Innovation in Energy Technology – technologies to watch

by Andy Goldman on September 30, 2012

Technologies in the energy sector shape and reshape the energy landscape. Innovations in the renewable energy area transform the way renewable energy technologies are perceived and used. A recent McKinsey report by Matt Rogers has listed the five technologies in the energy field which may affect the growth and direction of the energy sector by 2020.

There are technologies which are at the innovation stage and may never reach the commercialization stage. There are technologies which even though they have been commercialized they have slow acceptance. In the renewable green energy sector we have technologies such as, the electric car, solar photovoltaic cells and LED lighting, which benefit from the convergence of various other technologies and events such as the convergence of software or the increase of the cost of electricity.

The 5 technologies mentioned in the article that could change the energy landscape by the year 2020 are the following:

  • Clean coal
  • New Biofuels and electrofuels
  • Compressorless air conditioning
  • Digital-power conversion and
  • Grid-scale storage

It has to be understood that not all of them may reach the commercialization stage and succeed in the very competitive and price sensitive field of energy and renewable green energy. Recent developments in the natural-gas extraction indicate how technologies, discoveries and innovations can shape the energy arena and that innovation in the energy sector cannot be neglected as those who neglect them stand a good chance to be driven to the side lines and margins of the energy industry.

We will give you a brief overview of each of the five technologies mentioned earlier so that you will have an understanding of what is expected to happen from now till the year 2020 in the energy sector and for you to understand the possible side innovations and advancements in renewable green energy.

Grid-Scale Storage

Grid-scale storage is also known as large-scale storage and refers to the various methods that are used to store electricity in storage systems which are connected on the electricity grid. Electricity is stored during the night when demand is low and used during the day when demand is high. Lux Research released a report which predicted that by the year 2017 the grid-scale storage demand will reach a demand of 185 GWh and an incremental opportunity of around 114 Billion USD!

Today grid-scale storage costs between 600-1000 USD per KWh and the two main, out of the six, technologies used extensively are those of pumped hydropower and Compressed Air Energy Storage CAES. Innovations in the other electric storage technologies, flywheel, electrochemical capacitors, lithium and lead acid batteries and Superconducting Magnetic Energy Storage, SMES, is estimated that will bring the cost down to 150-200 USD KWh by 2020 thus opening the doors to the expansion of electricity storage in metropolitan areas where the demand is. When the prices fall to this extend then, in the USA alone, it would be possible to build storage equivalent to 100 GW.

When the levels of grid-storage reach to these levels then this will be transformative and will enable the efficient use of electricity, the flattening of electricity production peaks, the so called peak-shaving, and the more efficient use of electricity, the avoidance of power cuts and disruptions. It will also enable the efficient use and expansion of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar energy.

Digital-power conversion

By digital-power conversion we mean those large scale high voltage transformers used in the electricity grid and enabled the widespread and rapid development of the electrical grid.  These transformers use essentially the same technology for more than 100 years and they are still bulky, heavy and costly.

Recent developments in the digital high speed switching through the use of silicon carbide and gallium nitride is believed that they will revolutionize the high voltage transformer industry. High speed switches and other components made from silicon carbide and gallium nitride use much less energy, 90% less, and take much less space, only 1% of what is currently needed. This means that electricity companies and authorities will be able to install and replace high voltage transformers at about one tenth of the cost. This will increase the grid expansion in China and the developing countries and this will lead to the increase of electricity consumption.

Biofuels and electrofuels

Today’s crude oil prices are over 110 USD per barrel. With such high oil prices the market share of biofuels is expected to be rising rapidly since they can be used as substitutes to oil.

Initial attempts and methods for the exploitation of biofuels have not been so successful but with the introduction of new and innovative methods focusing on algae-biodiesel are about to create the right high margins necessary to enable them to be established in the energy market. This is expected to set a downward trend for the cost of biofuels which is expected to be around 2 USD per gallon around 2020.

Along the same lines we have development in the electrofuel industry. The electrofuel programs use micro-organisms to produce liquid fuel which is more efficient that current fossil fuels. New research develops new methods to create carbon molecules which will function like fossil fuels.

The stake is whether these would be reach commercialization at the right time so as to be able to be exploited in such a way so as to reduce the cost of energy and at the same time provide green renewable energy

Clean Coal

Clean coal is the term used when such technologies are used so as to reduce to the minimum or eliminate the emission of carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses.

As we know coal is one of the most commonly used fossil fuels in the world and with the current trend towards green energy. coal plants are in the direction of closure. Current technologies used to capture and sequestrate carbon dioxide are costly and are currently around 10.000 USD per KW of produced power. There are currently technologies being developed which by using innovative techniques promise to capture 90+ % of the carbon dioxide produced when burning coal and these technologies are expected to cost around 1800-2000 USD per KW thus making the coal plants viable. If and when this happens the production of electricity will be boosted and its cost will follow a downward trend. This off course will affect the deployment of some renewable energy sources, RES, but on the other hand it will be a driving factor that would push RES to higher efficiencies and more innovations.

Electrochromic windows and Compressorless air conditioning

Two technologies which are expected to mature by 2020 and contribute to the energy conservation are the technologies of windows, through which we experience heat losses, and the technology of air conditioning where we have high inefficiencies.

Electrochromic windows use Electrochromic glass otherwise known as smart glass. This kind of glass allows you to control the heat and light that passes through it. This means that the massive and commercial use of Electrochromic windows will enable us to reduce cooling and heating costs leading to energy conservation and thus reduce our electricity bills.

Compressorless air conditioners use desiccants for their refrigeration cycle instead of the traditional compress-decompress cycle. So instead of focusing on making efficient compressors the innovation is to remove the need of the compressor thus making compressorless air conditioners. This is expected to bring down the cost of air conditioners, increase their efficiency and basically reduce the energy consumption.

Both of these technologies are expected to mature by 2020 thus making another revolution in the energy sector.

We have analysed briefly the 5 promising and emerging technologies in the energy arena as presented in the McKinsey report by Matt Rogers and we believe that indeed these technologies will not only contribute to efficiencies but will also enable the expansion and exploitation of the renewable green energy resources one way or the other.

About the Author

Andy Goldman

Andy Goldman is a 27-year veteran in the service industry with managerial, strategic, operational and consulting experience. Has managed teams of 5-45 people and has also managed several multidiscipline projects. He has worked in Europe and the USA and holds a BSc and MSc in Electrical Engineering and an MBA with a minor in Finance. For the past 5 years he has been an enthusiast of renewable technologies. Article by Andy Goldman You can connect with Andy Goldman at Google+

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