The rise of renewable energy

Renewable energy in the form of solar, wind, and hydropower has been harnessed by humans for thousands of years. From using concentrated solar to create fires, harnessing the power of the wind for sailing, and the force of water to turn water wheels, renewables have a long history. And they continued to be major sources of how energy was generated until the industrial age, when fossil fuels started to occupy primacy. With renewable energy gaining in importance in the modern age, it is the same trio of hydro, wind, and solar which have the major share of power production within renewable energy. And the rise of renewables is set to change the way the energy industry is structured, and how we try to reduce global warming.

The use of renewable energy in the modern age began with innovations and grand projects in each of these sources. Hydroelectric power is the largest source of renewable energy, with the 20th century seeing major projects developed to harness the energy. The first hydroelectric power plant was built in 1882 in Wisconsin, and numerous projects followed. Over the 20th century, hydropower production saw a steady increase across the world.

Energy output from major renewable energy sources (1985–2020)

(Source: Ourworldindata.org)

However, the costs, complexities, and technical demands associated with hydropower such as the requirement of a steady flow of water mean that there are limits to the amount of energy that can be harnessed from it. And in countries such as the USA, that potential has been reached and hydroelectric power generation has plateaued.

Energy consumption in the USA by source (1776–2012)

(Source: Energy Information Administration)

Windmills have played a role throughout history in draining water, grinding grain, and other mechanical uses. The modern windmill saw its birth with the creation of the first wind turbine to generate electricity by Scottish professor James Blyth in 1887 in Glasgow, Scotland. However, the earlier iterations did not give much power output and, in the next few decades, they were used mainly for generating energy in areas where the grid was not available. Though the development of wind energy saw numerous innovations post-World War II, these were not sufficient to see it being deployed on a large scale. The 1990s was a tipping point for the industry, as the number of players in the field started to increase and the size of wind turbines had grown to a point that wind energy became competitive through financial incentives and technological improvements. Over the next two decades, wind energy has seen major growth in parallel with the size of wind turbines.

Global energy output from wind (1966–2019)

(Source: Ourworldindata.org)

Changes in size and power output from wind turbines (1990–2016)

(Source: Energytransition.org)

Wind energy is set to gain further ground with the development of the offshore wind industry. Though only a small part of the overall wind industry at the moment, the advantages presented by offshore wind generation in the form of stable wind flow, greater turbine size over larger areas, and easier permits, would see it grow in the coming decades.

Scientific breakthroughs in understanding the Photovoltaic effect led to the development of the first solar cell in 1884 by Charles Fritts, an American inventor. However, the element used in this was Selenium and the solar cell had poor efficiency. The element seen in today’s solar cells, Silicon, was a breakthrough at Bell Labs in the USA in 1964 and was a leap over the previous Selenium-based ones. However, the high costs of these meant that they found few practical applications, such as in powering satellites in outer space. Nevertheless, the efficiency of solar cells saw slow but steady improvements over the decades. The cost of solar energy generation began to see similar declines, with the 2010s seeing a tipping point where the rapid drop in prices led to solar becoming one of the leading sources of energy generation. And with ongoing improvements in technology and manufacturing processes, the rise of solar energy is set to continue well into the future.

Energy prices/MWh across different sources (2009 and 2019)

(Source: Ourworldindata.org)

While renewable energy has been the overwhelming majority of energy additions over the last few years, the urgency of the climate crisis means that the energy sector needs to decarbonize at the fastest possible pace. And this would involve replacing existing fossil fuel-based energy infrastructure with clean energy ones. Reaching a zero-carbon society would also mean that this decarbonization goes beyond electricity usage to that for industrial purposes and in the transportation sector.

Investments in decarbonization technologies (2004–2020)

(Source: BloombergNEF)

Falling battery prices, which are the most significant components of Electric Vehicles (EVs), have meant that they are getting competitive with petrol and diesel-based ones. But the costs associated with these have meant that uptake has been slow.

For greater renewable energy penetration and for EVs to be used widely, there needs to be a way for them to be available to people at an affordable price, while not compromising on quality. Energy as a Service (EaaS) offers that solution in the form of providing these essential components as services, instead of individuals and businesses having to buy them outright.

With the intermittency of renewable energy being a constraint that will need to be addressed, energy management is set to play an important role as well. It is for these reasons that the energy industry as it earlier used to be in the form of centralized production and distribution is about to see disruptive change. Energy production will be decentralized and will be created in residential buildings, offices, and any area with rooftops available. Energy storage using batteries, demand management, and a grid that can transfer energy from areas with high production to ones where it is needed will result in a future with multiple connection points.

The energy network of the future

At Sheru, we recognize the urgency of the situation and strive to bring the latest technologies to businesses without impacting the environment, or their budgets, adversely. In the next post, we will be writing about what Energy-as-a-Service is, and how it can be leveraged to create the future that we envision.

Interconnecting Earth Energy Networks