The Future of Renewable Energy
We need to use more renewable energy
It’s no secret that the planet is warming, and it’s because of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that we emit into the atmosphere every time we turn on our boiler or switch on our lights.
In the first two months of 2018, the news about global warming has been alarming: the Arctic had its warmest winter on record and its sea ice hit new lows; the oceans are the hottest they’ve ever been since records began; and sea levels are rising at an unprecedented rate.
In a bid to reverse global warming and drastically slash our greenhouse gas pollution, the UK has legally committed itself to reducing 57% of emissions by 2030, and 80% by 2050.
There’s no doubt that a low-carbon, renewable energy revolution will give us the best chance to hit these targets.
But what does the future of renewable energy look like in the UK? And what does this mean for British households and future energy bills?
How many people have a green energy tariff?
The amount of renewable energy produced in 2017 could have powered the whole of Britain in 1958!
The energy mix of the future
How renewable energy will evolve
The UK’s power system is one of the cleanest in Europe. Its greenest year to date was 2017, when more than a dozen renewable energy records were smashed.
For the first time, Britain went 24 hours without using coal-generated power, it produced more energy from solar panels than coal for an entire six-month period, and wind power became cheaper than nuclear.
Progress is good, but a renewable revolution is needed to truly become a nation powered by green energy.
We consulted a number of energy experts to speculate how renewable energy will evolve over the next three decades.
These visions of the future of renewable energy include some ideas that are being tested today, and some that are currently beyond our scope technologically - but we believe could soon be within reach.
We already have solar-powered road signs, solar-charged pavements, and trains that run their lighting and cooling systems with solar panels on the tops of carriages.
Today, solar power is such a feasible method of electricity generation that manufacturers have bypassed government subsidies to make solar panels just because it’s lucrative.
There will be many more opportunities to capture the sun’s power: skyscraper windows will absorb day-long rays using photovoltaic technology, and innovative paint on the roof and walls of your home will transform it into one big solar panel.
Further away, in the vast Saharan dunes, solar farms will glisten in the sun, stretching as far as the eye can see.
Solar panels could take flight and orbit the earth in the form of gargantuan satellites that beam the sun’s unrelenting energy to the earth’s surface via microwaves – but this is considered a risky option due to the debris these satellites would give off.
The more obvious, but perhaps less viable, route could be to move solar farms to the moon.
“There are several parts of the world where solar and wind already win competitive bids to provide electricity against fossil-fuel based generation – and importantly, this is without subsidies.”
– Dr Grant Wilson, Teaching and Research Fellow at Sheffield University.
Wind power produces electricity on a grand scale: one turbine can supply 1,500 homes with a year’s worth of energy. We see these wind farms – sometimes offshore, sometimes sprawling across hills – all across the world.
More offshore farms will produce larger amounts of energy. Turbines will sit above the streets, astride houses and apartment blocks.
Their design will be transformed, featuring blades that act more like hummingbird wings than propellers, in a bid to avoid killing birds.
We could even see wind generators become bladeless altogether, using naturally-forming vortexes rather than propellers or wings.
Large floating airships and robotically-directed kites housing massive turbines could soar through the sky to reach the high-speed winds that sit high up in the atmosphere.
These airborne generators might be tethered, or they could fly autonomously to follow jet streams and high-altitude thermals.
The Three Gorges Dam in China generates so much electricity from water – or hydropower – that it could fuel more than 25 million homes in the UK every year.
Norway produces as much as 97% of its energy needs through hydroelectricity – but the UK generates less than 2% of its electricity from hydropower.
Hydropower will move beyond damming rivers and take to the seas and oceans.
Huge floating energy farms will absorb sunlight with solar panels and capture the ocean’s movement via kinetic energy receptors, collecting double the energy. Dams will be built at river mouths and estuaries to make use of tidal patterns.
Large underwater drones could carry turbines and follow the Gulf Stream to capture thermal energy and convert it to electricity.
We may build artificial islands around the equator to house ocean thermal energy conversion plants that generate electricity by harnessing the warmth of sea water
“The footprint area required for hydroelectric is large due to the large area required to store water in a reservoir, but 70% of the needed hydroelectric power for a global renewables system is already in place.”
– Mark Z. Jacobson & Mark A. Delucchi, writing in the Scientific American.
Countries like Brazil and the USA extract the oil or sugars from plants and convert them into biofuels, adding them to fossil-based fuels to reduce carbon emissions.
However, this process is currently very expensive because the crops grown do not yield high energy biofuels.
This type of renewable energy also presents a moral problem, because the land used for farming could produce food instead.
Biomass fuels will become more efficient thanks to genetically modified, non-edible plants that release more power, like agave.
These hardy plants will be grown where crops can’t be farmed, minimising deforestation and utilising otherwise barren land.
It will be possible to gather oils from the whole plant, including its leaves and stalks, rather than just the fruit, seeds and nuts, making harvest much more productive.
After many years of research, this decades-in-the-making bio-technology may finally produce genetically modified algae farms.
They’re likely to cultivate high-energy oils that can be used to make biodiesel, ethanol and algal jet fuel.
An added bonus to these farms is that they thrive in contaminated water found in mines. In fact, this process can create clean water and biomass whilst leaving toxic heavy metals behind – such as cadmium – to be sold on
“Biofuels have the potential to tackle the triple crisis: climate change, waste pile-up, and energy demand increase, that we are facing.”
– Dr Siming You, Lecturer in systems, power and energy at the University of Glasgow.
Hydrogen-powered buses that produce zero emissions are in operation in Aberdeen, California and Reykjavik. Elsewhere, hydrogen cars are being adopted in Japan on a much larger scale, with a goal of 40,000 vehicles on the road by 2020.
Breakthroughs in technology and infrastructure will make it much cheaper to use hydrogen in the home. It will be possible to use solar panels and wind turbines in conjunction with hydrogen to generate emission-free electricity. Trains across the world will run using hydrogen fuel cells, with many heavy-haulage vehicles following suit.
Hydrogen may take over from gas central heating in the UK, fully decarbonising the heating market. The breakthrough in solar-hydrogen units and wind-hydrogen units could mean that homes may heat and power themselves, rather than rely fully on the National Grid
Some countries, such as Iceland, use geothermal power because it’s a truly renewable source. The heat is continuous and, once the power plant is in place, doesn’t need any extra input. Any leftover steam or hot water is pumped back into the reservoir.
Drilling just a few metres under the ground will harbour great results for the heating market. Geothermal energy will lead the decarbonisation of heating in our homes, thanks to the technology becoming cheaper and a push to insulate homes.
The repurposing of old gas and oil drilling platforms in Europe and the US as geothermal power plants could take this source of power to literal new depths.
We are likely to attempt to harness the heat in the deep earth’s crust because it has 50,000 times more energy than all the remaining fossil fuels put together.
“Sustainability has shaped Iceland and laid the groundwork for this flourishing nation… This island is a global leader with over 95 percent of its electricity and heating provided by renewable hydro and geothermal energy.”
– Dr. Jefferson William Tester, Professor of sustainable energy systems at Cornell University.
Nuclear power is utilised by many countries across the world, particularly France and the USA. It produces a lot of energy, has low carbon emissions and has rigorous safety regulations.
But the disadvantages are significant: radioactive waste takes thousands of years to become safe, so storing it is a major problem across the world.
The UK has just eight nuclear reactor plants, but they are all set to be decommissioned by 2035.
However, two new nuclear reactors are currently being built at Hinkley Point C that should provide low-carbon electricity for six million homes.
Small modular reactors will overtake the huge-scale nuclear projects of the 20th century.
These will be cheaper and quicker to build, much smaller, and produce around one tenth of the power.
They will either support renewable sources to power neighbourhoods, rather than cities, or supply energy straight to the nationwide grid.
Like something out of science fiction, researchers could finally crack nuclear fusion. Unlike current nuclear power, the future of nuclear energy produces no carbon emissions and doesn’t need radioactive materials to power it.
Nuclear fusion doesn’t create radioactive waste, either, and one power station could produce 10 million times the energy of one conventional power plant.
“Every time you look up at the sky, every one of those points of light is a reminder that fusion power is extractable from hydrogen and other light elements, and it is an everyday reality throughout the Milky Way Galaxy.”
– Carl Sagan, astrophysicist.
Renewable storage and distribution
One of the biggest problems with renewable energy is its intermittency, or perceived unreliability, when compared to fossil fuels: wind turbines only work when it’s windy and solar panels when it’s sunny.
Because renewable energy can’t be turned on at demand, we need to find efficient ways to store surplus electricity and distribute it later.
A highly efficient, instantly useable and clean large-scale deployable battery is the holy grail of renewable energy storage.
These high-power batteries will be able to save huge quantities of energy and release their power at speed.
They are likely to work alongside a smart national grid and supply power when demand requires it.
The future could lie with electric vehicles. The batteries in these cars could store energy when they’re idle and if the grid needs more power, they could return surplus electricity.
We could also see large battery stations connected to local substations, creating micro-grids that come online when generation isn’t possible.
The huge Tesla-operated mega-battery in Australia – which is the world’s largest lithium-ion battery – is an example of this concept.
Sophie Meuwissen, from cleantech community Cambridge Cleantech, says alternative models are already being explored in the UK.
“The emphasis at the moment seems to be more on piloting small-scale, local ‘micro-grids’ which allow distributed energy sources to operate in parallel with the main grid,” she explained.
Hydrogen fuel cells
The future of energy storage could belong to hydrogen. Much like a battery, hydrogen fuel cells store energy, but they are fuelled by hydrogen gas instead of being charged with electricity.
And instead of releasing electricity, they generate it on demand. This is already used in some vehicles, and could move into homes in the future.
“People ask: ‘do you mean that the household will be completely self-sufficient at some point?’ The answer is no. You will always need the grid. The grid now is the primary source of energy but it’s becoming the secondary source of energy. I see more and more that the grid will be the backup power – the primary will be distributed generation systems, with solar panels, a battery and a home energy management system.”
– Menelaos Ioannidis, CTO of Lightsource Labs.
What the experts think
“The Age of Oil has really exhausted its usefulness, and it has actually become a danger to our lives and our ability to survive on the planet.”
– Dennis Weaver, actor and environmentalist
“It’s no surprise that our survey found the primary barrier to switching to a green tariff is that they haven’t been amongst the cheapest. But that’s beginning to change: we’ve seen on a number of occasions that the cheapest switchable tariff on MoneySuperMarket has been 100% renewable energy. Green energy can now become a positive choice that isn’t restricted by price”
– Stephen Murray, Energy Commercial Manager at MoneySuperMarket.
Renewable energy in homes
The renewable energy revolution will be felt most in our homes, as we find new ways to decarbonise our heating and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
Whether it’s installing truly smart meters, heating our homes from food waste, or running our homes off-grid, the way we use energy in the next decade will change dramatically.
Truly Smart Homes
As our homes become increasingly connected, we can expect our smart meters to get truly smart by 2030 and report every usage five minutes.
Two decades later, we could see them to show minute-by-minute or real-time consumption and costs. These smart meters will communicate with our devices and appliances to boost efficiencies.
This will all be made possible by blockchain technology, believes Jon Ferris, Strategy Director at Electron. Blockchains enable data to be shared amongst devices, and could also be used to certify renewable energy is actually green.
Low-carbon central heating is already being used in some homes in the form of heat pumps.
These absorb a small amount of heat from outside and use electricity to compress it, magnify it and then pump into your home – and they work in temperatures as cold as -18 degrees Celsius.
This technology hasn’t taken off yet because heat pumps are relatively expensive to install, they need to be paired with under-floor heating or large radiator systems, and they need a fair bit of space to work.
“I believe that over the course of the next 10 years, there will be a mixture of district heating and heat pump technology taking hold,” said Marcus Franck, Franck Energy and co-founder of Smart Renewable Heat.
“Mains (natural) gas will be completely phased out towards 2050 as renewable technology becomes more affordable and more efficient.”
It seems likely that we’ll adopt hybrid boilers as a step towards using fully renewable biomass boilers.
This type of boiler is energy efficient and burns fuel such as wood pellets, chips and logs. In the future, they could run on high-energy crops like maize, food waste or animal waste.
It’s considered a renewable because the biomass can be regrown and the ash can be used for fertiliser.
But there are drawbacks: the fuel needed for these boilers currently needs to be farmed and transported, meaning the carbon footprint is larger than other sources of renewable energy.
Self-sufficient, low-carbon heating
It’s technically possible to produce self-sufficient low-carbon heating in a truly renewable way, but the costs far outstrip the practicality of this technology.
However, it’s not implausible that by 2050 we could be generating our own heating and hot water through sun and water alone – without having to buy energy.
The key is a cutting-edge system whose only waste product is water, which is stored in an insulated tank and used for hot water – with surplus energy stored in a battery.
It could allow your home to be completely off-grid and fully self-sufficient.
“Any kind of home – even flats – can have a battery and we can put the solar panels in a field,” explained Menelaos Ioannidis, Chief Technical Officer for Lightsource Labs.
“You can have your panels – you can visit them – but it’s in a community solar site."
Cheaper bills for all
Whilst renewable energy comes at a premium, it will eventually make bills cheaper for everyone. That’s because the improvements we make with energy efficiency will more than cancel out any price increase driven by a renewable premium.
The Committee on Climate Change predicts that renewable energy will cost an £151.80 a year for the average household - but being more energy efficient could save homes up to £150.
And if you switch energy providers, you can save up to £250.
* According to consumer research carried out on behalf of MoneySuperMarket, between 29th March to 3rd April 2018, with a sample comprised of 2,005 nationally representative UK adults, 18 years old +.