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Climate change

How new versions of solar, wind, and batteries could help the grid

Renewables are already being deployed at massive scales, but further progress in labs and startups could help move the technology forward.

November 3, 2022
wind turbines in the ocean
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This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review's weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here.

I’m back in Boston again this week, this time for one of my favorite events of the year, EmTech MIT. The program covers everything from crypto to CRISPR, and I’ll be hosting a session this week called “Future Clean Energy Solutions.” In the session, I’ll be chatting with innovators focused on three different areas of renewable energy: solar, wind, and batteries. 

These are technologies that are being deployed on massive scales, but to meet climate goals, they need to keep getting better, and cheaper. So let’s take a sneak peek into what could be coming next in energy. 

Here comes the sun

For the first time in 2022, solar and wind power made up more than 10% of global electricity generation. But to meet climate goals, the solar industry will need to keep growing, and fast.  Some analysts say that annual solar installations need to quadruple from today’s level by around 2030

Silicon has emerged as the dominant technology for solar cells, but companies and researchers are still exploring other options. In particular, the solar industry can’t stop talking about a class of materials called perovskites. 

Perovskites hold promise because of their high efficiency, or how much of the sun’s energy they can capture and transform into electricity. Silicon solar panels have slowly but surely inched their way up to over 25% efficiency over the past forty years, while perovskites have made the same leap in under a decade and now consistently beat out silicon. (Check out this great chart to see all this plotted out.)

But it’s not all sunshine for perovskites—the materials have struggled significantly on durability. In my reporting on perovskites, I’ve heard the old story told and retold that researchers studying perovskites used to need good running shoes, because solar cells made with the materials would fall apart on the walk across the lab from where they were made to where they were tested.

The lifetime of perovskites has improved leaps and bounds, but the materials are still far from competing with silicon solar panels, which can last for 20 years in the field. 

Rui Wang, a professor at Westlake University and one of our 2022 Innovators under 35 is among the researchers trying to address perovskites’ durability problem. He’s developed additives for perovskites that can extend their lifetime—tune into his session at EmTech to hear more about how it’s going and what he sees as the next frontier in solar. 

Winds of Change

Solar can’t do it all alone—wind power is one of the other major sources of electricity that will be needed to clean up our grid. 

Wind turbines can be installed on land, or to stay out of the way, offshore, at least in places where the ocean isn’t too deep. But in the past few years, companies have started to dream bigger, building the first commercial offshore wind farms that can float. 

Now, floating wind turbines generate electricity in Scotland and Portugal, and South Korea is working on a massive project that could be completed in the next couple years.

The US is also getting serious about offshore wind. The Biden administration set a goal to reach 15 gigawatts of floating offshore wind by 2035 and reduce costs by 70% by that time. And in December, California will offer up two major areas of the sea at auction for offshore wind farms. 

It’s almost exactly as hard as it sounds to build massive structures that float in the ocean and generate electricity. So far, the cost of floating turbines has been prohibitively high. That’s not to mention difficulties in getting coastal communities on board, which has plagued previous efforts to start floating offshore wind projects in California

At EmTech, I’ll be speaking with Alla Weinstein, founder and CEO of Trident Winds. She’s been at the center of efforts to build floating offshore wind, and she’s going to unpack all these difficulties and talk about what she thinks is realistic for the industry in the coming decades. 

Charge it

People want to turn on the lights and keep their refrigerator running whether or not the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. So balancing out the intermittent sources of electricity like wind and solar will be an important piece of building a renewable grid. 

Geothermal, hydropower, and nuclear are all weather independent and will likely be part of the solution, but increasingly, it’s looking like batteries will be a big piece of accounting for variations in wind and solar. The world will need over forty times more grid storage than what’s been installed to date by 2030, according to the IEA

The vast majority of batteries used on the grid today are lithium-ion, similar to the ones that power phones, laptops, and electric vehicles.

Lithium-ion batteries are optimized for things that need to move around, so they need to be light.  Batteries for the grid can stay put, opening up new options for grid storage. Alternatives that are bulkier and heavier may be cheaper and could avoid some of the expected supply constraints of key metals like lithium, nickel, and cobalt. 

One of our 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2022, iron batteries on the grid, could fit the bill for the future of energy storage.

Companies like ESS are working to commercialize and deploy this new technology and are already installing it all over the world. In my final chat at EmTech, I’ll be speaking with Hugh McDermott, the SVP of business development at ESS about the promises of its technology, what the path to building new batteries has looked like, and where it’ll go from here. 

Keeping up with climate

The range of possible climate change scenarios is narrowing. The world will likely see major disruptions, but actions today still have a huge sway over our future. (New York Times)

New electric school buses are coming to over 400 school districts across the US, funded by $1 billion in grants. Air pollution from gas-powered vehicles is especially dangerous to children. (Grist)

Ten years after Hurricane Sandy, New York City is making progress on seawalls and other coastal adaptations. They may not be enough to protect against the next storm. (Gothamist)

Drought was threatening Mono Lake, a salt lake in California. Protections have helped restore water levels, and the lake’s story could be an example for other threatened ecosystems. (Inside Climate News)

Climate change is coming for your fancy cheese. Extreme heat stresses cows and affects milk production. (Bloomberg)

Methane emissions from permafrost might be rising in the early summer. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, and the increase could be an early example of a climate feedback loop. (Nature Climate Change)

→ Methane has a short lifetime in the atmosphere, but some scientists say we should work on removing it faster. (MIT Technology Review)

Just for fun

Japan’s “mundane Halloween” costume contest isn’t the time to pull out the scary stuff. Instead, you’ll see gems like "The only person at the event whose name-tag string is super long for some reason” or “Person in line at a convenience store.” 

Check out Historian Nick Kapur’s Twitter thread of some of the best. My favorite is "Person whose skeleton is being estimated by machine learning."

Now that spooky season is over…it’s Mariah time.

That’s all for this week - thanks for reading! If you have feedback or ideas for what you’d like to see in future newsletters, you can drop me a line or find me on Twitter. See you next week! 


Casey

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