The move toward newer forms of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind, has been one of fits and starts. First it was only the early adopters who installed small renewable energy systems for the sole purpose of sustainability even when cost and reliability did not justify the switch. But as costs have come down, others have followed to reduce energy costs. However, these systems mostly are still tied into the local grid and do not provide backup when the grid is down. Now even that is changing as the renewable energy industry develop new ideas and new technology.
David Droz, a mechanical engineer who heads the telecom sector at Urban Green Energy, New York, NY, a provider of distributed renewable energy solutions, says that the telecom industry is one that has been at the forefront, installing solar for almost 10 years at off-grid sites. This was even before “it became of faddish or trendy for residential use and even before it was financially stable [for other industries]. The market has continued to mature, and today companies are offering much more integrated installations.”
1. Financial incentives have an impact
“The whole idea of financial incentives is to bring transition to an industry that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford the investment,” says Droz. The objective was first to draw attention to the industry and second to make certain new business models feasible at least for the short term, he says.
While reduced costs did promote wider adoption, that prompted a debate, even a backlash, about whether public money should be used and particularly for a business model that wasn’t yet sustainable, Droz explains. That put renewable energy in a negative light and dampened enthusiasm, but the pendulum is now swinging back.
Building integrated solar cell panels on an affordable housing project in downtown Santa Monica. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
2. Commoditization of Solar
For a variety of reasons, including too much manufacturing capacity and cheaper imports, prices of silicon solar panels plummeted due to oversupply. That has hurt so many manufacturers, Droz says. Experts say manufacturers must avoid the perception of solar module commoditization by differentiating their products using technologies to offer added value recognizable to the end user so that price isn’t the deciding factor.
One bright spot is thin-film solar technology, due to advances that have made it feasible for large modules in addition to expanding use in smaller applications. Thin-film printing and peel-and-stick versions open the door to all sorts of applications for surfaces that aren’t flat such as curved roofs and windows and other 3-D structures that can generate electricity, says Droz.
3. Wind Resumes Momentum
After a lot of poorly managed companies gave the industry a bad name during the last decade, the industry has now consolidated leaving the strongest ones to move forward. “Wind is probably the best example of how incentives or the debate about incentives has impacted the industry,” Droz says. “It’s been start and stop.”
Incentives were put in place and when they were due to expire, they were re-instated. “The effect has been … a lack of all the things that incentives are supposed to help. Instead the back and forth was really a disincentive. But the momentum has started to return to this sector,” he adds.
4. Individuals Gaining Control
“We’re seeing increased interest in the market for growth for off-grid, including microgrids,” Droz says. These small-scale systems that operate independently of the existing local grid are changing the role of utilities. In fact, utilities may actually end up buying power from a community-financed microgrid powered by a wind or solar power.
Mechanical engineers may be an integral part of this trend since new technologies will be required at the junctions for distribution as well as for smart meters that will identify what entity is producing and what is using energy at any point in time.
5.Storing Own Energy for Backup
As energy storage technologies improve, people are feeding the energy from the renewable energy sources directly into batteries. This provides a backup energy source for when the grid is down.
Droz says, “If you could tap into the energy stored in thousands of electric vehicles that are all plugged in during the day when most people are at work and aren’t driving, then you have a virtual power plant.” The energy could be stored in the electric vehicle batteries or in separate battery banks attached to the system. In another scenario, individuals could integrate small battery banks into their home systems for backup storage for storm outages instead of using a diesel generator.
The whole smart grid approach would allow utilities to intelligently select what energy to tap into at any given time, including storage devices charged up from wind and solar, saving customers money on rates. That’s the “smart’ part.”
Nancy S. Giges is an independent writer.
If you could tap into the energy stored in thousands of electric vehicles that are all plugged in during the day when most people are at work and aren’t driving, then you have a virtual power plant.
David Droz, Urban Green Energy