The Role of Technology in the Energy Transitions
The energy transition is a changing tide for the world, one that is based on the abandonment of fossil fuels and replacing their use with renewable and low-carbon alternatives. The driving force for this change is emerging technology innovations, with a focus on combating both the spread and effects of climate change.
What are these emergent technologies and what exactly is the role that technology plays in energy transitions?
History of Transformative Technology
Before we can start talking about the future of technology in a widespread capacity, we must first look at the history of some of these advancements to see that the technologies that will lead the world into low-carbon energy have been around for decades. The start of renewable energy technology can be roughly traced to 200 BC in Europe, where waterwheels were being used to produce energy for irrigation and milling. Although this was a rather crude and basic version of hydropower, it served as a proof of concept for modern energy feats.
We can see another notable advancement in France in the 1860s when French investor Augustin Mouchot was able to produce the first solar energy system after he theorized that the world’s coal supply would run dry. Mouchot’s inventions served to both invest more resources into solar-powered systems and inspire others to try their hands at these innovations.
The past that transformative technology has shown to the world is one where advancements have created massive leaps in both complexity and efficiency for energy, and with the current global energy transition, we can see that the near future will see this growth accelerated.
Green Hydrogen: Zero-Emission Future
Meeting the demands of heavy-duty industries such as steel and chemical is not something that renewable-generated electricity and battery energy storage can readily meet, but this is where green hydrogen can show its true potential.
Green hydrogen is produced when hydrogen is extracted from water by an electrolyzer powered by electricity produced by renewable energy. This is a process that, aside from supporting infrastructure, produces no greenhouse gases (GHG), which makes it a good step for decarbonisation. This process is rather expensive due to the cost of electrolyzers, but recent mandates for the reduction of GHG have driven the costs of production to significant lows, and green hydrogen is projected to be cost-competitive by 2030.
Aside from the reduction of GHG produced, green hydrogen can serve economic sectors such as long-distance heavy-duty travel both in the air and ocean as an alternative synthetic fuel. The most advantageous aspect of this form of green energy would be that hydrogen can be the most flexible form to store the fuel for these applications compared to batteries.
Transmission Developments: Changing the Power Sector
Electric transmission lines are systems capable of transporting large amounts of energy over long distances, and although these systems do not get much attention compared to energy production, they are still vital to decarbonisation in power grids. The improvement of these lines serves to reduce congestion costs, which have been on the rise, and to help new renewable energy projects stuck in the interconnection queue join the power grid.
These transmission line improvements can take the form of new line designs, mandates, and expansions, but we will focus on software-based solutions. Examples of this are software systems that optimize transmission lines based on real-time factors such as internal thermals, climate, and overall temperature. This type of software would be able to oversee the power grid’s condition and improve the efficiency of electricity transmission by shifting the route of electricity from overloaded lines.
The developments that transmission lines can receive will increase the overall efficiency of energy usage, and as a byproduct, serve to deploy renewable energy to demand centers.
Small Changes to Wind & Solar: Big Impact
Out of all renewable energy forms, wind and solar are objectively the most stable variety deployed consistently across the world, but that status only serves to push for further improvements. Although these improvements in energy efficiency are small tweaks compared to advancements in the past, they can have a profound effect on the future of both these renewable energies.
One instance of these tweaks is the solution to energy lost during the transition to the power grid, an issue that plagues the profitability of renewable energy.
This solution presents itself in the form of digital inverter technology, which has seen massive improvements with the introduction of smarter inverters. The combination of these smarter inverters and digital circuit breakers will allow homes to isolate electricity that will then be used on their behind-the-meter batteries to extend their operation.
When it comes to wind turbines, the improvements in their design have been less visually prominent compared to other renewable energy sources, but the advancements of these turbines will see their usefulness in the recycling of their materials. Unlike solar photovoltaic cells, which have toxic byproducts from their crystalline silicon usage, turbines are buried when they are decommissioned. That soon might change with the use of a new resin that will allow these old turbines to be easily recycled and reused, which will replace landfills as the final destination for old wind blades.
Power Sector Digitization: Improved Reliability
With more digitization in the power sector taking place, there is a surplus of new functional data from sensors used by utilities, and this data can be used to justify rate cases based on simulations for future rate periods. Producing convincing reports of the effects that disrupting factors can have on the grid will provide utilities with a more stable method to communicate appropriate responses to mitigate those issues with utility commissions.
An increase in data will not only help utility companies understand their future needs, but will also play a role in determining how to optimize their systems currently. This is done by taking data from several isolated systems that would otherwise be unable to give a proper answer to questions presented and processing it through algorithms to paint a clear picture of the system as a whole.
The digitization of the power sector will also be used to improve the implementation of electric vehicles by predicting where EVs will be adopted to ensure that the local power grid can sustain their usage.