The world of clean energy is evolving rapidly. Solar power systems in the US rose 43 percent in 2020, and the price of solar energy fell nearly 90 percent between 2010 and 2020. The output of wind turbines also rose by a record 14.2 gigawatts in the past year alone. Additionally, electric vehicle sales have grown steadily, and it is expected that 10 percent of all vehicles sold will be electric vehicles by 2025. All in all, the green tech revolution is in full swing.
But these are certainly promising developments, but they are hardly enough to slow down climate change. To significantly improve the problem, we need to scale and improve these technologies. So what does the future of green energy look like? We spoke to environmental researcher, writer, lecturer, and entrepreneur Johnathan Koomey for some insight.
According to Koomey, solar costs will almost certainly continue to fall in the coming years – but perhaps differently than expected.
“We’re getting to a point where the cost of solar panels per home and even a large solar array in the desert or wherever isn’t the biggest factor,” Koomey says. “Now that solar panels are so super cheap, there is a shift to focus on these other costs and try to get rid of them.”
These costs can include labor costs, the cost of obtaining permits, and other factors. Koomey says we need to significantly reduce licensing costs to meet our clean energy goals.
Aside from these costs, we are also seeing promising new innovations in the solar industry. It’s great that solar panels have gotten so cheap, but it would be even better if they were more effective too, and researchers are looking for ways to do that.
One way to make a solar panel more effective is to increase the amount of light it can capture. Researchers have discovered in recent years that you can layer different materials on the panel and capture a wider range of wavelengths of light, meaning it can capture more solar energy. That means you don’t need as many panels to generate the amount of energy you need.
“There is so much solar radiation on earth that we are really only limited by our cleverness,” says Koomey. “We’re not limited by solar.”
Much like solar power, Koomey says, wind power is also getting cheaper, and the way we approach wind power is beginning to evolve.
“The biggest development in the US for wind, in my opinion, is the opening up of offshore wind power as an opportunity,” says Koomey.
Offshore wind is widespread in Europe, and it seems that it could become pretty common in the US soon. Given the enormous amount of space available and the relatively constant amount of wind blowing from the Pacific Ocean, offshore wind power has the potential to dramatically increase US renewable capacity.
A comparison of wind turbines with a horizontal axis (HAWT) and wind turbines with a vertical axis (VAWT).
Turbine technology is also making progress. In addition to the usual three-bladed turbines, engineers are starting to research and develop new systems that capture energy more efficiently.
One such idea is large scale vertical axis wind turbines (VAWTs). These turbines form a kind of vertical soccer ball and rotate on a rotor. It has been proven that they generate 15 percent more electricity than conventional wind turbines and are also easier to maintain. Their greatest advantage is a lower center of gravity, which means they can be built much larger than wind turbines with a horizontal axis.
There are also ideas for generating wind power without any turbines. The Vortex Bladeless is essentially a pillar that vibrates in the wind to generate electricity, while Google’s Makani Energy uses an airplane-like kite to generate electricity that can be carried anywhere the wind blows.
When it comes to batteries that power electric vehicles and are increasingly found in people’s homes, those costs are also falling sharply, according to Koomey. He says lithium-ion batteries follow the drop in solar panel prices we’ve seen over the years, but they’re “kind of at an earlier stage.”
“When it comes to electric cars, the battery is the biggest cost problem. It will change the economy in a compelling way, ”he suggests.
Lithium-ion batteries remain an industry standard for electric vehicles and the devices we use, but we see promising advances in grid-scale energy storage solutions that allow us to store solar and wind energy and use it later. Flow batteries, for example, are becoming increasingly popular in countries like California and Texas, where demand for electricity often exceeds production capacity. Other technologies like advanced compressed air storage and gravity storage are also on the rise.
In addition to the physical infrastructure that underpins wind, solar, and battery technology, information technology will also be a big part of the future of green technology, according to Koomey. The more we can digitize and automate the electrical systems in our homes, office buildings, infrastructure and more, the more energy efficient we can make these things.
“Information technology enables us to collect data and react to the data in real time in order to optimize our systems. It enables us to replace parts with smarts, ”says Koomey. “There will be a movement towards the virtualization of our physical infrastructure.”
It seems the future is electric, and it’s moving in that direction faster than anyone predicted. Koomey suggests that these technologies keep getting cheaper and the simple economics of the situation will drive their adoption. In decades to come, we may scoff at the notion that we ever burned dirty fuel to power our homes, cars, and everything else.