Two years ago, data from the International Renewable Energy Agency has shown that the amount of renewable energy generated worldwide has doubled in only a decade. These figures point to yet unseen adoption of solar, wind, hydro and other emission-free energy resources by the world’s largest economies. With the US and China supporting the largest clean power portfolios, Brazil, Germany, Canada and India are close behind. According to the Agency’s director-general Adnan Amin, this surge in renewable energy not only contributes to global carbon-free electricity, but also provides multiple socio-economic benefits, like economic growth, employment and human welfare. Let’s explore the latest trend in renewable technologies.
The data from the American Wind Energy Association shows that, currently, there are more than 1,000 utility-scale projects and more than 52,000 wind turbines installed across continental US states and territories. On top of that, there are more than 500 wind-manufacturing facilities in the country. These figures are staggering, but have yet to reach China’s capacities, which have tripled in only 12 months. The latest innovations in wind energy are about to take the whole industry to the next level. As wind towers are getting taller in order to reach stronger winds, their price rises exponentially. Makani, a company owned by Google, is taking the reverse approach – by building power generating kites that can soar up to 300m – much higher than the tallest tower. A 600kW kite travels in massive circles, with generated electricity passing down the tether to the grid.
Tapping into the ocean of possibilities of sea-produced power has unjustly lagged behind other renewable sources. Successful systems for harnessing the power of the waves to generate energy have already been built, yet engineers have yet to come up with solutions that are cost-effective. Estimates show that electricity from tidal power can cost between two and nine times more than that made from wind power. Then, there are serious concerns over the environmental impact of constructing big tidal barges. Still, tidal facilities in South Korea, France, the UK and Canada have shown formidable capacity to generate energy from sea power. Unlike tidal currents that change direction along the shore and can only be harvested in specific areas, ocean currents are relatively constant and flow in one direction. They move slowly when compared to wind speed, but with seawater 800 times denser than air, a 12mph current equals a constant 110mph wind force.
Solar water heaters on rooftops now seem like ancient history. Then came photovoltaic panels used by large solar farms, as well environmentally-aware or industrious individuals. Over the years, solar power has seen rapid growth, with China doubling the energy output of the US and reaching about half of the entire worldwide solar power generation. With an increased use of storage units like Tesla Powerwall, there are indications that in the future, solar power systems could become much more efficient. Most solar panels today use crystalline silicon arrays, which are effective, but not always affordable. The new thin-film technology allows solar panels to become cheaper and more available, which is especially important for developing countries.
In recent years, there have been many efforts to harness the constant motion in the cities to generate energy. Individual projects like speed bumps, merry-go-rounds and walkways haven’t moved away from technology demonstrators. The problem with these devices is that generating energy on one end requires spending energy on the other. Engineers are now faced with the challenge of turning these experiments into a more widespread and cost-effective energy source. Rather than having speed bumps that make cars slow down and actually negating the energy that is generated, they are trying to generate energy from actions that take place regardless, and, more importantly, don’t pollute. An excellent example is an array of 200 hidden energy-capturing tiles under an AstroTurf football pitch in Rio de Janeiro. If this technology could be replicated across sport pitches and eventually spread to busy city centre pavements, the clean energy production would move up the ladder.
If such efforts to enhance and increase the amount of renewable energy pervade, we should expect clean energy to seriously decelerate the use of fossil fuels by the world’s leading economies by the end of the decade. And if the industry giants and world’s most populated countries are leading the way, what would stop the smaller economies from following suit?