The environmental impact of fossil fuels is causing the energy sector to focus on cleaner alternatives. Political agreements to curb fossil fuel emissions, such as The Paris Climate Accord - ratified by 168 nations, sets out ambitious plans to tackle the threat of climate change and shift towards a low carbon future.
Continuous innovation in renewable energies is making this achievable. In this article, we narrow the lens of renewables to primarily focus on recent developments in solar and wind technology.
U.S. solar was ranked as the no.1 source of new electricity capacity and saw record levels of installation in 2016. According to GTM Research, the market grew 95 percent from 7,493 megawatts installed in 2015 to 14,626 megawatts of solar PV in 2016.
According to McKinsey, driving the adoption of solar has been cost. Since 2009, the total installation costs of solar have fallen by 70 percent around the world. The removal of this barrier has led to significant growth in the residential sector. Moreover, it has allowed the emergence of new commercial projects in which major tech brands are leading the way.
Apple’s “SpaceShip” HQ rooftop uses solar panels to generate 17 megawatts of power, equivalent to 75% of the energy requirement during peak times. During a Town Hall event in Cupertino, Apple CEO Tim Cook said: “We've achieved one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world, and the campus will run entirely on renewable energy.”
Tesla’s Gigafactory, claims to be seven times larger than any other commercial rooftop solar installation, and once complete will be powered by a 70-megawatt solar farm. The Gigafactory will not consume any fossil fuels and any excess energy produced by the solar panels will be stored in Tesla battery power packs to be deployed at times of need.
Whether solar is grid-tied or off-the-grid, it offers distinct advantages. First, protect the environment, creating electricity from sunlight is clean. Second, achieve energy independence, no longer relying on the grid for energy capacity. Third, reduce your bills, the initial outlay for installation and maintenance requirements over time are the only costs. Finally, and perhaps most financially appealing, generate additional revenue, from selling excess energy back to the grid or to other customers.
Experts predict that if the current pace of growth continues, by 2050 a third of the world's energy needs will be fulfilled through wind power. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) estimate onshore wind levelized costs will fall 47 percent by 2040 and in the same period offshore wind costs will slide a significant 71 percent.
Engineering innovations has enabled offshore sites to take the lead. Located off the island of Juist in Germany is the Nordsee One offshore-wind farm, which was completed in September. It is able to capture energy from wind speeds more than double those found on a typical onshore site. One of its 54 turbines will generate, on average, 1.2 billion kilowatt hours per year and supply the equivalent of around 400,000 average homes with renewable electricity. According to Nordsee One, this will help to save more than one million tons of CO2 emissions.
“72% of the $10.2 trillion spent on new power generation by 2040 will be invested in new wind and solar PV plants” according to BNEF.
Another recent innovation is the development of hybrid renewable projects. Siemens Gamesa was recently awarded the first hybrid wind-solar project, a 28-megawatt solar facility connected to an existing 50-megawatt wind farm in India. The combination of wind and solar applied on a commercial scale demonstrates the impetus to explore new business opportunities.
The environmental impact of fossil fuels places them firmly in the spotlight. Growing concerns over the costs of energy, restrictions in grid capacity, and energy security reveal an appetite for change.
A recent study by Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and 25 colleagues set out a global vision of a 100% renewable energy future. Provided infrastructure improves, the research claims that 139 countries could be 100% renewable by 2050, creating a net increase of over 24 million long-term jobs. The work appears in the Journal Joule, Cell Press’s new publication focused on sustainable energy.
Whether it be solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, wave or tidal, continued technological advancements and successful deployment of renewables will be the catalyst for widespread adoption, that in turn will create a low-carbon future for the energy sector.