tesla is currently gearing up to roll out its solar roof shingles, a product of the company’s acquisition of SolarCity late in 2016. “We would be the world’s only vertically integrated energy company offering end-to-end clean energy products to our customers,” Musk said during the SolarCity acquisition offer announcement, and now they are.
The California Independent System Operator (ISO) tweeted on March 23 that it hit an all-time peak percentage of demand served by renewable sources of energy at 56.7 percent that day at 11:25 am. About 60 percent of that renewable energy was provided by solar energy sources, which is especially impressive given that it was still only spring. Of course, this isn’t really that surprising to anyone who’s paying attention in California, because renewable energy has been setting and breaking records repeatedly lately in that state.
In February California broke its record for percentage of peak power demand served by solar energy sources when almost 8,800 megawatts of solar power fueled the grid in a day. That record lasted less than a week — in wintertime, no less — as over 9,000 megawatts were generated in a single day. That record, too, was shattered almost immediately.
As solar costs continue to drop and wind remains among the least costly sources of energy available, California appears to be on track for making its 50 percent clean energy target by 2030 with ease. Getting to 100 percent is going to take some intervention, however, because the state is generating more power than it needs during daylight hours and not enough during peak hours after the sun goes down. And some California legislators have started to push for just that.
Legislating Green Solutions
A new bill is making its way through the state legislature that would require California’s utility companies to source at least 40 percent of their peak demand energy from clean sources by the end of 2027. This would essentially force the use of industrial batteries, pushing utilities and industry to work together to develop storage systems for solar power. The bill would also promote energy conservation and efficiency programs that reduce consumption of energy during peak times.
In a sense, the bill reflects California’s progress in its fight to limit Greenhouse Gas emissions. The state’s goals include reducing emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, and then 80 percent by 2050. Achieving these goals will mean not just more renewables, but making better use of the renewables that are there, and running the grid without backup from fossil fuels.
Critics of the bill argue that the government should set the goals and then let the market work out how best to meet them. If fighting climate change is the goal, critics reason, then the government should mandate either increased use of renewables, reductions in emissions, or both, and then step aside to allow market-sourced solutions. They believe that energy storage wouldn’t be the market’s response, because it is relatively costly and indirect in terms of the end goal of fighting climate change.
However, although batteries are currently too costly for adoption on a larger scale, their proponents respond that incentivizing new technologies is a strategy that has historically succeeded in California, and that there is no requirement that implementation of batteries be completely in the black the moment the legislation goes online.
It remains to be seen which solutions will work best for California in the relatively short time frame that remains before the deadlines it has set for itself. There’s no doubt that the state has targeted aggressive goals, and while Californians are differing in the details of how to meet them, they appear united in the push to achieve them.
Solar panels are undergoing rapid evolution in the last ten years. I’ve written about this in previous posts in the blog (see for example the forecast that we’ll have flying cars by 2035, which is largely dependent on the sun providing us with an abundance of electricity). The graph below is pretty much saying it all: the cost for producing just one watt of solar energy has gone down to somewhere between 1 percent and 0.5 percent of what it used to be just forty years ago.
At the same time that prices go down, we see more installations of solar panels worldwide, roughly doubling every 2-3 years. Worldwide solar capacity in 2014 has been 53 times higher than in 2005, and global solar photovoltaic installations grew 34% in 2015 according to GTM Research.
It should come as no surprise that regulators are beginning to take note of the solar trend. Indeed, two small California cities – Lancastar and Sebastopol – passed laws in 2013 requiring new houses to include solar panels on their roofs. And now, finally, San Francisco joins the fray as the first large city in the world to require solar panels on every new building.
San Francisco has a lofty goal: meeting all of its energy demands by 2025, using renewable sources only. The new law seems to be one more step towards that achievement. But more than that, the law is part of a larger principle, which encompasses the Internet of Things as well: the Activation of Everything.
The Activation of Everything
To understand the concept of the Activation of Everything, we need to consider another promising legislation that will be introduced soon in San Francisco by Supervisor Scott Wiener. Supervisor Wiener is allowing solar roofs to be replaced with living roofs – roofs that are covered with soil and vegetation. According to a 2005 study, living roofs reduce cooling loads by 50-90 percent, and reduce stormwater waste and runoff to the sewage. They retain much of the rainwater, which later goes back to the atmosphere through evaporation. They enhance biodiversity, sequester carbon and even capture pollution. Of course, not every plant can be grown efficiently on such roofs – particularly not in dry California – but there’s little doubt that optimized living roofs can contribute to the city’s environment.
Supervisor Wiener explains the reasons behind the solar power legislation in the following words –
“This legislation will activate our roofs, which are an under-utilized urban resource, to make our City more sustainable and our air cleaner. In a dense, urban environment, we need to be smart and efficient about how we maximize the use of our space to achieve goals like promoting renewable energy and improving our environment.”
Pay attention to the “activate our roofs” part. Supervisor Wiener is absolutely right in that the roofs are an under-utilized urban resource. Whether you want to use those roofs to harvest solar power or to grow plants and improve the environment, the idea is clear. We need to activate – in any means possible – our resources, so that we maximize their use.
That is what the Activation of Everything principle means: activate everything, whether by allowing surfaces and items to harvest power or resources, or to have sensing and communication capabilities. In a way, activation can also mean convergence: take two functions or services that were performed separately in the past, and allow them to be performed together. In that way, a roof is no longer just a means to provide shade and protection from the weather, but can also harvest energy and improve the environment.
The Internet of Things is a spectacular example for implementing the Activation of Everything principle. In the Internet of Things world, everything will be connected: every roof, every wall, every bridge and shirt and shoe. Every item will be activated to have added purposes. Our shirts will communicate our respiration rate to our physicians. Bricks in walls will report on their structural integrity to engineers. Bridges will let us know that they’re close to maximum capacity, and so on.
The Internet of Things largely relies on sophisticated electronic technologies, but the Activation of Everything principle is more general than that. The Activation of Everything can also mean creating solar or living roofs, or even creating walls that include limestone-secreting bacteria that can fix cracks as soon as they form.
Where else can we implement the Activation of Everything principle in the future?
The Activation of Cars
There have been many ideas to create roads that can harvest energy from cars’ movements. Unfortunately, the Laws of Thermodynamics reveal that such roads will in fact ‘steal’ that energy from passing cars, by making it more difficult for them to travel along the road. Not a good idea. The activation of roofs works well specifically because it has a good ROI (Return on Investment), with a relatively low energetic investment and large returns. Not so with energy-stealing roads.
But there’s another unutilized resource in cars – the roof. We can use the Activation principle to derive insights about the future of car roofs: hybrid cars will be covered with solar panels, which will be used to harvest energy when they’re sitting in the parking lot, and store it for the ride home.
Don’t get the math wrong: cars with solar roofs won’t be able to drive endlessly. In fact, if they rely only on solar power, they’ll barely even crawl. However, they will be able to power the electrical devices in the car, and trucks may even use solar energy on long journeys, to cool the wares they carry. If the cost of solar panel installation continues to go down, these uses could be viable within the decade.
The Activation of Farmlands
Farmlands are being activated today in many different ways: from sensors all over the field, and sometimes in every tree trunk, to farmers supplementing their livelihood by deploying solar panels and ‘farming electricity’. Some are combining both solar panels and crop and animal farming by spreading solar panels at a few meters height above the field, and growing plants that can make the most of the limited sunlight that gets to them.
The Activation of the Air
Even the air around us can be activated. Aerial drones may be considered an initial attempt to activate the sky by filling them with flying sensors, but they are large, cumbersome and interfere with aerial traffic and with the view. However, we’ll be able to activate air in various other ways in the future, such as smart dust – extremely small sensors with limited wireless connectivity that will transmit data about their whereabouts and the conditions there.
The Activation of Food
Food is one of the only things that have barely been activated so far. Food today serves only two goals: to please by tasting great, and to nourish the body. According to the principle of Activation, however, food will soon serve several other purposes. Food items could be used to deliver therapeutics or sensors into the body, or possibly be produced with built-in biocompatible electronics and LEDs to make the food look better on the plate.
A Living World
As human beings, we’ve always searched for ways to optimize efficiency and to make the best use of the limited resources we have. One of those limited resources is space, which is why we try to activate – add functions – to every surface and item today.
It’s fascinating to consider how the Activation of Everything will shape our world in the next few decades. We will have sensors everywhere, solar panels everywhere, batteries and electronics everywhere. It will be a world where nothing is as it seems at first glance anymore. An activated world – a living world indeed.
Singapore is set to become home to one of the world’s coolest supercars, and it’s electric. Vanda Electrics presented a model of its Dendrobium electric car this week at the Geneva Motor Show — and it looked really super. But this EV isn’t super just based on appearance. It packs the specs to back it up.
Named after a Singaporean orchid, the Dendrobium was “inspired by nature and rooted in technology.” The concept was first announced in February 2016, and some of the vehicle’s previously announced specs were changed as it moved from the drawing board to today’s unveiling at the Geneva Motor Show. However, it remains a highly impressive electric car with a top speed of 320 km/h (199 mph) and an acceleration time of 0 to 100 km/h (0 to 62 mph) in 2.7 seconds.
The inside of the Dendrobium houses two inboard electric motors per axle, with a front-side differential (a device that splits an engine’s torque) and single-speed gearbox. At the rear, it has a multi-speed gearbox and differential. No details have been released yet about the capacity of its batteries and its power range.
Electric Cars Are the Future
The future of land transportation will likely be cars that are autonomous and clean, running on renewables like electric batteries or solar power. Tesla is a leader in the growing industry, but they aren’t the only ones in it. Almost all of today’s car manufacturers, including bigwigs like Volkswagen, Ford, Mitsubishi, and Honda, have electric car projects in the works or already in production.
The market for electric vehicles is growing and that trend is expected to continue in the coming years. As their battery costs go down, electric vehicles will become as affordable as their gas-powered counterparts. Indeed, the cost of electric vehicle batteries has already gone down by 80 percent since 2001. Tesla’s Model 3 electric vehicle is moving toward a $35,000 price tag, and while that’s still not as cheap as most comparable gas-powered cars, it’s also not as expensive as electric vehicles used to be.
As countries push for more electric cars, the number of gas-powered vehicles on the roads will drop. This will reduce the number of carbon emission sources on our planet and help in the battle against man-made climate change. While not every EV can be as super as the Dendrobium, each one brings us one step closer to a future free of fossil fuels.
China is the largest solar energy producer in the world, and in 2016, its solar capacity increased by twice as much as it had in 2015. Overall, the country produced 77.42 gigawatts of solar energy to generate 66.2 billion kilowatt-hours of power. Meanwhile, the U.S. nearly doubled its own yearly increase, from 7.3 GW added in 2015 to 14 GW added in 2016, with some states showing remarkable growth. For instance, New York increased its solar power use by more than 800 percent.
Other world leaders include India, which recently became home to the largest solar farm in the world. Although the EU experienced cutbacks in solar adoption incentives, solar capacity in the U.K. increased by 29 percent in 2016, with German capacity growing by 21 percent and French capacity increasing by 8.3 percent.
One of the biggest reasons for this growth is a notable global drop in the costs associated with solar. According to The Climate Council, solar prices worldwide have dropped by 58 percent over the past five years. However, despite these amazing gains, the ability to store solar energy for use when the Sun isn’t out remains a problem. Now, Tesla is going to try to tackle that issue with a solar plant in Kauai, Hawaii.
Clean Power, Steady Sourcing
Islands like Kauai are ideal for solar-generated power — at least until nightfall, as which point fossil fuel-powered generators kick on. Tesla is hoping to keep those generators from humming all night with a massive new solar farm and energy storage plant. The Kauai plant, commissioned by the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC), includes a 13 megawatt SolarCity solar farm and a 52 megawatt-hour battery installation. KIUC and Tesla project an annual savings of 1.6 million gallons of fossil fuels.
One of the downfalls of most sources of renewable energy is that they are reliant on the natural world and, therefore, intermittent. Both solar and wind power generation, for example, often peak during times of lower demand, like midday. This problem motivated Tesla to create its Powerpack, a huge battery that stores electricity during daylight hours when the supply is ample and discharges it when the Sun goes down and demand increases.
Interestingly, KIUC didn’t buy the battery system and solar panels from Tesla. Instead, the utility company agreed to a 20-year contract with Tesla to buy solar-generated power for 13.9 cents per kilowatt hour. Tesla has now moved into the business of generating and selling power, and this new partnership is unlikely to be an isolated incident. According to a Tesla statement, the company plans to “work with energy providers around the world seeking to overcome barriers in the way of building a sustainable, renewable energy grid of their own.”
The rise of the solar energy industry is astounding. Though virtually nothing in the early 2000s, the world’s solar capacity is now at 305 gigawatts. The countries taking the lead in this worldwide solar power surge are the United States and China, with the United Kingdom leading the rest of Europe.
In Europe, despite suffering setbacks due to cuts in government incentives for solar adoption, the U.K. managed to increase its solar capacity by 29 percent, with Germany following at 21 percent and France with 8.3 percent.
As the world faces the realities of climate change, with global temperatures hitting another all-time-high record in 2016, efforts to fight the climate problem are now more crucial than ever. One of the ways governments and various groups in the private sector can contribute to this fight is through the increased use of renewable energy sources, like solar energy.
“In order to meet the Paris [climate agreement] targets, it would be important if solar could continue its rapid growth,” explained James Watson, chief executive at SolarPower Europe. “The global solar industry is ready to do that and can even speed up.” To reach the goals of the agreement, half of the world’s energy must be generated from renewables by 2060.
Solar energy isn’t the only alternative source currently being explored and developed. Other efforts include harnessing wind energy, which just covered more than 50 percent of one U.S. power grid’s energy demands. Efforts are being undertaken to improve nuclear energy production, specifically research in sustainable fusion, as well as developments in solar fuel technology. With all of these efforts combined, humanity has a chance to stop or even reverse the damage done to the planet.
A new study reveals that the UK’s efforts to decreases its carbon footprint are working. The report from the non-profit Carbon Brief shows that carbon dioxide (CO2) emission levels in the UK are now at their lowest since the 1920s. The UK achieved this drop by adopting a multi-pronged approach that includes shifting away from coal, expanding energy efficiency programs, decreasing energy demand, rapidly growing renewable energy sources, taxing coal carbon, and burning more natural gas.
In the past 10 years, coal use has dropped by 74 percent in the UK. According to Carbon Brief, this has helped to lower CO2 emissions levels to 36 percent below the 1990’s level. From 2015 to 2016 alone, coal burning emissions dropped by 50 percent, causing total emissions to fall by 5.8 percent. This was fueled by the closing of large coal users during that time, like Redcar steel in 2015, and three power plants in 2016.
Recent Advances In Renewables
Renewable energy sources are experiencing exciting innovations all over the world. These kinds of advances are enabling the UK — and others — to lower Greenhouse Gas emissions and fight climate change through the use of green energy. An increased reliance of green energy may also save lives that are being threatened by air pollution, heavy metals in water, oil spills, and natural disasters, which are linked to non-renewable energy sources.
Many countries are making strides towards renewable energy. In February, Denmark generated enough wind energy to power the entire country for the day thanks in large part to a new offshore wind turbine installation. Iceland is about to take its use of geothermal energy to the next level by drilling into a volcano for clean energy. In 2016, renewables accounted for 90 percent of the new power used in the EU.
Asia has also been stepping up its green-energy game. India is now home to the largest solar power farm in the world, which covers 10 square kilometers (over 6 square miles) and has a 648 MW capacity. As of February of this year, China was the largest solar power producer in the world. China also announced that it will begin implementing an electric taxi program in Beijing this year, targeting the city’s 70,000 existing cars.
Closer to home, real progress is happening in states that back clean energy. As a result of a $1.5 billion investment, New York State increased its solar power usage by almost 800 percent over the past five years, from 83 MW in 2011 to 744 MW in 2016. Since the price of generating solar energy has dropped 58 percent in the past five years alone, it is a great investment for states to make.
Now that states and countries can see that making these transitions can make a measurable, positive impact on our environment, they may be even more motivate to invest in clean energy.
Renewable energy met a major milestone in the U.S., with wind powering over 50 percent of the country’s electric demand. The Southwest Power Pool (SPP)—a grid operator responsible for powering 14 states — notes that while it may have been brief, the fact that the U.S. hit the mark even for a short period of time is notable, since it was the first a North American power grid to achieve the feat.
According to their report, wind power reached 52.1 percent last February, beating the previous record of 49.2 percent.
“Ten years ago, we thought hitting even a 25 percent wind-penetration level would be extremely challenging,” SPP Vice President of Operations Bruce Rew said in a statement, “and any more than that would pose serious threats to reliability.”
Even still, wind has been a growing part of SPP’s generation mix: it supplied 15 percent of its electricity last year, and is currently the third biggest generation source for the operator.
“We’re able to manage wind generation more effectively than other, smaller systems can because we’ve got a huge pool of resources to draw from,” Rew points out. “With a footprint as broad as ours, even if the wind stops blowing in the upper Great Plains, we can deploy resources waiting in the Midwest and Southwest to make up any sudden deficits.”
Harnessing the Power of Wind
While the cost of wind power has dramatically dropped in recent years, cost is still often cited as one of the biggest barriers. Wind energy requires a significant initial investment for its infrastructure. Because it also relies on wind to create energy, it may not be as cost competitive as traditional power sources like coal or gas, especially in less windy areas.
Nevertheless, the advantages of wind power as a low-maintenance, clean, power source seem to outweigh the challenges surrounding adoption of the technology. More and more, countries around the world are working to develop their wind generating capabilities.
In the context of humanity’s efforts to address our dependence on fossil fuel by developing non-carbon emitting alternatives, these are undoubtedly remarkable achievements. And hopefully, as we continue to refine the technology, we will eventually see a future that can implement a broader shift toward renewable power.
An alternative energy source with great potential is solar power. One variant of solar energy is solar fuel, which is produced by using sunlight to convert water or carbon dioxide into combustible chemicals. Because of the relative abundance of solar fuel components, it’s considered a desirable goal for clean-energy research. However, these reactions, such as producing hydrogen by splitting water, aren’t possible by using just sunlight. Materials to efficiently facilitate the process are necessary.
Scientists have been working on creating practical solar fuels by developing low-cost and efficient materials to serve as photoanodes. Photoanodes are similar to the anodes in a battery and activate the production of solar fuel by aiding the flow of Electrons during the process. Scientists from the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have successfully doubled the number of potential photoanodes in just two years.
Now, researchers led by Caltech’s John Gregoire and Berkeley Lab’s Jeffrey Neaton have developed a new, faster method to identify new materials to use as photoanodes, and they’ve found 12 promising candidates. They published their research in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Neaton, director for the Molecular Foundry at Berkeley Lab, said that the study advanced this field of research by not only providing an improved method to look for photoanodes, but also by giving researchers insight into the new photoanodes.
“What is particularly significant about this study, which combines experiment and theory, is that in addition to identifying several new compounds for solar fuel applications, we were also able to learn something new about the underlying electronic structure of the materials themselves,” Neaton said in a Caltech press release.
To discover these new photoanodes, the team combined computational and experimental approaches. A Materials Project database was mined for potentially useful compounds. Hundreds of theoretical calculations were performed using computational resources at the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC), together with software and expertise from the Molecular Foundry. Once the best candidates for photoanode activity were identified, it was time to test those materials in the laboratory.
The materials were simultaneously tested for anode activity under different conditions using high-throughput experimentation. This was the first time these kinds of experiments had been run this way, according to Gregoire.
“The key advance made by the team was to combine the best capabilities enabled by theory and supercomputers with novel high throughput experiments to generate scientific knowledge at an unprecedented rate,” Gregoire said in the press release.
They found that compounds with vanadium, oxygen, and a third element had highly tunable electronic structure that made them uniquely favorable for water oxidation.
“Importantly, we were able to explain the origin of their tunability, and identify several promising vanadate photoanode compounds,” Neaton said in the press release.
This research has provided us with more ways to make use of water — one of the world’s most abundant resource — as an energy source. As advancements like this allow us to develop renewable energy cheaply and more efficiently, governments, investors, and individuals alike will have more reasons to leave fossil fuels in the past.
Countries all over the world are making major strides in renewable energy. Many nations are investing in new clean energy infrastructure that is allowing them to supply enough power to meet their energy needs by great percentages, if not entirely.
On February 22nd, Denmark generated enough energy with its wind turbines to power the entire country for the day. An especially windy day allowed the turbines to generate 97 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of energy. 70 of those GWh came from onshore wind turbines and the remaining 27 GWh from offshore installations. All of this power, generated from a single type of renewable energy, is enough to power 10 million average EU homes.
This boost in wind power generation is partly thanks to a new offshore wind turbine installation that was able to break the record for the most energy generated by a single turbine in a 24-hour period.
Many European countries have been sharing similar accomplishments. Wind Europe spokesman Oliver Joy said, “In 2016 we saw the UK was powered without coal for 12 and a half hours, Germany went some days on renewable, and Portugal went four straight days on renewable.
It shows energy transition is underway in Europe and arguably further ahead than anywhere else in the world.”
Scotland has also been investing heavily in renewable energy with wind turbines that could power every household for an entire month. Last year, the country also launched the world’s first large-scale tidal power farm that has to potential to power 175,000 homes.
Costa Rica is one of the most impressive countries to look at in terms of renewable energy. The island nation is able to run entirely on renewable energy for months at a time. In fact, in 2015 the country met 99 percent of its total energy need from renewable sources alone.
The Navajo station is the largest coal-fire power plant in the western United States, and is the seventh largest individual contributor to climate pollution in the country. Its shut down will greatly reduce the US carbon footprint by eliminating the 14 million metric tons of carbon dioxide it has put out every year. It will also potentially save more than $127 million a year in health expenses.
Another advantage of the plant closure is that the water it has been guzzling may soon be available as drinking water, which will be a significant win for the Navajo people, according to Percy Deal from local Navajo environmental group Dine Care.
“It’s clean water that they’re using,” Deal said in an interview with Co.Exist. “I really believe that it’s time to put an end to that. That 31,000 acre-feet of water is Navajo water, and for almost 50 years now, Navajos have not been able to use it.”
These closures aren’t due solely to government regulations, but also to economic realities. Coal is just becoming too expensive when compared to alternatives, said Scott Harelson, spokesperson for one of the owners of the Navajo plant. “The economics are changing and this has kind of shifted how the owners look at potentially the future of the plant,” Harelson said to the Arizona Republic.
The entire energy industry is feeling the shift, according to David Schissel, who is the director of resource planning analysis at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis. “The market forces working against coal are not going away,” Schissel told Co.Exist. “As new gas-fired and renewable resources are being added every month, this means that more supply-side resources are competing for the same or almost the same demand. This is not good for coal.”
As coal continues on this downward path, many wonder how President Trump’s promises “to bring back coal” will play out. For Schissel, it won’t make much of a difference. “[The] new administration can slow the pace at which coal plants will be retired in the near future,” Schissel said, “but it can’t stop the process entirely or reverse it.”
Of course, there is a downside: the electric car boom is a troubling trend for fossil fuels. As plug-in electric vehicles threaten to take over the roads, fossil fuels are steadily on the decline. The powerful oil industry has started to find itself resorting to somewhat desperate measures, including efforts attacking the incentives for electric vehicles and even introducing legislation that would penalize electric car drivers.
These electric vehicle fees, according to fossil fuel lobby groups like the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), are designed to level the playing field (an interesting take, since the oil business is significantly larger than the electric car industry).
Reportedly, for more than a year, Koch Industries has spent nearly $10 million dollars, and plans to do so every year, on a campaign to boost petroleum-based transportation fuels and attack government support for electric vehicles. This campaign was presumably created because of the risk [electric vehicles] place on the oil and coal industry. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing state legislation machine funded by the Koch brothers and several other multinational corporations, introduced in December of 2015 a resolution to discourage states from providing subsidies for [electric vehicles] at their States and Nation Policy Summit.
China has already relaxed its policies to allow for more electric vehicles on the road. In the spirit of healthy competition, will the U.S. follow suit in progression, or go in the opposite — and regressive — direction?
According to a recent report by Australian non-profit the Climate Council, solar energy is now cheaper than retail power in most capital cities in Australia, with prices dropping 58 percent globally in the past five years. With costs expected to drop between 40 to 70 percent more by 2040, we can only expect a rise in adoption and usage in that country and others around the globe.
“We are seeing more and more industrial-scale solar coming online across the country and the world. Hospitals, airports, farms and a variety of other businesses have embraced smarter and cleaner power,” Greg Bourne, expert Councillor with the Climate Council, told SBS.
Nearly 7,000 solar batteries were installed in Australian homes last year, and that number is expected to triple in 2017. The Council adds in its report that industrial-scale solar plants are now providing cheaper power versus traditional coal plants. Twenty solar power plants are scheduled to be built around Australia, which will see an additional 3,700 megawatts of solar energy — that’s enough to power 600,000 homes. This will no doubt help Australia achieve its goal of reaching 20 gigawatts of solar generation in the next two decades.
Transitioning to renewable energy is not only necessary as we continue to see and feel the effects of climate change, it also makes economic sense.
For a country like Australia, where sunshine is abundant, supporting the growth of solar energy can create new jobs and new industries. More than 8,000 Australians already hold jobs in the solar industry, ranging from salespeople and manufacturers to electricians and installers. Projections expect that with renewable energy reaching 50 percent by 2030, Australia alone will benefit from 28,000 new jobs.
Globally, 2.8 million people have jobs in the industry, which is more than those with coal jobs. In fact, in the United States, solar accounts for double the number of jobs as coal. “The era of coal is over and global investment has moved firmly to renewable energy,” added the Climate Council in a statement. “Solar power is cheaper, has no fuel costs, is non-polluting and it is clear that it will be a key of Australia’s future.”
Along with Australia, countries like China, the U.S., and Japan are at the forefront of renewable energy, with many other countries around the globe following suit. In 2015, a study showed that the U.S. could be completely powered by renewable energy by 2050. In 2016, almost all of Costa Rica’s electricity was generated using renewable sources. Germany, in an effort to phase out nuclear energy, is also well on its way to making other renewable energy sources more viable. As these individual efforts and global ones like the Paris Agreement take shape, we will hopefully see a tangible impact on our environment.
New York is putting its money where its mouth is when it comes to a clean energy commitment. The state boasts an almost 800 percent increase in solar power over the past five years.
According to a statement made earlier this week by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, “New York is a national leader in clean energy, and the tremendous growth of the solar industry across this state demonstrates this renewal technology’s increased accessibility and affordability for residents and businesses.”
The state generated 83.06 MW of solar power in 2011. Last year, that increased by 795 percent to 743.65 MW. The state has invested $1.5 billion in the renewable source of energy, and its governor recognizes the massive impact renewable energy has on the economy. “Our investments in this clean energy resource create jobs, reduce carbon emissions, support economic growth, and help build a cleaner, greener New York for all,” said Cuomo.
National Push Forward
This kind of push to greater reliance on renewable sources of energy is not isolated to any one state. States across the country and even countries around the globe are moving to decrease fossil fuel use. Now that solar power is the cheapest source for new energy, it has become fiscally responsible on top of it already being environmentally prudent.
Space-based solar power has had a slow start, but the technology may finally take off in the next few decades. Since its inception, solar power has had a severe limitation as a renewable energy: it only works when the Sun is shining. This has restricted the areas where solar panels can be effectively used to sunnier, drier regions, such as California and Arizona. And even on cloudless days, the atmosphere itself absorbs some of the energy emitted by the Sun, cutting back the efficiency of solar energy. And let’s not forget that, even in the best of circumstances, Earth-bound solar panels are pointed away from the Sun half of the time, during the night.
So, for over half a decade, researchers from NASA and the Pentagon have dreamed of ways for solar panels to rise above these difficulties, and have come up with some plausible solutions. There have been several proposals for making extra-atmospheric solar panels a reality, many of which call for a spacecraft equipped with an array of mirrors to reflect sunlight into a power-conversion device. The collected energy could be beamed to Earth via a laser or microwave emitter. There are even ways to modulate the waves’ energy to protect any birds or planes that might wander into the beam’s path.
The energy from these space-based solar panels would not be limited by clouds, the atmosphere, or our night cycle. Additionally, because solar energy would be continuously absorbed, there would be no reason to store the energy for later use, a process which can cost up to 50 percent of the energy stored.
Proponents of this energy strategy argue that we have all the basic science necessary to design and deploy space-based solar panels, but opponents, like Tesla’s Elon Musk, counter that the upfront costs are too high. In 2012, Musk suggested to Popular Mechanics that we should “stab that thing in the heart.”
Getting off the Ground
As climate evidence continues to demonstrate, energy production has more costs to consider than simply the dollars and cents on the price tag. An efficient, renewable source of energy with a small carbon footprint and virtually no waste seems to attractive to ignore for many environmentally conscience individuals including Paul Jaffe, spacecraft engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
Last March, Jaffe presented his plan for implementing space-based solar at the Department of Defense’s first-ever Diplomacy, Development, and Defense (D3) Innovation Summit Pitch Challenge. Out of 500 submissions, Jaffe’s plan for implementing space-based solar took home four of seven awards. Jaffe presented a plan that he said would have demo orbital power station capable of powering more than 150,000 homes in orbit within 10 years for $10 billion. Jaffe said that investment would pay off in the long run.
“Over time, things become more efficient. Wind and solar literally took decades to get competitive with carbon-based alternatives. I see similar potential here,” Jaffe said in an interview to Salon. “In many ways, the future of space solar rests less on scientists and engineers, and more on people who decide what they want to pay for.”
Jeffe is not the only one who sees promise in this strategy. Both Japan and China have plans for launching their own space solar stations in the next 25 to 30 years. In the United States, the private company Solaren Corp. is raising money for a design and demonstration phase. It has already drawn some lucrative interest, having been awarded a contract with major electric utility provider PG&E.
None of these projects will see energy returns for the next decade or more, and the average energy user can only hope this will be soon enough. Last year, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected that world energy consumption will grow by almost 50 percent between 2012 and 2040.
Light streaming through windows can do a lot more than brighten up a room. Adding silicon nanoparticles to the glass could allow our windows to harvest energy while filling our homes with cheery rays of sunlight.
Researchers have been working for a while on ways to incorporate energy-harvesting technology into windows, and the latest breakthrough in the research is out of the University of Minnesota (UMN) and University of Milano-Bicocca where scientists have developed a technique to embed silicon nanoparticles into what they call luminescent solar concentrators (LSCs). Their system can trap the useful frequencies of light and direct them to the edges of the window where small solar cells can be used to capture the energy. This allows for very efficient absorption of light at various wavelengths.
In the past, this same result was achieved using complex nanostructures that contained toxic elements, like cadmium or lead, or rare ones, like indium. In contrast, silicon is non-toxic and naturally abundant in the environment. Even if it weren’t, the amount needed is very small. “Each particle is made up of less than two thousand silicon atoms. The powder is turned into an ink-like solution and then embedded into a polymer, either forming a sheet of flexible plastic material or coating a surface with a thin film,” Samantha Ehrenberg, a University of Minnesota mechanical Ph.D. student and co-author of the study, told UMN.
Silicon Saves the Day
Combining solar concentrators and solar cells is not new, but the addition of silicon nanoparticles into the equation is opening up new possibilities. The exceptional compatibility of the silicon nanoparticles’ optical features with the simple industrial process of producing the LSCs brings us so much closer to the possibility of affordable photovoltaic windows that can capture significant amounts of energy.
“This will make LSC-based photovoltaic windows a real technology for the building-integrated photovoltaic market without the potential limitations of other classes of nanoparticles based on relatively rare materials,” adds Francesco Meinardi, physics professor at the University of Milano-Bicocca and one of the first authors of the paper.
Windows that could collect solar energy would mean that sustainability didn’t have to take a backseat to aesthetics, which are a critical aspect of buildings in metropolitan areas. In LSC-based photovoltaic systems, the photovoltaic cells can be concealed in the window frame to blend seamlessly into the structure. This makes incorporating renewable technology into the construction easy, and given the number of skyscrapers in major urban areas, the tech could essentially convert entire cities into functional solar farms.
Imagine living in a four-bedroom house with a large array of appliances that are driven by a whole lot of electricity. After adding up the costs to power your home in previous years, you find that you’d been spending approximately $2,289 annually. But a year ago you installed one of Tesla’s new Powerwalls, a rechargeable lithium ion battery that you’ve combined with a 5kWp solar array, SolarEdge inverter, and Reposit monitoring system. When totaling the electricity consumption costs for this year, you see that the bill dropped to a mere $178.71.
This story belongs to Nick Pfitzner, the first Australian to install a Tesla Powerwall in his home. A year after installation, he was able to see a 92 percent annual savings, with his quarterly bill decreasing from $572 in 2015 to $45 in 2016. He even received a $50 credit one quarter as the system’s unused electricity can be sold back to the grid.
“The system will power whatever the house needs first as a priority, then it will fill the battery as a second priority and then anything over it will export,” Pfitzner explained in an interview with Choice. “The aim is to try and export about three times of what I import because my electricity cost is about three times [as much].”
The entirety of Pfitzner’s solar system cost him $16,790 up front, which he believes he can pay off within eight years.
Tesla’s Grip on the World
Tesla has a vision for future powered by clean energy, and the Powerwall is just part of that vision. Tesla’s Gigafactory 1, which manufactures the Powerwall as well as Tesla’s battery cells and Powerpacks, is a major part of that vision and a driving force behind the company’s progress in making sustainable energy technologies cheaper and more widely available to the public.
But Tesla’s other initiatives can’t go unnoticed. Last year, Tesla partnered with SolarCity to produce their Solar Roof Tiles, which should be completed within the year. These solar tiles convert sunlight into energy that can be used immediately or stored within the Powerwall. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has suggested that the tech could be used in the development of solar-powered cars.
Musk has also begun a project that he half-jokingly named “The Boring Company,” the goal of which is to reduce traffic congestion by boring underground tunnels in densely populated cities. These tunnels could be used as a secondary route for transportation, and as Musk said, “better tunneling tech improves everything: road, subway, Hyperloop.”
But you really can’t talk about Tesla without mentioning the company’s roots: electric cars. Tesla’s Model S plans to reach a range of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) per single charge sometime this year, and by 2020, the range could increase to 1,199 kilometers (745 miles).
Given all of the projects Tesla has in the works, it almost seems farfetched to imagine that the company could accomplish them all. But Elon Musk’s vision for the future is shared by many, and this support will only serve to help the company. Globally, our consumption of fossil fuels won’t slow down until we speed up the production of renewable energy technologies, so with Tesla and other like-minded companies leading the way, we can forge a path to a future of clean energy.
There’s a lot of sun in Nevada, so it only makes sense to harness its power. That’s why long-time solar champion and Nevada legislature assemblyman Chris Brooks proposed AB 206, a bill that pushes the state’s renewable portfolio standard (RPS) from its current 22 percent goal to 80 percent by 2040.
The bill pushes an incremental increase in Nevada’s RPS goal on a two-year interval. This would start with a 4 percent increase in 2018-2019 that would put the RPS goal at 26 percent. In each subsequent year, it would increase by 4 percent until 2030, when utility companies would be required to produce 50 percent of their energy using renewable sources.
AB 206 is very supportive of solar energy in Nevada, both in terms of rooftop and utility-scale solar power. While it cuts the existing requirement for utilities to generate 5 percent of their RPS goal from solar power, the bill includes making solar power sent from homes to the grid a mandatory goal for utilities. Nevada’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) recently approved a deal between NV Energy and SolarCity that gives customers the right to retain their retail rate net metering deal, so this bill would be the second big win for solar in the state.
A Renewed Effort
Nevada joins Massachusetts in the effort to push the use of renewable energy sources. The latter state recently introduced a similar bill in its state assembly that pushes for 100 percent renewable energy use in Massachusetts by 2035.
The reasons for both bills are the essentially the same, which is to “encourage and accelerate the development of new renewable energy projects for the economic, health, and environmental benefits provided to the people of this State,” according to AB 206.
As the federal government seems to favor fossil fuels, it’s left to states like Nevada and Massachusetts to keep renewable energy efforts moving through government channels. Hopefully, more states will follow in the path of these pioneers of renewable energy.
Climate change is real — temperatures are rising, weather is getting more erratic, and glaciers continue to melt. According to experts, human activity is the main reason this is happening. Our dependence on fossil fuels and inability to address a fast-deteriorating Earth led us to this point. But thankfully, we can do things to help the situation.
Switching to renewable energy is a big part of combating climate change, and Europe just demonstrated the strides it has been making toward shifting to safer, cleaner power sources.
Last year, renewable energy accounted for 90 percent of new power added to Europe’s electrical grids. A total of 24.5 GW of new energy sources were built, and 21.1 GW were from solar, wind, hydro, and biomass. According to WindEurope, this is the first time that wind power’s capacity was higher than coal’s, allowing it to earn the distinction of being Europe’s second largest form of power capacity, behind just natural gas.
Thanks to countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, and Lithuania, all of which increased their wind capacity in 2016, wind farms accounted for over half of the renewable capacity. These increases included massive offshore projects, such as Gemini (a wind farm built off the coast of the Netherlands), Germany’s 582 MW Gode Wind 1 and 2, and the 144 MW Westermeerwind project, also in the Netherlands.
The Future of Renewables
These numbers may seem impressive, especially with Europe’s total wind power capacity adding up to 153.7 GW, but this figure is still very low relative to the continent’s total power capacity of 918.8 GW. It is a significant achievement, though, especially in comparison to the U.S. where only 63 percent of new energy capacity was from renewable sources.
While coal is still fulfilling most of Europe’s electricity demand, a continued push for renewable energy and a concerted effort to meet climate change goals set for 2020 has left governments hopeful that the gap will eventually be closed. To that end however, experts have expressed concern about the direction of renewable energy beyond 2020, citing countries like Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Greece, which all supported wind energy in the early 2000s, but now only account for a fraction of new installations.
Growth of renewable energy across Europe is evidently very uneven. Still, there’s every reason to be optimistic. Renewable energy has steadily demonstrated benefits to countries willing to invest in it, and it’s only a matter of time before the industry gathers the longterm support needed to ensure that a broader, regional shift to renewable sources happens.
For centuries, humans have dreamed of harnessing the power of the sun to energize our lives here on Earth. But we want to go beyond collecting solar energy, and one day generate our own from a mini-sun. If we’re able to solve an extremely complex set of scientific and engineering problems, fusion energy promises a green, safe, unlimited source of energy. From just one kilogram of deuterium extracted from water per day could come enough electricity to power hundreds of thousands of homes.
Since the 1950s, scientific and engineering research has generated enormous progress toward forcing hydrogen atoms to fuse together in a self-sustaining reaction – as well as a small but demonstrable amount of fusion energy. Skeptics and proponents alike note the two most important remaining challenges: maintaining the reactions over long periods of time and devising a material structure to harness the fusion power for electricity.
As fusion researchers at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab, we know that realistically, the first commercial fusion power plant is still at least 25 years away. But the potential for its outsize benefits to arrive in the second half of this century means we must keep working. Major demonstrations of fusion’s feasibility can be accomplished earlier – and must, so that fusion power can be incorporated into planning for our energy future.
Unlike other forms of electrical generation, such as solar, natural gas, and nuclear fission, fusion cannot be developed in miniature and then be simply scaled up. The experimental steps are large and take time to build. But the problem of abundant, clean energy will be a major calling for humankind for the next century and beyond. It would be foolhardy not to exploit fully this most promising of energy sources.
Why Fusion Power?
In fusion, two nuclei of the hydrogen atom (deuterium and tritium isotopes) fuse together. This is relatively difficult to do: Both nuclei are positively charged, and therefore repel each other. Only if they are moving extremely fast when they collide will they smash together, fuse and thereby release the energy we’re after.
This happens naturally in the sun. Here on Earth, we use powerful magnets to contain an extremely hot gas of electrically charged deuterium and tritium nuclei and electrons. This hot, charged gas is called a plasma.
The plasma is so hot – more than 100 million degrees Celsius – that the positively charged nuclei move fast enough to overcome their electrical repulsion and fuse. When the nuclei fuse, they form two energetic particles – an alpha particle (the nucleus of the helium atom) and a neutron.
Heating the plasma to such a high temperature takes a large amount of energy – which must be put into the reactor before fusion can begin. But once it gets going, fusion has the potential to generate enough energy to maintain its own heat, allowing us to draw off excess heat to turn into usable electricity.
Fuel for fusion power is abundant in nature. Deuterium is plentiful in water, and the reactor itself can make tritium from lithium. And it is available to all nations, mostly independent of local natural resources.
Fusion power is clean. It emits no greenhouse gases, and produces only helium and a neutron.
It is safe. There is no possibility for a runaway reaction, like a nuclear-fission “meltdown.” Rather, if there is any malfunction, the plasma cools, and the fusion reactions cease.
All these attributes have motivated research for decades, and have become even more attractive over time. But the positives are matched by the significant scientific challenge of fusion.
Progress to Date
The progress in fusion can be measured in two ways. The first is the tremendous advance in basic understanding of high-temperature plasmas. Scientists had to develop a new field of physics – plasma physics – to conceive of methods to confine the plasma in strong magnetic fields, and then evolve the abilities to heat, stabilize, control turbulence in and measure the properties of the superhot plasma.
Related technology has also progressed enormously. We have pushed the frontiers in magnets, and electromagnetic wave sources and particle beams to contain and heat the plasma. We have also developed techniques so that materials can withstand the intense heat of the plasma in current experiments.
It is easy to convey the practical metrics that track fusion’s march to commercialization. Chief among them is the fusion power that has been generated in the laboratory: Fusion power generation escalated from milliwatts for microseconds in the 1970s to 10 megawatts of fusion power (at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory) and 16 megawatts for one second (at the Joint European Torus in England) in the 1990s.
A New Chapter in Research
Now the international scientific community is working in unity to construct a massive fusion research facility in France. Called ITER (Latin for “the way”), this plant will generate about 500 megawatts of thermal fusion power for about eight minutes at a time. If this power were converted to electricity, it could power about 150,000 homes. As an experiment, it will allow us to test key science and engineering issues in preparation for fusion power plants that will function continuously.
ITER employs the design known as the “tokamak,” originally a Russian acronym. It involves a doughnut-shaped plasma, confined in a very strong magnetic field, which is partly created by electrical current that flows in the plasma itself.
Though it is designed as a research project, and not intended to be a net producer of electric energy, ITER will produce 10 times more fusion energy than the 50 megawatts needed to heat the plasma. This is a huge scientific step, creating the first “burning plasma,” in which most of the energy used to heat the plasma comes from the fusion reaction itself.
ITER is supported by governments representing half the world’s population: China, the European Union, India, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the U.S. It is a strong international statement about the need for, and promise of, fusion energy.
The Road Forward
From here, the remaining path toward fusion power has two components. First, we must continue research on the tokamak. This means advancing physics and engineering so that we can sustain the plasma in a steady state for months at a time. We will need to develop materials that can withstand an amount of heat equal to one-fifth the heat flux on the surface of the sun for long periods. And we must develop materials that will blanket the reactor core to absorb the neutrons and breed tritium.
The second component on the path to fusion is to develop ideas that enhance fusion’s attractiveness. Four such ideas are:
1) Using computers, optimize fusion reactor designs within the constraints of physics and engineering. Beyond what humans can calculate, these optimized designs produce twisted doughnut shapes that are highly stable and can operate automatically for months on end. They are called “stellarators” in the fusion business.
2) Developing new high-temperature superconducting magnets that can be stronger and smaller than today’s best. That will allow us to build smaller, and likely cheaper, fusion reactors.
3) Using liquid metal, rather than a solid, as the material surrounding the plasma. Liquid metals do not break, offering a possible solution to the immense challenge how a surrounding material might behave when it contacts the plasma.
4) Building systems that contain doughnut-shaped plasmas with no hole in the center, forming a plasma shaped almost like a sphere. Some of these approaches could also function with a weaker magnetic field. These “compact tori” and “low-field” approaches also offer the possibility of reduced size and cost.
Government-sponsored research programs around the world are at work on the elements of both components – and will result in findings that benefit all approaches to fusion energy (as well as our understanding of plasmas in the cosmos and industry). In the past 10 to 15 years, privately funded companies have also joined the effort, particularly in search of compact tori and low-field breakthroughs. Progress is coming and it will bring abundant, clean, safe energy with it.
Famous buy-and-hold billionaire Ron Baron is excited for the future of Tesla, one of his company Baron Capital’s long-standing holdings. Speaking during a taping of CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday, Baron claimed he is confident that great things are coming for and from Tesla in the next 13 years.
“I think that in 2020 we’re going to make from present prices about four times our money. I think in 2025 we can make another triple, and in 2030 it can be another triple,” Baron said. The billionaire investor added, “We have brought shares of Tesla, about 1.6 million shares over a 3½-year period of time. Our average cost is about $208 a share.”
“Forty percent of the electricity in the United States is used by single-family houses. If you put a [Tesla] car in the garage, that car uses 30 percent of the electricity of the house,” he argued. “In order to sell the [electric] cars, you have to … have an increase in power.”
The Tesla Way
Last year, while the SolarCity acquisition was underway, Tesla’s CEO and founder Elon Musk made the same predictions about the company’s valuation. He saw that a combined automative, power storage, and power generation company would lead to a $1 trillion market capitalization. Baron is saying the same things today.
More and more cities are looking toward nature to redefine the urban landscape. Vertical forests are being built in the Chinese city of Nanjing in an effort to combat rampant pollution in the city, and others are already constructed in Italy and Switzerland. Now, Brussels is planning to build three vertical structures using recyclable materials, renewable energy sources, and 30,000 plants to push it toward a more eco-friendly future.
Once a port, then a warehouse, then a train and maritime station, Brussel’s now-abandoned Tour and Taxis site could soon be transformed into an impressive green haven featuring massive, 300-foot-tall structures partially powered by solar panels. The numerous plants that would be seamlessly integrated into the buildings would allow them to absorb 175 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually.
Apart from sprucing up the aesthetics of this site, the vertical forests would provide a mix of residential, commercial, and business spaces anchored on what the firm Vincent Callebaut Architecture calls “innovative, sustainable building principles.”
The entire plan is still up for approval, but should it get the go signal, here’s a peek at what the remarkable project would look like.
Perhaps no other source can generate as much energy as nuclear fusion, the “holy grail” of energy research. Essentially the opposite of nuclear fission, a fusion reaction can provide about four times as much energy as that of fission — one fission event can yield as much as 200 MeV of energy, or about 3.2 ´ 10-11 watt-seconds. In addition to this massive amount of energy, nuclear fusion is also expected to produce very low carbon emissions.
Nuclear fusion, however, remains an extremely volatile reaction. Many scientists have been trying to find ways to control and replicate it in a more manageable setup, and the key to that is developing better nuclear reactors. These reactors need to be capable of stabilizing the extremely hot plasma that’s needed to keep the fusion reaction going.
Stellarators are rare because they are expensive and require very careful planning before they can be built. One notable variable is coil shape, as many different shapes can generate the same magnetic field. In order to help determine which coil shape is best, University of Maryland physicist Matt Landreman introduced an important revision to the most common software tool used in designing stellarators, NESCOIL. He published this new method in the journal Nuclear Fusion.
“Instead of optimizing only the magnetic field shape, this new method considers the complexity of the coil shapes simultaneously. So there is a bit of a tradeoff,” Landreman explained. “It’s a bit like buying a car. You might want the cheapest car, but you also want the safest car. Both features can be at odds with each other, so you have to find a way to meet in the middle.”
Landerman calls his new method Regularized NESCOIL (REGCOIL), It can develop better stellarator coil designs on the first try by taking into account the coil spacing issue in most stellarator designs, as well as the shapes of the magnetic fields themselves. According to Landerman, modeling tests revealed that the designs made by REGCOIL confined hot plasma in a desirable shape that significantly increases the minimum distance between coils. Having extra space between the coils would mean easier access for repairs and additional room for sensors.
Such an innovation has the potential to bring down the cost of and time needed to build new stellarators, which brings the dream of practical nuclear fusion energy closer to reality. “This field is still in the basic research stage, and every new design is totally unique,” Landreman said. “With these incompatible features to balance, there will always be different points where you can decide to strike a compromise. The REGCOIL method allows engineers to examine and model many different points along this spectrum.”
Tesla’s Gigafactory is part and parcel of the company’s overall vision of securing a sustainable future. It’s the key to bringing down the cost of their batteries, the Powerpack and Powerwalls, as well as their mass market electric vehicle, the Model 3. Thus, the Gigafactory is the key to making all of these renewable technologies accessible to the public (and ultimately, bringing an end to fossil fuels).
That said, the details surrounding the kind of battery cell that’s going into production at the plant are still vague. So far, all we know about it is that it will be the cheapest, highest energy density cell available once it hits the market. No other specifics have been revealed.
Once the Gigafactory is fully operational, it is expected to house at least 6,500 employees, but the facility is big enough to actually employ 10,000—all working towards bringing 150 GWh of battery capacity to life by 2020.
If there was ever any doubt that they are well on their way to achieving their target, Tesla says that they already have over 1,000 full-time employees reporting to work at the plant, and they just released images to prove it.
Notably, the employees are working for Tesla alone. This number doesn’t account for the employees from Panasonic, which Tesla recently announced a partnership with in an effort to ramp up battery cell production.
At this point, there is a little argument that Tesla is going to utterly dominate the renewable energy industry. Case in point, Tesla’s Solar Roof Tiles (developed with their recently acquired SolarCity) will be completed and launched in 2017. Additionally, a host of its utility-scale energy storage installations will go online later this year.
2017 should also be the year that Tesla makes good on its Supercharger network expansion, through which they plan to double the number of Superchargers in 2017.
On top of this, recently, Tesla announced a subtle name change that speaks volumes about where Elon Musk plans to take the company. Big picture—it’s not just about cars anymore; in fact, it hasn’t been for a while.
Researchers have discovered a way to make the promising flow battery much more practical. Flow batteries store energy in liquid-filled tanks. Prior to this most recent discovery, flow batteries, after a number of charge-discharge cycles, would suffer from rapid storage capacity degradation.
In order to overcome the degradation hurdle, the researchers from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) modified the structure of molecules in the solution to make them water soluble. This allowed for the electrolytes to be dissolved in neutral water, creating a battery that only loses one percent of its storage capacity every 1000 cycles. According to the official press release, the battery is able to run for ten years with only a minimum amount of upkeep.
Unlike other battery liquids, the solution in this new flow battery is both non-toxic as well as non-corrosive. Spilling it on skin or on the floor causes no injury or property damage.
Cleaner is Closer to Cheaper
Any innovations in energy storage will only continue to help renewable energy to become as, if not more, of a viable power source. The US Department of Energy (DOE) has stated that building a battery with the capacity to store energy for less than $100 per kWh would make clean energy from sources like the sun and wind on par with traditional power plants. Imre Gyuk of the DOE stated, “I expect that efficient, long duration flow batteries will become standard as part of the infrastructure of the electric grid.”
Better batteries are a key component in realizing the full potential of renewable energy. As can be seen with the opening of the first Powerpack station in California, battery storage can help ease the burden of demand on a grid during peak usage times. Developments like this that improve batteries will lead to the use of fewer fossil fuels and decrease overall dependence on environmentally damaging sources of power generation.
First made popular in Asia, 3-in-1 instant coffee makes sense. Instead of adding sugar and cream after its made, just put all three ingredients right in the pack and be done with it. Now, researchers from the University of Oulu in Finland have discovered the 3-in-1 material of renewable energy, so to speak. This one material can simultaneously extract energy from three of the most accessible renewable energy sources at our disposal: sunlight, heat, and movement.
The material is from a family of minerals with a perovskite crystal structure. Perovskites are ferroelectric materials, which means they are filled with tiny electric dipoles similar to the tiny compass needles in a magnet. Accordingly, when ferroelectric materials experience temperature changes, their dipoles misalign and induce an electric current. Electric charge also accumulates depending on the direction in which the dipoles point. Certain regions attract or repel charges when the material is deformed, which also generates current.
Some perovskites are adept as harvesting one or two types of energy, but only one type at a time. However, according to researchers Yang Bai and his colleagues at the University of Oulu, who published their study in the journal Applied Physics Letters, a specific type of perovskite material called KBNNO is able to harness many forms of energy at once.
Powering Your Devices
The researchers saw that KBNNO is quite good at generating electricity from heat and pressure, but it would need to be modified to improve its pyroelectric and piezoelectric properties. “It is possible that all these properties can be tuned to a maximum point,” said Bai. His team is already exploring an improved version of the material by preparing KBNNO with sodium. The team plans to work on a prototype device that can harness multiple forms of energy. With fabrication fairly straightforward, commercialization could be expected within a few years.
As gadgets become more sophisticated, there’s one technology that seems to be left behind: batteries. They really haven’t changed much — as your everyday smartphone experience likely shows you — and most devices still rely on lithium ion variants. That could all change thanks to this new discovery, which could completely eliminate the need for batteries in smaller gadgets. “This will push the development of the Internet of Things and smart cities, where power-consuming sensors and devices can be energy sustainable,” Bai said.
There’s no limit to the ways we could incorporate a multi-energy-harvesting material into our world. Eventually, it could potentially be integrated into traditional solar panels so they could harvest energy when the Sun isn’t shining, make it so you never have to charge your smarphone again, or even help run electric cars.
China has proven that it is, in fact, very serious about its intentions to lessen dependence on coal. According to China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), the country has more than doubled its solar energy production in 2016—making them the biggest producer of solar energy (in terms of capacity) in the world
By the end of last year, China hit 77.42 gigawatts, which generated 66.2 billion kilowatt-hours of power. While significant, the figure is relatively small given China’s massive population. And being the world’s biggest industrial nation, this only accounted for one percent of the country’s total power generation. However, given that China is looking to significantly boost its use of renewable power, that number will hopefully increase in the years to come.
Following NEA’s development plan and energy goals, the country is working towards adding over 110 gigawatts of capacity by 2020. With continued focus and effort, they hope to increase their use of renewable power from 11 percent to 20 percent by 2030.
Transitioning to renewable energy will require a significant investment from China, but it’s an investment that China is clearly ready to make. In fact, the country has already allotted $364 billion (2.5 trillion yuan) towards this vision. Since China is such a large producer with such a massive population, this large step towards sustainability will have a tremendous impact. With the ever-progressing repercussions of climate change upon us, efforts like this are what make a green future possible.
Nuclear fusion is premised on building technology that would replicate the reaction that naturally powers our Sun — two light atoms, in this case, hydrogen, are fused together under extreme temperatures to produce another element, helium.
The process would release vast amounts of clean energy drawn from an almost limitless fuel source, with nearly zero carbon emissions. However, it has yet to be done on a scale that would make it usable. Canadian scientists are hoping to change that, announcing plans to harness and develop nuclear fusion technology so they can deliver a working nuclear fusion plant prototype by 2030.
What they need, however, is for the government to invest in their vision. According to Fusion 2030, a report prepared by the University of Alberta, the University of Saskatchewan, and several companies, the group will need around $125 million to bring nuclear fusion to reality — a relatively minor investment considering the goal is to establish an operational, scalable plant that could soon replace oil and gas.
“There’s an opportunity here … we need to see an investment in research capacity and academia in order to make sure we’re producing the graduates with the skills that can contribute in this field,” Michael Delage, Chief Technology Officer of General Fusion, the second largest private fusion lab in North America, tells CBC News.
The funding isn’t meant to go directly towards General Fusion. Instead, they plan to distribute the investment among several research groups, universities, and organizations that share the same goal. Once the prototype plant is ready, the report asserts that private companies will play a big role in commercializing the technology.
“The technology we are using is an approach that we think has inherent cost advantages to do it,” Delage adds. “Once you build one of these and it begins to become commercially viable, we think we can be competitive with the grid.”
The Future of Nuclear Fusion
It almost seems too good to be true — an energy source that can be drawn from one of the most abundant elements on Earth, at a very low cost, that doesn’t hurt the environment — but in an era when our dependence on fossil fuels is starting to take its toll on the planet, it’s about time we start to put serious thought and investment toward more sustainable alternatives.
The report highlights the potential of nuclear fusion as perhaps the most valuable renewable energy option by virtue of its having the highest energy density of any source, the best energy payback ratio (EPR), and the lowest carbon footprint among all sustainable sources available today.
“The clean energy source is available just about anywhere in the world — you can extract it from water. It’s something that we can build anywhere,” says Delage. “There is so much going on in this field across the world. We really believe by 2030 we’re going to see demonstration plants being built. We’d love to see that in Canada, and we could get there if we start to invest now.”
All things considered, nuclear fusion could indeed be what the world needs to make the definitive switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But it will need both the support of private companies and government organizations to make the technology available at a commercial scale.
It looks like Massachusetts is following in the footsteps of other states with already very aggressive decarbonization goals as state lawmakers have proposed a bill that aims to phase out the use of fossil fuels by 2050. This is on top of the already existing Massachusetts Global Warming Solutions Act, which requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.
Bill SD.1932, dubbed as the 100 Percent Renewable Energy Act, is sponsored by Democratic lawmakers Rep. Sean Garballey, Rep. Marjorie Decker, and Sen. Jamie Eldridge. It sets a clear goal “to steadily transition the commonwealth to 100 percent clean, renewable energy by 2050.”
“This legislation provides a bold step by placing the Commonwealth on a path to a cleaner and more sustainable future,” Garballey said in a statement. “It encourages job creation, protects and sustains our natural resources, reduces our carbon footprint and would benefit the health and well-being of our citizens in immeasurable ways.”
SD.1932 would also increase Massachusetts’ renewable portfolio standard (RPS) — a policy that requires utilities to purchase a minimum amount of their electricity from renewable sources — to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Currently, it has mandated 1,600 MW of offshore wind power and is seeking to set an energy storage goal. Furthermore, the bill also seeks to eliminate fossil fuel use from the heating and transportation sectors.
Relying on Renewables
The bill is also about sending a message. With the White House administration seemingly all too keen on reviving the oil industry, the state of Massachusetts is taking a stand. “As President Donald Trump takes office, this bill sends a clear message to officials in DC: Massachusetts is determined to keep moving forward on clean energy,” said Ben Hellerstein, State Director for Environment Massachusetts.
It’s definitely a step in the right direction with global trends in favor of renewable energy sources, which are increasingly becoming cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts. But aside from this, the push for renewable energy can also bring jobs into Massachusetts. As a U.S. Department of Energy report released earlier this year showed, solar energy alone provided 374,000 jobs from 2015-2016, more than all fossil fuels combined.
Precisely because of this, SD.1932 includes a provision about job generation:
The [council for clean energy workforce development] shall identify the employment potential of the energy efficiency and renewable energy industry and the skills and training needed for workers in those fields, and make recommendations to the governor and the general court for policies to promote employment growth and access to jobs.
As things shift on a federal level, Massachusetts remains firm in its commitment to fight climate change. According to Garballey, “[This bill] signals to the country our commitment to long-term solutions in meeting the very real challenges of climate change, and lights the way for similar efforts across the nation.”
Some very exciting numbers concerning renewable energy have just been revealed in a recent jobs report. According to the report, which was released by the United States’ Department of Energy, more people in the Electric Power Generation sector are employed by solar power than oil, gas, or coal power generation combined.
The report shows that from 2015 to 2016, solar energy employed 374,000 people, while all of the fossil fuels combined only accounted for 187,117 employees. This translates to 43 and 22 percent of the electric power workforce, respectively. The report states, “Proportionally, solar employment accounts for the largest share of workers in the Electric Power Generation sector. This is largely due to the construction related to the significant build out of new solar generation capacity.”
The prospects of future of job growth in the renewable portion of the energy sector adds to the current promise of the technology. Electricity generation from solar power has increased by over 5,000 percent between 2006 and September 2016. Last year alone saw an increase of 191 percent in new solar installations. Comparatively, natural gas managed an increase of just 33 percent during that same 10 year period, while coal saw a dramatic decline of 53 percent. As the report says, “These shifts in electric generation source are mirrored in the sector’s changing employment profile, as the share of natural gas, solar, and wind workers increases, while coal mining and other related employment is declining.”
Economics Meets the Environment
One of the major driving forces behind the proliferation of solar power and other renewable sources of energy generation is that advancements in the necessary technology have made it cheaper to generate from renewable sources. Now, even if it’s just due to a concern for the bottom line, companies are beginning to come around to sustainable energy. Solar power has even recently become the cheapest source of new energy.
As stated, new installations of solar power make up a large portion of the jobs in solar energy. This is great news as it is possible that the United States could get 25 percent of its total energy needs just from rooftop solar panel installations. This is even without the help of solar farms. As pointed out by the Environmental Defense Fund in a posting with Forbes, these energy jobs are safe from outsourcing due to the on-site nature of jobs made available by renewables. They also add that these jobs pay nearly $5,000 above the national median wage.
Now that big business is beginning to see the light, there is a lot of momentum in clean energy. While many may see the environmental benefit of investing in renewable power, all can appreciate a new opportunity to make and save a lot of money.
Regular readers of Futurism probably understand, by now, what it means when the word “smart” is affixed to any common piece of technology — it means a serious upgrade, most likely with internet connectivity, the ability to process huge amounts of data, and probably even an artificial intelligence (AI) program of some kind. For example, a telephone lets you communicate with someone across great distances. A smartphone, on the other hand, lets you plug into the world’s nervous system. One is a useful tool. The other is an indispensable facet of modern life.
Now, if that’s what smart technology can do to a phone, imagine what it can do to an entire city. It’s this dream — of giving our huge urban areas a technological upgrade — that’s being pursued by research teams around the country. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is even throwing its weight behind the effort, shelling out funding through its Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP) project. The project’s goal is to create “resilient complex adaptive systems” for critical infrastructure — in other words, “smart cities” that are more like living organisms than the sprawling congeries of inert buildings and disconnected systems that they are today.
Narayan B. Madayam, who chairs the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rutgers University, already has a mental blueprint of what a future smart city will look like. “A smart city is where every device, every entity, and every object can connect for whatever the needs,” he explains. “Wireless connectivity is the glue that holds everything together, and the bottom line is to improve the quality of life in cities and quality of the planet.”
Mandayam is part of a multidisciplinary research team formed by Rutgers to tackle the smart city problem. He’s joined by Janne Lindqvist, an expert on human-computer interaction, and Arnold Glass, professor of cognitive psychology at the School of Arts and Sciences. And if that seems like a surprising trinity of scientific disciplines for research into smart cities, well, perhaps it shouldn’t.
The challenge of building a smart city far surpasses the “simple” engineering obstacles to creating a fully connected urban environment. To employ a biological analogy, it’s more like genetic engineering than mechanical engineering, and part of the solution will require rewriting a city’s DNA — that is, its people.
The engineering obstacles certainly are formidable. Any smart city worth its salt will possess a fully integrated infrastructure, with smart transportation services (including autonomous vehicles), internet and communication systems, water services, and electrical and power grids all connected and unified. Such a massive, city-wide system will undoubtedly require significant upgrades in infrastructural computing power just to process the massive amounts of raw data. New algorithms and AI programs will each have their roles to play, and — like something out of an old science fiction novel — the largest cities may really come to have something like a “central computer,” either distributed or localized.
Part of the challenge will also be creating multiply redundant systems, with numerous backups should one system fail, and also the ability to isolate failures and prevent them from spreading. This will be crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by natural disasters (storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even volcanic eruptions) and, of course, the ubiquitous menace of malicious human activity (war, terrorism, cyberattacks, etc.). The corollary is obvious: A more connected city is one that’s more vulnerable to attack. That’s a thorny issue that the designers of our future smart cities must also someday confront.
But psychology will also have a surprisingly important role in the design and implementation of any smart city. It’s necessary to understand the mentality of the urban crowd. How do people move about? How do they react in stressful situations? What is their response to certain policies? No question, there’s something a little dehumanizing about it all — if human behavior is reduced to simple mathematics, then what are human beings save a collection of predictable, living molecules floating about in a big urban beaker?
Moreover, cognitive psychology is envisioned as having an active part to play — influencing, rather than just categorizing, human behavior. It will be used as a tool to guide people to make “better,” more sustainable choices and nudge them into accepting a “better” city. But all that has an ill taste to it, since “better” is a creature of the moment, apt to change with changing times. Really, it seems like it could be a form of scientifically applied propaganda, and that has always produced unsavory results, no matter how laudable the original intention.
This is a new frontier for city planners, and one they’ll have to traverse with the utmost caution.
The City of the Future
So what will a “smart city” actually look like? This is the point where a little informed imagination may help us wrap our minds around the subject. The future smart city will employ a number of purpose-built AI programs and machine-learning algorithms to process the vast amounts of incoming “sensory” data. These programs will leverage rapid improvements in computing and neural networks in the coming decades. In fact, smart cities may witness the birth of the first truly “human-scale” AIs capable of reactive and independent cognition.
Sensors — whether cameras, acoustic networks, and other wireless systems — will communicate information about the health and status of the city and its infrastructure. Geostationary and other satellites and orbital platforms will monitor the city’s atmosphere, pollution levels, weather systems, and local environment across the EM spectrum, with particular attention paid to potential threats from earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.
Sufficient energy to power our smart city will be generated from clean, renewable sources — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps even fusion further down the road — with each power system compartmentalized for quick isolation and outfitted with robust backup systems in case of failure. Urban “stack farms” will put vertical building space to efficient use in producing food for the city’s population, conferring on the smart city an unheard of degree of agricultural autarky. Integrated transportation systems, meanwhile, will reduce traffic congestion and strongly limit pollution.
These are just a few of the more notable features of the future smart city. With over half of the human species huddling together in dense urban areas, it’s inevitable that our cities will need to be upgraded. Cities of the future will be less defined by their skylines and more so by the sophistication of their “smarts.”
“To make a smart city happen, a tremendous amount of investment in infrastructure will be needed, but the benefits will likely far outweigh the costs,” Mandayam concludes.
The article itself is something of an encomium for the president’s energy policy during the last eight years, but it succinctly argues a point that has already made headlines: namely, his belief that global technological advances and market forces—to say nothing of cultural and social shifts—have imparted an irreversible momentum to the trend toward clean energy.
“[T]he mounting economic and scientific evidence,” President Obama writes, “leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow.”
It’s an important argument, with far-reaching implications for the future, and it bears a closer examination.
A New Energy Economy
The president contends that CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the energy sector have finally been “decoupled” from economic growth; in other words, that societies are no longer faced with the insupportable dilemma of having to accept economic decline and lower standards of living in order to reduce emissions. This economic reality has formed the greatest barrier to the self-imposition of limits on carbon emissions.
The use of fossil fuels has always been predicated on their cheapness and widespread availability—a low-cost means of fueling economic growth. But it seems now that emissions can remain flat while the global economy continues to grow, a historic turning-point in the economics of renewable energy. Fossil fuels will remain a cheap source of energy for a while yet; but they’re not inexhaustible, and access to them is vulnerable to the fickle winds of geopolitics, which makes them highly unattractive as a future energy source.
All of this serves to underscore the president’s point: ineluctable market forces are dictating the future energy economy, largely because technology is rewriting the terms of the equation.
Consider this: in the 20th Century, access to cheap fossil fuels was crucial to keep the wheels of industry spinning, to inject lifeblood into burgeoning economies, to power vehicle traffic and logistics, and to supply power to huge cities and rural communities alike. Now, it’s possible for a home to be almost entirely separate from the grid, powered by solar panels, and yet still have access to all the amenities associated with 21st Century living. So the trend has been from energy centralization to decentralization—a future without a vulnerable power grid, and without energy companies monopolizing access to power.
The attraction here is irresistible, and we can only expect further improvements and innovations as consumer demand for energy independence increases; falling prices for solar, battery, and electric car technology will also accelerate the evolution away from fossil fuels. At first, the new technologies—whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or tidal—will complement conventional sources of energy; but as investment increases and costs decrease, they will slowly supplant carbon-based energies and (hopefully) pave the way for a new energy economy of mixed renewable and fusion power by midcentury.
An International Effort
“It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends,” President Obama writes in his article.
And the man’s got a point. It’s likely that energy—how to acquire it, produce it, manufacture it and do so as cheaply as possible—is going to be a major issue in the coming century; perhaps it will even be the defining issue. “[C]ountries and their businesses are moving forward,” the president observes, “seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race.”
Nations like Germany and Costa Rica have already proven that it’s possible to run entirely on renewable energy, and we can expect more of the same in the coming decades.
So it makes sense for our country to lead in the 21st Century’s “Scramble for Energy.” With all its intellectual and financial capital, together with the sizable technological lead it already possesses, the United States is poised to become the Saudi Arabia of the new energy economy.
The president concludes his analysis on a hopeful note: “Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
And it seems that, between current market forces and technological advances, this will largely be the case for the foreseeable future—irrespective of administrative policy in this or any other country.
The transition from one year to the next is always a little uncertain – an uneasy blend of anxiety and optimism, it’s also a time of retrospection, introspection, and even a little tentative prognostication. And since the latter is our stock-in-trade at Futurism, we believe now is the perfect time to look ahead at what 2017 has in store for us.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the coming year promises to revolutionize our energy future.
2017 may well be the year that some of the most promising emerging energy markets…well, emerge. Foremost among these is Africa, where we’ve seen the spread of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar startups—such as PEGAfrica—which provide solar arrays to households in West Africa on credit.
The business model obviates the need for a secure energy infrastructure by combining solar photovoltaics (PV) with energy storage and mobile pay technology—a simple, effective plan for supplying electricity where it’s most needed. PAYG solar is spreading through Africa like wildfire and 2017 promises to see more of it, with new startups getting in on the act, and new technologies refining the business model. Africa could be the new energy frontier, with a renewable energy infrastructure that might just become the envy of the world.
Major Corporations Go Green
If the use of renewable energy is to become economically competitive, then it’s incumbent on the largest energy consumers to commit to its development and consistent use—and this is just what we’re beginning to see the major Silicon Valley tech corporations start to do. Google has announced that it plans for all of its data centers to be powered by renewables no later than 2017. Facebook’s targets are more modest, but its newest data center—set to be constructed this year in Los Lunas, New Mexico—will receive 100 percent of its power from renewable energy.
All of this translates into a massive new injection of capital investment in renewable energy technology, which could make 2017 the tipping point for innovation and affordability as major energy companies and startups alike scramble to fill this huge unmet need. At the same time, the aviation giants are bankrolling something of a green revolution of their own—this time involving the use of renewable jet fuels.
Meanwhile, the coming year will see a number of new innovations in the evolution of cleaner, more efficient energy systems as scientists and startups leverage massive national investments in research and development to pioneer novel technologies.
And let’s not leave out fusion research: 2017 could be the year of remarkable new breakthroughs in fusion energy, with startups like General Fusion and Tri Alpha attempting to achieve on a (comparative) shoestring what lavishly funded behemoths like the ITER Project have failed to do.
The Fly in the Ointment
Extrapolating 2017 from the developments in 2016 is all very well and good; but when it comes to forecasting the future, it really boils down to the unanticipated. And there are many variables that could change the equation—perhaps none more important than the incoming Trump administration.
President-elect Trump has signaled a desire to shift the country’s energy policy away from the Obama administration’s commitment to renewable energy—in fact, reinvigorating the fossil fuel industry, particularly coal, was a major cornerstone of his campaign. But if his pledge to upgrade the country’s infrastructure is to bear fruit, it will have to include some degree of renewables, since the increasing efficiency and affordability of clean energy is making it more economically attractive. Ironically, 2017 may see tremendous private and public investment in alternative forms of energy, especially if Trump’s promise to wean the country off its OPEC dependency (holding one’s breath is not advised) is to have any chance of success.
And then there’s the Tesla wildcard—by which we mean that Elon Musk could change the rules of the game at any moment. Last year’s introduction of the Tesla “energy ecosystem” opened up the possibility of a future in which every home becomes a power plant; and we can only expect more similar developments in 2017. The cliché “game-changer” was coined for people just like Musk; look to see him further justify that sobriquet in the coming year.
Last year was full of surprises—some anticipated, others decidedly not. 2017 promises to be no different. Market forces and accelerating research and investment means the avalanche in disruptive new energy technologies will continue in the new year; we clever little apes will persist in finding extraordinary new ways to eke out more energy to power our thirsty civilization.
So stay tuned to Futurism—we’ve got everything hungry minds need to survive 2017.
“The promise of quasi-infinite and free energy is here,” Lepercq declares, in an interview with Bloomberg. His arguments aren’t based on any environmental concern. Rather, he takes the perspective of price.
“Solar, battery storage, electrical and hydrogen vehicles, and connected devices are in a ‘J’ curve,” Lepercq said. “Hydrogen is the missing link in a 100 percent renewable-energy system, but technological bricks already exist.” Lepercq believes that the price of solar power will probably fall below $10 per megawatt-hour (roughly 1¢/kWh) in the world’s sunniest places.
As a consequence of the rise of renewables, oil prices are expected to plummet. “Even if oil demand continues to climb until 2025, its price could drop to $10 if markets anticipate a significant fall in demand,” he said.
“As carmakers offer more electrical vehicles with a range exceeding 500 kilometers, charging stations being progressively deployed and more cities banning gasoline and diesel cars, a shift will progressively take place,” Lepercq added.
Indeed, gone are the days when people viewed renewable energy sources as too expensive. Instead, we are moving away from conventional coal-based sources, which could even be more expensive in the future.
Solar Power Shines
Lepercq isn’t alone in seeing the price potential of renewables, particularly solar energy. The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently published a report showing how solar power now costs cheaper than fossil fuels.
[R]enewable energy technology, especially solar and wind, has made exponential gains in efficiency in recent years, enough to achieve economic competitiveness and, in an increasing number of cases, grid parity. For instance, the unsubsidized, levellized cost of electricity (LCOE) for utility scale solar photovoltaic, which was highly uncompetitive only five years ago, has declined at a 20% compounded annual rate, making it not only viable but also more attractive than coal in a wide range of countries.
When it comes to obtaining new energy, solar energy now costs less than fossil fuels, according to a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF). Data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) also show decreased prices, with the mean price of solar power in about 60 countries dropping to $1.65 million per megawatt, closely followed by wind at $1.66 million per megawatt.
Michael Drexler, Head of Long Term Investing, Infrastructure and Development at the World Economic Forum, found the downturn in prices to be an encouraging sign.
“Renewable energy has reached a tipping point—it now constitutes the best chance to reverse global warming. Solar and wind have just become very competitive, and costs continue to fall. It is not only a commercially viable option, but an outright compelling investment opportunity with long-term, stable, inflation-protected returns.”
The US Energy Information Administration estimated that roughly 9.5 gigawatts of solar capacity was added to the country’s grid, making it the year’s top energy source. More and more households and companies are also going solar, adding 1.7 gigawatts of installed capacity.
“Solar investment has gone from nothing…five years ago to quite a lot,” said Ethan Zindler, analyst for BNEF in an interview at Bloomberg.
Decreases in price could be attributed to a large number of factors, like falling installation and equipment costs, new business ideas, and a rise in cleaner energy policies. A noticeable upshot in investment for solar energy undoubtedly helped, with China putting in a whopping $103 billion—more than that of the US, the UK, and Japan combined. Though it’s still not up to the agreed $1 trillion at the Paris accords, we may well be on our way.
A Brighter Tomorrow
Incredible milestones have been set this year, particularly in developing countries. Energy company SolarPack closed a deal to offer solar power in Chile for just $29.1 per megawatt-hour, which is about 60% cheaper than using a new natural gas plant.
BNEF chairman Michael Liebrich believes in the future of greener energy sources. “Renewables are robustly entering the era of undercutting [fossil fuels].”
Of course, the use of dirty energy will not stop just because other forms are cheaper in some parts of the world, but the promise here lies in the gradual impact that reports like those the WEF and the BNEF make: that humanity is not doomed to use fossil fuels, and that cleaner, alternative energy sources are actually viable.
In the next decade or so, the price of solar energy is expected to fall to about half of what it costs to generate electricity from coal. And all these estimations reck nothing of the possibilities of futuristic energy sources that are still in research and development, and are yet far over the horizon. Nuclear fusion, for instance, would certainly change the rules of the game, though it is proving to be rather more difficult of attainment than previously thought; other conceivable power technology, such as space-based solar energy, are equally remote, though promising.
So this exciting new research, combined with more energy-efficient tech and dedicated government policies, will perhaps shift our path from a future of pollution and depleted resources, to one with fresh air, cleaner surroundings, and the promise of unlimited energy.
Tourouvre-au-Perche in Normandy, France is a young, little municipality established just January of this year. The 93.76 km2 (36.20 mile2) town of 3,400 residents will celebrate its anniversary under street lights powered by an inventive technology program.
This Wednesday, French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal opened a kilometer-long solar panel road called Wattway in Tourouvre-au-Perche. The 2,800 square meters (3,348 square yards) of solar panels cost about $5.2 million and took five years to produce. In order to withstand traffic, the panels are coated with a clear silicon resin, and they were tested at four carparks across the country before installation.
France is working with Colas, the solar road’s manufacturer, on the possibility of installing these panels along another 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) of French road. Before that could happen, however, Colas would need to figure out how costs could be lowered for mass production.
It’s Expensive, but Does It Work?
People are becoming more creative in generating clean and renewable energy, and this idea is definitely outside the box. However, it’s also remarkably expensive and, according to some experts, likely won’t work as expected. To that end, critics have been quick to voice their disapproval of this solar panel road idea.
“It is, without a doubt, a technical advance, but in order to develop renewables there are other priorities [that are greater than] a gadget of which we are more certain of the fact that it is very expensive than the fact that it works,” says VP of Network for Energetic Transition (CLER) Marc Jedliczka, speaking to LeMonde. Even a casual look at the tech reveals some serious issues, namely, that the road panels aren’t expected to be efficient because they are installed flat, rather than following the usual angled layout of ordinary solar panels.
Royal says that the project is worth a shot, though, as “it takes advantage of large swathes of road infrastructure already in use…to produce electricity without taking up new real estate.” France has about one million kilometers (621,371 miles) of roads in total, so scaling up could result in some big energy creation…but unless our technology seriously advances, it will be some pretty inefficient energy generation.
Yet, it should be remembered that science works by testing — trial and error — until definitive answers are reached, which is why France has decided to try and see if it is possible to make these roads work in some way, even if they don’t initially seem too promising. “We have to look at the cost, the production [of electricity] and its lifespan. For now, I don’t have the answers,” comments Jean-Louis Bal, president of renewable energy union SER.
Of course, some might argue that those tests needn’t be as expensive as these solar panel roads, but when it comes to the potential of ushering in a future of efficient and clean energy, what cost is too high?
This is a question that is currently the focus of most climate change conversations.
Sin City is setting the benchmark for sustainability in the U.S. with the announcement that its city government is now powered entirely by renewable energy.
When a large solar array, Boulder Solar 1, came online on December 12, Las Vegas was able to purchase the amount of carbon-free electricity it needed to power all of its buildings, facilities, and streetlights, according to Quartz. The city is now drawing power from a mix of hydroelectric turbines, including the Hoover Dam, as well as solar panels.
The total shift to renewable energy was a goal that city officials have been working toward for the better part of a decade. Their vision took a giant leap forward last year when Las Vegas struck a deal with NV Energy to provide power for the city’s main facilities using clean energy sources. In total, this transition to renewable energy is estimated to save the city around $5 million per year in energy spending, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
World Leaders in Sustainability
Mayor Carolyn Goodman is correct in her assessment that this milestone pegs Las Vegas as a “world leader in sustainability,” but that’s not to say that the city is alone in its efforts to push for green initiatives in an era of global climate change.
The smaller city of Burlington, Vermont has been recognized for being the first in the country to shift its entire energy supply from fossil fuels to a combination of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power sources. In 2015, Aspen, Colorado was also able to source all of its energy needs through renewable means. Major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Phoenix have openly declared their commitment to push for green initiatives, noting that “the cost of prevention pales in comparison to [the] cost of inaction, in terms of dollars, property, and human life.”
Outside the U.S., countries have made equally notable strides toward green energy. For example, Britain has pledged to close its remaining eight coal-fired power plants to make way for renewables by 2025. Spain is already producing enough wind energy to power millions of homes every day and is optimistic about the possibility that wind power could eventually supply all of its energy needs. And proving that it is possible to power a whole country using only renewable energy sources, Costa Rica has managed to run for over two months on hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, and solar power alone.
In 2011, students across the United States launched a movement urging companies and individuals to pull their investments in the fossil fuel industry. While that was then seen as little more than an insignificant and harmless way to stand up for the environment, the succeeding years are beginning to prove this assumption wrong as the fossil fuel industry’s bottom line faces its biggest threat ever.
By this time last year, investors holding more than $2.6 trillion worth of assets pledge to pull them from the fossil fuel industry. Over the last 15 months, investors holding double that amount have joined them in pledging to pull their money from the industry.
The Divest Invest Initiative, a campaign propelling a movement for individuals to withdraw investments from the fossil fuel industry in favor of clean energy, has gathered almost $5.2 trillion in divestment pledges from 688 institutions and 58,399 individuals from 76 countries as of December 12. This is a giant leap up from the $52 billion that had been removed by investors as of September 2014.
Making Clean Energy Truly Clean
In 2013, the fossil fuel industry made $331 billion in profits in the US and Canada alone — if it were a country, it would rank 36th in global GDP. A white paper from Bloomberg pegs stock market values at nearly $5 trillion, making fossil fuel one of the world’s largest asset classes.
Despite this, the industry receives a lot of money in subsidies from the government. Based on International Monetary Fund (IMF) data, the fossil fuel industry’s subsidies are a larger percent of the global GDP than those received by the healthcare industry. Vice calculated that “$10 million every minute of the year goes to keeping fossil fuel prices low and demand high for the benefit of the most profitable industry in history.”
Investors “voting” in the language of money can have a big impact on how quickly the world turns away from fossil fuels in favor of renewable alternatives. However, simply using renewables isn’t enough. Carbon emissions as by-products of the processes involved in generating these supposedly clean renewables still contribute to our greenhouse gases.
As the world moves toward more responsible energy generation options, new technologies are emerging that will make renewable energy cheaper and more efficient. Perhaps the next step is doing the research necessary to perfect the processes and make “clean energy” truly as clean as possible.
While renewable energy continues to be more expensive in countries where coal and fossil fuels remain dominant, emerging projects elsewhere have managed to produce renewable electricity at lower costs. The Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) notes in a year-end assessment that solar power is now around half the price of coal and gas, making it cheaper than wind energy, and ultimately the cheapest form of new electricity.
Solar power has reached record-low costs in the past. The difference is that past instances were achieved in isolated projects, whereas now we’re talking large-scale implementation.
As more and more renewable energy projects reach completion, costs are expected to keep plummeting. In its long-term forecast, BNEF predicts that, while coal and gas costs will stay low, renewables will still do better and will be the cheapest in many countries between now and 2040. Liebrich also says these favorable developments will continue regardless of subsidies: “renewable energy will beat any other technology in most of the world without subsidies.”
“Political Earthquakes” Ahead
BNEF attributes the huge drop in costs to emerging markets, particularly in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, South Africa, and India. China was also in the lead for deploying solar quickly, and assisting other countries in similar projects.
As clean energy sources progress, in a few years clean energy sources could be the best (and possibly the only) option in terms of performance, environmental preservation, and cost. Recent developments that hold promise include the Crescent Dunes project which allows harnessing of solar power even at night. Such projects may just make solar power available even to areas where solar power is considered an unreliable source. Commercial off-shore wind farms such as the one recently opened in the US might also make clean energy a viable option.
Liebrich notes, however, that rocky times may be ahead. More “political earthquakes” are expected next year, just as it was predicted that 2016 would be “sunny, with a hint of Götterdämmerung.”
“We were not wrong. As it turned out, 2016 delivered more than just a hint of Götterdämmerung, it delivered the complete Wagnerian Ring Cycle, in political terms at least.”
Every day, that great big ball of nuclear reaction in the sky that we call the Sun graciously sends enough energy to Earth to fulfill all of our power needs ten times over. Sadly, we humans are not yet able to harness all this power as efficiently as other organisms on our planet.
While we have a long way to go before we can even begin to compete with photosynthesis, we are making progress. A new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that 25 percent of the United States’ energy needs could be filled by rooftop solar installations alone.
Not every rooftop is ideal for solar paneling, and a combination of many factors determine how much electricity any given rooftop can generate. These factors include average sunlight of the area, as well as how much of that sunlight is allowed to reach the roof, uninhibited by pesky tall buildings, trees, or other shade-throwing structures.
Using this knowledge, the researchers at NREL studied a plethora of data to determine what percentage of rooftops would prove suitable for solar electricity generation. The study concluded that the U.S.’s suitable rooftops could collectively generate 1,118 gigawatts (GW) of power, enough to meet a quarter of our needs.
Currently in the U.S., solar power accounts for much less than one percent of total energy consumed. A few other renewable sources such as wind, geothermal, and hydroelectricity account for only a sliver more of our total clean energy consumption. Despite progress in clean energy solutions, more than 81 percent of the energy needs of the country are still met by climate-damaging non-renewable sources.
Recently, there has been a push to promote solar energy usage, particularly as an alternative to coal. The technology necessary to harness solar power is becoming much cheaper, which is going to make shifting from these dangerous fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives not only smart in terms of the environment, but also our wallets.
With the green revolution in full swing, many institutions are pledging to fully rely on renewable energy. Nations like Costa Rica and Spain have already sourced most of their energy from renewables, or are pledging to do so in the near future.
That’s no small promise. While Google hasn’t really been too public on its energy use, it has revealed that it bought 5.7 terawatt hours (TWh) of renewable electricity in 2015, and that was just 44 percent of its power needs.
But this new promise doesn’t really mean that all its centers will be directly powered by renewables. They’ll still get power from a power company, whose electricity source still includes fossil fuels. What the company does is match the amount of electricity it buys from renewable sources with the amount of energy it consumes.
Given that the tech industry does account for approximately two percent of all greenhouse gas emissions, enticing companies to go green will mean a lot. Google’s pledge will only serve to motivate them further towards this path.