The future of sustainability: A look at the next evolution of environmental tech

The world of clean energy is rapidly evolving. Solar power installations in the U.S. increased by 43 percent in 2020, and the price of solar decreased by nearly 90 percent between 2010 and 2020. Similarly, wind turbine capacity increased by a record 14.2 gigawatts last year alone. On top of that, electric vehicle sales have been steadily increasing, and it’s expected that by 2025, 10 percent of all vehicles sold will be electric vehicles. By all accounts, the green tech revolution is well underway.

But while these are certainly promising developments, they’re hardly enough to slow down climate change. In order to make a significant dent in the problem, we’ll need to scale up and improve these technologies. So what does the future of green energy look like? We spoke with environmental researcher, author, lecturer, and entrepreneur Johnathan Koomey to get some insights.

Solar

According to Koomey, solar costs will almost certainly continue to decrease in the coming years — but perhaps in different ways than we might expect.

“We’re getting to a place now where the cost of solar panels is not the biggest factor, per house, and even for a big solar installation in the desert or wherever,” Koomey says. “Now that solar panels are so super cheap, there’s a shift to focusing on these other costs and trying to get rid of those.”

Those costs might include the cost of labor, the cost of obtaining permits, and other factors. Koomey says we need to significantly reduce permitting costs to meet our clean energy goals.

Outside of these costs, we’re also seeing promising new innovations in the solar industry. It’s great that solar panels have become so cheap, but it would be even better if they were also more effective, and researchers are figuring out ways to make that happen.

One way you can make a solar panel more effective is by increasing the amount of light it can capture. Researchers have discovered in recent years that you can layer different materials on the panel and capture a broader range of wavelengths of light, which means it can capture more solar energy. That means you wouldn’t need as many panels to generate whatever amount of energy you need.

“There’s so much solar radiation coming into the Earth that we’re really just limited by our cleverness,” Koomey says. “We’re not limited by solar.”

Wind

Much like solar power, Koomey says wind power is also getting cheaper, and the ways in which we approach wind energy are beginning to evolve.

“The biggest development, I think, in the U.S. for wind is opening up offshore wind as a possibility,” Koomey says.

Offshore wind is common in Europe, and it seems it could soon become quite common in the U.S. The Biden administration has decided to open up parts of the West Coast to offshore wind. Given the vast amount of available space and the relatively steady amount of wind that blows in from the Pacific Ocean, offshore wind power has the potential to dramatically increase the U.S. renewable energy capacity.

A comparison of horizonal-axis wind turbines (HAWT) and vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT).

Turbine technology is advancing as well. In addition to the commonplace three-blade turbines, engineers are beginning to explore and develop new systems that capture energy more efficiently.

One such idea is large-scale vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWTs). These turbines form a kind of vertical football shape and spin on a rotor. They’ve been found to capture 15 percent more power than traditional wind turbines, and are also easier to maintain. Arguably their biggest benefit is a lower center of gravity, which allows them to be built much larger than horizonal axis wind turbines.

There are also ideas for capturing wind power without any turbines at all. The Vortex Bladeless is essentially a pillar that vibrates in the wind to generate power, whereas Google’s Makani Energy generates power with a plane-like kite that can be transported to wherever the wind is blowing.

Batteries

When it comes to the batteries that power electric vehicles and are increasingly found in people’s homes, Koomey says those costs are also greatly declining. He says lithium-ion batteries are following the trajectory of the decrease in the price of solar panels we’ve seen over the years, but they’re “kind of at an earlier stage.”

“For electric cars, the battery is the biggest cost issue. As that comes down, that’s the thing that will shift the economics in a compelling way,” he suggests.

Lithium-ion batteries remain an industry standard for electric vehicles and the devices we use, but we’re seeing promising advances in grid-scale energy storage solutions that will allow us to store solar and wind power and use it later. Flow batteries, for example, are increasingly popular in places like California and Texas, where electricity demand often outstrips production capacity. Other technologies, like advanced compressed air energy storage and gravity storage are gaining ground as well.

Information technology

In addition to the physical infrastructure that underpins wind, solar, and battery tech, Koomey says information technology will also be a big part of the future of green technology. The more we can digitize and automate the electrical systems in our homes, office buildings, infrastructure and more, the more energy efficient we can make these things.

“Information technology allows us to collect data, and it allows us to respond in real time to the data so we can optimize our systems. It allows us to substitute smarts for parts,” Koomey says. “There’s going to be a movement towards the virtualization of our physical infrastructure.”

It seems that the future is electric, and it’s moving in that direction more rapidly than anyone predicted. Koomey suggests that, as these technologies continue to get cheaper, the simple economics of the situation will drive the adoption of them. Decades from now, we may scoff at the idea that we ever burned dirty fuels to power our homes, cars, and everything else.

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