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Tina Casey headshot

Science to the Rescue: Renewables Poised for New Growth Spurt

By Tina Casey

Leading members of the American business community are already transitioning to renewable energy because it makes good bottom-line sense. The renewables-friendly list runs the gamut from high tech to manufacturing and retail, including Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Whirlpool, Walmart and many more.

These big energy buyers are mainly taking advantage of proven, off-the-shelf technology in the wind and solar sectors, but this could be the start of an even more dramatic transformation. For a glimpse into the potential impact of tomorrow's technology, TriplePundit spoke with with Dr. Dolf Gielen, director of the Innovation and Technology Centre for the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Renewables and technology

The Centre was established as an initiative of IRENA to help translate new technological developments into practical tools for policymakers among its 150 members.

One key project of the agency is REmap, a global energy report that synthesizes detailed information from member nations. The second edition of REmap was released in 2016. It identified both bottom-line and social benefits of accelerating the deployment of renewables, compared to a "business as usual" approach:

"Significantly scaling up renewables is feasible and affordable, it would result in lower overall costs, save millions of lives due to lower air pollution, increase economic growth and employment, and set the world on a pathway to limiting temperature rise to 2 degree Celsius or below when combined with increased energy efficiency."

According to the report, if renewable energy adoption continues along its current track, it will only attain a global energy share of 21 percent by 2030 -- not a particularly noteworthy achievement considering that the renewables share was already at 18 percent in 2010.

If the 2010 share of 18 percent seems a little on the high side, that's because conventional bioenergy accounts for about half of the renewables deployed.

In order to accelerate change -- that is, to double the 2010 figure by 2030 -- the new technology side of things must be stepped up.

Pssst, wanna buy a solar thermal system?

According to Dr. Gielen, businesses looking to up their access to renewable energy could start looking into solar thermal systems now. Compared to other renewables, solar thermal is an overlooked but growing field with plenty more room to grow.

The basic technology is simple. Solar thermal systems -- aka solar hot water heaters -- use sunlight to heat water or another fluid in a pipe. They are primarily used for residential hot water today, and their deployment has been largely confined to relatively small-scale rooftop systems.

Deployment also varies considerably from one country to another. China accounts for about 90 percent of global solar thermal capacity, and use of the technology is negligible in some countries.

Compared to all the hoopla over wind farms and high-tech photovoltaics, solar thermal doesn't usually get much attention. But Dr. Gielen said solar thermal is actually running neck-and-neck with wind in terms of current global deployment. Both clock in at approximately 450 gigawatts.

For American businesses, the Department of Energy offers a handy cost calculator that demonstrates why small-scale solar thermal is so popular now, and why it should be even more popular. A solar water heating primer is also available.

The next level for solar thermal would be industrial applications, including space heating as well as hot water heating among other commercial uses. That would require hotter temperatures, and consequently improvements in materials and fluids.

Some countries are already beginning to dip into the solar thermal district heating field, where Denmark already seems to have nailed down a leadership role. Last year the country celebrated reaching the 1 million milestone for square meters of installed solar collectors, and it has 85 heating districts supplied with solar thermal energy.

Denmark is not particularly well known for its solar resources, so the rapid development of solar thermal assets in that country demonstrates the great potential involved elsewhere.

Dr. Gielen says there are now a few hundred industrial-scale projects deployed globally, a far cry from the thousands -- or even millions -- that are needed to provide for the global demand for thermal energy.

Right now, most of these systems are custom-built, which partly accounts for their relatively high cost.

However, as the technology improves, standardization kicks in and economies of scale emerge, costs will drop. That drop could prove to be rapid and dramatic, if industrial solar thermal follows the trends already under way in the photovoltaic and wind fields.

If and when that happens, Dr. Gielen foresees that the global power sector will transition from generating electricity to a greater focus on supplying thermal energy for heating.

Other renewable energy sectors

Microgrids are another area of growing interest to the business community. They provide for a high degree of reliability, flexibility and renewables integration. In that sector, Dr. Gielen foresees a large degree of potential for significant cost reductions.

Microgrids are complex systems, and costs will drop along with technology improvements in the various components, such as controllers, inverters and advanced electronics.

U.S. businesses have already become major buyers of onshore wind, and now it looks like offshore wind will take its turn. America's first offshore wind farm came online last year, and many more are all but certain to follow.

Offshore wind is already established in other countries, and it is poised for continued growth due to the "amazing prices" it can offer.

The technology for wind turbines placed in relatively shallow waters is proven. As Dr. Gielen explained, floating turbines offer the potential for tapping wind energy in deeper waters.

Other renewables face some technology challenges that put them farther out on the commercial horizon.

The Centre regularly reviews ocean energy, for example, because it receives a significant number of inquiries about marine energy resources from its members.

Dr. Gielen cites tidal energy as one area in which the technology is proven and the financials are relatively decent. Deployment has been small so far, but that sector is capable of future growth.

However, other types of ocean energy -- wave energy, thermal conversion and salinity-based energy -- offer more complex challenges and are still in the development stages.

Advanced biofuel for transportation is another area in which the market is eager but the technology is not quite up to snuff for commercial deployment in the mass market. Dr. Gielen says the exception is the aviation market, which is beginning to ramp up its adoption of jet biofuel.

All in all, businesses have many opportunities to integrate renewables now, and many more opportunities are appearing just over the horizon.

Additional details on the Centre's technology roadmaps are available at irena.org.

Image: Solar water heater via U.S. Department of Energy.


Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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