We need to rethink solar and wind power. Here's why
It's truly unbelievable.
Despite significant upgrades to solar and wind technologies, not everyone is confident that they can provide a viable solution for entire societies to pivot away from fossil fuel and coal, at scale.
And they really need to.
With rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the global average temperature is warming, threatening the world with consequences far worse than even the scientific community initially predicted. In March, both of the Earth's poles experienced an unprecedented rise in temperatures, with sections of Antarctica surging to more than 70 degrees Fahrenheit higher than average, and the Arctic climbing more than 50 degrees Fahrenheit above average, according to an NPR report.
If ever we needed a key breakthrough in sustainable technologies, it's right now.
Things have gotten so dire that solar and wind power technologies will have to do more than just supply reliable electricity — we also need them to provide applications for other issues that go beyond sustainable energy: slowing or addressing the onslaught of climate change on ecosystems, even on our own supply chain, including food.
In short, solar and wind power are becoming very complicated. And this is a good thing.
"In general, the pivot to solar and wind won't be a one-size-fits-all," says Mark Cann, CEO, and co-CTO of CryomatiKs Inc., who spoke with IE in an interview. "What works for San Francisco is not necessarily going to work for Singapore."
Conventional solar and wind power still can't reach urban scales
"It’s going to be a combination of short-term and long-term power — lithium-ion batteries have secured the path on storing and delivering power for two to four hours," says Cann.
A 2021 study from the University of Michigan estimates that 83 percent of the U.S. population lives in cities, a tremendous rise from 64 percent in 1950. That means any sustainable energy solution isn't worth anything — at least in the U.S. — until it confronts the issue of powering entire cities.
And that means innovating around the conventional storage technologies seen for wind and solar. In 2021, solar and wind power generated more than 10 percent of the world's electricity, according to Global Electricity Review 2022, which was compiled by the energy think tank, Ember. That's twice the global levels of 2015, when the Paris Climate Agreement was signed.
That's significant progress, but it still leaves 24 percent percent of the world's power generation (in 2020) coming from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). And the United States Energy Information Administration's (EIA's) October 2021 report said "renewables will be the primary source for new electricity generation, but natural gas, coal, and increasingly batteries will be used to help meet load and support grid reliability."
Consequently, innovation in renewable technologies and the diversification of their capabilities are absolutely necessary tasks.
"Densely populated areas require other strategies to pivot to sustainable energy," adds Cann. "Iron-air batteries are just now being commercialized, but they already have the ability to offer several days of power, stored over long periods of time — at a much lower price than lithium-ion batteries."
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But this doesn't mean renewable power can simply upgrade to lithium-ion batteries, and scale up to power, say, a major city.
"Some buildings are trying to integrate commercial wind power — but, often, the value of a mechanical problem can be much greater than the initial cost to install that turbine," says Co-Founder and CEO of Glass Dyenamics Christopher Angelo, who is also the former CFO of Silicor Materials, in another interview with IE.
"If something goes wrong, it's really expensive to fix," explains Angelo, referring to the complications of installing cutting-edge sustainable energy on large buildings. "If you put a wind turbine on top of a building in the city, that can cause some issues as well, due to building structural and dynamic load management. There's also the chance someone builds in front of the wind pattern."
Imagine if every other building in Manhattan had a wind turbine or large solar array on top, and one or several erupted into a blazing fire from an environmental mishap. It could be like an urban fire from the 19th century — totally out of control.
"Equity issues" with solar power technology
So a straightforward approach of simply distributing renewable power generation throughout an urban region probably isn't going to work. At least not yet. But there are other roadblocks to rolling out sustainable power — ones more personal than engineering, alone.
"The key social issue with the solar market is the grid saturation point — this is the experience with every major solar market scaling solar to a sufficient degree" in Germany, Japan, Italy, Spain, Ontario, and elsewhere, added Angelo. "The saturation point is where those who can't afford solar are paying uncomfortably higher utility rates due to subsidizing the homes that can or already do have solar — so there’s an inequity issue."
Specifically, the ones most in a position to afford the latest and greatest solar panels can rebrand themselves as a "green company." This, in turn, can give them access to lucrative subsidies — "and that crowds out other firms, in addition to prospective residential buyers," explained Angelo.
Anyone can look up the top 10 solar power-using zip codes in, say, California, then note what the average income is in these regions, using IRS and census data, Angelo suggests. "I think the average income [for the densest solar neighborhoods] was two to three times the national average income."
In 2019, the national average income was $65,836, according to Policy Advisor, citing US Census data.
To Angelo, this fact alone lends "some merit to the stigma of 'solar [being] for rich people' — there's a steep cost to pay for solar".
Adopting solar and wind power goes beyond questions concerning technology
However, while it doesn't feel like it, we're still in the salad days of renewable technologies. This means most of those in a position to do something about pushing renewables forward are still relying on lackluster market strategies from the 20th century.
"Everyone is very tribal about new power technologies," hoping "to grab market share," says Cann.
"People aren't just fighting over a contract for today, they're fighting over the next 20 years of contracts," explains Cann.
It's important to think about the human element to demystify the roles of solar, wind, and other types of sustainable energy: while some private interests may not align with every proposed alternative to non-sustainable energy sources, in practice these technologies aren't actually at odds, and can "complement each other," he adds.
Hopes of advancing battery technology to shore up the intermittency issues of solar and wind — which signifies wind and solar's uselessness when wind is absent and sunlight is hidden under overcast skies, respectively — have promised much. But they might be overstated.
"In reality, batteries provide very little of global energy storage," says Cann. "Pumped hydro provides over 90 percent of the world's global energy storage, with thermal energy providing a small amount and batteries offering single digits."
To Cann, the conversation should move on from the discussion of batteries.
Raw materials for battery technologies have "doubled in price"
"There are multiple technologies, like green hydrogen or liquid air, that are capable of providing uninterrupted electricity to large cities," explains Cann. And we can even procure highly valuable byproducts from these battery types, like high-grade cold air for air conditioning, refrigeration, and, in some cases, even waste heat that could keep the hot water tap toasty.
But whatever we do to innovate the way we think about batteries and energy storage, we may have little time to act.
"In the next couple of years — the manufacturing costs of lithium ion-based batteries, and thus energy storage itself, is going to rise tremendously," says Cann. "That's going to change a lot of projections that were made five or six years ago regarding the price" of new battery technologies.
"All the raw materials to make them have doubled in price," Cann says. And, according to him, sustainable energy technologies are due for an upgrade. "Previous sustainable technologies have already matured — it's gotten to the point where people are trying to squeeze pennies or nickels out of things."
If we're going to preserve the next generation of modern power, we need to put next-gen sustainable technologies into mass production, says Cann. "For example, there is a solar photovoltaic design that uses copper instead of silver — it has lower material costs than conventional PV panels, and testing yields very good early performance — it should be able to match or outperform current PV panels, at a much lower cost."
Cann's company, CryomatiKs Inc., is working to commercialize a new type of floating wind platform that incorporates energy storage directly into the system. While Cann admits his partiality to wind power (it's what his company is doing, after all), he has a reason that seems to override skepticism:
"The short answer is [that] floating wind platforms can provide over 60 percent utilization factor, whereas solar is less than 25 percent, and in most locations falls to less than 20 percent."
Floating solar arrays are more efficient and good for ecosystems
"This means that floating wind platforms can provide clean electricity for over 14 hours a day, with solar between five to six hours. When you are producing power over 12 hours a day with floating wind, less energy storage is required, which results in lower cost," said Cann. "Floating solar arrays have the advantage of helping cool the PV panels, which increases the output of the solar array by one to two percent. When floating solar is installed on top of a water reservoir this can reduce the evaporation of the water as well."
Floating solar arrays, or floatovoltaic panels (FPV), "are a tasty treat," remarks Professor Joshua Pearce of the Innovation Ivey Business School Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering Western University, in another interview with IE. "You don't use any land, and you also get the benefit of water cooling the panels down."
In the development of new and renewable resources, real estate is expensive and in short supply — a boon for FPVs. And the technology avoids another hidden pitfall of solar technology, explored by Pearce and his colleagues in the journal Energies.
"Solar cell efficiency drops with increased temperature," explains Pearce. "The water cools floatovoltaics so their operating temperature is lower, which results in more solar electricity generation."
To Pearce, FPVs will see tremendous growth in the coming years. "It turns out there are many crops across the world that increase their yield when you put them under transparent solar panels. If you shade your beans or peppers, you get more under the panels than you would otherwise" said Pearce.
Sustainability must go beyond simply generating clean energy
And, notably, FPV arrays can "help conserve water by limiting evaporation," adds Pearce, who's also the John M. Thompson Chair in Information Technology and Innovation at the Thompson Centre for Engineering Leadership. Pearce and a colleague, Koami Soulemane Hayibo, explored the ramifications of disappearing natural lakes amid the changing environment, in a study published in the journal Renewable Energy.
The pair found that FPVs could have great success "in arid or semi-arid regions, as well as helping protect against climate change," says Pearce. "They could be critical for saving terminal natural lakes." And with the supply chain shortage in full swing, Pearce and his colleagues did a study that discovered "the materials for FPV are less than for conventional racking," and showed that FPV systems are the greenest of all photovoltaic systems.
"Overall, even though the U.S. is behind in FPV, I think we can expect to see a lot more of it in the near future as it may even be beneficial for aquaculture to make aquavoltaics," says Pearce, to IE. But no matter how compelling, encouraging, or even mind-blowing the abundance of evolving solutions to rethinking our energy infrastructure, we should be careful not to overlook the other end of energy consumption — and not become fixated on generation.
Dynamic "tinted" windows can substantially cut down on wasted energy
Unlike insulated walls, windows can "leak" energy via heat transfer at incredible rates (depending on the surface area). During the winter and summer months, the temperature differential between a comfortable office or home and the outdoor world is constantly being adjusted. And, whether via air conditioning or heating, that's energy wasted.
In essence, minimizing this loss comes from the same motivation behind investing in solar or wind power tech. "If you're a building owner, you don't buy solar because it's going to be a power source for you, you're buying it to be an efficient tool to lower your costs," says CEO and Co-Founder of Glass Dyenamics, Christopher Angelo.
Angelo's company produces a special kind of dynamic glass that "tints and untints upon application of an electric charge — and it takes roughly one minute to darken," he explains. But this technology allows users to save on wasted energy without losing the benefits of a sunny day by completely shutting blinds or other coverings. The dynamic glass "goes from 70 percent down to three percent of visible light transmission. So it’s similar to solar cells — which have 20 percent efficiency of that sunlight."
The Department of Energy wants to scale tinted glass
Converted into energy loss (also known as the solar heating coefficient) the tinted state only transfers 20 percent of that solar heat, "and in a clear state, it’s 40 percent," adds Angelo. In essence, this cuts the amount of solar heat coming into a building during a sunny day. And that reduces how long the air conditioning needs to be left on to achieve a comfy temperature. This, in turn, "provides energy efficiency and energy savings, which is the same value-proposition that solar provides," he adds.
Of course, there are other options to tinted glass — insulation in homes and businesses already holds a lot of the heat inside homes, serving as a thermal buffer to keep a temperature differential from equalizing between inside and outside. Fiberglass has long served as a means of doing this, but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that fiberglass production creates emissions that become "toxic air pollution, including styrene."
There are alternative materials that could be used. Scientific work with the insulating properties of sheep's wool could yield more eco-friendly materials. Cotton (yes, even your old blue jeans) can be shredded and recycled into thick batts, and fit right into walls (but you may want to have someone treat them with a borate solution, so it's less flammable). There are other solutions, like the spray, icynene, and polystyrene, but suffice to say there is a multitude of options that can be combined to make your home or office cut energy costs, without causing environmental costs.
And, while solar power is "stuck at three percent market penetration," dynamic glass could expand deep into the U.S., and worldwide — until renewable energy technologies catch up, and it's even cheaper than solar: "Dynamic glass offers a 66-percent discount compared to average rooftop solar," explains Angelo. "I think this has a huge role to play in terms of future energy efficiency."
The Department of Energy has recognized the promise of this technology — implementing dynamic glass to become a major part of sustainable energy in government facilities throughout the United States — which means the time to buy or invest early, as the market expands, is now.
Drag-based wind turbine systems could circumvent intermittency issues
Cann's firm broke with convention on wind technology, and moved away from the traditional three-blade system, opting instead for a drag-based system. "If you've ever seen windmill-based systems like those used in the 1930s that pump water out of the ground — that's called a drag-based design," explains Cann. And this design had several advantages. Low cost was primary — "the cost of raw materials is incredibly low," explains Cann. But the higher utilization rates that come from floating platforms were equally important. These go to "60 or 70 percent," says Cann.
But most crucially is the way drag-based design circumvents intermittency issues: "It doesn't rely on high wind speed," says Cann. "The performance is lower relative for to three-blade systems, and but drag based wind turbines can operate from lower for wind speed."
But none of this will have a lasting effect if it can't be scaled. Luckily, it can. "The drag-based three-blade system can definitely be scaled," Cann tells me. "Right now, there is a 1-MW turbine system being built, and we’re using that to validate the output," he adds, referencing his firm's efforts to develop a scalable version of floating drag-based wind turbines. "Then we’ll build a 5-MW version, which will be put on a floating platform."
"The 5-MW machine will be a default mass-producible unit that will be on a floating platform, and those floating platform machines can go up to 100 MW. Crucially, each floating platform also doubles as an energy storage system," says Cann. And this system takes wind power beyond electricity and conventional power grids — tapping into the wider infrastructure where it hits us closest.
Solar and wind power are evolving faster than you think
"Our approach argues that there's far more value in storing power starting with molecules than you can with electrons," explains Cann, hinting that his firm's strategy isn't limited to electrical grids. "If you can take low-cost power and convert it into liquid air or green ammonia, then that same power has more value than simply feeding electricity into the grid."
"You can go one step further, and convert the low-cost power into green ammonia," explains Cann. If you've never heard of green ammonia, and how critical it is to food production, you should. "The ammonia market consists of nearly 200 tons per year. And that requires a lot of natural gas. So, providing green ammonia as a carbon-free alternative is an appealing market."
Cann's choice of the word "appealing" is an understatement.
"Fifty percent of ammonia goes to create food," he says. "You can't grow food without ammonia. Right now, prices are skyrocketing because of Russia's push to overthrow the Ukrainian government, which drives natural gas prices up, which, in turn, drives food prices up."
Innovate for the public good - Solar and wind power are evolving faster than is generally recognized. Among other things, this means public consensus, as always, is lagging behind the combined advances of both scientific progress and commercial growth in sustainable technology. But, with the climate crisis exacerbating already intolerable and unpredictable conditions, and the threat of more wars and overstrained resources and supply chains — it's time to lend more support to recent advances, from floating solar arrays to drag-based wind turbines, new intermittency solutions, smarter raw materials, dynamic, energy-saving windows and, of course, take a new look at changing the quasi-monopolistic market strategies of conventional and sustainable energy investors who do not tend to put the public good ahead of private profits.