The term “disruptor” has become an overused phrase that has cheapened the perceived impact that new tech, new processes, new ideas, and new generations have on the world. But there are a handful of true disruptors in the energy industry that may rather unexaggeratedly change the way in which the world works.
The EIA’s chief energy modeler disagrees. “First, there are no technology revolutions between now and 2050, no structural breaks, no technology breakthroughs. Sure, technology can lead us to evolve, prices get cheaper, technology continues to improve, but no breakthroughs, no dilithium crystals,” Daniels said earlier this week at Rice University’s Baker Institute.
True, the slower changes are much more common. But every now and then, something comes on down the line that surprises us all. In today’s faster-paced environment, and with the next generation of thought leaders stepping up to the plate, combined with the growing need to arrest the damaging effects that some of these energy sources have had on the environment, the race is on to do more, to do better, to do cheaper.
But there’s a catch, even with the cleverest of inventions, and that’s that even great ideas struggle with implementation.
But this challenge hasn’t stopped some trendsetters from forging ahead with new ideas. From kinda nutty to astonishing, we have listed some of these true energy breakthroughs here.
#1 California’s Solar Mandate - One of the potentially largest energy innovations is not technology based. Instead, it is a legislation that capitalizes on existing but relatively underutilized technology--solar panels. The tech is there, and soon the legislation will be too--at least in California. Mid-2018, California approved a measure that would require all new homes built in California in 2020 and later to include solar panels.
It is the first US state to adopt such a bold requirement, which was not without its opposition due to the cost it would burden homebuyers with. This upfront cost, however, will be partially offset by lower utility costs down the line. Longer term, this will affect energy needs in California, which is currently plagued with repetitive blackouts during the windy season for fear of sparking wildfires, which California blames on climate change, or PG&E, depending on which argument suits them on the day.
The ambitious solar panel requirement is expected to add a cost of almost $10K to each home built, in a state that already has the highest home costs in the country. While this will be burdensome for homebuyers, proponents of the change estimate that it will drastically curb electricity consumption in the state, which contributes 14% of California’s greenhouse pollutants.
How much of a game-changer is this? It will likely spur on other states to follow suit, and not only will it change the amount of fossil fuel-derived energy consumed, it will also ignite a race to develop better and less expensive PV panels, paving the way for an even broader adoption.
#2 Data Management and Digitization - It sounds less exciting than some of the other breakthroughs in energy, but this one has the potential to reap the most benefits for the energy industry. Good data, collecting data, and analyzing that data are essential tools for squeezing out additional gains from all forms of energy. While some in the energy business are focused on moving towards more sustainable energy, others are more practically moving to eek out more gains on existing forms of energy by improving the data.
Arguments for this method of improving the way we do energy are compelling. But data is data, and data is boring--it hardly elicits the same thrill as Musk’s BFR that will change the way we transport people around the world. But even as long ago as in 2017, the IEA’s Digitalisation and Energy 2017 report suggested that digitalisation could save 5% on annual power generation costs. Specific gains can be made through smart drilling, fault prediction through AI, improved AI to sift through seismic images and geology models to improve oil and gas exploration, and predictive algorithms that will allow utilities to better plan for peak usage.
#3 Thermal Resonator - MIT has come up with a device called the thermal resonator that draws heat from the air around it before turning it into electricity. It doesn’t require sun like solar panels--it actually can sit in perpetual shade. For now this is just generating a small amount of power, but it has the potential to render batteries obsolete.
#4 Fusion - This one is not right around the corner, and some joke that fusion has been a decade away for the last forty years. But new advances here are being made all the time, and it’s possible that by 2030, it may be a reality. Of all the ideas on this list, it has the greatest potential to change the entire energy industry for good. Fusion reactors can’t meltdown (hello, Chernobyl), don’t create eternal radioactive waste, and therefore will not spark the same public fear that normal fission nuclear reactors have had.
The International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), funded by the China, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United States, is probably the furthest along with this tech, and hopes to build the world’s largest fusion device that is expected to be ready in 2035.
#5 PET Recycling - One of the most recent breakthroughs will have an indirect effect on the energy industry, and it is a transformative one. BP is soon rolling out a $25 million prototype plant to recycle PET containers again and again. This is a deviation from the current way of doing things, which has PET bottles landfilled after a single use, or at best, allows for recycling PET bottles just one time. This doesn’t directly apply to energy, but because PET is derived from crude and nat gas, solving the environmental problem associated with PET will go a long way to securing future demand for fossil fuels. This could have a significant but indirect effect on the energy industry by bolstering confidence in this sector which will encourage research and investments into new tech for fossil fuels.
Some honorable mentions include the quantum battery that never loses its charge, the itty bitty battery that can work in the extreme cold, Tesla’s million-mile battery, and a way of extracting hydrogen from oil without releasing greenhouse gases, but the total number of energy developments are far too numerous to count. It is only a matter of which one will be the next breakthrough that will change the course of energy forever.
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