Last month marked the 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). The event, held in Glasgow, was the fifth since the landmark Paris Agreement was signed during COP21. The Paris Agreement is the first binding pact that brings nations together to combat climate change. The overarching goal of the agreement is to limit global temperature rise to below 2°C, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to preindustrial levels. Under the agreement, countries must submit their plans for climate action, known as nationally determined contributions (NDCs), every five years, raising the profile of this year’s COP. In their NDC, countries must communicate what actions they will take to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
A critical tool for reducing GHG emissions is sustainable and renewable energy solutions. The Biden Administration highlighted this in the recent Build Back Better Bill, which includes $555 billion in clean energy investments, incentives, and tax credits. As industry, governments, and consumers increasingly drive adoption of alternative energy, some interesting developments are emerging.
Solar panels mounted on your roof were once just as much a status symbol as the sports car in your driveway. The high cost of photovoltaic (PV) solar panels could be traced to their costly raw materials, such as high-grade silicon, and advanced manufacturing techniques required for their production. However, favorable policies, increased efficiency, and economies of scale have dramatically decreased the cost of PV technologies. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA), the cost of energy production via PV technology has dropped by 82% since 2010.
As the cost of solar decreases, the efficiency and efficacy of PV technologies are improving. Building-integrated PV (BIPV) materials, for example, can be integrated into a building during construction, rather than being added after the fact. The roof of Google’s new Mountain View, CA, campus is covered in a novel solar tile called dragonscale, produced by SunStyle. The coated and textured prismatic glass shingle captures light that would otherwise escape from flat solar panels. Italian company EnergyGlass has also developed a BIPV that can be used as a building roof or façade material. And, research continues into the development of thin-film solar cells that could turn windows into energy generators.
In October, the Biden Administration announced plans to develop large-scale offshore wind farms that span nearly the entire U.S. coastline. These plans are in support of their pledge to build enough offshore wind turbines by 2030 to produce 30,000 MW of energy.
Most offshore installations are fixed wind turbines that are anchored to the seabed, but these turbines can only be installed at ocean depths of about 30 m, limiting their economical deployment. However, researchers estimate that 80% of the world’s wind blows over waters deeper than 50 m. Floating offshore wind installations could harness these winds. The first floating wind farm, a 30-MW facility run by Equinor, has been in operation near Scotland since 2017. Equinor recently revealed a new robust floating wind turbine foundation design called the Wind Semi. The technology is a triangular semi-submersible platform that is suitable for rough waters, a challenge for previous floating designs.
Safety concerns and high infrastructure and operational costs have been setbacks for the nuclear industry, leaving many to wonder if there is a future for the technology in a world filled with renewable options. However, the Biden Administration is signaling that there is a place for nuclear, releasing a Congressional budget request for the Office of Nuclear Energy that is 57% higher than the previous year — a record $1.8 billion.
Of this budget, $700 million is earmarked for advanced nuclear reactors. More than 20 U.S. companies are developing advanced reactors, such as small modular designs that can be deployed individually or linked in series. These new options offer enhanced flexibility and safety, which could ultimately make them more affordable to build and operate. NuScale’s design is the first small modular reactor to receive U.S. design certification. The company plans to build its first six-module plant in Romania, expecting completion by 2028.
The U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) is also putting money behind a new application of nuclear power — hydrogen production. The DOE announced $20 million to fund a demonstration project that will produce clean hydrogen from nuclear power at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station in Phoenix, AZ. Steam-methane reforming is the current dominant production technology due to its low cost, but the process emits GHGs like CO2. Instead, nuclear reactors can provide heat and electricity to produce hydrogen via methane pyrolysis or electrolysis of water, with little GHG emissions. This could provide another revenue stream for established nuclear reactors, and it could help meet the increasing demand for hydrogen as a critical feedstock and fuel.
While global temperatures indicate we are behind in our goal to slow climate change, the pace of innovation in the alternative energy industry is breakneck. The UN says that in less than a decade, zero-carbon solutions could be competitive in sectors responsible for more than 70% of global emissions, which indicates our climate goals may be in sight.
This article originally appeared in the Emerging Voices column in the December 2021 issue of CEP. Members have access online to complete issues, including a vast, searchable archive of back-issues found at www.aiche.org/cep.