As Earth Month is commemorated this April, it can be all too easy to resign oneself to pessimism about the current state of our planet’s environment, along with myriad other global concerns.
However, what is sometimes less focused on is that there are many solutions to energy production and distribution today that suggest a promising future for sustainable energy. Let’s look at two developments in renewable energy that can provide a spark of hope as the new decade rolls on.
Solar energy has been at the forefront of sustainability initiatives for decades and is still one of the most widely known energy alternatives. The SEIA (Solar Energy Industries Association) reports that solar energy has grown by an average of 33 percent per year in the last ten years, assisted by a 60 percent decline in price in that time and rising demand for clean energy options.
“There are now more than 135 gigawatts of solar capacity installed nationwide, enough to power 23 million homes,” the report claims. On top of that, some of the most interesting developments in the solar space concern “Solar 3.0,” an advance in solar technology that may make it even more attractive.
The promise of Perovskites
Solar 3.0 primarily deals with the use of the mineral perovskite, which is used in one of the two types of solar cells currently in use. Some cells are silicon-based, the type used in most solar panelling. Cells using perovskites are of a thinner film, generally more flexible and versatile than the silicon alternative.
As a bonus, perovskite cells are cheaper and easier to manufacture, while, at this stage, improving on the current technology’s sunlight-to-power conversion by up to 25 percent. Perovskite is globally abundant, occurring naturally in many places.
Perovskite solar cells are at the forefront of some of the most interesting solar technology advancements currently in development.
For example, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology has developed solar paint that generates energy from water vapour. The paint absorbs moisture in the air, breaking down water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen to generate energy. This can allow solar energy to be spread across a larger and more diverse surface area than through panelling.
In addition, researchers at the University of Toronto have developed quantum dots, or photovoltaic paint, which are nanoscale semiconductors that capture light and turn it into an electrical current. These seem to be cheaper to manufacture than some other alternatives while also being considerably more efficient than traditional solar cells.
One other such invention is spray-on solar cells, which were developed in 2014 at the University of Sheffield and are more akin to spray paint.
Supply chain pain
Solar 3.0 presents some exciting opportunities for the solar market, but it is running into familiar problems in today’s market. SEIA says that recent developments in Solar 3.0 have been hampered by worldwide shipping and supply chain shortages and constraints. These have come about as a lingering aftershock of the COVID pandemic and have led to price increases across the solar industry (about a seven percent increase in 2022 over the previous year).
As always, the adoption of new forms of energy requires considerable investment in development and making it sustainable. Additionally, perovskites themselves are lead-based, which is a substance with potential negative environmental consequences. Engineers in the solar space will have to find a way to use perovskites that does not rely on lead, or at least, negate the effects of the toxic elements within it.
Another trade-off in using perovskites is that the material is not as stable inside the cell and can decompose at higher temperatures. The longevity of these is also not known at this time; given their sensitivity to moisture, oxygen, and heat, they would need to have more protection to last longer (a potential production cost increase).
Outside of specific spaces in the renewable energy industry, an emerging global phenomenon could be a way to advance renewable initiatives across the board. Artificial intelligence continues to gain traction in many consumer-facing spaces, and renewable energy seems to be another area in which AI is looking to make a significant impact.
In a piece for EY, Thierry Mortier observes that adding AI and sensor technology to solar and wind energy generation can allow systems to predict capacity levels in tandem with advancements in automation.
“Before harnessing AI, most forecasting techniques relied on individual weather models that offered a narrow view of the variables that affect the availability of renewable energy,” Mortier writes. “Now, AI programs have been developed—such as IBM’s program for the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative—which combine self-learning weather models, datasets of historical weather data, real-time measurement from local weather stations, sensor networks, and cloud information derived from satellite imagery and sky cameras.” This has led to improvements in solar forecasting accuracy.
Mortier continues by adding that AI can allow more optimal use of power grids by adapting operations to weather conditions. This can increase the reliability of sustainable power systems and add greater resilience.
The potential for AI in renewable energy is gradually being embraced by those working on it. In an article for RatedPower, Meyer Montagner cites a survey of over 100 workers in the renewable energy sector, saying that 90 percent of them feel their jobs would benefit from some form of digitalization and automation.
Two types of assist
There are two types of aid that AI can provide in these sectors: Automated decision-making and aided decision-making. “Automated decision-making involves computer systems processing information without human intervention,” meaning that more complex tasks (such as preventative maintenance in a solar plant) can be handled by machines.
By contrast, aided decision-making leaves the ultimate decision up to human intervention, with an AI “providing insights that enrich the process.” This still allows for the use of human knowledge and experience while allowing AI to do more intricate calculations that would take too much work or consideration from humans.
AI may also be able to help with the development of solar energy. The World Future Energy Summit notes that solar panel creation still relies on fossil fuel-generated power; however, the use of AI will allow for greater experimentation into and development of new materials suitable for panel creation.
The true potential of artificial intelligence in various markets has yet to be completely understood. In a piece for the World Economic Forum, Emmanuel Lagarrigue observes that all bodies and powers involved in the advancement of renewable energy will need to decide what their respective roles will be, including deciding whether to incorporate AI software into their operations, or simply become software companies outright.
This also means that customer data and privacy will become even more important, as this is already a concern with AI systems and automation. “National and local governments also will have to both accelerate and rethink their approaches to infrastructure spending and energy generation and transmission infrastructure in particular.”
Precedence Research reports that the global artificial intelligence in renewable energy market size will surpass USD 75.82 billion by 2030. Thierry Mortier sees that, as with many automated systems, an AI-based sustainable power grid is still prone to cyber-attacks, although the likelihood of a large-scale attack is probably small.
As well, AI is in a nascent phase of its development across multiple fields and has been seen in online spaces with less-than-perfect AI artwork, a consequence of these systems still being sensitive to poor data. “It is critical,” Mortier continues, “that data is taken and made machine-readable, so that [the data] is quality in, quality out.”
Hope, and even optimism
There will likely never be a magic solution to the environmental woes that we are facing as a species today, but there is still cause for hope and even optimism in the ways that the renewable energy space is working to make new energy ventures a reality.
As long as research continues into newer ventures like those in the solar energy and artificial intelligence markets, renewable energy experts may draw closer to the most feasible and effective solutions that can benefit the Earth and keep it going for a long, long time.