A Super Long Cable From Space: 7 Upcoming Renewable Energy Technologies
2016 is currently a top contender for hottest year on record. The planet is warming up at an unprecedented pace with no break or slowdown in trend being foreseen. Since we went through the first industrial revolution in the 1800s, humans have developed a thirst for fancy products, new machines and technologies. We have created a beautiful modern world, but it has come at a cost and the need for sustainable and renewable energy technologies is more relevant than ever.
Our extreme dependence on fossil fuels for energy has placed our planet in a dire situation. We are releasing greenhouse gases at an unprecedented rate. The “worst” of these greenhouse gases is carbon dioxide.
Once released through activities such as burning coal, processing crude oil or driving a car, carbon emissions enter the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. This simply means that they trap heat escaping earth, causing it to remain within our atmosphere and leading to higher temperatures on our planet.
Global warming has been associated with various adverse effects including worsening weather catastrophes, rising sea levels that cause flooding in coastal areas and the emergence of extreme climates (too hot or too wet especially in places that were not previously so).
Renewable Energy Technology as the Answer
Renewable energy technology has been fronted as the most effective savior from global warming. Switching to renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind will lessen our dependence on fossil fuels and hopefully, lead to less greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.
The good news is that countries are enthusiastic about changing over to clean energy. In just a decade, billions of dollars have been invested in areas like solar.
Some countries like Costa Rica have completely switched to renewable energy technologies, even if it is just for a short period. In a decade or two, it is possible that renewable energy technologies will be more dominant compared to fossil fuels. One factor driving renewable energy solutions is new technology.
Technology has been a major contributor to global warming (think of cars, planes, smartphones etc.) but it is promising to be the driver behind tackling it. In the spirit of protecting Mother Earth, we look at some of the most promising and innovative renewable energy technologies.
1. Carbon Capture and Sequestration
Known fully as Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS), this is one of the most daring technological solutions proposed in the fight against global warming. In short, it involves capturing carbon emitted from large sources such as fossil fuel plants and storing it underground. The longer story is much more complicated. You can read about it in full on the International Energy Agency’s website.
It begins by capturing carbon dioxide from large sources. These may include large fossil fuel plants, natural gas processing plants or industries manufacturing products like steel or cement. The plant may have carbon capture technology integrated in the production process or it may be carbon-capture-ready meaning capture technologies can be added at a later time. You can read more on the capture process here.
Once it has been captured, it is transported to the storage site. Transportation methods are similar to those used with natural gas and oil namely ship or pipeline.
Then comes the toughest part…
Storing the carbon dioxide emissions
The gas has to be injected deep into the earth, kilometers below the surface where the pressure and temperature keep the CO2 in liquid form. Old oil and gas reservoirs are prime candidates as storage locations. Researchers are also studying deep saline aquifers as possible storage sites. The same process that keeps oil and natural gas stored under the earth for centuries (until we drill them out) is used to ensure that the CO2 never escapes the confines of the underworld.
CSS could potentially capture and store up to 90% of carbon emissions resulting from the use of fossil fuels. But countries are yet to embrace it fully.
Current CSS projects have had high degrees of success but they are too small scale to make a difference. Perhaps it is the high cost involved in capture and transportation. But as with any other challenge facing humanity, we have to make oversized investments to win the war.
According to experts, if CSS were used by more countries, especially the highly industrialized ones like China and the US, we would experience a significant reduction in the effects of global warming.
2. Battery Technology
One thing that makes sure that the modern world keeps humming is power. And not just any power but a constant flow of power. This is the challenge that renewable energy technologies have been facing for years.
With sources like wind and solar, energy can only be harnessed when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. If you do not have a large capacity storage for the excess power generated, you have to wait until it is morning when the sun shines again. In comparison, utility power is always there regardless of time, season or weather (excluding extreme weather occurrences).
For renewable energy technologies to even come close to the ubiquitousness of utility power, which depends on fossil fuels, storage technology is an area we must take seriously. The good news is that a lot of progress is being made in this sector.
One idea being put forward is a storage technology called Redox Flow. The chemicals (electrolytes) that store power are not located in the batteries themselves but rather in large external reservoirs.
This allows for the storage of huge amounts of energy when the conditions are right (e.g. when it is sunny). When the stored energy is required, the chemicals are transferred to batteries which then power up homes, streetlights, devices and so on.
Other novel ideas proposed include Japan’s dual carbon battery, Stanford’s nanotechnology-based lithium battery and MIT’s liquid metal battery. The hope is that we can come up with batteries that can store large energy capacities, last long and are safe for the environment.
3. Tidal Energy
We all know about harnessing energy from the wind and the sun. But what about the tides that form on large water bodies such as oceans? Believe it or not, these tides can be used as a source of energy; and not just a little energy but up to 10% of yearly global electricity production according to this estimate.
One of the benefits of harnessing tidal power is that it is predictable, unlike the sun or wind. Tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on the earth. This effect creates a cyclical tidal occurrence, meaning it happens at easily predictable times and intensities.
There are two ways in which tidal power can be harvested:
- The first takes advantage of the height difference between high tide and low tide. This difference is called tidal range. Turbines places at strategic positions turn as water passes through them thus generating electricity.
- The second takes advantage of the kinetic movement of water as a tide dies off forming a current or a tidal stream. Turbines are placed under the water to capture the kinetic energy from this movement and generate electricity.
Tidal energy has yet to pick up pace, with most applications being small scale. But as the search for renewable energy technologies gets more urgent, expect to see more attention being turned towards the seas.
4. Offshore Wind
Offshore wind is another promising renewable energy technology that has yet to gain as much favor as solar and onshore wind. But interest is growing quickly.
The United States is hoping to provide power to over 50 million homes solely from offshore wind by 2050. An offshore wind farm has already been put up near Rhode Island and is expected to provide electricity to 17,000 homes by the end of the year.
Countries like China, Germany and the United Kingdom have also invested in harnessing offshore wind power. You can find the full list of offshore wind farms in this Wikipedia article.
One reason why offshore wind is so promising is the amount of power it can produce. Winds offshore are much stronger than those onshore mainly due to the lack of barriers and friendly climatic conditions. The wind there is also more reliable.
The major limiting factor is as always – the cost. Offshore wind is one of the most expensive renewable energy sources to set up on a large scale. This leaves corporations and governments as the only entities capable of setting up offshore wind farms.
As with most other renewable energy technologies that start out with some resistance, offshore wind power is going to get more popular in the coming years. In the future, it could contribute a significant portion of energy gotten from clean sources.
5. Infrared solar energy
As good and as popular as they are, solar panels are quite inefficient. They convert only 20% of the solar energy that passes through them into electricity. One reason for this is the composition of solar energy.
The sunlight that we see reach earth from the sun is only a small portion (less than half) of the total radiation blasted out by earth’s parent star. Most of the other radiation comes in the form of infrared light, which we cannot see and which, unfortunately, our solar panels cannot capture.
While the photovoltaic cells in a solar panel will capture visible light and turn it into electricity, infrared radiation passes right through. But scientists are seeking to tackle this wastage through a new technology solar panel.
There is a way that scientists can turn infrared light into visible light. It involves combining to infrared light photons to form one visible light photon. This is exactly what the proposed solar panels do. Hybrid materials added to the traditional solar panel capture infrared light photons and combine them to form high-energy visible light photons, which can then be more easily absorbed by photovoltaic cells.
The new solar panel will be 30% more efficient, thus producing more energy for the same amount and intensity of exposure to sunlight. This should encourage more people and companies to take up solar power.
6. Printable Solar Panels
In keeping with solar energy innovations we have yet another for you. The reality of printable solar panels is closer than you might think. In a few years you will print a paper-thin solar panel using an inkjet printer and place it wherever you want.
This will bring costs of using solar energy further down and provide access to solar power to millions of people. The efficiency of printable solar panels is quite low, at just 10% compared to the 20-25% efficiency of traditional solar panels. But experts hope to see this figure go up by the time this technology is commercialized.
7. Energy from Space
Our final entry on renewable tech also touches on solar energy and it literally goes galactic. Experts have proposed harnessing solar energy from space in one of two ways; by capturing sunlight or by intercepting solar wind.
The first idea involves placing a gigantic solar panel in space around earth’s orbit. It would receive sunlight 24/7 all year through. The biggest challenge, aside from the gazillions needed to actually do this, is transmitting the harnessed electricity back to earth.
A super long cable does not really sound doable so scientists are still figuring out how to wirelessly transmit electricity over more than 100 km.
The second involves intercepting the solar wind spewed by the sun into space. This wind contains supercharged particles that can be used to generate electricity. The challenges here are how to put up a gigantic gizmo in space to capture these charged particles and how to send the electricity back to us.
Both are honorable goals, both are insanely expensive, both are crazy difficult to achieve and both will probably not be done anytime soon.
Renewable Energy Technologies
Fossil fuels have shaped much of the modern world including its technology, geography and politics. But if we do not act soon they will shape us into extinction along with millions of other species on earth.
So it is a comforting thing to see scientists, government, corporations and ordinary people come together to find innovative solutions to the global warming menace. It is not hard to contemplate a future with no fossil fuels. We are fast moving to an age where renewable energy technologies will fuel our civilization.
Do you think fossil fuels will be around half a century or a century from now and which clean energy sources are best placed to replace them? Leave your comments below.
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