We’ve only got one planet, so it’s important that we look after it, right? Yet, while it’s natural to be concerned about the impact of climate change there is also hope in the quest to build a cleaner world.
Innovations in the field of renewable energy are paving the way for a brighter future as we wean ourselves off a reliance on fossil fuels. If the pace continues – and politicians support the growth of green energy – then some experts even think the US could produce 80 per cent of its own electricity through renewables by 2050.
The political momentum gathered pace in Paris last year, with an agreement reached between nations to limit their emissions and keep global temperatures ‘well below’ 2C (3.6F) above pre-industrial times. While renewables aren’t the only solution to this, they’re a huge part of the drive to protect the planet.
So, what’s the technology that could lead to this greener future? Here we take a look at the future of renewable energy…
What’s the picture? Wind power has benefitted from a major investment in recent years. Currently, according to the American Wind Energy Association, there are more than 1,000 utility-scale wind projects – representing 84,405 megawatts (MW) and more than 52,000 wind turbines – installed across 41 US states plus Puerto Rico and Guam. On top of that there are more than 500 wind-manufacturing facilities in the country too. Only China produces more renewable energy from wind power currently, with Germany in third, Spain fourth and India the fifth-highest producer.
What’s next? The latest innovations in wind energy are all about taking this on to the next level. From drones that can generate power as they deliver goods to new shapes and designs for wind turbines that will be able to maximize energy capture through to robust coatings to protect turbines so they can last longer – innovations here are helping to make the production of turbines much more efficient. We should expect to see an increase in performance quality for this sector – as well as new variations on the traditional turbine structures seen on many skylines in the past few years.
What’s the picture? While wind power has been harnessed quite well, tapping into the power of the seas has lagged behind in comparison. The issue here isn’t so much the technology but the cost. We know how to use the power of the waves to generate energy, but are yet to come up with a satisfactory way of doing so in a cost-effective manner. Estimates suggest that electricity produced from tidal power can cost between two and nine times the amount of that made from wind power. There are also concerns over the environmental impact of constructing big tidal barrages – and the potential that this might be counterproductive. That said, big tidal power plants are found in South Korea, the UK, France and Canada and are able to generate large amounts of energy by using the power of the seas.
What’s next? Companies across the globe are currently looking to take a lead in delivering tidal power production in a cost-effective way. The company/companies that manage this could really earn themselves big bucks and the fact that there’s an estimated 120GW a year of energy waiting to be used is the sort of challenge that scientists surely can’t turn down. GE’s Paimpol-Bréhat Tidal Array looks a decent bet as a blueprint for others to follow in coming years.
What’s the picture? Soaking up the sun’s rays to generate power has long been a popular form of renewable energy – with panels a common addition to many buildings. From individuals strapping them to their homes to large solar farms, solar power has rapidly grown in use in recent years. There has been a particular growth in China in the last couple of years, with the country installing more than 34 gigawatts of solar capacity in 2016 – more than double the figure for the US and about half of the entire worldwide figure.
What’s next? Solar panels might be popular, but they could be much more efficient. Recently, scientists hailed the advent of a mineral coating called a perovskite layer, which can be applied to existing solar panels and vastly boost the efficiency. Others believe that Mother Nature can inspire the better capture of solar energy, by learning lessons from photosynthesis. These ingenious solutions could have a massive impact on solar energy production by boosting the efficiency of panels.
What’s the picture? Imagine if we could generate energy just through walking, running and driving around? The technology exists, but has largely manifested itself in small, one-off projects such as speed bumps, merry-go-rounds or a walkway at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
What’s next? The challenge now is to move this on from clever experiments to make this more widespread and effective as a form of energy generation. The speed bump example, for instance, is problematic because artificially slowing vehicles down to generate this energy could actually cause the cars to expend more energy, negating the benefit of generating it in the first place. If kinetic energy can be harnessed from actions that would take place regardless – and ones that don’t themselves create pollution – then this will become more useful.
In Rio de Janeiro, for example, 200 hidden energy-capturing tiles have been installed underneath an AstroTurf football pitch. Replicating this across sports pitches – and even busy city center pavements, say – is the challenge for the coming years. We might even be able to use kinetic sensors in the soles of shoes so that energy production can, literally, be stepped up.
What’s the picture? Heat, fuel, electricity and chemicals can be made from biomass resources – and this is very popular in some areas, particularly largely-rural developing nations. Examples of materials used to make biomass fuels are food waste, manure, some crops and wood. In essence, this is how people produced energy before industrialization.
What’s next? As with other renewables, the next stage is a question of scale. Take BMW’s South Africa plant for example. Using the gas emissions of 25,000 cows from a nearby cattle farm, BMW can create about a third of the energy used by a plant in Pretoria which makes almost 300 cars a day. By 2020, the plant is on-track to be carbon-neutral.
Whether it’s the energy of Brazilian footballers, South African cows or the waves, wind and sun’s rays, we should all be excited by the prospect of innovations in renewable energy. Plus, these are just the areas that we know about so far. Imagine if we could harvest hydrogen from the moon or send up solar-arrays to orbit the Earth, soak up the sun and beam energy back down to the Earth? None of this is as ‘sci-fi’ as it probably sounds.
As the push to go further – and at greater scale – continues, we should expect renewable energy to make a serious dent in the amount of fossil fuels we consume by the end of the decade, let alone the future beyond that. Clearly, that doesn’t mean we can be complacent, but it does give us cause for optimism that our ingenuity is the answer to delivering a cleaner world in the future.