As we begin the New Year, energy technology is expanding into horizons that we only dreamed about 10 to 15 years ago. This expansion also brings challenges that the industry will need to address and overcome as we continue toward a more connected, renewable future.
Increased Technology and the Energy Grid
Through examination of future consumer trends, we know that the number of connected devices for each household is going to continue to increase. Past households typically had one TV, one phone, and only a handful of major electronic devices. Today, each person often has multiple devices including smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Many homes have multiple refrigerators, TVs, and connected devices that require more energy such as smart home systems, speakers, and HVAC systems.
While this technology is fascinating and can simplify our lives, the increasing number of electrical devices requires more energy. According to Bloomberg NEF, global electricity demand will increase between 50 to 60 percent by 2050. As we move into the future, we will need to make changes with electrical grid infrastructure to sustain the amplified demand for power and energy.
Another factor that will affect the power grid is the introduction of electric vehicles (EVs). According to Bloomberg, by 2040, 33 percent of all vehicles on the road will be powered by batteries, and all those EVs will need to be charged somewhere. This will lead to more EV service stations and rapid charging stations, which require hundreds of kilowatts of energy. As the demand for electric vehicles increases, the number of rapid charging stations will also increase, and the power grid of today is simply not built to support this energy output.
How are we going to maintain the power grid and do so sustainably?
As the country’s energy needs progress, including increased resiliency and improved sustainability, we will likely see smaller, localized power grids coming online. Rather than vast power plants that can supply much of a state’s or region’s needs, we will see more microgrid technology in the form of community grids, hydro-electric power, community solar storage and wind power.
"As battery storage solutions become more available and affordable, it starts to make smaller community grids more feasible, enabling energy to be produced and stored locally"
For these solutions to work well, they will need the same type of connectivity as a cell phone and other smart devices. Since energy will be more community-minded, we must determine how to intelligently integrate that energy into the power grid, so it can be directed where it’s needed.
For example, if a microgrid is gathering energy from solar panels on a sunny day and has excess energy available, it will need to connect with a larger grid to determine where the surplus energy should go and how much is available. Likewise, the smaller grid needs to tell the larger grid when it doesn’t have energy available, so the larger grid can supply its needs. In times of crisis, communities will also want the option to direct excess power from the microgrid to areas with critical needs, such as schools or hospitals.
The energy integration of these smaller microgrids to the larger grid is relatively easy. Data interconnection will become critical with many smaller energy sources. While bringing smaller assets on and off the grid can be more efficient than larger assets, gauging the available or needed energy from the smaller assets will require smarter grid technology for coordination. The advantage of smaller grids is that they can potentially be isolated from the larger grid, lessoning the impact of grid outages and improving energy resiliency.
Battery Storage Solutions
Clean energy solutions require backup storage for when renewable resources, like the sun, are not available. Currently, the most prevalent way to do this is through lithium-ion or zinc-hybrid batteries, which can store energy for future use.
For this technology to be equipped for consumers, it needs to be readily available, mass producible, and economically priced. We’re seeing the same type of technology revolution with battery storage that solar technology experienced five to 10 years ago. Prices are coming down, the ability to manufacture and mass produce batteries is becoming more cost effective, and existing battery technology is being optimized. The cost-effectiveness of battery storage is especially important, since batteries typically have an expected life cycle of less than 10 years.
As this technology becomes more available and affordable, it starts to make smaller community grids more feasible, enabling energy to be produced and stored locally.
So, what’s next on the horizon for energy technology? It could likely be new applications of solar in places we previously haven’t imagined. Companies and institutions are currently testing solar pavement, sidewalks, roofing, windows, and even paint. While some of these technologies are still being developed, imagine having a home made entirely out of solar products and how that would positively impact energy bills while reducing demand on the power grid.
Another interesting emerging technology includes “hanging weight storage,” where energy is stored by using renewable energy to physically lift a weight (like a crane) in the air. When power is needed, gravity naturally lowers the weight and the lifts act as a generator. These systems are feasible because they are simple to maintain, installation is straightforward, and they are low-maintenance. This technology is ideal for cold weather where battery storage isn’t ideal, since batteries need to be kept in heated buildings.
This is an exciting time to be working in energy–what was once thought of as impossible is not only becoming possible, but already being created. These clean energy solutions are good for the Earth and are also helping to build a more connected world.