If you had a crystal ball and could see 10 to 30 years into the future, what energy technologies would you see emerging? Sometimes you have to look at the past to see the future. Here’s my top five list.
Top Five Future Energy Technologies to Watch
Well … not a complete surprise given that we are indeed observers of hydrogen. Check out my post on hydrogen fuel cells for why hydrogen is poised for a big future.
The PEM fuel cell was invented in the 1960s. Fuel cells found early use in the space program and was successfully deployed during the Apollo missions. However, besides niche applications, the adoption of fuel cells for power applications have been limited, largely due to cheaper alternatives for energy storage.
Now we’re seeing that the possibility of having low-cost green hydrogen transforming the energy sector is more and more likely each day that passes. That transformation also rests on a total addressable market that includes the utility, transportation, logistics and chemical industries. Companies like Plug Power (NASDAQ: PLUG) and Ballard Power Systems (NASDAQ: BLDP) are leading the way.
Supercapacitors or ultracapacitors have been around for a long time. Early development began in the 1950s. Supercapacitors are similar in concept to an ordinary capacitor in that they both store energy electrostatically, but they are different in several ways.
Supercapacitors have much higher energy density than capacitors. Capacitance, measured in Farads (F), is used to indicate a capacitors’ ability to store electric charge. They’re also different in design as well. Supercapacitors are typically electrostatic double layer capacitors (EDLC) which gives it a much higher capacitance than a plain vanilla capacitor.
Compared to other forms of energy storage like batteries, supercapacitors have relatively higher power density, but lower energy density. This means that they are best suited for quick burst applications. In my post on flywheels, I highlighted a use case that lends itself well for use in high power density storage technologies such as primary or fast frequency response for providing electric grid stability.
While supercapacitors aren’t projected to have the highest probability of having the lowest levelized cost of storage for primary response, they make a little dent in the 2035 to 2040 timeframe.
However, what makes supercapacitors really interesting is not as a standalone storage system, but as a hybrid system paired with battery storage. Supercapacitors have amazing cycling capabilities and can handle high power, short duration needs while the battery can be used for longer charge and discharge cycles.
Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) raised eyebrows when they acquired Maxwell Technologies, an American manufacturer of supercapacitors, in 2019. The news caused speculation about whether Tesla would somehow be applying supercapacitors to its vehicles and batteries.
#3 Liquid Air Energy Storage
Liquid air energy storage, also known as cryogenic energy storage is getting some buzz. A company called Highview Power has developed liquid air energy storage technology that can store energy for long periods of time, up to 4 weeks. They claim benefits of lower costs and higher energy density than battery storage.
Cryogenic energy storage essentially works by liquefying air at very low temperatures and then storing it in insulated, low pressure tanks. When that energy is needed, the liquid air is re-gasified and that results in a significant expansion in volume which can drive a turbine without combustion. From a technology standpoint, many of the processes are already commercialized and used in other industries.
Liquid air energy storage differentiates itself compared to other long duration energy storage technologies like pumped hydro and compressed air energy storage (CAES) in that it doesn’t have any geographical constraints.
Highview Power already is operating 5 MW and 350 kW pilot plants and has plans to scale up to a 50 MW/400 MWh plant in Vermont. Highview Power has also been backed by Sumitomo Heavy Industries with a $46 million investment. This is a technology to keep an eye on for the future.
#3 Ocean Energy
Ocean energy which includes wave energy conversion, tidal energy and ocean thermal energy conversion is like the last kid that gets picked for a dodgeball game. It certainly doesn’t get much attention like its renewable energy cousins, solar and wind. However, as the clean energy revolution gains more steam and people realize how hard it will be to achieve a 100% clean energy portfolio, ocean energy will get a serious look.
Ocean energy development has been around for a while. Commercialization of the technology has just been challenging. Onshore technologies in the US have just been so much lower cost and proven that it’s hard to even consider offshore technologies that are more complicated to deploy.
Oscilla Power, a wave energy company based out of Washington, has a game changing technology that allows its converters to capture energy from multiple movements of the ocean. It also has a lower cost of installation than other wave energy conversion technologies, which is a major cost of deployment. Oscilla has been through a few venture rounds and is currently offering a crowdfunding opportunity.
Expect ocean energy technologies to be brought out of obscurity within the next decade. Undersea transmission grids could also facilitate congestion relief to major grids and help bring down the cost of offshore technologies.
#4 Floating PV
Floating solar PV (FPV), sometimes called “floatovoltaics,” is the deployment of PV arrays on floats or docks that reside on the surface of a body of water. Most of these deployments have been in inland bodies of water like lakes and reservoirs.
The draw towards floating PV is that it’s usually deployed on bodies of water that don’t have many other uses except for water retention. That means lower costs for siting as compared to ground-mounted solar which competes with other uses such as real estate development.
From a cost standpoint, reported capital costs for FPV systems are currently about 5-15% higher than ground-mounted PV systems. However, they’re very cost competitive with commercial roof-top PV installations. Capital costs of FPV are expected to decline as the supply chain for materials, engineering and construction becomes more robust.
One of the highlights of FPV is its performance – the cooling effect of water actually increases energy yield and results in lower PV panel degradation. Other ancillary benefits include reduced water evaporation and potentially improved water quality.
Overall, FPV is a bright spot for future growth of solar PV as it’s a very attractive alternative to typical ground-mounted PV systems. As land becomes more scarce for development, FPV will gain even more traction in the next decade.
#5 Nuclear Fusion
Nuclear fusion has long been the holy grail of the energy industry. The desire to make nuclear fusion a reality is because of the immense amounts of energy it produces and that it doesn’t produce long-lived nuclear waste that you see with nuclear fission. Essentially, nuclear fusion is the creation of an artificial sun, fusing hydrogen atoms together and releasing large amounts of energy in the process.
ITER, is a mega nuclear fusion research project located in France with 35 participating countries. When completed, the project will be the largest fusion reactor in the world. It aims to demonstrate a 10 fold increase in thermal power, turning 50 MW of input thermal power to 500 MW of fusion power in long pulses. While the project won’t convert the thermal energy to electricity, it will show the technical feasibility of generating a large net gain in energy production with fusion.
More to come in the next 5-15 years with ITER as it plans to be commissioned in 2025 and start full-scale operational testing by 2035. Meanwhile, South Korea made news by running the Korea Superconducting Tokamak Advanced Research (KSTAR) fusion reactor for a full 20 seconds at 100 million degrees Celsius, a new record.