We live in an age where sustainability is recognized as a necessity to drive down long-term costs while diminishing reliance on fossil fuels. However, we’ve had something of a slow start when it comes to adapting in this way, and now, many companies have tried to fill the void left by governments that have failed to make enough of an impact.
Often, it’s city governments that work to pick up the slack. For instance, the city of New York is looking to improve its energy grid by constructing an offshore wind farm. It’s a project that has started to gain ground in the United States, but there are no ships in the country equipped to install them, leading to ships coming from other countries to assist.
In fact, it has been European countries that have proven the most willing to research offshore wind farms and determine the best ways to execute these sizable projects. However, thanks to technology, researchers at places such as the Carnegie Institution for Science have been able to simulate the impact of offshore wind power. The purpose of these studies was to determine whether or not wind shadow—the depletion of air currents downstream from wind turbines—would affect sea-based facilities as much as their land-based counterparts.
Researchers were able to accurately predict a number of atmospheric influences in their simulation. They found that turbines could be packed together much more tightly than on land, as the wind shadow was far less pronounced. While we’re a long way away from widespread offshore wind farms, it is likely that these discoveries will improve costs and efficiency in the upcoming decades. Other engineering improvements have seen the rise of less costly floating platforms for turbines, in contrast with the extensive deep sea structures that have previously been the norm.
Solar energy has also benefitted from improvements in technology. One of the biggest challenges with this form of energy has been figuring out the best way to store power once it has been generated. Concerns about downtime during the night and on cloudy days have hampered its progress, even though the technology behind it has improved immensely.
SolarReserve has been one of the first companies to address energy storage concerns, and projects such as the Crescent Dunes solar energy facility have showcased their innovative technology. The company makes use of something called a molten salt tower receiver, a structure centered in the middle of solar panels, meant to collect energy gathered and store it for future use. This is accomplished through the use of molten salt, which acts as a storage medium, flowing to and from the tower and allowing energy to be used whenever it is needed. The process involves no fossil fuels and is scalable, allowing for facilities to vary in size and output depending on needs.
Additionally, in Crescent Dunes as well as other solar facilities, machine learning has proved critical to improving efficiency and making sustainability more viable. Data is being used to optimize energy systems, allowing for as much solar power as possible to be collected during peak daylight hours and used. Some companies that make use of microgrid technology for homes allow for customers to use their cell phones to control solar panels and manage energy distribution and storage. Still more are simply trying to change the way that solar panels are sold, positioning them in better ways to consumers and seeking to put them on the same competitive level as traditional energy systems.
As technology advances, we’ve seen costs of energy systems driven down and more companies working to research improvements to infrastructure. The United States and the world have a long way to go when it comes to outgrowing reliance on fossil fuels, but it seems likely that advances will go a long way to make the pipe dream of true sustainability into a real possibility.