The Time to Shorten the Innovation Cycle and Make the Energy Transition Real Is Now

It is obvious that rendering the global economy pretty much closed-loop and powered mainly with renewable energy is the best long-run bet to sustain the projected population of nine to 11 billion people throughout this millennium. But in spite of what may be discussed at the UN climate change conference in Lima earlier this month, we do not yet have the magic recipe. Some of the ingredients are also still missing. What’s more, the short-term outlook could hardly send more confusing signals. It is now time to double up on human ingenuity and bring the remarkable advances in fields such as materials sciences and nanotechnology, information technology, engineering and other natural sciences to bear on the problem much faster and reduce the innovation cycle.

The price of oil just reached a four-year low. With OPEC now supplying only about one third of global petroleum, and the shale gas boom in full swing—rendering the U.S. the world’s largest fossil fuel producer—paired with the continued sluggish growth of the global economy and many OECD governments faced with empty coffers to subsidize renewables, the incentives to fast-track the energy transition really are faltering in spite of all the rhetoric about the end of oil.

As the gigatons of CO2 emissions continue to pile up, as India ponders about going big on coal and with over 1 billion people having no access whatsoever to electricity, there is only one logical conclusion: to truly compete, renewable energy will have to become fully price competitive and substitutable with fossil fuels much faster. In other words, if renewables can turn out electricity at 2 cents a kilowatt hour, solar panels can capture energy at night, and storage solutions can compete with gasoline in terms of energy density and ability to release energy, then we are talking.

Science fiction? Not necessarily. For example, using rectifying antennas (or “rectennas”), it is already possible to convert electromagnetic radiation to electricity, with reported conversion efficiencies of over 90 percent in the microwave range. This is reminiscent of the solex agitator in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, which was released right after the first oil crisis. In principle, physics predicts that it could be possible to also reach these efficiencies in the infrared and optical ranges, i.e., converting sunlight to electricity. Just think about the energy cost and availability implications of high-efficiency solar energy harvesting leveraging a wide spectrum during the day and possibly even conducting infrared harvesting at night.

Diligently applying science, there are many such possibilities that may seem outside the box only at first sight. For example, what if wind turbines were routinely coated in ways that would enable them to much better deal with turbulence so as to produce energy at lower wind speeds and suffer from much less downtime? Again, this is in principle possible, merging design thinking from bionics with advances in materials sciences. After all, birds can do this—and so can we with a little effort. In comparison, new combinations such as lithium and sulfur, that hold the potential to dramatically raise the energy density of batteries and lower their cost almost seem yesterday’s news (though they also need support to reach productization).

But there is one key challenge that stands in the way of devising a viable energy path forward. And it is a big roadblock. It is not a lack of human ingenuity. Rather, the innovation cycle in science is still too long. In solar photovoltaics, it took more than 100 years from Becquerel’s discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 to Bell Lab unveiling the first usable silicon solar cell in 1954, with a 6 percent efficiency. Granted, we have gotten better since.

Google’s $1 million “Little Box” challenge calls for a small laptop-sized solar inverter to shrink power conversion technology, because an inverter one tenth the size of existing devices would make it much easier to bring electricity everywhere where it is needed. But we also do not have infinite amounts of time to get it right, and existing innovation programs are often not sufficiently agile.

To accelerate the process and help to push the boundaries of usable energy solutions, we have created the Exergeia Project. We aim to support potentially groundbreaking inventions and innovations in all fields of alternative energy, including unconventional approaches—including energy efficiency, generation, storage, transmission and distribution. Nanomaterials, for example, could make a big contribution to energy conversion and storage.

It is now time to deliver on the aspiration of Thomas Edison—probably the greatest inventor of the 19th century—and make the energy transition real. When zooming in on photovoltaics way back, he argued: “I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait ‘til oil and coal run out before we tackle that.”

This can only happen if breakthroughs in science reach full-scale impact much faster. If you work on something that has the potential to be the next steam engine or Internet, it is time to step forward. A 100 percent renewable energy economy in our lifetime can come into view—if we adjust our speed.

Maximilian Martin, Ph.D., is the founder and global managing director of Impact Economy, an impact investment and strategy firm based in Lausanne, Switzerland, and leads the Exergeia Project.


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