New developments in both the solar and wind industries indicate that the old standby criticisms of renewable energy technologies are crumbling one by one. Those with a vested interest in downplaying these energy-harvesting tools often say they’re unreliable. After all, you can’t collect solar power at night, or use a wind turbine to create electricity when there’s no wind. Or can you?
There’s strong evidence to suggest that the next generation of solar panels and wind turbines will make this common justification for fossil fuels a thing of the past.
GE is working on a new wind turbine that integrates energy storage, eliminating the need to find somewhere to put energy generated on really windy days. In this way, a continuous flow of energy could be guaranteed, without resorting to coal-fired backups. A May report from Quartz explains more:
The 2.5-MW windmill is something of a technological leap in an industry where turbines have gotten bigger and bigger but not necessarily smarter. The turbine’s software captures tens of thousands of data points each second on wind and grid conditions and then adjusts production, storing electricity in an attached 50 kilowatt-hour sodium nickel chloride battery. If, say, a wind farm is generating too much electricity to [be] absorbed by the grid—not an uncommon occurrence in gusty west Texas—it can store the electricity in the battery. When the wind dies down, the electricity can be released from the battery and put back on the grid.
And don’t worry, the ever-growing solar industry isn’t about to be left behind. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are working on a new type of solar panel “that can simultaneously generate power from sunlight and store power reserves for later, all within a single device.” UW engineer Hongrui Jiang describes his unique technology:
The top layer of each photovoltaic cell is a conventional photo electrode, converting sunlight into electrons. During that conversion process, the electrons split off into two directions: most electrons flow out of the device to support a power load, while some are directed to a polyvinylidene fluoride polymer (PVDF) coated on zinc oxide nanowires. The PVDF has the high dielectric constant required to serve as an energy storage solution.
“When there’s no sunlight, the stored power will come back through the nano wires to power the load,” said Jiang.
Although Jiang’s energy-storing solar panels are currently less efficient than those currently seen on rooftops around the world, the research team feels that it’s only a matter of time before the design can be perfected. When that happens, home solar systems will become even more convenient, eliminating the need for complicated wiring to a bulky battery or supercapacitor. It would also allow engineers to design buildings that rely on the outside power grid even less than current systems.
Although oil may be a dwindling commodity, one thing we know for sure is that there’s plenty of sun and wind to go around. With technological advancements like these headed for market soon, the dream of 100 percent renewable energy is more realistic than ever. According to many of the world’s most prominent energy experts, the only barriers that remain “lie in the realms of public policy and political will, as well as in finance, market development, and business development.”
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