With solar panels and wind turbines sprawling across the globe, clean energy is taking over fossil fuels, which seem to be dead and buried, but are they? Is our renewable energy future really inevitable?
The technologies that made recent history
As of 2019, renewable technologies accounted for only 11% of the world’s primary energy. Although things like solar and wind power are growing fast, there are many criticisms that give the perception that their future dominance may not be a sure bet. Panels and turbines typically last between 20 – 30 years before needing service or replacement. They’re also intermittent and require energy storage to provide consistent electricity.1 2 3 That energy storage can be expensive and often has a limited lifespan of its own. Not to mention lingering questions about their recyclability.
I know this sounds like I’m suggesting renewables have significant downsides and are going to struggle to surpass fossil fuels, but before jumping to any conclusion, it’s wise to look back on what our grandparents and great grandparents did in the past industrial revolutions. It can help provide context for what we’re seeing happen today and where we stand in the current transformation we’re experiencing.
Let’s start in Britain, a gold mine … more like coal mine of opportunities.
Back in 1760 coal fueled the major invention that powered the first industrial revolution: Steam-powered machines. Unlike mills, which depended on unreliable forces such as water and wind (sounds familiar?), this technology could count on a steady supply of coal. That’s why fields like transport and textile picked up steam … yeah … I said it.
But how fast did steam engines develop over that period?
In 1712 the very first steam engine pumped water out of Staffordshire mines with a 1% efficiency…clearly not the best, right? But advancements made over the next 100 years from people like James Watt and Matthew Boulton continued to refine the steam engine design and improve its efficiency. After 100 years of technological enhancements, steam engines increased their efficiency by 10 times.4 5 6 7 It’s not until 1863 that the steam engine gave way to the internal-combustion motor.
Now, we’re at the dawn of the second industrial revolution when Etienne Lenoir drove around Paris on his hippomobile, the ancestor of our modern cars. His engine was only 4% fuel-efficient and his vehicle reached a blistering speed of just under 4 miles per hour…a hippo actually runs twice as fast as a hippomobile. Thanks to innovators like Otto, Diesel and others, in the early 1900s the internal combustion motor became more powerful and reached a higher efficiency … 13% by 1927.8 9 10
And then we come to the real breakthrough of the second industrial revolution: electricity. However, since Humphry Davy’s…light-bulb moment…in 1802, we need to wait 80 years for Thomas Edison’s coal-fired power plant to light New York’s First District. That same year, Edison paved the way to the application of renewables on an industrial scale by building the first hydroelectric station.11 12 13
But there was a major flaw in Edison power plants. They relied on direct current (DC) which was not efficient for long-distance electricity transmission. By the turn of the century, Westinghouse, Tesla and others resolved this issue by developing the alternating current (AC) power system.14 15
By the outset of the 20th century, electrons flowed several miles bringing artificial lighting into people’s houses. Short-range electricity networks evolved over the years into mega-grids like the US coast-to-coast infrastructure, which was finalized in 1967.16
Are renewables the next technological revolution?
As we’ve just seen, past technological developments were clearly not easy and required time to be accomplished. But how does it relate to the renewable energy transition and industrial revolution we’re experiencing right now?
Let’s take the solar energy evolution, for instance. In a previous video, I’ve talked about how photovoltaic panel efficiency has been increasing at the speed of sun … light. Over the last 60 years, commercial solar panels have become more than twice as efficient. If you compare that to the steam engine efficiency escalation (10 times in 100 years), we’re a bit behind, but we’ve got 40 years to catch up.17
40 years might not sound a lot of time to you, but it would be more than enough if solar panels efficiency were to grow exponentially. But what are the chances of that?
Well, the development of many recent technologies have grown exponentially, such as computers and flights. There’s an S curve to these innovations and adoption rates. And this is particularly true when the technological cost follows a decreasing exponential trend, which is the case of solar panels.18 Follow the money.
On top of that, research is looking promising. Last year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) achieved a record-breaking 47.1% efficiency for a solar cell made on a lab scale.19
Remember the internal combustion engine? It took roughly 50 years for its efficiency to increase 4 times. Not bad, but what about electric vehicles (EVs)? The cost-effectiveness of electric cars is mostly affected by their key component: their energy storage, a.k.a. battery. Over the last decade, EVs’ price decreased by a factor of 7 because of an increase in the production of Lithium Ion batteries.20
Sounds great, right? Let’s produce billions of Teslas and we’re done. If only.
Lithium Ion batteries are the fundamental challenge holding back the EV market because we need so many of them. Why is that an issue? Because Lithium and the other components are tricky to get. And in the case of lithium, its extraction process is far from efficient and not exactly environmentally sound.21
So, what do we do?
There are some really cool solutions coming up…
First, we may have alternatives to Lithium. Just one of the many examples comes from Maria Helena Braga and John B. Goodenough. They’ve designed a dream battery with multiple advantages, including Sodium instead of Lithium as a raw material. Sodium is more earth-friendly and cheaper than Lithium since it can be extracted from seawater. John B. Goodenough is one of the original inventors of lithium ion batteries, so his involvement gives that research a lot of weight. And I don’t know about you but that’s already…Good-Enough…for me.22
Secondly, nano materials like metal organic frameworks (MOFs) could push Lithium recovery up to 90%. Today they only recover about 30%. Think of MOFs as a sponge-like filter, which absorbs or filters out everything except for Lithium, which passes through. I’ve got a video on this exact topic and the technology that EnergyX is trying to bring to market. I’ll include a link to it if you’d like to hear more. This technology is still in the works, yet its potential is very encouraging for the future.23
Last but not least. What if I told you EV batteries can be recycled in an eco-friendly way?
Li-Cycle is driving the circular revolution for EVs. This Canadian company developed a low-impact recycling technology on an industrial scale. Their process doesn’t imply any energy-intensive thermal steps and recovers 95% of the battery components. And they aren’t alone. Companies like American Manganese can recover nearly 100% of valuable metals. And Redwood Materials, which is former Tesla CTO, J. B. Straubel’s company, is also leading the way on new battery recycling techniques that could pave the way for a closed loop battery manufacturing system. According to Transport & Environment improvements, battery efficiency and recycling technologies will reduce the amount of Lithium needed for EV manufacturing by 50% in the next 10 years.24 25⠀ ⠀
But there’s something else which could propel the shift to a fossil-free future: The synergy between hydrogen and renewable energy sources (mostly solar and wind). In one word, green hydrogen. One of the most advanced methods to produce green hydrogen is to feed renewable energy to an electrolyser, which then splits the water molecule into hydrogen and oxygen.26
That’s what’s happening in Germany, where GP Joule is generating hydrogen from wind-powered electrolysers. With a 95% efficiency, their facility will provide green hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles and other uses.27 Green hydrogen could be a key driver to a renewable-powered future as it can be used for a variety of applications. Not just as fuel for EVs, trains and planes, but also as energy storage and natural gas replacement.
Sounds pretty good, but about 95% of the current hydrogen is produced from fossil fuels. So, what’s the true potential of scaling up green hydrogen?
Frost & Sullivan said the green hydrogen global production will boom in the near future, reaching a crazy growth rate of 57% by 2030. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reports that the future cost reduction of electrolyser technology and renewable energy will make green hydrogen more competitive than its fossil-fuel alternatives by 2050.28 29
It’s hard to guess when exactly renewable energy will reach its full potential and break loose from fossil fuels. But the rate of innovation and adoption has been increasing over time. For instance, it took 100 years for the telephone to reach its adoption peak, while the tablet computer increased its adoption rate by 50% in only 5 years. Which is crazy if you think about it. Recent technologies require less infrastructure and nowadays consumers are more connected and proactive in trying out new stuff.30
The end (or the beginning?)
So, is the future of renewable energy a reliable promise? Is it inevitable?
Renewables will certainly progress with time, just like other inventions during the previous industrial revolutions. Clearly, there are some challenges (low efficiency, limitations in raw materials availability, heavy dependency on fossil fuels) but there is also a great deal of ongoing work to overcome those. Don’t fall into the trap of status quo thinking. History gives us some context and points to a very interesting renewable future ahead. It’s still early days in the current transition.
- “Renewable Energy – Our World in Data.” ↩︎
- “US: Wind and solar remain fastest-growing energy sources.” 26 Jun. 2020 ↩︎
- “Every Wind Turbine and Solar Panel Built Today Will Be Scrap Metal ….” ↩︎
- “Devon – Discover Devon – Newcomen’s steam revolution – BBC.” 30 Jan. 2008 ↩︎
- “Industrial Revolution Invention of the Steam Engine.” 27 Apr. 2020 ↩︎
- “Matthew Boulton | British engineer and manufacturer | Britannica.” ↩︎
- “The Industrial Revolution (article) | Khan ….” ↩︎
- “A Pioneering Developer of the Internal Combustion Engine ….” 4 Aug. 2020 ↩︎
- “The Internal Combustion Engine | Encyclopedia.com.” ↩︎
- “History of the internal combustion engine – Wikipedia.” ↩︎
- “History of the Light Bulb | Lighting Basics | Bulbs.com.” ↩︎
- “4th September 1882: Thomas Edison opens the world’s … – YouTube.” 4 Sept. 2018 ↩︎
- “Hydropower Program | Bureau of Reclamation.” 3 Feb. 2016 ↩︎
- “(E11) The Reason for Using Alternating Current – NASA.” ↩︎
- “AC Power History – Edison Tech Center.” ↩︎
- “Energy Transition Institute – DMS – SC.GOV.” 5 Feb. 2021 ↩︎
- “Exploring solar panel efficiency breakthroughs in 2020 ….” 23 Jul. 2020 ↩︎
- “Technological Progress – Our World in Data ↩︎
- “Six-junction solar cell sets two world records for … – ScienceDaily.” 14 Apr. 2020 ↩︎
- “The battery decade: How energy storage could … – CNBC.” 30 Dec. 2019 ↩︎
- “Electric Vehicles Are Driving Demand For Lithium – With … – Forbes.” 10 Jun. 2019 ↩︎
- “Godfather Of Lithium-Ion Battery Says He’s Found A New Battery ….” 3 Mar. 2017 ↩︎
- “Can nanotechnology solve our lithium mining problem ….” 16 Feb. 2021 ↩︎
- “Batteries vs oil: A comparison of raw material needs | Transport ….” 26 Feb. 2021 ↩︎
- “Lithium-Ion Recycling Company Is Going Public – CleanTechnica.” 28 Feb. 2021 ↩︎
- “Hydrogen Production: Electrolysis | Department of Energy.” ↩︎
- “Electrolyzer Generates Green Hydrogen From Wind Power ….” 29 Sept. 2020 ↩︎
- “Hydrogen from Renewable Power – IRENA.” ↩︎
- “Global Green Hydrogen Production to Balloon up by 57% in 2030.” 19 Jan. 2021 ↩︎
- “Chart: The Rising Speed of Technological Adoption – Visual Capitalist.” 14 Feb. 2018 ↩︎