Renewables – innovation and adaptation


In recent months clean energy has reached some significant milestones; the longest yet period of coal-free energy generation, highest levels of solar generation and massive increases in wind power output. With all the talk of lowering emissions and switching to cleaner energy alternatives, this is encouraging news.


Additionally, when the world went into lockdown and oil prices plummeted, it seemed a possibility that this would encourage investment in renewables over fossil fuels. But at the same time investments in general nosedived as companies tightened their belts due to economic shutdown. Now there is a growing collective calling for investment in renewables to be a core part of economic recovery packages.


Sustainability key to recovery


A primary reason that renewables and the circular economy are seen to be fundamental to economic plans is because of the focus on sustainability. There is increasing evidence that the current pandemic is a direct result of escalating pollution globally and destruction of natural habitats which has ultimately exposed humans to new viruses. In other words, the linear economy of take, make and dump is at the heart of the crisis we find ourselves in.


There’s no doubt that most people recognise that the issues of pollution and habitat destruction were bad, but somehow we’ve lived with the belief that it’s salvageable and that by setting climate targets for 2050 was enough. The pandemic proved these hypotheses wrong. It’s not enough. We need to act now. We need to do more. We need to completely change our way of operating, thinking and investing.  


Follow the money


While ideologies are good and most people will get on board with noble sounding ideas. Ultimately it is money that talks. Maybe now that global environmental events have had a massive economic impact, businesses will reconsider what’s most important to invest in, or change.


If the headlines are to be believed, renewables are fast overtaking fossil fuels and driving a clean energy transition. While it may be true that renewables are gaining ground, there are still many that claim renewables cannot offer a consistent energy supply in line with demand and that fossil fuels and nuclear power still have an important role to play.


But when one is considering these arguments, it should be within the context of the circular economy. We can no longer afford to offset one cost against another benefit. Decisions need to be made considering the whole product life cycling from virgin resource to end waste with the objective of closing the loop. Only then will industry start to gain real ground towards meeting emission targets and achieving a sustainable path to economic recovery.  And at the heart of this is innovation.   


There’s no shortage of innovation in renewables


There are many in the fossil fuel industry that make claims against renewables, citing that despite lower emissions, renewables simply cannot deliver what industry needs when they need it. The case against solar is that it is limited by daylight hours and clear weather, and that when you really need it on cold dark stormy nights, it’s not available. It’s a similar case against wind power and other forms of renewables. But that’s not stopping innovators from finding unique solutions to the challenges being faced. Here are just a few examples of how the renewables sector is overcoming challenges through innovation:


Energy intermittency and storage


Balancing energy supply and demand is a major challenge for the energy sector even using fossil fuels. Bringing in renewable resources such as wind and solar complicates the mix even more. In the absence of effective energy storage solutions, to date this has been managed through costly subsidies. With wind farms being paid large sums to shut down so that oversupply to the grid can be managed. This is a costly for everyone including the end user as these subsidies are often recouped through tariff increases.


Currently the primary storage mechanism is lithium ion batteries which are limited in their capacity and expensive. An alternate scalable solution needed to be found – and it has – in the form of compressed air. In Manchester, construction has begun on the world’s largest liquid air battery. This is a pilot project and has been supported by a government grant of £10 million. Essentially the project involves taking excess renewable energy that has been generated and using it to compress air into a liquid form that is then stored. When demand increases the liquid is released through a turbine which in turn distributes clean energy to the grid. If successful this could pave the way for a more effective and efficient way to store renewable energy and resolve the intermittency issue.              


Energy conversion


Another challenge that the renewables industry faces is being able to supply energy in the form that it’s needed. For example: railways run off AC power and that requirement has limited a conversion to renewables. But now a pilot project is experimenting with adapting existing converter technology to solve this issue.


The project will see the installation of a solar array coupled to Quinton Rail Technology Centre at Long Marston. The objective is to be able to directly power a locomotive with green energy. This will be achieved through a new power conversion device which will be able to transform the DC output from the solar array and battery storage into single phase AC required to run the locomotive. The project has received a £400 000 grant from the Department of Transport and has a goal to be operational before the end of 2020. If success can be achieved it has the potential to completely transform the energy supply for rail infrastructure.


These two examples of innovation are indeed encouraging, but the fact remains that we need more. More innovation, more commitment to renewables and more willingness of industry to adapt their way of operating to accommodate renewable solutions.