The shift to renewable energy sources already has many of the necessary ingredients: existing technology, broad public support and strong advocating from environmental experts. The challenges have centred on practical issues, like the economics and reliability of integrating these sources into the energy mix. We explore how innovative experts are breaking down those barriers, through advancements like microgrids, big battery storage and distributed generation.
As the cost of our fossil fuel habits translates into increasingly tumultuous climate conditions and expensive annual energy bills, renewable energy has begun to dominate the discourse.
Growing anxiety looms over the public as concerns about the economic and environmental consequences of our current energy landscape increase. Thousands of students around the world are found going on school strikes every Friday in efforts to urge global leaders to transition our traditional energy system, while engineers are designing and developing innovations capable of supporting the proposed shift.
However, despite possessing the right combination of resources — unabating public support, existing and developing technologies and declining costs of renewable energy — to shift our current system in favour of cleaner alternatives, change has been a relatively slow process.
expected increase in energy consumption between 2018 and 2050
of the global population receives their electrical power from centralized distribution systems
Barriers to adoption
The question that’s keeping us from adopting a greener system isn’t whether it’s beneficial, as the advantages of renewable energy are unequivocal. Nor is it whether we have the means to implement changes. The question is whether these energy sources can reliably deliver power — and if renewable power is economically viable.
Between 2018 and 2050, we are expected to see a 50 per cent increase in energy consumption. Reflective of our proliferating reliance on electrical energy, the forecast prompts the concern of whether a greener system could maintain a real-time balance between energy generated versus consumed. Considering our consumption habits, as well as the undeniable fact that renewable energy sources can be inconstant, some hesitation is understandable when pivoting away from traditional system that has reliably served its purpose for the past 150 years.
Developed in the 20th century, our conventional energy generating models feature large power stations that generate and distribute energy through high-voltage transmission lines traversing far distances. The centralized distribution system effectively provides electrical power to 84 per cent of the global population, enabling us to enjoy our daily activities. But should we let comfort keep us complacent?
Despite possessing the right combination of resources to shift our current system in favour of cleaner alternatives, change has been a relatively slow process.
Costs of inefficiency
In recent years, we’ve witnessed the compounding costs of the conventional energy system and its limits. Due to the design, traditional power stations and grids are vulnerable — damage to one part of the power grid can cascade thousands of kilometres from the point of failure and instantly disconnect millions of people from power. Prime examples include the Northeast US blackout of 2003 and India’s blackouts of 2012, which together impacted over 700 million people. Considering that these large-scale disruptions can arise from minor events such as a squirrel gnawing on a wire, or a tree falling on utility equipment during a storm, it’s safe to say that the system isn’t quite as reliable as we might imagine.
If we were to integrate innovations such as microgrids or distributed generation rather than maintaining a centralized distribution system, we may effectively cut down our annual energy expenses while minimizing the risk and impacts of large-scale system failure.
Microgrids Microgrids are mini versions of large power grids capable of providing power independently when a central network fails. Integrating microgrids could help to safeguard millions of people from falling victim to cascading blackouts. Moreover, because microgrids have the potential to integrate smart technologies, such as smart meters, we may even be able to use them to gauge market prices for power supply, enabling us to purchase energy at lower prices.
Distributed generation — the generation component of Distributed Energy Resources (DERs) built to produce electricity where it is needed — also offers a plethora of benefits. Unlike the traditional centralized distribution system designed to mass-produce energy to be delivered via high-voltage transmission lines to and from far away locations, distributed generation is a multi-source, multi-direction, smaller-scaled system that may provide reliable energy for a lower cost. What makes distribution generation exceptionally attractive is the potential to lessen impacts on surrounding communities, thus increasing community acceptance, and the time it takes to deploy.
Schematic of a distributed generation grid (left) and traditional generation grid (right)
Changing the energy landscape can be a long and arduous process involving many stakeholders (provincial and municipal governments, regulators, utility companies and retailers). And safely and effectively incorporating new technologies to generate and store energy requires a thorough review and revision of existing policies and regulations. While it may take a traditional generation plant 10 to 15 years to receive approval for development, distributed generation could be approved and deployed in as few as three months. As one of the barriers to transitioning to renewable energy includes the time it takes for policies and regulations governing electrical energy procurement to undergo review or revision, distributed generation offers a significant advantage.
If we were to capitalize on the reduced costs to create batteries capable of storing large loads of energy generated and dispensed via either microgrids or distributed generation, we could store excess energy generated during off-peak usage times for later use when there is a higher demand for power.
Though inexhaustible, cheaper and environmentally friendly, renewable energy has its trade-offs — its availability depends on nature, which can be volatile. This is, perhaps, one of the most compelling reasons keeping us from dialling down on our use of non-renewable energy sources. However, if we were further to develop technologies such as battery energy storage systems, we may be able to dramatically scale back our fossil fuel habits without ever worrying about a shortage of energy.
Thanks to improved manufacturing efficiencies, the cost of creating batteries is declining. If we were to capitalize on the reduced costs to create batteries capable of storing large loads of energy generated and dispensed via either microgrids or distributed generation, we could store excess energy generated during off-peak usage times for later use when there is a higher demand for power.
As we look at our current energy landscape and the possible future ahead of us, it’s clear that the barriers to shifting to renewable energy can be addressed through various innovative solutions. With this in mind, now is the time to capitalize on declining costs of renewable energy, existing and developing renewable energy, broad public support and global dedication to lowering the carbon footprint and pursuing greener energy, making mass fossil fuel reliance simply another relic.