How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid
These are technologies that are being deployed on massive scales, but to meet climate goals, they need to keep getting better, and cheaper. Let’s have a look at what the future holds for energy.
Here comes the sun
For the first time in 2022, solar and wind power made up more than 10% of global electricity generation. To meet climate goals, however, the solar industry must grow quickly. Some analysts say that annual solar installations need to quadruple from today’s level by around 2030.
Silicon is the dominant technology for solar cell production, but researchers and companies are still exploring other options. The solar industry is raving about perovskites, a class of materials that are highly efficient.
Perovskites promise high efficiency. This refers to how much of the sun’s energy they can capture and convert into electricity. Silicon solar panels have slowly but surely inched their way up to over 25% efficiency over the past forty years, while perovskites have made the same leap in under a decade and now consistently beat out silicon. This great chart shows all of this. )
But, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for perovskites. The materials have had a difficult time with durability. In my reporting on perovskites, I’ve heard the old story told and retold that researchers studying perovskites used to need good running shoes, because solar cells made with the materials would fall apart on the walk across the lab from where they were made to where they were tested.
The lifetime of perovskites has improved leaps and bounds, but the materials are still far from competing with silicon solar panels, which can last for 20 years in the field.
Rui Wang, a professor at Westlake University and one of our 2022 Innovators under 35 is among the researchers trying to address perovskites’ durability problem. He has developed additives that extend the life of perovskites. You can tune into his session at EmTech for more information about how it’s going, and what he sees being the next frontier in solar.
Winds of Change
Solar cannot do it all by itself–wind power will be one of the major sources of electricity needed to clean up our grid.
Wind turbines can be installed on land, or to stay out of the way, offshore, at least in places where the ocean isn’t too deep. In the last few years, companies have begun to dream bigger and built the first commercial offshore wind farms capable of floating.
Floating wind turbines are now generating electricity in Scotland, Portugal, and South Korea. This project could be completed within the next few years. The US is also serious about offshore wind. The Biden administration set a goal to reach 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind by 2035 and reduce costs by 70% by that time. California will auction two large areas of the ocean in December for offshore wind farms.
It’s not as difficult as it sounds to create massive structures that can float in the sea and generate electricity. So far, the cost of floating turbines has been prohibitively high. That’s not to mention difficulties in getting coastal communities on board, which has plagued previous efforts to start floating offshore wind projects in California.
I’ll be talking with Alla Weinstein (founder and CEO of Trident Winds) at EmTech. She has been at the forefront of efforts to build floating offshore winds, and she will discuss all the difficulties and what she believes is possible for the industry in the future.
People want to be able to turn on their lights and keep the fridge running, no matter what the weather is like. It is crucial to balance out intermittent sources of electricity such as solar and wind when building a renewable grid.
Geothermal and nuclear are weather-independent and will likely be part the solution. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that batteries will be an important piece of accounting for variations of wind and solar. The world will need over forty times more grid storage than what’s been installed to date by 2030, according to the IEA. The vast majority of grid batteries are lithium-ion. These batteries are similar to those used in electric vehicles, phones, and laptops.
Lithium-ion batteries are optimized for things that need to move around, so they need to be light. The grid can store batteries that can stay put, which opens up new storage options. Alternatives that are heavier and bulkier may be more affordable and may avoid the supply constraints of key metals such as nickel, cobalt, and lithium.
One of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2022, iron batteries on the grid, could fit the bill for the future of energy storage.
Companies like ESS are working to commercialize and deploy this new technology and are already installing it all over the world. Hugh McDermott (ESS’s SVP of Business Development) will be my last chat at EmTech. He’ll talk to me about the technology’s promises, how it was built, and where it’s going.
Keeping up with climate
The range of possible climate-related scenarios is shrinking . While major disruptions are likely to occur, actions taken today have a significant impact on our future. (New York Times)
New electric school buses are coming to over 400 school districts across the US, funded by $1 billion in grants. Children are particularly at risk from the pollution caused by gas-powered vehicles. (Grist)
Ten years after Hurricane Sandy, New York City is making progress on seawalls and other coastal adaptations. They may not be sufficient to protect against the next storm. (Gothamist)
Drought threatened Mono Lake ,, a salt lake in California. The lake’s story is a good example of how to protect other ecosystems that are at risk. (Inside Climate News)
Climate change is coming for your fancy cheese. Extreme Heat Stresses Cows , and Affects Milk Production. (Bloomberg)
Methane emissions from permafrost might be rising in the early summer. The increase in methane could be a sign of a climate feedback loop. Methane is a powerful greenhouse-gas and the increase could be an early indication of one. (Nature Climate Change)
– Methane has a short lifetime in the atmosphere, but some scientists say we should work on removing it faster. (MIT Technology Review)
Just for fun
Japan’s “mundane Halloween” costume contest isn’t the time to pull out the scary stuff. Instead, you’ll see gems like “The only person at the event whose name-tag string is super long for some reason” or “Person in line at a convenience store.”
Check out Historian Nick Kapur’s Twitter thread of some of the best. My favorite is “Person, whose skeleton was being estimated using machine learning.” “
Now that spooky season is over…it’s Mariah time.
That’s it for this week. Thanks for reading! If you have feedback or ideas for what you’d like to see in future newsletters, you can drop me a line or find me on Twitter. We’ll see you next week!
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.