By Irina Slav
Transition will be the word of the year in energy, no doubt. But this transition involves a host of technologies that many believe will help the world move beyond the fossil fuels era. Many will need years to become commercially available, which has made some industry observers skeptical about the future of this transition. The dominant sentiment, however, appears to be optimistic, despite the considerable challenges.
Here are three technology areas that, according to a recent report by Lux Research, will dominate the energy discourse for the observable future.
Green hydrogen and fuel cells
Green hydrogen is the new EV revolution in terms of media coverage. From an occasional mention in renewable energy analyses, hydrogen has won its own place among the energy transition stars. The most abundant element in the universe has been touted as an energy carrier, energy storage option, and fuel. With such versatility of use, one might imagine that economies would already be running on hydrogen.
But things are rarely as simple as they seem.
First, not all hydrogen is made equal. For the energy transition revolutionaries such as the European Union, green hydrogen is the one to aim for. Produced through the electrolysis of water using electricity generated by renewable sources, green hydrogen features heavily in the EU’s energy transition plans: it wants to build at least 40 GW of electrolysis capacity by 2030, with 6 GW of these to be up and running by 2024.
Green hydrogen, many believe, will be the best way to help industries that have proved hard to decarbonize reduce their emissions in line with the Paris Agreement. How? First, it can be used as a fuel for freight vehicles; second, it can be blended with natural gas and used to heat buildings; third, it can be used to store electricity produced by solar and wind farms.
There is just one problem with all this: it is expensive, prohibitively so at the moment. Yet the outlook is optimistic, according to most, with the costs of electrolysis expected to fall significantly.
Fuel cells are another potentially widespread use for hydrogen, but they have been off to a slow start, again because of cost constraints. Fuel cell passenger vehicles are still a rarity despite their major advantage over EVs: much faster charging time. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the biggest obstacle in fuel cell cars’ wider adoption is the lack of a charging station network—a problem that is being addressed.
Direct air capture
Carbon capture, storage, and even reuse, have been the topic of discussion for years. What better way to reduce emissions by capturing them, after all? Yet like green hydrogen, carbon capture is a costly process, so it has not been adopted as widely as it needs to be to make a meaningful difference in global emissions.
Direct air capture involves one of two technologies to date: either filtering air through a liquid chemical solution that traps the carbon dioxide and then returns the air, or using solid filters with absorbent chemicals that bind to the CO2 and remove it from the air.
According to the International Energy Agency, there are just 15 direct air capture facilities in operation globally. Together, they capture 9,000 tons of CO2, which is a meager amount. There is a million-ton facility being built in the United States, however. Under IEA’s sustainable development scenario, the global direct air capture capacity should increase to almost 10 million tons annually by 2030. Government help will likely be instrumental in making this scenario materialize.
Direct air capture would be particularly well suited to the needs of the oil and gas industry, which is currently trying to reinvent itself as a more environmentally responsible industry. Meanwhile, Big Oil is teaming up with carbon offsetting companies, investing in other ways to reduce the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. These mostly focus on forest protection and restoration and other carbon sink projects.
Long-duration energy storage
This is arguably the most crucial development we need to see if the energy transition is to be successful. Sure, hydrogen can be used for the storage of electricity generated at solar and wind farms, but it takes up a lot of space, and vast underground caverns are not exactly available everywhere. Battery storage seems to be the obvious solution to the storage problem.
Batteries right now are not fit for the task, however. Even the biggest installations—in Australia—will only be able to store enough power to supply half a million households for just an hour. This is enough for brief power outages caused by some incident or other, but it is nowhere near enough to make the grid dominated by renewable energy unless it’s hydro energy.
The solution to the long-duration storage problem will need to address two issues: energy density and durability of the battery. Labs across the world are working on all sorts of new batteries addressing these issues, but for now, the ultimate battery that can store electricity enough for hours and hours of supply remains a chimera. According to some, it will forever remain a chimera because there is only so much energy density you can pack in a battery array without it taking up as much land as a country.
The energy transition holds the promise for a better, cleaner world, but the journey will come at a steep cost and will take quite a lot of time.