Technology transforming potential of renewable energy

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  • Industry experts examine role of innovation in making utility-scale clean energy a reality on day three of WFES 2012

Although barriers remain, the potential for renewable energy to meet large-scale power requirements is clear and the necessary technology is being developed much faster than we think, according to industry leaders speaking on day three of the 2012 World Future Energy Summit being held in Abu Dhabi.

At the plenary session Technology Leaders in Future Energy – Insights from the Innovators, energy experts representing a range of industry viewpoints debated two key issues confronting decision makers: the cost competitiveness of renewable energy compared with fossil fuels, and the technological innovations needed to promote wider adoption of renewable energy sources.

Andrew Beebe, COO of Suntech, the world’s largest producer of solar panels, said that cost-competitive utility-scale renewable energy was already within reach.

“Ten years ago years ago we were saying stop talking in kilowatts and start talking in megawatts and people thought we were crazy. Today there is around 35-40 gigawatts of capacity.”

Arguing that the expansion of renewable energy should dovetail with the role of traditional oil and gas, he said: “I was explaining to my son all the great things we make from oil and gas – and he said, ‘Wow! So why do we burn it?’ We need to use oil and gas for the most valuable things. [The solar industry] has cut costs by 80 percent while the cost of oil has gone up four times.”

The minor role renewable sources play in today’s global energy mix will soon change if the current rate of development in the sector is maintained, explained Ben Kortlang, a partner with Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers.

He said: “We wrote down 25 grand challenges for clean technology to become viable on a large scale – and many of them today have been reached. From US$10 per watt we’re now approaching one dollar per watt. [Renewable energies] will be enormous businesses in the next five years…”

The commercial potential of renewable innovation is also compelling, Kortland argued.

“Businesses willing to lean forward and be an early adopter spur on other industries and end up creating a much larger business return than initially expected.”

But the potential of renewables should not outweigh practical considerations, cautioned Kathy P. Pepper, VP Middle East and Russia at ExxonMobil.

Admitting that renewables were “growing the fastest” of all energy technologies, she said their contribution to the world’s energy needs would still amount to less than five percent.

“We need a mix of energy sources: fossil fuels, nuclear and renewable energies,” she said.

ExxonMobil is pioneering the development of biofuels from algae. “The technology is a couple of decades away but that hasn’t stopped us developing it,” Pepper said.

The success of renewable energy will pose its own technology challenges, according to Jan Mrosik, Chief Executive Officer, Siemens Infrastructure & Cities Division Smart Grid.

“We need to make sure that electricity grids are capable of accepting the renewable energy influx. The challenge is balancing generation and the load… We need virtual power plants to put energy into the grid and also smart metering to measure what’s happening on the consumption side.”

Charles Soothil, Senior Vice President Technology of Alstom, identified storage and distribution as key innovation challenges facing the renewable energy sector.

“If you had better long-distance transmission grids, you could take power from where the sun is strongest to where [the electricity] is most needed… Combining solutions is [also] important, bringing together solar and existing power generation.”

Santiago Arias, Technical Director of Torresol, a joint venture between SENER of Spain and Masdar of Abu Dhabi, said the industry was already overcoming the intermittency challenges associated with renewable energy production.

The company’s recently opened 20-megawatt Gemosolar facility in Andalusia is the world’s first solar power plant to produce electricity nearly 24 hours a day, Arias explained.

“These are not laboratory plants – the technology is there. [Gemasolar] is making electricity according to demand not environmental conditions.”

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