The Renewables Part V: The Future of Energy Technology

The Renewables Part V: The Future of Energy Technology

June 02, 2015

At the MIT Clean Energy Prize, held May 11th in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an entrepreneurial team looking to disrupt copper’s dominance in electricity transmission took home both the Department of Energy’s $75,000 award and the MIT Grand Prize of $200,000. OptiBit, a start-up composed of young scientists from CU Boulder, UC Berkeley, and MIT, is looking to harvest massive energy savings, principally targeting the burgeoning cloud, where the world’s data continues to run along copper wires, but which, OptiBit’s Chen Sun remarked “could be replaced by light.” OptiBit’s fibre optic innovation was clearly part of a trend at this year’s MIT award show and competition.

Indeed, “clean tech” no longer seems the right term for today’s energy startups. “Efficiency tech” or “booster tech might be more appropriate. It is as though the current field of energy entrepreneurs have correctly intuited that clean power generation, already coming on strong, is ready to fly under its own momentum. What’s needed now is the technology to route, enhance, conserve, and maximize the electricity that’s increasingly coming from renewables.

During the Talking Points Memo five-part series on renewables, we’ve examined the extraordinary growth in global solar capacity, which should reach 500 GW by the end of the decade, compared to 175 GW today. We’ve also charted the stagnation of global coal growth, as aging plants retire in the US and are also increasingly shut down in China.. Global wind power meanwhile, which got a head start on solar early in the last decade, currently stands at roughly 370 GW of capacity. In fact, combined wind and solar together are growing so fast that in 2013, they provided over 12% of new energy supply from all sources.

While it’s not yet clear how existing fossil fuel consumption globally will be meaningfully pulled lower just yet, some of the excitement that surrounded Tesla’s recent home battery unveiling suggest many now think the pathway to a fossil-fuel free future is, while still fuzzy, finally coming into view. Because storage will play such a key role in a future smart grid, it’s understandable the Tesla’s 10 kW Powerwall battery shocked the market with its unexpectedly low starting price of just $3500. Sales of the home storage unit sold out within the first two weeks, generating $800 million in reservations. That caused one commentator to write, “We now have just about everything we need for a technological fix for climate change.” Really? Is that true now, or will it be true in the future? Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario.