Innovations in renewable technologies: Powering the next decade.

Blog Powering Next Decade

It’s impossible to know what 2050 will look like (we’re holding out hope for teleportation). But one big thing the UK government has planned is to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 20501. If we’re going to achieve this energy transition, we need to keep investing and innovating in renewable energy technologies. Let’s look at some of the technological advances we could make in clean energy over the next decade.

What are renewable energy technologies?

It’s a good question – renewable technologies are basically technologies that use renewable energy sources to generate power, which helps to keep homes, businesses and communities running smoothly. Renewable energy sources include sunlight, wind, water and geothermal heat. They are naturally replenished, meaning they won’t run out even as we keep using them. Brilliant, right?

Popular renewable technologies include:

  • Solar photovoltaic panels.

  • Offshore wind turbines.

  • Onshore wind turbines.

  • Hydroelectric dams.

What is renewable energy?

Wind. Solar. Hydroelectric. Biomass. Renewable energy has taken root at the heart of the climate conversation. But how much do you actually know about renewable energy?

The Independent’s Decomplicated series, in partnership with E.ON Next, explores the renewable energy transition on the road to net zero, and answers fundamental questions relating to renewables, such as where it comes from and how it is harnessed.

Advances in solar power technology.

Solar energy has a big role to play in helping to reach net zero. Some exciting innovations include:

New solar panel materials: Building solar panels from new photovoltaic materials, such as perovskites, could make them more efficient than traditional silicon-based solar cells. Organic photovoltaic materials also help to create transparent and flexible solar panels, which makes them easier to incorporate into windows – so they’re adaptable for different homes2.

Solar skins: This new invention can be laid over solar panels so they blend in with the roof of your home. So for people who are concerned about the appearance of traditional panels, solar skins are a great incentive.

Floating solar farms: You’ve heard of offshore wind farms, but have you heard of offshore solar farms? Traditional solar farms can take up land, which is expensive and might be needed for other reasons like agriculture or housebuilding. That’s why the idea of floating solar plants is catching on. It involves installing solar panels onto floating platforms in water, such as lakes and reservoirs, and has already been achieved in several countries including Japan, China and the United States.

The future of wind energy.

Thanks to recent innovations, wind power is taking different forms, including taller turbines, bladeless structures and even systems that can ‘fly’. Let’s look at each one in turn. 

Taller wind turbines: Wind is usually stronger at a higher altitude so taller wind turbines are being built to reach it. Taller turbines with longer blades can capture wind energy, even in areas that are less windy. 

Bladeless wind energy: Bladeless turbines use the oscillating movement of wind to generate power. They can also overcome some of the challenges of traditional blades – they are less noisy, easier to maintain and less dangerous to wildlife, especially birds3.

Flying wind energy: As well as building increasingly taller wind turbines, alternative airborne energy systems are also being developed. They use a ‘flying’ device that’s tethered to the ground, which can reach higher altitudes and stronger winds. These devices are smaller and use fewer materials, making them cost-effective. They also take up much less space than turbines and can be adjusted to find the windiest spots, so they could be more efficient3.

Innovations in hydropower, geothermal energy and bioenergy.

The more innovations we achieve in renewable energy, the greater progress we can make towards net zero. Here are some recent positive steps in other renewables beyond wind and solar: 

Hydropower: Hydroelectric power uses the natural flow of moving water to generate electricity. Modern turbine designs are fish-friendly and work efficiently at lower water speeds, making them more suitable for different environments. Kinetic hydro turbines also have the potential to capture energy from flowing water without needing large dams or reservoirs, making it easier to generate power in rivers and streams2. Tidal power harnesses the energy from the natural rise and fall of sea tides to generate electricity. This renewable energy source uses tidal turbines or barrages, similar to underwater wind turbines, to capture the kinetic energy of moving water. As the tides flow in and out, the movement drives the turbines, converting mechanical energy into electrical power. The predictability of tidal patterns means there is a reliable and consistent energy output. Tidal power is environmentally friendly, producing no greenhouse gases during operation, and can contribute significantly to reducing dependence on fossil fuels – though it requires substantial upfront infrastructure investment and can have ecological impacts on marine environments. Geothermal energy: Geothermal energy, which taps into the Earth's heat, is making progress thanks to new drilling techniques, which ironically are inspired by the fossil fuels industry (oil and gas). These new techniques create greater access to deeper geothermal resources, so that energy can be generated from a wider variety of places beyond traditional hotspots. Countries like Iceland and New Zealand use geothermal energy to heat homes and water a lot more than we do here in the UK. However, there’s potential for growth as it’s estimated that the UK has enough geothermal energy trapped underground to heat every home for a hundred years⁵. Bioenergy: Bioenergy – which harnesses energy from plants and animal waste – is also making advancements. New conversion techniques are helping to efficiently transform non-food crops into bioenergy, so they take up less food resources. Scientists are also exploring algae’s potential as a source of bioenergy, as it grows in lots of environments, including wastewater.

New energy storage systems.

The challenge that renewable energy sources face is that they are intermittent – the Sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, and so on. This challenge is addressed thanks to energy storage, so that any excess energy generated on fruitful days can be conserved to use at a later point.

Energy storage has traditionally relied on lithium-ion batteries, but lithium-ion charges through a liquid electrolyte, which can be flammable. What’s more, the materials used to make these batteries aren’t sustainable. This challenge is being overcome thanks to solid-state batteries, which are safer and can conserve more energy for longer amounts of time. 

For example, a solid-state lithium-glass battery can reportedly store three times as much energy as lithium-ion batteries and can charge in minutes, rather than hours3. The solid electrolyte is also non-flammable, making it much safer.

What is the fastest growing renewable technology?

Right now, solar energy is the fastest growing renewable technology, closely followed by wind energy4. Since the turn of the century, the amount of energy produced by sunlight has risen from under 1,000GWh to over 1,000,000GWh4

Both solar and wind power have grown dramatically in recent years thanks to technological innovations (like the ones we’ve covered in this blog), as well as lowered costs and increased government support.

While solar energy is the fastest growing in terms of added capacity, hydropower still holds the lion’s share of renewable power generation across the world, at over 4,000,000GWh. This is because it was established considerably earlier4.

The more we invest in renewable energy innovation, the less we need to rely on fossil fuels and the better chance we have of reaching net zero by 2050. These advancements aren’t just cleaner – they could be more cost-effective too. Win-win.

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Published 30/06/2024