Renewable energy faces huge obstacles—not just from fossil fuel companies, but also the ongoing problem of energy storage. Here’s three technologies that could break through the barriers
The risk that climate change brings to global business and financial markets is nearly as great as the risk that it brings to the planet itself—and the evolving renewable energy sector could play a critical factor in restoring balance to the global economy and ecosystem. The transition to a low-carbon economy could yield profound economic growth, and facilitate prosperity for all.
However, in spite of the great potential and even greater need for a shift toward renewable energy, the prospect has been met with resistance from the fossil fuel industry. The Guardian reports that at the recent UN Climate Summit, fossil fuels still held predominance:
While $200bn funding for low-carbon projects was pledged by a group of financial institutions, elsewhere fossil fuels were alive and well. Roland Busch, chief executive of the infrastructure sector at Siemens, the industrial multinational, said any notion of pulling out of fossil fuels would be “really long term”, and refused to put a date on when that might be, saying instead that fossil fuels such as coal were still needed as a back-up to renewable energy.
This comes as no surprise. Only a couple weeks earlier, The Guardian had published an excerpt from Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, in which she wrote, “We are stuck, because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe–and benefit the vast majority–are threatening to an elite minority with a stranglehold over our economy, political process and media.”
One of the greatest obstacles that we face in getting renewable energy considered a viable solution is the issue of energy storage.
“The real game changing technology is energy storage,” said Kandeh K. Yumkella, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All, who served on a panel on energy an environment at the recent Blouin Creative Leadership Summit. “If we are able to improve its efficiency and reduce costs, we would also challenge the centralized power production philosophy.”
Listed below are three recent developments in energy harvesting and storage that have the potential to advance the renewable energy sector:
1. A New Efficient Way of Harvesting Solar Power
Scientists at the Laboratory of Photonics and Interfaces Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne have developed a new and highly efficient means of producing hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water. By combining a pair of solar cells made with the Earth-abundant mineral perovskite and low cost electrodes, the scientists achieved a 12.3% conversion efficiency from solar energy to hydrogen. This figure is a record in using Earth-abundant materials as opposed to rare metals.
“Both the perovskite used in the cells and the nickel and iron catalysts making up the electrodes require resources that are abundant on Earth and that are also cheap,” explained Jingshan Luo, one of the researchers. “However, our electrodes work just as well as the expensive platinum-based models customarily used.”
And the conversion of solar energy into hydrogen makes its storage possible, addressing one of the greatest disadvantages renewable energy has faced—that it is is required to be used at the time it is produced.
“Once you have hydrogen, you store it in a bottle and you can do with it whatever you want to, whenever you want it,” said Michael Grätzel, who led the research team. The gas can then be burned in an a broiler or engine, releasing only water vapor, or it can be passed into a fuel cell to generate electricity on demand.
Grätzel also promises that the 12.3% conversion efficiency “will soon get even higher.”
2. Battery Made of Alfalfa and Pine Resin
Researchers at Uppsala University in Sweden have recently discovered an alternative to the commonly used lithium batteries, which are efficient but carry with them a number of resource and environmental problems. By using materials from alfalfa and pine resin, the Uppsala research team has developed an entirely new concept of the battery. Based on recovery and renewable biological material, their battery has an energy content that corresponds to current lithium-ion batteries.
Daniel Brandell, one of the researchers, said:
“We think our discovery can open several doors to more environment-friendly, energy-efficient solutions for the batteries of the future… The use of organic materials from renewable sources makes it possible to solve several of the problems that would arise from a huge rise in the use of lithium batteries. But above all, it’s a major step forward that, to a high degree and in a simple, environment-friendly way, the lithium from these batteries can be recovered. These solutions are also potentially very cost-effective.”
3. All-Liquid Battery at MIT
Researchers at MIT have made improvements to a liquid battery system which could result in renewable energy sources competing with conventional power plants.
David Sadoway and colleagues have already founded a company to produce electrical-grid-scale liquid batteries that they previously developed. But their new formula is more efficient and less expensive to produce. And Sadoway says that the liquid batteries can be produced anywhere and at any size, which means they could potentially become an alternative to current utility-scale electrical storage.
From MIT News:
Currently, the only widely used system for utility-scale storage of electricity is pumped hydro, in which water is pumped uphill to a storage reservoir when excess power is available, and then flows back down through a turbine to generate power when it is needed. Such systems can be used to match the intermittent production of power from irregular sources, such as wind and solar power, with variations in demand. Because of inevitable losses from the friction in pumps and turbines, such systems return about 70 percent of the power that is put into them (which is called the “round-trip efficiency”).
Sadoway says his team’s new liquid-battery system can already deliver the same 70 percent efficiency, and with further refinements may be able to do better. And unlike pumped hydro systems — which are only feasible in locations with sufficient water and an available hillside — the liquid batteries could be built virtually anywhere, and at virtually any size. “The fact that we don’t need a mountain, and we don’t need lots of water, could give us a decisive advantage,” Sadoway says.
Robert Metcalfe, professor of innovation at the University of Texas at Austin, called Sadoway’s development “very promising.”
It may be a while before the UN is able to reach a reasonable consensus about renewable energy, and even longer before corporations accept social responsibilities. Advances like the ones listed above show that the market for renewable energy is growing, and could potentially lead to lucrative alternatives to fossil fuels. These are small steps that could lead to great strides.
“The Internet gave us cheap and clean connectivity using many kinds of digital storage,” said Metcalfe. “Similarly, we will solve cheap and clean energy with many kinds of storage. Energy storage will absorb the increasing randomness of energy supply and demand, shaving peaks, increasing availability, improving efficiency, lowering costs.”