Five energy technologies to watch for
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Recent breakthroughs in natural-gas extraction highlight the speed with which game-changing technologies can transform the natural resource landscape. Just over the horizon are others--such as electric vehicles, advanced internal-combustion engines, solar photovoltaics, and LED lighting--that are benefiting from the convergence of software, consumer electronics, and traditional industrial processes. Each has the potential to grow by a factor of 10 in the next decade.
Placing rapidly-evolving technologies such as these on a resource cost curve, however, is difficult: their impact could be very big or very small. Andthat's even more the case for technologies that require significant scientific and engineering innovations to reach commercial scale at viable cost.
This article describes five technologies that could start arriving in earnest by 2020 or so: grid-scale storage, digital-power conversion, compressorlessair conditioning and electrochromic windows, clean coal, and electrofuelsand new biofuels.
Not all of these will succeed in the market; they will earn a place only ifthey can outperform the rising bar defined by other rapidly advancing technologies. But even if only some of them pan out, those could transformthe energy landscape. It's possible, in fact, that the development of energytechnologies is approaching a tipping point that will generate increasesin energy productivity on a scale not seen since the Industrial Revolution.
Leaders of companies and countries who neglect what is happening onthe margins today risk being pushed to the margins themselves in the nottoo-distant future.
1. Grid-scale storage
The large-scale storage of electricity within electric power grids allows powergenerated overnight to meet peak load during the day. Today, this kind ofgrid storage costs about US$600 to US $1,000 per kilowatt hour (kWh) and can beused only when the local geology supports pumped-hydro or compressed airstorage systems. Innovations using flow batteries, liquid-metal batteries,flywheels, and ultracapacitors could reduce costs to US $150 to US $200 per kWhby 2020 and make it possible to provide grid storage in every major metropolitanmarket.
At these prices, by 2020, the United States alone would want to build more than 100 gigawatts (GW) of storage (the capacity equivalent of the current US nuclear-generation fleet).
That much storage capacity would be transformative: currently, our powergrid tends to use only 20 to 30 percent of its capacity because we buildit to meet very high demand peaks. With storage, we can flatten out thosepeaks, reducing capital requirements for transmission and distributionand making power much cheaper to deliver. Power companies also coulduse storage to smooth variability in the supply of weather-dependentrenewables, such as solar and wind power, thereby converting them fromintermittent power sources into much more reliable ones.
2. Digital-power conversion
Large-scale high-voltage transformers, developed in the late 1880s, set thestage for the widespread development of the electrical grid. Virtually thesame technology is still in use today. A typical transformer costs US$20,000,weighs 10,000 pounds, and takes up 250 cubic feet.
High-speed digital switches made of silicon carbide and gallium nitride have been developed for high-frequency power management for everything from military jetsto high-speed rail. They use 90 percent less energy, take up only about 1 percentas much space, and are more reliable and flexible than existing transformers.Today's advanced applications include consumer electronics andvariable-speed industrial drives for manufacturing.
As such applications expand and the major semiconductor manufacturers begin to produce these technologies at scale, they could replace conventional transformers in the utility industry (at less than one-tenth the cost) by 2020. China is particularly well-positioned to benefit from adopting digital-power electronics because of the scale of its planned grid expansion.
3. Compressor-less air conditioning and electrochromic windows
Today, it costs about US$3,000 to US$4,000 a year to run a high-efficiency air-conditioner in a hot region, and even the efficient windows now commonlyused allow 50 percent of the cooling energy to escape.
New compressorless air-conditioners dehumidify the air with desiccants rather than the traditional "compress/decompress" refrigeration cycle. Electrochromic window technologies change the window shading, depending on the temperaturedifference between outside and inside. These technologies offer the potentialto cut home-cooling bills in half. Advanced windows also could slashheating costs by half, allowing the sun to warm houses while keeping thecold out--the new windows are often better than the standard attic insulationin cold-climate homes today.
These technologies are expensive now, but by 2020 they should cost only about half as much to install as current state-of-the-art cooling and window technologies do.
4. Clean coal
Today, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) costs US$8,000 to US$10,000 perkilowatt (kW). Innovative processes now under development could helpcoal-fired generators to capture more than 90 percent of their carbon dioxide,at a cost of less than US$2,000 per kW. If the technology is viable by 2020,it would be possible for nearly 70 percent of the roughly 200 US coal plantscurrently slated for closure in that year to stay open for decades. Thesame goes for similar plants in China and Europe.
Without supportive carbon regulations, though, we are unlikely to see clean coal deployed at scale. Coal without carbon sequestration will always be cheaper than coal with it. On current course, though, coal with carbon sequestration could become cheaper, more reliable, and more widely deployable than many renewabletechnologies.
5. Biofuels and electrofuels
With crude-oil prices approaching US$100 a barrel, market shares for biofuelssuch as cane and corn ethanol are rising rapidly. Although second-generationcellulosic biofuels have proved harder to make than many had hoped five years ago, innovative start-ups focused on cellulosic and algae-based biofuels are starting to create high-margin specialty chemicals and blendstocks, generating cash now and suggesting a pathway to deliver biofuels at US$2 a gallon or less by 2020.
At the same time, biopharmaceutical researchers are developing electrofuel pathways that feed carbon dioxide, water, and energy to enzymes to create long-chain carbon molecules that function like fossil fuels at one-tenth the cost of current biofuels. The key question is whether these new technologies can be scaled. If they can, today's constraints on biofuels--the declining quality of available land and "food for fuel" trade-offs--may diminish.
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