Renewable Energy Alternatives
With Russia threatening to choke fuel supplies, the EU is seeking alternative energy sources. Here are the major renewable energy technologies currently in focus.
The Ukraine war might have simply hastened a process that was, perhaps, inevitable. With fossil fuel demands peaking every hour and the case for clean energy deployment gaining rapid ground in almost all nations, huge investments and hectic innovations were already underway in the clean energy sector. The immediate focus areas are cutting system costs, ways to combine multiple energy sources, intelligent systems that could maximize energy utilization, exploring the diverse possibilities of hydrogen, and a keen interest in sustainability and renewability issues.
Indeed, renewable energy approaches can be either mainstream or emerging. The mainstream energy sources and technologies focus on water, wind, solar, biomass, and biofuel energy options. These are rather conventional. The more experimental emerging renewable sources comprise marine energy (which is different from water/hydropower sources), concentrated solar photovoltaics, geothermal energy, cellulosic ethanol, and artificial photosynthesis. We should also consider technology investments in digitization, AI-controlled power grids, harnessing quantum computing in the energy and power sectors, and rapid advances in power storage technology. All of these – taken together – contribute to the renewable energy movement.
A known territory for the EU
For the European Union (EU), the quest for renewable energy is not just about the Ukraine-Russia conflict. The EU has been at the forefront of global renewable energy deployment for over twenty years now. Back in 2018, the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), in collaboration with the European Commission, published a report on the Renewable Energy Prospects for the European Union. It identified cost-effective renewable energy options for all EU Member States, spanning a wide range of sectors and technologies.
The key points of the IRENA report were:
- All EU countries have the cost-effective potential to use more renewables.
- Renewables are vital for the long-term decarbonization of the EU energy system.
- The EU can cost-effectively double the renewable share in its energy mix, from 17% in 2015 to 34% in 2030.
- Biomass will remain a key renewable energy source beyond 2030.
- Greater harnessing of solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind power is possible in the European electricity sector.
- Heating and cooling solutions account for more than one-third of the EU’s untapped renewable energy potential.
- A complete shift to renewable transport options is needed to realize long-term EU decarbonization goals.
In many ways, this study was a distinct precursor of the detailed 10-Point Plan recently drafted by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in haste to reduce the European Union’s reliance on Russian natural gas.
Energy technologies in focus
So, what are the major renewable energy technologies that the world is currently exploring? There are quite a few. Many are interconnected; some are still not entirely ready for commercial deployment, and some show greater potential than others. But all are crucial in driving the transformation that the global energy market is currently looking for.
Let’s pan over the key developments.
- Solar: Long considered to be the single most important source of clean energy, solar energy harnesses a range of ever-evolving technologies, broadly classified as either passive or active – depending on how they capture, convert and distribute solar energy. The range includes solar heating, photovoltaics, concentrated solar power (CSP), concentrator photovoltaics (CPV), solar architecture, and artificial photosynthesis. Although the demand was volatile in 2020, market analysts observe an annual growth by over 30% since 2021. And this upward swing is predicted to continue. Expectations are high around perovskite solar cell (PSC)technology. Perovskite materials – usually hybrid organic-inorganic lead or tin-halide-based– are cheap and easy to produce. They have shown high promise in laboratories,and commercialization is the next focus. Sectoral integration is also a big area, especially Agrivoltaics – the parallel use of land for both solar power generation and agriculture. Floating solar infrastructure is another growing area that skirts around the ‘land for energy’ debate.
- Wind: Europe has known windmills ever since the middle ages, although their use for generating electricity is a modern age phenomenon. Modern utility-scale wind turbines range from around 600KW to 9MW of rated power. Experts predict the current investment will be on increasing turbine sizes. Sustainability will be a key focus as the industry explores how to recycle blades, with the launch of a consortium run by Orsted – the largest energy company in Denmark – to look at recycling across the supply chain. Like solar, floating infrastructure in the wind sector will enable offshore development – scaling up to 10 times of current availability. Deployed capacity is expected to double – reaching 10GW. Offshore wind is also a superb transition opportunity for the fossil fuels industry. Oil major Shell has already acquired a majority stake in the Emerald floating wind project on the Celtic Sea.
- Hydrogen: The hydrogen industry is indicated to go through a phase of renewed interest and significant change. Green hydrogen is currently the renewable energy source in focus. It is seen as a crucial way to accelerate decarbonization efforts, particularly for hard-to-abate sectors where electrification is not viable – like heavy industries, chemicals, and transportation. UK already has a 10-point hydrogen plan in place and the EU is pumping investment in the burgeoning sector. Hydrogen is now strongly positioned as part of the global energy mix. However, analysts are wary that since most hydrogen is still derived from fossil fuel, the huge publicity that green hydrogen is receiving should be judged on merit. We must beware of greenwash – they warn.
- Carbon capture and storage: For a net-zero future, carbon capture and storage (CCS) is vital to many policymakers. Several nations are drawing up CCS development plans. While the UK government aims to have at least one CCS-based power project operational by 2030, major private players are also jumping on the wagon. None less than the US tech visionary Elon Musk has announced a $100 million competition to scout the best carbon capture technologies. Some push-back is anticipated from environmentalists, primarily because construction and deployment of current CCS technologies attract steep energy and carbon penalties. But a strong counter-argument is that CCS can enable emission-intensive industries, like steel and cement, to continue operations in a low carbon future.
- Storage: In keeping with the evolving renewable energy market, rapid developments in energy storage technologies are foreseen. Falling lithium battery prices, sectoral integration, green hydrogen developments, and roll-out of giga factories are expected to drive the market. The major focus in storage will be concentrated on the possibilities of delivering multiple energy services simultaneously – including frequency regulation, load balancing, and grid management services. Enhanced investment in large-scale battery storage facilities would be a vital element to complement the expansion in the wind and solar sectors.
- Digitization: To achieve maximum energy efficiency, the right infrastructure is the key to creating a grid that is resilient, flexible, and sustainable. And that, in turn, would require a more effective control and communication system that can manage all the myriad connected components of the grid. For that, digitization is the only solution. A lot of technological breakthroughs are happening in this area. The use of digital twins to model energy use and management, software-controlled energy storage systems (ESS), vertical integration of the technology stack, and distributed energy resource management (DERM) systems – are the areas to look out for.
- AI: Like most others, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is set to have transformative effects across the energy sector as well – bringing about sweeping changes in forecasting demand, managing resource distribution, ensuring power availability, and waste minimization. As the grid gets smarter, there is going to be an increasing demand for AI solutions to manage the complexity of operations. This becomes particularly relevant for renewable energy where energy cannot often be stored for long periods of time. It has to be used close to the time and location of energy generation. AI-driven grid management will enable greener operations in implementing predictive maintenance of solar and wind arrays. AI would also enable corporates to reduce energy use and decrease emissions through dynamic network management. In the very short term, AI solutions in the energy sector could compensate for skills shortages, stabilize operations despite technical challenges, and keep on refining itself through self-learning.
The Quantum Revolution
The incredible powers of quantum computing, capable of solving complex problems that are way beyond the capabilities of conventional computing, could be a godsend for the energy and power sector.
By exploiting the quantum logic of superposition and entanglement, quantum computers can execute multiple computations simultaneously. That would have an immense bearing on the energy sector. As energy networks expand, the resultant complexity requires control systems to provide parallel support. The expansion of distributed energy resources exponentially increases the volumes of data needed to uphold, process, and optimize grids.
Today’scomputers lack the capability to support tomorrow’s grids. But high-speed quantum processing can tackle complex large grid data optimization challenges like grid topology control, synthetic grid inertia modeling, and large-scale cross-network transactive energy. Quantum technology would offer high-fidelity sensing and achieve fail-safe grid security through enhanced cryptographic techniques. Lastly, it would refine customer analytics by superfast interpretation of massive volumes of customer data, resulting in better predictions and heightened customer satisfaction.
Quantum technology would enable significant energy efficiency for nations desperately seeking energy independence. And that’s why, despite the cost and technical challenges, investors are putting their chips on the quantum bet.
(Continue reading Part 3 to understand why it is a challenge to strike the right balance in renewable energy alternatives)
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