Sustainable energy innovation

There are innumerous entities that are innovating in the sustainable energy sector. Innovation can be defined as a change in technology. Usually, when people talk about innovation they talk about innovations that are useful, positive changes in technology. There are two kinds of innovators: radical innovators and incremental innovators. I will define radical innovations as a major change in a technology, or the use of an enabling technology with an existing one, or a disruptive technology, all causing a major change to reduce the cost of providing the technology service, and enabling new markets, which further drives down costs. Incremental innovations can be defined as learnings that cause smaller reductions in cost, e.g. prototype testing finding flaws to be fixed pre-production, increased manufacturing supply, and user feedback resulting in product development.

Residential energy: solar, storage, local electricity trading and energy monitoring and control

SolarCoin: tokenization of and financially rewarding solar production with the blockchain.

Examples of local electricity trading include: Grid+, LO3/Transactive Grid, Power Ledger, Nexergy, Local Volts and Divvi. Grid+ uses Ethereum and they have released their codeTransactive Grid uses Ethereum and it has been rolled out in Brooklyn with a microgrid, however LO3 hasn’t released the code for its Transactive Grid application, so I suspect they are using a private Ethereum-based chain. The others are still all under development, and they have been scant on the details of how they would implement their application, at the least not releasing their code. Power Ledger is having a token generation soon (as of 19 July 2017). Divvi say on its website that they will use the blockchain. Local Volts and Nexergy do not.

Running on top of the public Ethereum blockchain (with a token) is better than using a private blockchain, or worse, not running on a blockchain at all (thus requiring a trusted third party which increases transaction costs). Running on the public Ethereum blockchain is more secure than a private chain, since the public chain is much longer and has many nodes mining and verifying it. A private chain is more prone to different kinds of attacks, particularly a 51% attack. Having open-source code is important to verify the security and performance of the software, as well as being able to innovate, e.g. with enhancements.

Redback: local electricity trading, appliance control and monitoring, energy storage and inverters. Partially owned by Goodwe, a Chinese inverter manufacturer.

Reposit Power: electricity trading with the utility (selling to the utility by getting grid credits at times of higher demand and spot market prices), appliance control and monitoring; http://www.repositpower.com/features/

Carbon Track: solar and energy appliance monitoring and control, spot market trading;

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Smappee

Sunverge: solar, storage and trading.

Solar Analytics: solar and energy monitoring (including comparing expected production with actual production) and diagnostics. I do have to say that I don’t like how they employ interns full-time at $1000 per month (the rate that I worked at for a brief stint). Since I left, they have hired several interns with the same “modest stipend” that they describe in the ad, without mentioning a dollar figure.

Watt Watchers: energy monitoring and control.

Efergy: energy monitoring and control.

Storage technology providers more focused on commercial and utility scale systems

Greensmith Energy

Demand Response Management

Greensync: DRM for non-residential entities.

Energy generation

Energy generation from devices of a few watts for lights and appliances in developing countries (as well as outdoor solar lights in developed countries), to utility scale (defined as more than 100 kW in Australia to transition from small scale renewable energy certificates [RECs] to large scale RECs) is important to increase the affordability of energy and increase environmental sustainability. Household and commercial generators help to reduce consumption from the grid (or in some cases not being connected to the grid), while utility scale helps to reduce the cost of wholesale electricity low through the merit order effect. However, the intermittent nature of renewable energy can increase the cost of retail electricity. Energy storage, interconnection, demand side management, decentralised energy trading, energy monitoring, energy efficiency, and energy conservation then become more important to reduce costs for the end user.

Raygen: utility scale concentrating solar PV with compressed air storage. They claim:
“our task now is to turn RayGen’s world-leading technology into a commercially viable system that can produce electricity at a lower cost than burning fossil fuels. We believe we’re well on the way to achieving this lofty ambition, and to giving humankind its best and most efficient mechanism to harness the power of the sun and to provide cheap and clean energy for all.” They don’t provide a more detailed economic assessment of cost-benefit calculations to different stakeholders, particularly the customer.

When you add in the costs after generation of utility scale electricity, from transmission, distribution, retail, then costs add up. If you can bring the point of energy generation closer to the end user, then there is more potential to eliminate or nullify those costs by going off-grid or storing and trading energy, respectively. Utility scale energy has to compete on the wholesale market. Energy generation at the point of use only has to compete with the retail electricity market. (I’ve calculated the single rate national average at around 28.7 c/kWh ex. GST for FY2014/15 [see here, p. 80: $1507/5248 kWh = 28.7 c/kWh]. Electricity pricing schemes include: single rate with a c/kWh component; daily fixed charges (usually a component of bills), time of use; electricity generation buyback rates at 6-10 c/kWh, spot-tied electricity pricing, capacity charges, imaginary power charges, charges varying by location, and peak demand charges. There are avoided costs, including for placing generators on the fringe of grids, and for avoiding the construction of peaking gas power plants and the cost of network augmentation.

Solar paint or printed flexible sheets: developed by the Priority Research Centre for Organic Electronics. The Centre is led by Professor Paul Dastoor, who said at a Innovators Re:volutionising Energy event at NSW Parliament House that he has had two PhD students do economic modelling (quipping that they were “sacrificed on the altar of scientific progress”), with the latest modelling finding that the levelised cost of electricity is about 10 c/kWh. I have asked him for a citation for that finding by email, and am waiting for a reply. This is quite a remarkable result, as the technology is on the cusp of pilot plant demonstration, i.e. it is early in technology learning, and so costs should reduce much more. By comparison, the LCOE in an Australian study in 2006 was $120/MWh, or $0.12/kWh (see here, the original source is here. Given the global nature of the industry, costs for Australia can be estimated from more recent studies in other countries. The technology still needs to be tested more in pilot plants to find out potential challenges such as degradation rates. Because of the relatively low efficiency of a few percent, this technology would be less suitable for utility scale applications, but would work well for covering opaque building surfaces.

Ubiquitous Energy: transparent solar cells that can be used for any transparent sunlight exposed surface (e.g. windows and screen technologies). Coupled with solar paint, you could cover pretty much every surface of a building with solar.

Sungrow and other inverter manufacturers. Sungrow is the largest inverter manufacturer globally by shipments, and seem to have similar quality and reliability compared to ABB, and SMA, plus Sungrow has a hybrid ready inverter, while the other two leading inverter manufacturers do not, per se (you have to add on a battery charger unit to the grid-connected inverter, which increases the system cost. Sungrow has an inverter with a built-in charger unit.) There are other hybrid ready inverter manufacturers such as Goodwe, Solax, and Fronius (three phase Symo).

Sunpower, Trina Solar and other solar panel manufacturers. Sunpower has excellent performance and reliability, but is one of the premium solar panel brands, while Trina is one of the largest solar panel manufacturers globally). I am not sure how different solar module brands stack up in terms of the levelised cost of electricity.

Building integrated photovoltaics: this is an idea that has been around for some time (I first heard about it in a course called Low Energy Buildings and PV taught by Alistair Sproul at UNSW), but it has recently (as of November 2016) been implemented by Tesla. Read more about that here and here.

More established, commercially mature inverter and solar panel manufacturers help to reduce the cost of solar photovoltaic energy through technology learning (the link to technology learning is worth reading, discussing the importance to overcoming barriers to technology deployment, although it is 5 years out of date, so costs of solar has reduced significantly since then).

Utility scale renewable energy developers and operators, such as Infigen, FRV, Acciona, RES, AGL, OST Energy, and many others.

Nuclear fusion research: some entities include ITER, NIF, EAST, Wendelstein 7-x, Tri Alpha Energy, General Fusion, Helion, LPP Fusion, and First Light Fusion. Read more here. To my knowledge, no nuclear fusion technologies have achieved commercially viable energy production, and timeframes to net energy production (followed later by commercial viability) range from 3 years with companies like LPP Fusion that have a track record of not meeting deadlines, to at least four decades for commercial viability for ITER and following tokamaks (ITER is just to demonstrate net production, not to achieve commercial viability, DEMO aims to do that, followed by commercialisation). As an aside, read about nuclear physics and metaphysics here.

Other energy converters include biomass, geothermal, wave, tidal, ocean thermal, and piezoelectrics. There are other novel approaches such as Vortex Bladeless, Makani, solar updraft tower and related ideas and applications such as the Vortex Engine.

Organisation structures

Public, private and B corporations; cooperatives, associations and social enterprises.

Community renewable energy (e.g. Enova, Community Power Agency, Pingala, RePower Shoalhaven), yieldcos, investment vehicles, and accelerator/incubators (e.g. EnergyLab and Powerhouse).

Energy storage

1414 Degrees: utility scale energy storage using molten silicon

Redflow: flow battery company based in Brisbane. Flow batteries are cheaper than lithium ion batteries on a levelised cost of electricity basis, plus will continue to decline in cost. I tweeted to Redflow to ask about the levelised cost of energy. The reply was: “Based on ZCell’s warranted 36,500 kWh of energy the LCOS [Levelised cost of storage] is $0.35/kWh”: https://twitter.com/RedFlowLimited/status/792939959091015680?s=09“.

Light Sail: adiabatic compressed air energy storage.

Gelion Technologies: zinc bromide gel-ion batteries are non-flammable and flexible, and could be safely integrated into gadgets and building structures.

Tesla Powerwall, LG Chem, Samsung SDI, GCL, Pylon, Magellan, and other lithium ion and lead acid battery manufacturers. Lithium ion batteries have achieved more market volume than flow batteries and compressed air, but modelling suggests that the latter two can achieve a lower levelised cost of electricity with technology learning . Nevertheless, lithium ion batteries are better suited to mobile storage applications, such as electric vehicles and gadgets, due to their high power density.

Read more about energy storage here and here.

Energy efficiency

Energy efficient devices such as LED lights (with motion sensors where suitable such as in hallways, e.g. here), aerators on taps, water efficient showerheads, heat pumps (for air and water), insulation, shading, curtains, window treatments (e.g. glazing, heat mirrors, low-e coatings, secondary glazing), cool roof paint, and appliances (look at the energy star rating).

Energy conservation

Examples include wearing clothing appropriate for the temperature (e.g. not wearing a jacket in an office when it’s warm in summer; wearing layers of warm clothes when it’s very cold); natural ventilation; natural lighting (daylighting); shorter (cold) showers; reducing hot water usage; active transport (e.g. walking, cycling, and skating); public transport; motorcycles; and carpooling. Yes, these are all kinds of innovation too! Technology is not just artefacts, but also constitutes of entities, knowledge, and actions that change human lives.

Mapping

Project Sunroof

AREMI

APVI Solar Map

Solar Captus

Electric vehicles

Tesla, GM, Ford, and other vehicle manufacturers who are either trying to innovate or are simply trying to meet regulation quotas for electric vehicle production. Tesla is a risky, possibly overvalued investment (see here for example), and other vehicle manufacturers could manufacture a cheaper, long-range, mass-market electric vehicle, subsidized by profits from internal combustion engine vehicles (ICEVs). To me, this is unfortunate for Tesla, as without them, technology learning for long-range electric vehicles would probably be at an earlier stage. It is also more cost-reflective and sustainable to not have electric vehicles subsidized by profits from ICEVs. GM have a 2016 hybrid EV Volt for $33,170 US (before the $7,500 US tax credit); and a 2016 Spark hybrid EV for $25,120 (before the $7,500 US tax credit). This is cheaper than Tesla’s Model 3 claimed self-driving pure EV, with a much longer pure EV range, which Tesla announced would be $35,000 before tax incentives. However, comparing hybrid EVs with EVs is like comparing apples with oranges. Model 3 undercuts Chevrolet’s 2017 pure EV Bolt at $37,495 before tax. There are also smaller, shorter range pure EVs such as the Nissan Leaf and the Ford Focus Electric.

Model 3 has a range of 345 km / 214 miles, compared to Bolt’s 383 /238 miles. Bolt is a hatchback without a boot, Model 3 is a sedan. “Model 3 is faster and features RWD. Bolt is available in late 2016. while Tesla will struggle to meet demand in 2017 and onwards. Read more.

Without considering the financial health of Tesla and GM, I would buy a Tesla Model 3 over a GM Bolt. However, the financial health of Tesla is much more questionable than the financial health of GM. Their potential acquisition of Solar City will make them even more debt-laden and capital intensive. The stock is probably overvalued (analyse its debt, revenue, profits, market capitalization, balance sheet, and share capitalization), although it still has very strong growth potential. I’d be weary about investing in Tesla, and would only do so if I was prepared to lose all of my investment, in the event that it went bankrupt. Given that it would be an investment with a strong positive social and environmental impact, I would still be prepared to invest say, up to 5%, of my cash.

Tesla has become relatively unique in the sustainable energy industry recently by announcing Powerwall 2, an AC coupled inverter with built-in batteries; solar shingles; and trying to do a merger with SolarCity. In short, it looks like it is trying to be a vertically integrated one stop shop for energy solutions. This makes it easier for customers, marketing, and obtaining more market share. It may also make it harder to innovate and more prone to disruption from innovation outside the company. For instance, there are better forms of stationary energy storage. While lithium ion batteries have the volume and relatively low price compared to other forms of energy storage, they are prone to bursting into flames (a.k.a thermal runaway) especially if physically damaged, are not able to be deeply cycled to 0% SOC, and will lose capacity over time. Solar shingles may look attractive, but they are more expensive to install, and aren’t ventilated, which reduces their efficiency and thus their economic performance.

There are several ways to increase the uptake of EVs. Broadly, these ways are: reduce cost to the end-user, increase the supply (but matching with demand), or increase the appeal of EVs to the end user.

Cost reductions include with manufacturing (which is what Tesla is trying to do by designing its Gigagactory using CAD, using vertical integration, and scale), shipping (e.g. economically optimised shipping routes, and crewless automated ships), weight reductions, high pressure thin tyres, electricity, maintenance, insurance, and government subsidies (e.g. tax credits, carbon pricing, and fuel taxes).

Increasing the supply could be done in tandem with reducing shipping costs by having more factories geographically spread out, but this needs to be balanced with demand and other considerations.

Increasing the appeal can be done in many ways, such as catering to different markets through a variety of car models, safety (e.g. stronger crumple zones, autonomous driving, making lithium ion batteries safer or using a safer alternative), autonomous driving, aesthetics; human-computer interfaces such as Android Auto (which apparently trumps Apple Carplay, read more here—http://www.stuff.tv/features/android-auto-vs-apple-carplay) and auto-opening doors; longer range (Tesla’s Model 3 or GM’s Chevy Bolt have a range that is 5-6 times the average commute of 40 miles); better performance (e.g. aerodynamics, acceleration, traction, steering and suspension, which are more important than topspeed due to speed limits); energy generation on the car (e.g. windows using Ubiquitous Energy transparent cells, or solar paint developed at the University of Newcastle [technology still under development]); storage space (depends on the target market); and better charging infrastructure (faster, more ubiquitous, and cheaper).

Retrofitting internal combustion engine vehicles to make them into electric vehicles. One example of a business doing this is Kreisel.

Swapping batteries in electric vehicles. I am not sure whether this would be feasible. Tesla did a trial to gauge demand and found that demand did not seem to be sufficient.

Accelerating charging infrastructure for electric vehicles: e.g. ParkSpark. Also, another idea is an advocacy group to support better standards, appropriate training (e.g. mechanics to retrofit internal combustion engine vehicles into electric vehicles), and more generally, removing barriers to the uptake of electric vehicles. Also, another idea is a community platform to act as a funding vehicle for EV uptake (e.g. for charging infrastructure), for bulk buying (like Suncrowd) or quote comparisons (similar to SolarQuotes) of electric vehicles. Another idea is to use energy trading coupled with charging stations to help increase the economic benefits of charging stations.

Another innovation is car sharing, e.g. with GoGet. A GoGet representative said at a Climathon/EnergyLab event in Sydney that they provided electric vehicles, but said that there were issues with the vehicle not being fully charged when it was returned, which incurred a fee. If the car was booked immediately afterwards, it was returned. Their website does not list any electric vehicles in its fleet.

Mobility as a service is another innovation, e.g. Uber and Lyft.

Other applications

Desalinisation, space transport

Agriculture: Sundrop farms

Investing in sustainable energy

E.g. mutual funds such as Australian Ethical Investment; Future Super; and investing directly in sustainable entities.

Energy offsets

Carbon offsets and Greenpower

Innovations at a higher level than a business includes:

  • Here is a Smart Grid, Smart City report summary. Key points include: network improvement recommendations; pricing reform including mandated dynamic tariffs for customer initiated meter upgrades (incl. distributed energy uptake) and a safety net for financially vulnerable customers “who are unable to make behavioural or tariff changes”, smart meters, customer feedback technologies, and a “market mechanism which more efficiently values export from distributed energy resources… during market and network peak events”.
  • Green Building Council of Australia: best practice for sustainable buildings with rating tools and certification.
  • The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCB) National Construction Code (NCC).
  • CEFC and ARENA.
  • Mandatory Performance Energy Standards (MEPS)
  • The Climate Change Fund

Conclusion

There are a lot of innovations in the energy industry that can deliver many benefits. It is important that benefits are distributed equitably and not concentrated with a handful of stakeholders. It is important that non-technical and non-cost barriers to development are overcome in order to increase the uptake of renewable energy.

If I had to rank the above innovations, I’d rank Reposit Power first in tandem with solar and energy storage. Following that would be solar paint. While it seems like a promising technology, it is not yet commercially available just yet. Redflow, Lightsail, and Gelion are promising too. GCL batteries seem like they may be the lowest cost lithium ion battery.

Non-technical aside

With so much happening in the sustainable energy industry, and with so much technology, it can be overwhelming! With advances in technology, it is important that we also advance on a spiritual level, not just a material and intellectual level. It is important not to be caught up in all these gadgets and try to find more lasting meaning and happiness in life. If technology consists of people, consciousness, energy, and artefacts, then each person needs to “innovate” by elevating his/her consciousness, by yoga methods taught by an avatar, from mortal consciousness to soul consciousness (individualised Spirit), then to Christ Consciousness (the reflection of Spirit in all creation), and finally to Spirit, or Cosmic Consciousness—ever-existing, ever-conscious, ever-new bliss within and beyond all creation. As Bhagavan Krishna exhorted: “O Arjuna, get away from my ocean of suffering!” On another occasion, he said: “Be Thou a yogi”.

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