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Renewable Energy: Harnessing the Elements

Perpectives — June 16, 2017

The intertwined urgency of sky-high oil prices and need for renewable energy solutions in 2008 and 2011 have faded out of the news cycle, and you might expect that recent drops in oil prices would reduce the call to action on renewable solutions. However, oil typically serves as transportation fuel while renewables are geared more toward electricity and the need for a cost-efficient, scalable and climate-friendly electricity solution is more critical than ever in the wake of rising oceans and human emissions.

Determining the next great energy resource is no easy feat. A lesson many entrepreneurs learned the hard way from the algae biofuel bubble that took shape in 2005 and later deflated in 2012. Industry experts predicted algal biofuel capacity to reach 1 billion gallons by 2014; various firms promised competitive pricing by 2012; the U.S. Department of Energy’s bioenergy technologies office had adoption of the fuel on near-term achievement plans.

Entrepreneurs and VCs allocated hundreds of millions to what seemed to be a revolutionary net carbon-neutral process of growing and harvesting energy—with potentially immensely higher yields than other biofuel opportunities. Beneath the surface, the access to water and energy, and processes for growing, collecting, and drying, made scaling production to an impactful level so complicated and expensive that dozens of algae companies went bankrupt or pivoted away from the biofuels market in pursuit of more expensive algae byproducts.

Despite the bubble burst, algae cultivation remains on the agenda at the US Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Bioeconomy Conference in July. A recent report attributes shrinking fossil fuel resources and increased environmental inclinations to project growth of up to $10.73 billion in the global algae biofuel market by 2025.

Solar is not new to the renewable energy scene either, and yet the industry continues to experience significant growth. In the 2017 U.S. Energy and Employment Report, the U.S. Department of Energy found that the solar industry created 373,807 jobs in 2016, far exceeding all other renewable technology industries as well as the coal industry, at 160,119 jobs. California is the nation’s epicenter of this solar development, largely due to high statewide renewable energy standards and incentives.

Although smaller in scale compared to solar, wind energy has experienced a boost that could contribute to significant disruption in the renewable energy space. The Public Service Commission permitted Skipjack Offshore Energy and U.S. Wind to pursue their proposal of building 368 megawatts of offshore wind. The project, to take place off the coast of Ocean City and Delaware, will employ nearly 10,000 and has the potential to become the nation’s largest offshore windfarm. Block Island, Rhode Island, also opened an offshore wind farm to completely meet the energy needs of the island’s residents, resulting in the closure of a diesel plant formerly serving the island.

Offshore wind is more consistent and often strongest during high energy-consumption periods in the middle of the day and early evening, making it a more reliable resource than wind farms on land. The Netherlands and other European countries have successfully scaled many offshore wind projects. The Gemini wind farm, made up of 150 wind turbines off the coast of Gronigen, recently opened as the largest offshore wind farm in the world and has the capacity to serve the energy needs of about 1.5 million people.

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is another tried and not yet true renewable method that has recently begun to regain traction after a period of slow growth. The main hurdle blocking CCS from mainstream adoption is again related to scale and cost. CCS is calculated to cost more than double that of solar and triple that of onshore wind production per unit—and recent large-scale projects in the US have come in billions of dollars over budget. The temptation of a climate-friendly option that does not require transitioning away from fossil fuels is too good for coal advocates to pass up, but is proving difficult to secure federal funding, making the future development of CCS uncertain.

Other, less explored solutions are out there, too. Engineers at University of Wisconsin-Madison have explored the potential of leveraging “footstep energy,” from vibrations on flooring, to generate electricity.

There may never be a sole renewable solution implemented universally, but as research and development continue to improve scalability and costs, in turn are reduced by economies of scale, these methods, and ones that have not yet been discovered, will begin to replace the longstanding methods that have caused decades of damage and placed our environment in a perilous state.

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