Tracking Global Developments in Clean Energy Technology
Chukwunomnso Okeke* and Ifeoma Malo*
Since the industrial revolution, the world has been running on energy. Humans have relied on energy to thrive, and the abundance of energy sources available to us was crucial in driving the technological level of our civilisation from the stone age into the space age. However, these technological advancements have come at a significant cost to our environment. As the human population has increased significantly — in part due to these technological enhancements — there has been an even greater demand placed on the Earth to meet our ever-increasing energy needs. This has created two major issues, namely: (i) the gradual depletion of the Earth’s finite resources, and (ii) the unprecedented rate of accelerating climate change caused by the overuse of fossil fuels. Consequently, it has become increasingly important to develop clean energy technologies that will meet the growing energy needs of our global society, while simultaneously reducing the strain on the Earth and decelerating the rate of climate change.
Here are some recent developments that are contributing to the advancement of clean energy and de-carbonisation:
Partnership between Wärtsilä and Pivot Power
In an attempt to support the United Kingdom’s (UK) energy transition goal of reducing its carbon footprint to net-zero by 2050, Finland’s Wärtsilä and the UK’s Pivot Power partnered in February 2020 to facilitate the UK’s transition from fossil fuel use to renewable energy. Pivot Power, which aims to provide the electricity capacity for large-scale electric vehicle charging infrastructure throughout the UK, identified an opportunity to accelerate the country’s transition to low-carbon transportation while simultaneously increasing its generation capacity for reliable energy.
Recognising Wärtsilä’s proven expertise in energy storage and energy management systems(EMS) technology, Pivot Power placed an order with them to deliver 100 MW of energy storage in the UK. The deal included provisions for two (2) 50MW battery plants, one being installed at Cowley, Oxford with the other located in Kent, Kemsley. These two power plants will have 2GW of battery storage assets installed to help balance electricity grids while also providing sufficient power for people across the UK to charge their electric cars quickly and reliably.
The energy storage system technology used to deliver this project is based on Wärtsilä’s advanced EMS platform Greensmith Energy Management System (GEMS) — developed by Greensmith Energy itself before its acquisition by Wärtsilä in 2017 — which leverages artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning for the intelligent management of large-scale energy storage systems.
Andrew Tang, the Vice President of Energy Storage & Optimisation at Wärtsilä Energy Business, said:“these exciting projects will support a cost-effective, reliable and low-carbon energy system, and promote the rapid adoption of clean transport in the UK.”
Discovery of material that can store solar energy for months, possibly years
In December 2020, research scientists at Lancaster University, UK discovered that a particular type of crystalline material — commonly used for desalinating or filtering water — had the capacity to effectively store solar energy for several months, maybe even years. Tests showed that the material could store the energy for at least four months at room temperature, with the researchers estimating that the energy could potentially be stored for up to four-and-a-half years.
This breakthrough could lead to a significant leap in the advancement of solar energy and energy storage technologies, as it could operate effectively in circumstances where batteries and other existing technologies may be impractical or too expensive. This material functions similarly to the potential energy of a compressed spring in that it absorbs energy, stores it, and then releases it on demand.
Dr John Griffin, a Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University and a principal investigator of the study, described it as something akin to a more efficient handwarmer, asserting that the material captures “free energy” directly from the sun, unlike hand warmers that need to be heated in order to be recharged. Additionally, the absence of moving or electronic parts eliminates any conversion losses in the storage and emission of the captured solar energy.
The value this technology could bring cannot be overstated. It makes the concept of cross-seasonal energy storage — whereby energy captured during the summer months can be stored until the winter months when it will be released to generate heat — a realistic possibility. Not only will this provide much needed heating during the winter, it will reduce the burden placed on the energy grid while simultaneously reducing the carbon footprints of households, office buildings and other indoor public spaces that will require heating during the winter. It will also provide a means of utilising solar energy when sunshine is scarce. This technology can be implemented in a plethora of ways, ranging from thin coatings applied to buildings to thin, transparent layers applied to car windshields and windows to defrost them on cold mornings.
One can only imagine the difference this technology would have made in the lives of the Texans who have recently been battling two major challenges of inclement weather and the resultant power outages.
Power-to-X can be understood as:“an umbrella term for a number of conversion, storage and reconversion pathways that use surplus electric power from renewable energy, typically solar and wind” with ‘X’ representing whatever form the surplus energy is being converted into. This technology is a potential game-changer in the pursuit of carbon emission and air pollution reduction strategies, as the production of synthetic fuel will likely result in a decreased reliance on fossil fuels.
The primary avenue through which Power-to-X is being explored is the use of surplus electricity produced from wind and solar energies to split water into hydrogen and oxygen via electrolysis, as it currently appears to be the option with the greatest potential. This creates green hydrogen, as it produces no carbon emissions. The hydrogen can then be used directly or can be converted to synthetic gas, methane or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), all of which can be burned to produce heat, used as chemical feedstocks, or converted back into electricity. Furthermore, power-to-gas conversion allows for the storage of green electricity in the long-term, which creates opportunities for it to be used in other sectors — such as the transport and chemical sectors — as well as for seasonal storage.
What do these innovations mean for Africa?
These technologies have the potential to completely transform the energy situation throughout Africa. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), the number of Africans without energy access in 2019 was 770 million, highlighting the severity of energy poverty on the continent. Energy storage technologies would drastically reduce this figure by providing immediate solutions to communities where electrification is unreliable. Power-to-X, for instance, would be deployed to maximum use in Sub-Saharan Africa, which experiences abundant sunshine. The surplus energy stored could potentially electrify energy-deprived communities by providing supplementary power to increase grid capacity, serving as a backup to the grid during power outages, and/or directly powering areas that are totally unconnected to the grid. These innovations would result in great strides towards sustainability in Africa by enabling countries to satisfy the rising energy needs of their rapidly-growing populations and accelerate their economic development without exacerbating climate change.
To conclude these three developments highlighted above are merely drops in the vast and ever-increasing innovations currently emerging in our global energy and climate landscape. With the speed of technological advancement in the renewable energy sector, it is only a matter of time before more ground-breaking discoveries are unearthed. It is believed that global advancement in addressing climate change will revolutionize the world and contribute to a 5th industrial revolution. This is especially exciting for us at Clean Technology Hub, particularly because our work around research and innovation, particularly across Sub-Saharan Africa, will help localize these modern ground-breaking technologies in the energy access and climate change space. This connotes progress and, more importantly, will contribute to the research and development driving energy transitions, while contributing both to the awareness and the much needed optimism, as well as fostering the enabling environment around our global energy and climate future.
Chukwunomnso Okeke* is an Associate in the Environment and Climate Change Department at Clean Technology Hub
Ifeoma Malo* is the Founder and CEO of Clean Technology Hub