Fulfilling Our Energy Future’s Potential: 5 Key Challenges

Opinion

I believe that 2035 is a crucial year for the global energy economy. Over the next 20 years, Citibank forecasts a global investment of roughly $10 trillion in new electricity generation infrastructure and $7 trillion in new distribution infrastructure.

Steps taken today will dictate who becomes, or remains, a leader as the energy landscape gets transformed by this investment—not just in Washington state, but globally, too.

Here’s my take on the five key challenges that we need to address over the next 20 years to fully realize our energy future’s promise and potential:

1. Embracing Clean Energy Exponentials. In the early days of computing, visionary leaders embraced exponential change by imagining a future with (effectively) infinite compute speed and zero cost. We are now seeing exponential growth in solar energy adoption, in the amount of battery storage in vehicles, and behind-the-meter energy management. Embracing these exponentials suggests that we are entering an era where millions of energy producing, storing, and consuming devices of all sizes will contribute to a clean, reliable and secure energy economy.

Visionary energy leaders will be rewarded for imagining everything on the grid—smart refrigerators, office buildings, air conditioners, solar panels, industrial machines, cell phone chargers, cars—as part of an exponentially growing and transactive energy economy with zero marginal cost to participate.

Standards for interoperability, communications and security must be adopted to ensure the growth and robustness of this critical cyber-physical infrastructure, however.

2. Pushing Battery Chemistry Harder. Affordable batteries are the Holy Grail for the future energy economy. Engineering improvements in materials and manufacturing are steadily driving performance up and costs down, but the next big accelerator in batteries will be new sensing and control modalities that push any given battery chemistry harder.

We know that high-energy and high-power density batteries undergo a complex set of chemical and material transformations with each charge and discharge cycle. Unfortunately, though, we normally have too little information about the internal state of a sealed, high-energy density battery, so we treat it with kid gloves to avoid unexpected, early, or catastrophic failures.

Sophisticated battery diagnostic and control algorithms are being researched today, and they will safely unleash the full capabilities of current and future batteries, significantly lowering the cost and increasing the performance.

3. Developing Tools to Integrate Molecules and Markets. The innovation cycle of research, development, and deployment can be slow and expensive for clean energy because disruptions in energy generation or storage are often driven by fundamental new materials, which must be put into devices that are then integrated into systems in order to get tested.

The good news is that design tools are being investigated to virtualize each step in the clean energy product development sequence, and this will accelerate the evaluation of new materials and devices. For example, it is now possible to develop physics-based models for new materials, then incorporate the virtual properties into full-physics device simulations. This virtualization of new materials and devices, if done in a manner compatible with vehicle and grid-scale simulation, could be used to screen the techno-economic impact of new devices and develop control algorithms that let them connect robustly to vehicles and the transactive grid.

4. Bringing the Right Partners Together. Turning a clean energy innovation into a commodity sounds like the wrong thing to do, but that is one of the odd goals for this market. Why? Because the availability of affordable, reliable commodity energy drives societies forward, whereas boutique energy is largely synonymous with underdevelopment.

So, another scale challenge is to quickly turn a significant research product into a low cost manufactured solution that the market will adopt. This requires a strong industry-government-research-finance consortium. We’ve done this in the past with Sematech, an industry-government partnership born in the 1980s to keep the U.S. semiconductor sector at the cutting edge—it still is. Like Sematech, a clean energy consortium needs flexible technology test-bed facilities where small, medium, and large research and technology organizations can test pre-commercial ideas and establish interoperability standards for hardware and software.

Bringing the right partners together helps share the knowledge, cost, risk, and benefits of pre-commercial R&D, with leverage provided by government.

We should definitely feel a sense of urgency here. Major global investments being made in the next two decades will establish what the energy economy looks like for the many decades that follow, and who will be leading that transformation.

5. Getting Rid of the Waste. I am an engineer. And I hate waste.

So I find it unfortunate that each year the U.S. burns nearly two billion tons of oil, coal, and natural gas to manufacture heat—and then we waste more of the heat than we actually put to useful work.

Thermoelectric power plants often dump their waste heat into water, and are responsible for withdrawing over 200 billion tons of fresh water each year in the U.S. This represents roughly a third of all U.S. fresh water withdrawals (roughly equal to agriculture!).

A clean energy economy won’t beat its head against the laws of thermodynamics. Instead, we will harvest solar energy from all around us, and turn it directly into electricity. We will harvest the mechanical energy from wind, waves and tides, and turn it directly into electricity. When we bypass the intermediate step of manufacturing heat, we reduce waste.

Imagine an affordable, reliable energy economy where we no longer transport two billion tons of fossil energy across the U.S., nor produce more than five billion tons of carbon waste from burning it, nor withdraw 200 billion tons of fresh water to cool it. What a legacy to leave for future generations.

This transition can’t happen overnight, of course, but we need to understand the challenges and mobilize resources to tackle them.

I believe that we can meet each of these five complex challenges and fulfill our energy destiny. That means cleaner energy, more decentralized energy generation, less heat and waste, and technology that spurs both efficiency and economy.

Read the other pieces in this series looking at Washington state’s energy sector in 2035 here. The essays were commissioned by the University of Washington Clean Energy Institute.

Daniel Schwartz is the Director of the Clean Energy Institute and is currently Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of Washington. Follow @

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  • Burt Hamner

    Another key challenge is re-designing the world’s small electric devices to run on 5 volts! USB 5V power is now a global standard, and 10 billion devices now are powered by a USB cord. But there are millions of small electric products that have yet to migrate to that power supply, mostly because it has spread so fast. Talk about viral, there were no USB power ports 10 years ago. Now they are EVERYWHERE. Also, the spread of micro-finance over mobile networks in Africa and South Asia means billions of poor people can now buy micro electronics running on USB power. That has massive implications for manufacturing, resources, supply chains, and of course disposal of e-waste.