How innovative technologies are driving the future of renewable energy

Progress toward the transition to cleaner and more renewable energy sources is gathering pace at the same time as a wide range of new technologies, from artificial intelligence to the tools that make the widespread adoption of renewables possible. The growth of cutting-edge technologies and the shift to sustainable energy consumption are inextricably linked. At Atlas, we believe that by recognizing and embracing these connections, we can foster an environment that supports and accelerates the adoption of renewable energy.

Renewable technologies mature

The development of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power is one of the most dramatic technological developments in modern history. Once dismissed as infeasibly expensive, investment and advancement have made solar power the least expensive source of power in many parts of the world.

Some of that change is simply due to increased demand leading to economies of scale, but much of it is also due to the increased efficiency of the panels themselves. Commercially available solar panels in 2010 had an efficiency average of 14.7%, meaning that 14.7% of the solar energy that hits the panel is converted to electricity. Efficiencies today are generally between 17-22% efficiency, with an average of 19.2%, with some experimental next-generation solar panels upwards of 40% efficient. Continued improvement in the panels themselves means lower costs and the ability to adopt solar power production at an even wider scale.

Though it has had less dramatic improvements in recent years than solar, wind technology continues to improve as well. Greater efficiency and economies of scale have caused wind power to similarly experience a significant price drop.

One developing technology that is especially important for the incorporation of both wind and solar energy into our daily electrical mix is power storage. Since renewable energy is inherently intermittent (the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow) utilizing renewables around the clock is complicated. For example, solar power production peaks in the afternoon, while electrical demand peaks in the evening. This means that some of the potential solar power production will not be realized, a phenomenon known as ‘curtailment’, which refers to the regulatory restrictions imposed on production, rather than a natural limitation of the energy source. Now, as battery technology improves, the excess produced at peak production times can be saved for later.

Utilizing energy storage at a large scale entails building facilities with massive arrays of batteries. Most of these facilities currently operating are made up of lithium-ion short-duration batteries. These are battery arrays designed to store power for around four hours to transfer the excess production in the afternoon to the excess demand later in the evening. However, longer-duration batteries are going to be needed for a full green energy transition to occur. Lithium-ion batteries at a longer duration are not ideal in every situation, so other technologies for long-duration energy storage are in various stages of development.

Flow batteries are a developing technology that rely on electrochemical cells for storage. Several different chemistries for flow batteries (or redox flow) are possible and at varying levels of market-readiness. Iron flow batteries, for example, are made with readily available materials like iron, water, and salt, avoiding some environmental criticisms of lithium-ion and other technologies. Some iron flow facilities are being built, but their large-scale market viability remains to be seen.

Pumped hydro energy storage is a bit of a throwback technology that may be finding expanded usefulness. Relying upon the basic physics of gravity, excess power is used to pump water from a low reservoir to a higher one and then drops back to the lower one through a hydroelectric plant when energy is needed. Compressed air energy storage is another potential solution, in which air is pumped into a cavern, abandoned mine, or other contained space and then released when power is needed. 

All of these long-duration energy storage options can currently function as intended. What remains to be seen is which will prove to be the most cost-effective, market-friendly options. As of right now, there is no clear leader.

From chatbots to energy forecasting: AI’s renewable energy opportunity

When most people think of artificial intelligence, they either think of sentient robots or generative algorithms like ChatGPT. But AI is finding many applications beyond just those. The use of AI in renewable power, particularly in companies like Atlas, is becoming crucial for making the world run on clean energy. These algorithms draw upon a wide range of data primarily to forecast generation, as opposed to demand prediction which is typically under the purview of regulatory bodies, and react within a fraction of a second to changing conditions.

Indeed, integrating AI into the renewable energy sector is a significant emerging development. AI-driven analytics and machine learning algorithms are already used to optimize energy generation and distribution. By analyzing vast amounts of data from current and projected weather patterns, historical weather records, satellite imagery, and other relevant sources, AI primarily helps in forecasting generation to reduce curtailment and enhance efficiency. In the case of an outage, AI can also redirect electricity within the grid and assist in diagnosing the problem.

Renewable energy makes for a more complicated grid. Different sources of power will be used at different times based on their availability and suitability at any given moment. Additionally, some electricity will need to be redirected to battery arrays for later use, with that power drawn from as needed. To further complicate matters, distributed energy production adds complexity to grid management. Each house or business with its own solar panels or battery storage must be coordinated within the grid. A renewable grid will require both short-duration and long-duration storage, likely relying on different technologies in separate facilities. Moreover, it will involve ancillary services essential for grid stability, such as voltage regulation and spinning reserve, among others.

This type of complex coordination with seemingly innumerable moving parts, sometimes requiring a pivot within a fraction of a second, is a perfect use for AI technologies. On the other hand, if this coordination is mishandled, there is increased potential for blackouts that disrupt people’s lives and turn public opinion against an increasing reliance on green energy.

In fact, the US Department of Energy coordinated with IBM to create AI that predicts the production capacity of solar plants. They found that they were able to increase the accuracy of solar forecasting by 30%, a massive leap forward in the efficient and effective use of solar power.

Linked together for the future

These developments demonstrate once more the symbiotic relationship between cutting-edge innovation and the growth of renewables, allowing businesses and governments to increase the adoption of clean energy across the globe.

Atlas Renewable Energy was conceived with sustainability at its core. It develops, builds, finances, and operates clean energy projects across the Americas, enabling companies to power their operations sustainably.

With a range of services, from renewable power purchase agreements (PPAs) to renewable energy certificates (RECs), Atlas helps large energy consumers across industries make the shift to green energy and manage their transition to net-zero emissions – and partners with experts across sectors to remain at the leading edge of technological developments.

To learn more about Atlas Renewable Energy’s approach to innovation and collaboration, contact us.

In partnership with Castleberry Media, we are committed to taking care of our planet, therefore, this content is responsible with the environment.