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Creative destruction and disruptive technology: A roll call of breakthroughs which are driving Renewable Technology to sector dominance in 2014.

Driving Renewable Technology to sector dominance in 2014
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This breakdown of science breakthroughs in 2014 shows how convergence science is catapulting renewable energy ahead of the curve in the energy market – as well as realising the potential of renewable technology, alongside automation and biotechnology, driving the next great wave of disruptive technologies.

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Photovoltaic Technology

A new material breakthrough using a simple mineral alternative has thrown the photovoltaic market into a spin of excitement. Cadmium chloride, an important feature of current solar panel construction, when layered onto Cadmium telluride is highly toxic and expensive. But a recent discovery means that soon this expensive and toxic element will be replaced with a far cheaper and non toxic magnesium chloride to layer photovoltaic solar panels

A study led by Jon Major of the University of Liverpool has shown that the solar cells produced with magnesium chloride – which is also found in bath salts as well as used to coagulate soya milk into tofu – works ‘just as efficiently’ as conventional cadmium cells but at a fraction of the cost and with much lower toxicity.

Magnesium chloride is an incredibly low-cost mineral and it’s incredibly abundant and easy to access from seawater. It’s currently used to de-ice roads in winter and its completely harmless and non-toxic. Already photovoltaic costs are coming down so fast that they are already belting the business models of utilities into what some analysts call a ‘death spiral’. Imagine, then, what will happen when developments such as the one described in the new research come to market.

Driving Renewable Technology to sector dominance in 2014
Earths Horizon & International Space Station Solar Panel Array Image Credit: Wiki Commons

“It is not possible to estimate how much cheaper the new solar cells will be”, Dr Major said, “but magnesium chloride is about one per cent of the cost of cadmium chloride.” “In addition, waste disposal will be far easier and cheaper with a product based on a non-toxic salt”, he said. “We’ve managed to replace a highly expensive, toxic material with one that’s completely benign and low cost”,” Dr Major said.

This latest breakthrough is definitively a game changer in the energy industry and will further drive solar power to dominance as a flagship of the renewable energy sector.

Recently developed 3D solar cells can capture substantially more sunlight than conventional PV models making the possibility of far more efficient Solar panels being available within a decade. They do this because they are more precise, the 3D manufacturing process extends the amount of solar radiation that is absorbed into cells,(using copper, indium, gallium, selenide: CIGS), its less complex and weighs less. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe 3D solar panels could be roughly 20% more efficient than flat solar panels.

It is estimated that precision 3D printing could drop production costs by 50% by eliminating many of the inefficiencies associated with the waste of costly materials such as glass, poly silicon or even indium. The ability to control the exact material inputs of your finished solar product would further turn traditional manufacturing of PV on its head by creating more of an on-demand model that doesn’t require expensive fabrication at distant warehouses, most overseas.

3D printing can take place just about anywhere and would greatly mitigate the existing lofty shipping costs which adds dramatically towards the final costs of traditional flat PV panels. It would also mean PV panel production could become globally possible in far more locations, further driving competition availability and downwards pressure on PV systems prices.

Solar Thermal or CSP (Concentrated Solar Thermal)

A multi-disciplinary engineering team at the University of California, San Diego developed a new nano-particle-based material for concentrating solar power plants designed to absorb and convert to heat more than 90 percent of the sunlight it captures. The new material can also withstand temperatures greater than 700 degrees Celsius and survive many years outdoors in spite of exposure to air and humidity. Their work, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Sun Shot program, was published recently in two separate articles in the journal Nano Energy. By contrast, current solar absorber material functions at lower temperatures and needs to be overhauled almost every year for high temperature operations.

“We wanted to create a material that absorbs sunlight that doesn’t let any of it escape. We want the black hole of sunlight,” said Sungho Jin, a professor in the department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

Driving Renewable Technology to sector dominance in 2014
Gemasolar solar thermal plant, owned by Torresol Energy. Image Credit: Wiki Commons

One of Solar thermal technology’s attractions is that it can be used to retrofit existing power plants that use coal or fossil fuels because it uses the same process to generate electricity from steam. CSP power plants create the steam needed to turn the turbine by using sunlight to heat molten salt. The molten salt can also be stored in thermal storage tanks overnight where it can continue to generate steam and electricity, 24 hours a day if desired, a significant advantage over photovoltaic systems that stop producing energy with the sunset.

Current CSP plants are shut down about once a year to chip off the degraded sunlight absorbing material and reapply a new coating, which means no power generation while a replacement coating is applied and cured. That is why the US Department of Energy’s SunShot program challenged and supported UC San Diego research teams to come up with a material with a substantially longer life cycle, in addition to the higher operating temperature for enhanced energy conversion efficiency. The UC San Diego research team is aiming for many years of usage life, a feat they believe they are close to achieving. This is once again a massive game changer to both cost of CSP power and its attractiveness to investors and their capital in the future energy market.

Renewable Energy Storage

A major component of making renewables reliable for base-load when they can be variable in output (in particular Solar power) is storage of surplus energy for night time and low output periods.

Elon Musks construction of the gargantuan Gigafactory in Nevada is precisely the game change that Solar power in particular has needed to indirectly add to its appeal as a broad based energy supply source. Tesla is treading the route first mapped by Henry Ford, whose mass production of the Model T halved the price of US cars. The same effect occurred with computer memory and, more recently, solar panels, whose price collapsed by over half in just over a year. Nor is the tremendous economy of scale the Gigafactory offers the only likely development in batteries. There is work going on there in nanotechnology, making components incredibly tiny. This allows a much greater surface within a given size of battery, so that charging will be quicker, and storage capacity higher. If scale and technology work their miracles as expected, cheap batteries will disrupt many more industries than just the car industry.

Driving Renewable Technology to sector dominance in 2014
Tesla Motors Inc. plan to build a “Gigafactory” to ramp up lithium-ion battery production. The new production facility will essentially double the world’s lithium-ion battery production in the next three years. Image Credit: Tesla Motors

Perhaps most fundamentally, it will make the transition to low-carbon electricity far easier. Renewables like solar and onshore wind are coming down dramatically in price – the industry forecasts they will be cheaper than grid electricity in most of the world by 2025. A Tesla-style battery solution that could make their present base-load supply problems functionally non existent. Its a rare business or consumer who has yet put a battery pack in the loft. But when they are cheap enough to warrant that, then the uptake of this technology will put power storage in every building and home. The capital price of conventional powers relatively expensive heavy infrastructure, pylons and power stations will then come starkly into view.

Big centralized power will be both geographically and fiscally increasingly challenged to compete with the highly mobile nature of modern renewables linked to efficient cheap power storage. At the geopolitical level this technology is potentially incredibly disruptive when considering energy corporations stranglehold on power markets, Middle East and South American Oil Barons control of fuel markets and nations like Russia’s gas leverage over Europe.

Disruptive change and the creative destruction of these new technologies is a constant feature of capitalism. Railways ran horse drawn coaching out of business. Electricity did for gas lighting, which had replaced oil lights, which replaced whale oil. The economist Joseph Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”. We are on the crest of another technological tsunami driven by the ability to generate energy and store it locally – as opposed to relying solely on a centralized grid from a remote power source. The good news is that this wave will make the planet safer, opportunity more available and our children’s future more secure though the teething pains will certainly disrupt the established order for a time- just as it always has.

Hydrogen Fuel

It’s been discussed since the 70s – can hydrogen fuel be the much-anticipated solution that ends our full dependence on fossil fuels? A team of researchers from Virginia Tech believes the answer is ‘yes’. They found a way to extract large quantities of hydrogen from any plant, bringing low-cost, environmentally friendly hydrogen-based fuel one step closer.

Hydrogen vehicles include hydrogen fueled space rockets, as well as automobiles and other transportation vehicles. Image Credit: www.reviewnex.com

“Our new process could help end our dependence on fossil fuels,” said Y.H. Percival Zhang, an associate professor of biological systems engineering in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. “Hydrogen is one of the most important biofuels of the future.”

Xylose is the most abundant simple plant sugar found basically in most edible plants. Zhang and his team have succeeded in using xylose to produce a large quantity of hydrogen that previously was attainable only in theory. This method can be applied using any source of biomass. So we’re looking at a cheap, environmentally friendly method of producing hydrogen utilizing natural resources, releasing almost no greenhouse gases; previous methods which created hydrogen were costly and also produced a significant amount of greenhouse gases. Unlike gas-powered engines that spew out pollutants, the only by-product of hydrogen fuel is water.

“What’s really good about this technology”, says Zhang, “ is that it could hit the marketplace in no more than 3 years” becoming part of what he thinks could be trillion dollar market in the US alone.

So it seems that the botanical research angle may well be the clincher for the fiscally viable utilization of hydrogen fuel in the future.

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Looking at this from an investment point of view, its hard not to see the writing on the wall. When deciding on a technological path investors and policy makers plot the performance of a technology against the money or effort invested in it. This yields an S-shaped curve with slow initial improvement, then accelerated improvement, and finally diminishing improvement as the outer limits of the technology are encountered. Projecting an S-curve can be used to gain insight into the comparative pay off of investment of competing technologies like renewables, fossils fuels and nuclear fission. It can also help us gain some insight into when and why some types of technologies overtake others in the race for dominance.

So, as it appears so far, renewables or ‘Green Power’ as example of these disruptive technologies have a steeper S-curve or an S-curve that increases to a higher performance limit, and certainly in the early stages of technological development, returns to effort invested in new technology of any type are often much higher than the effort invested in existing conventional technology. But its demonstrable that new firms entering the energy industry are more likely to choose the disruptive technology as the long term prospects of renewables on the S-curve are better. Meanwhile older established firms competing with the new energy industry entrants face the difficult choice of trying to extend the life of their current technology, or investing in switching to new renewable technology with its greater long term potential.

Put simply, if a disruptive technology has much greater performance potential for a given amount of effort, then logically in the long run it is likely to displace the incumbent technology. Something which we can see in the rapid global uptake and installation of renewable technology increasingly replacing Fossil fuels and nuclear fission. This pattern of renewable techs uptake statistically is broadly applicable across nations socio-economic divide as it becomes ubiquitous in developed, developing and particularly quickly in BRIC nations.

The emergence of a new technological dis-continuity can overturn the existing competitive structure of an industry, creating new leaders and new losers. Joseph Schumpeter the Austrian economist in 1942 named this process ‘‘creative destruction,’’ and argued that it was the key driver of progress in a capitalist of society. Renewable energy technology supported by a raft of materiel science and physics breakthroughs appears to be precisely what Schumpeter was describing three quarters of a century ago. And this seems self evident as the S-curve of renewable technological development inexorably and rapidly outstrips the slowing technological potential of other older power generation methods.

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