Tesla's PowerWall is the first mass-produced individual electric storage solution to hit the market. But does it offer any true ecological benefit? Is it cost-effective enough to be sustainable? Two specialists discuss these issues.
In February Elon Musk boldly predicted Tesla motors would go where no car company has ever gone before, to a $700 billion market valuation by 2025. To put that in perspective, Apple became the most valuable company in history when it reached a $700 billion market valuation in November 2014. Compared to the automobile industry, $700 billion dwarfs the market value of the five biggest public automobile companies. Together, Toyota, Volkswagen, BMW, Ford and Honda have a market cap of just $522 billion. Is Elon Musk crazy? Or is he planning something only he can see?
Wind turbine and solar power sources now represent a significant fraction in the electricity generation mix of industrialized countries. How did they achieve such a breakthrough successfully? European countries use differing models, which all show their limits, for transition from a subsidy-intensive economy to a market-driven logic is complex. The question remains: will renewable energy sources soon be proven profitable?
Storing electricity? Some old solutions to this old problem are gaining momentum nowadays, thanks to recent improvements. Among these solutions, using electricity to obtain hydrogen and reconverting it later into energy or heat via fuel cells. The advantages are numerous: the possibility to store the excess production of electricity generated by renewable energy sources, to mix the hydrogen with natural gas (methane), to power electric vehicles… But there are as many challenges ahead if we want hydrogen to be a significant part of the future energy mix. Actions are under way. Let us discover them!
Achieving an energy transition is obviously necessary in the long run, but the situation is much more confusing in the short and mid-term perspectives. Between technological breakthroughs and geopolitical changes, evolutions are difficult to predict. The energy transition has begun and will continue. But if we wish to draw up an overall picture, it is the ambiguities and uncertainties that prevail.
The energy mix can be defined as the distribution of primary energy sources consumed to produce various types of energy used in a given country. For different reasons, running from availability of the resources to policies enacted in the fight against global warming, national energy mixes will necessarily evolve over the coming decades. However, the natural inertia of history and the political and economic costs make the changes difficult. What are the most promising routes to transition?
The electricity transmission network is the backbone of the electrical system, a key asset in the energy transition. It must both adapt to new means of production and meet changing consumption needs. Today, the rise of renewable electricity and solidarity between territories are the main drivers of the evolution of this electricity network. The stakes are high.
The objective of the EU is to instate and implement a unified energy market by 2015. But opening markets and connecting grids may sound contradictory with unilateral decisions such as Germany's accelerated energy transition. Thus we see that there are two logics in Brussels, and with the increasing fraction and importance of renewables, they are now diverging more and more. It's time for the EU to look for technical as well as political solutions.
Did you know that in Denmark, thirty plants consuming a yearly 3.5 million tons of waste cover 5% of domestic electricity demand and 20% of heat? The production of energy through waste recovery and recycling is booming. But so diverse are the technologies that a closer look is needed to assess the potential of the celebrated urban mine.
In 2011 Germany decided to abandon nuclear power and switch to renewable energy. Two years later, lessons have been learned: financial cost, industrial implications, social acceptability, political tensions shape a new landscape. Who is paying what, and for whom? What is the environment iompact of the new policy? How to manage such a turn?
Could solar power provide some of the needed energy of the future? The much improved availability of natural gas and the crisis that the photovoltaic industrial sector has been experiencing since 2011 serve to make us cautious, viz., not to be over-optimistic. On one hand, we can witness the strategic policies chosen by China and, on the other, the expected advent of new PV cells, could together change the scene. Consequently, we must carefully examine and assess the economics, their dynamics and the supporting technologies.
The German photovoltaic industry is in chaos. Overwhelmed by the boom of solar home systems, the government has had to brutally halt subsidies whose costs were threatening to… go through the roof. Caught between Chinese competition and the falling price of solar panels, several of the flagships of this young industry are now on the brink of bankruptcy. After having enjoyed a heyday of several years, the sector suddenly has to adjust to new conditions. And, if it hopes to recover, must adapt.
The European energy equation is defined by three constraints: security of supply, fighting against climate change, competitiveness. It is complicated with the German choice on nuclear power, the arrival of shale gas, the rise of renewable energy, the impact of large emerging countries on the energy markets. What does it change for Europe and its industrial heavyweights?
The green energy boom has opened up cracks in the electricity sector to force to the surface problems which until recently were of only marginal interest. Wind power in particular has provoked forceful debates. Among the subplots are questions over how to manage intermittency. The result is a multiplicity of paths to innovation, one of which leads directly to electricity storage.
Micro-algae are driving a small technological revolution. Their cultivation marks a new era in the production of biofuels, reinventing industrial processes as well as economic models. In the United States and Europe, several projects are now moving from an experimenting phase to actual operation.
In February 2011, the European Council made a commitment to complete the internal energy market by 2014. This long process started in the early 1990s; till now, results have been somewhat mixed. New challenges have entered the equation: the need for increasing the share of renewables and the necessity to ensure secure supplies. This increased complexity has made a revision of current policies a priority: though liberalization remains the main rationale behind the EU policy, recent institutional changes suggest a move towards a more balanced policy.
The global electricity sector is facing three major challenges: the security of supply to keep up with ever-mounting demand, the fight against climate change, and the global trend toward massive urbanization. Electricity will play a key role through low-emitting energy-generation technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These technologies already exist. Success will depend on how public policies are used to encourage innovation.
Nuclear energy is once more on the defensive, thanks to Fukushima. But day to day, fossil fuels are far riskier in the toll they take on people, not to mention their effect on global warming. And some renewables like ethanol and hydropower carry their own substantial, if underrated, risks. If Germany's move to shut down its nuclear plants turns out to be the start of a trend, what does it mean for our safety?
Power grids have long been constructed with a built-in intelligence. So why is so much noise being made over the arrival of so-called "smart grids"? Are we witnessing a real revolution? The potential for a massive shake-up is clear, one that could have an impact on power utilities, regulators, manufacturers, network managers, and consumers for many years to come.
The ever expanding palette of tools available to national authorities in their struggle to meet the energy needs of the future has grown to include fiscal incentives, quotas on production and the creation of feed-in tariffs on renewable energy sources. European Commission directives on the harmonization of renewable energy policy have taken on a greater urgency and as the measures implemented gain traction it would be wise to look back at the road already travelled and take the measure of the success or failure of decisions by focusing on the paths followed in Germany, Spain and France.