In the common imagination, technology and environment can be seen as in contrast. On the one hand, the manufacturing industry with its energy-intensive production processes, which consume enormous amounts of resources, introduces toxic substances in exchange for air. On the other hand, the environment is seen as an element to be preserved and defended.
The term technology itself, however, indicates the most efficient and economical use of available goods and tools. This is why it is not an oxymoron to talk about Cleantech, clean technologies, although it can be complex to define its fields of action in an exact manner.
Cleantech: clean technology without borders
The concept of Cleantech is difficult to define. If it is true that in a theoretical level it is a rather simple concept when you go into it, the possibilities become practically endless.
In Cleantech, we can include all the innovations, regarding processes and products, that limit or completely eliminate the negative environmental impact of human action.
We can talk about Cleantech when we are faced with technologies that deal with:
• Collection and recycle of waste
• Production of electricity from renewable sources
• Rationalization of transport
• Optimization of energy consumption
• Reduction of packaging volumes
• Limitation of resources used in the production process
• Cutting emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere.
In a Circular Economy perspective, Cleantech can, therefore, become any technology that limits energy; optimize their production and consumption processes; prevents waste eventually produced.
In our analysis, we will focus on technologies that provide innovative energy production and storage.
Forbes has dedicated to the world of new technologies for the creation of clean energy an article on the possible trends for 2019. Among the 6 trends that could emerge this year, the newspaper cites Artificial Intelligence, now pervasive in different fields.
In particular, the AI helps us to improve the efficiency of the production and the consumption of energy from renewable sources, in a widespread manner. How? With microgrids. This term refers to a system for connecting various active and passive electrical utilities, grouped together in a single connection point with the electrical distribution network. The different units are connected not only electrically, but also with the so-called Microgrid Energy Manager, which manages the communication between the different points of the network, optimizing the production and consumption of electricity.
A comparison with the traditional system of production and distribution of electricity will make the explanation easier. In a common “grid”, there are energy production points (thermoelectric plants, hydroelectric plants, wind farms and so on) and consumption points, typically houses, offices and companies. The network here is limited to distributing the electricity produced from one point to another. When instead we have a microgrid, electricity production is widespread: the consumer, in turn, becomes a producer and can use the current produced energy for his own needs, but also re-inject it into the network. These systems, which are more complex to manage, are generally governed by intelligent technologies such as artificial intelligence software, which takes charge of intelligent and optimal energy distribution, intervening in a particular way during emergencies (such as blackouts).
In this context, the machine learning software can intervene to continuously adapt the operation of the network, optimizing the energy production and distribution processes.
This is what some specialized companies are trying to do. One of the most interesting has arisen in San Diego, California. It’s called XENDEE and its goal is to democratize microgrids: in partnership with the WorleyParsons Group, it has in fact launched a solution that cuts the costs of conventional methods by around 90%.
Solar panels need the sun to produce energy. Wind turbines need wind. Hydroelectric needs water movement. This may seem trivial, but it is not. The sun is not present at night, there are more windy regions than others and water can be a scarce resource.
On the other hand, in some periods of the year, there may be an overabundance of one source of energy over another: we think of the sun in the warm seasons. How to remedy these imbalances? It can be done with systems that store energy when in excess, to release it when there is a decline in production. In a word: a battery is needed, able to store and release energy according to the needs.
There are several solutions offered by the market and those in development. Among the most interesting in Italy, there is the Nessox liquid battery, developed by Bettery, the result of 9 years of research, which has recently earned prestigious awards such as Next Energy and the Marzotto Prize.
Nessox is a liquid lithium-oxygen flow battery. Its peculiarity is that it is capable of storing the highest amount of energy ever recorded (the energy density is 5 times greater than other solutions on the market), thus proposing a duration so far unattainable. Even when recharging, the performance of the Bettery device is higher: just replace the discharged liquid and replace it for an immediate recharge. Another advantage, the cost: 30% lower than the market average.
In recent years, renewable energy sources have exploded due to a number of favorable conditions: significantly reduction of costs, new investments in the sector (also by public bodies that have encouraged installation), and new possibilities for energy storage. It is a step forward, but it is not enough. This is the situation in 2016 of total energy consumption globally: fossil fuels still dominate the scene.
Growth is estimated to continue to be fairly sustained over the next few years. If in 2016 the renewable energy market reached 1.4 billion dollars, in the world, by 2025 it should reach 2.1, with an aggregate annual growth rate of around 5%.
The market is now dominated by hydroelectric energy production, but the most important growths have occurred (and are expected) mainly from solar and wind power.
Good news, but let us predict that much more could be done. There is indeed space to do two things:
1. Improve existing technologies, making them more efficient and even cleaner, for example by using materials with a lower environmental impact
2. Exploiting alternative sources of renewable energy.
Here are three concrete examples of how the world of renewable energy could change in the coming years.
Recently a particular substance called perovskite was in the spotlight. It is actually a class of substances, oxides with semiconductor properties. Perovskite solar panels are currently in the R&D phase, but they could soon reach the market, thanks to their particular characteristics. The first solar cell with this material was built in 2009. After 9 years, in 2018, the efficiency of these cells went from 3.8 to 23.3%. Other technologies have taken three decades to achieve comparable results. Here is the reason for so much interest. Japanese researchers from the OIST (Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology University) have also recently demonstrated the durability of the material used, making it “work” for about 800 hours.
Turning instead to innovative renewable sources of recent use, the waves deserve a mention. According to the EIA, the US energy agency, the potential is very high: every year, the waves crashing on the coasts of the United States could produce 2.64 trillion kilowatt hours of electricity, 66% of the electricity generated in the country in 2017. To exploit its full potential, large companies are also moving: Enel Green Power has recently launched the CETO 6 program, a generator of energy from sea waves, in collaboration with Carnegie Clean Energy Ltd., Australia. The nominal capacity of the new device will reach 1.5 MW, much more than the predecessor’s 240kW (Ceto 5).
Latest interesting technology under development: the conversion of kinetic energy and heat of the human body into electricity. A wearable is the most obvious technology for capturing and transforming movement and heat into energy, with some research projects already in place. The possibilities, however, are different: for example, the British company Pavegen has developed smart tiles, capable of capturing energy from the steps and transforming it into electricity. The company made itself known in 2012, during the London Olympic Games, after having installed its innovative technology on a pedestrian bridge, illuminating the catwalk trampled over a million times during the Games on demand.
Another trend considered by Forbes for the development of alternative and sustainable technologies is the block chain. The “blockchain” was born as a tool to securely record crypto transactions. The technology consists of a series of nodes, with no centre to manage it, in communication with each other. The blockchain is by nature incorruptible: any data that is loaded here cannot be modified or deleted from the nodes of the network, thus ensuring secure transactions for all.
The idea of the blockchain has recently been associated with the microgrids we discussed earlier. The idea is that a decentralized peer-to-peer system could completely eliminate the need for intermediaries between energy producers and consumers. In a network where everyone can “create” and use the energy introduced into the system, from time to time buying and selling it through the block chain. Moreover, the network could regulate itself, allowing the purchase and sale without the need for human intervention, based only on the actual need of the plants. This would reduce inefficiencies, leading to optimization of electrical systems, with constant performance monitoring.
Brooklyn Microgrid has implemented a similar system. The project consists of a community of people, organized in a microgrid. All people “connect” buy and sell to other users when necessary.