New breakthroughs in renewable energy technologies

The year 2050 seems so far away. For humans, it is, but for a planet that has been around for over four and a half billion years, 2050 could not come soon enough. With climate change ravaging the planet, it can be scary to imagine what the world will look like in 27 years. Will there still be icebergs? What about the Amazon rainforest? How far will Florida’s coastline have intruded?
With all of these negative possibilities, it can be easy to forget that the future brings positive change as well. In the United States, this means switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy. For decades, fossil fuel industries have been lobbying against the use of renewable energy, marketing it as expensive and inefficient. Recent advances in renewable energy technologies, specifically relating to solar power, prove both of these claims to be false.
It is likely that the U.S.’ switch to renewable energy will take place sooner rather than later. Associate Professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability Ian Carbone predicted that by 2050, there will be more renewable energy than fossil fuels consumed in the U.S.
“Even if we didn’t care about climate change, we are going to transition away from fossil fuels,” Carbone said. “(Solar power) is the cheapest form of energy we have. So it’s cheaper than fossil fuels. And I don’t think that can be overstated.”
Advances in solar technology are making the process even cheaper. By shrinking the size of the semiconductor, typically the most expensive element of most solar panels, scientists at the University of Michigan have achieved 9% efficiency in using sunlight to convert water into oxygen and hydrogen, according to Science Daily.
“It represents a major leap in the technology, nearly 10 times more efficient than solar water-splitting experiments of its kind,” the article explained.
Another way that scientists have improved solar energy technologies is by modeling new energy creating technologies after leaves. In nature, plants, through their leaves, combine sunshine and water in a process known as photosynthesis. Led by chemical engineer Kevin Sivula of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in France, a team of scientists have copied this process in their prototype, which harvests sunlight and humidity to create hydrogen energy, according to Science Daily.
With technology like this, Carbone predicts that it is in the United States’ best interest to make the switch to renewable energy. Not only is it cheaper, but it is also much safer for the environment.
“The only real downside is the intermittency issue, in that you need a way to store the energy on cloudy days or overnight or when the wind’s not blowing if you’re talking about wind,” Carbone said.
In order to aid the transition to renewable energy in the U.S., Carbone suggested using tax money to create incentives for making the switch. He argued that consumers need to be motivated to switch through the use of incentives rather than taxes because carbon taxes, while effective, are very unpopular among the general public.
To Carbone, the most important part of this switch is not eradicating the use of fossil fuels, but rather increasing the use of renewable energy and replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy where possible.
“There’s a couple areas where it’s really hard to use wind and solar,” Carbone said. “Like if you’re flying an airplane, you … pretty much need either a fossil fuel or a biomass derived aviation fuel. So I think what you’ll see is very quickly, the vast majority of our energy system will transition to electricity and electricity and renewables supplying that electricity, but there will be specific applications where we’re still using fossil fuels. But maybe we’re using cleaner versions of those fossil fuels. Or maybe we’re using technologies like carbon capture to pull the carbon out of the atmosphere after we use those fossil fuels.”
On campus, there are two solar arrays and four buildings with geothermal heating systems, according to Director of Sustainability Kelly Boulton, ’02. The solar arrays are located on top of Carr Hall, Doane Hall of Chemistry and Steffee Hall of Life Sciences. Bentley Hall, North Village I and II and the 454 House all have geothermal heating systems. She explained that while many people on campus, herself included, would love to see an increase in the amount of renewable energy created on campus, there are a number of restraints that complicate the issue.
“We don’t necessarily just have a pot of money sitting around waiting to put up a bunch of solar panels,” Boulton said. “So we need to think strategically about what are the opportunities that we can use to find the right solution, but also find the right financing.”
According to Boulton, installing a ton of solar panels on campus is not really feasible. With the age and height of buildings and trees on campus, not enough light comes through to power these panels. The only place that solar energy could be harvested is, surprisingly enough, the parking lots.
“You can do like a canopy over a parking lot,” Boulton said. “Right now that doesn’t make a lot of financial sense because the cost of steel skyrocketed during the pandemic because of all of the shipping and logistics.”
Currently, there are no projects in the works for increasing the amount of renewable energy generated on campus. However, as bills like the Inflation Reduction Act are carried out, opportunities to create new infrastructure are appearing, Boulton explained.
“Just last week, I was looking through all of those opportunities and figuring out which ones, but most of them — the guidelines and the timelines for those funding possibilities — haven’t even been released yet,” Boulton said. “Just because we’re not actively installing anything on campus doesn’t mean we’re not working behind the scenes to find all of the right opportunities.”
Despite the United States’ current reliance on fossil fuels, it seems that the time has finally come to make a change that could actually combat climate change. With legislation like the Inflation Reduction Act incentivizing consumers to use renewable energy, it is just a matter of time before renewable energy takes over.
“There’s a lot of factors at play and I’ve seen things go badly for so long,” Boulton said. “So I’ll be cautiously optimistic, but yes, we need to get there.”