January 20, 2023

Innovation Fuels Renewable Energy’s Growth Surge

By Protolabs

Let’s start with some numbers. The global renewable energy market was valued at $881.70 billion last year. It is expected to nearly double that by 2030, rising at an annual growth rate of 8.50 % from 2021-2030, according to a recent market research report.

The report defines the renewable energy market as electricity and heat generated by solar, wind, ocean, hydropower, biomass, geothermal resources, and biofuels and hydrogen derived from renewable resources.

With this sizable growth in mind, our blog’s periodic Eye on Innovation series takes a peek at advancements powering this growth that are taking place in three categories of this market: automakers’ drive to electric vehicles (EVs) and the support needed from utility companies and others; an intriguing product development project in the geothermal industry; and some bright ideas in solar power.

Charging electric vehicle

Plug in. Turn on. Drive out. The future of automobiles is electric.

Electric Power Sector Poised for an EV Future

As our trend report on EVs showed, automakers are wired for an electric future. EV investments rose by 41% just between 2020 and 2021 and will total $330 billion between 2021 and 2025. GM and Volkswagen plan to spend $35 billion and $42 billion respectively on electric and autonomous vehicles from 2020 to 2025.

Beyond the EVs themselves, the industry is charging up for an anticipated massive demand for EV batteries. In 2020, the global EV battery market size was nearly $22 billion. Last year, it was estimated to be more than $27 billion. By 2028, industry sources estimate the market to reach over $154 billion.

As a result, this major pivot to electrical power will place greater pressure on utility companies and others to deliver that power.

One prime way utilities are supporting this shift is by building infrastructure—public charging stations. This effort is being significantly aided by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which provides $7.5 billion to develop the country’s EV-charging infrastructure. The goal is to install 500,000 public chargers—publicly accessible charging stations compatible with all vehicles and technologies—nationwide by 2030.

Meanwhile, a variety of companies are developing innovations to improve EV charging and EV battery technologies. Three recent examples include:

Smart EV Charging

This technology is designed to deliver reliable, safe, renewable, and cost-effective energy to EVs while meeting the needs of drivers and local grids. It relies on back-end software that captures data from EVs, networked chargers, and the grid. That data is used to optimize charging of EVs, integrate power from storage and renewable sources, and minimize impact on the grid.

New EV Battery Technology

Efforts continue to find an alternative to today’s lithium-ion batteries that is lower cost, faster to charge, longer-lived, and does not depend on scarce minerals. New chemistries such as sodium-ion offer promise of incremental improvement. Innovators looking for significant gains are exploring solid-state batteries and new form factors such as blades.

Vehicle-to-Grid Charging (V2G)

V2G is frequently cited these days in the industry press. With the increasing use of EVs, there is an unprecedented load on the electrical grid simply to keep these batteries charged and running. Some have offered an unusual solution to the problem—reverse charging, from the electric vehicle to the grid. This means instead of drawing electricity from a point, those EVs with bi-directional charging can be plugged in to supply electricity to the grid. V2G envisions using smart EV charging to control a two-way flow of energy between EVs and the grid.

Geothermal Energy’s Potential

While geothermal energy currently accounts for a fraction of net electricity generation in the United States, totaling less than 1%, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has said geothermal’s potential is huge. However, most geothermal energy is not accessible with existing technology.

Emerging new innovations called enhanced or engineered geothermal systems (EGS) are needed to move geothermal technology from research and development to commercial adoption.

At Protolabs, we recently helped Houston-based Downhole Emerging Technologies (DET) develop a new tool that will help—along with other equipment and technology—harness steam from super-heated rock far below the surface. Our metal 3D printing (additive manufacturing) process, direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), produced prototypes for DET’s tool, the Diamond ETIP (Extreme Temperature Isolation Packer). DET’s ETIP tool was one of two grand prize winners of an innovation competition sponsored by the DOE. The competition, meant to spur innovation in this field, included a $500,000 cash prize.

Solar panels

Solar collection farms like this small one will soon generate a considerable percentage of electricity around the world, potentially changing economic structures as we know them.

New Technology Dawning in Solar Sector

The future looks bright for solar power, as statistics show notable growth for this industry. Capacity is expected to increase from 129 gigawatts (GW) currently to 336 GW by 2027, according to industry sources.

The solar industry is being powered by continued innovation, too. Three advancements in this segment to watch include:

Perovskite Cells

These are flexible, lightweight, and low-cost solar cells made using a calcium titanium oxide mineral (perovskite) and organic materials. Cells of perovskite hold promise to enhance photovoltaic deployment in a range of applications, such as powering vehicles and boats.

Solar Modules

In 2020, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced that it developed a six-junction solar cell prototype that achieved an impressive 47.1% efficiency. This new technology isn’t available for consumer photovoltaic installations for a number of reasons, but the industry continues to make strides in solar panel efficiency. The most efficient panels available to consumers are pushing 23% efficiency now, compared to about 15% 10 years ago. One company, Skyven Technologies, used a Cool Idea Award grant from Protolabs for injection molding components that are a part of its co-generating solar panel system, which offers an efficient way to generate electricity and heat water.

Solar Energy Storage

Storage is another area in which the industry expects to see growth. For reasons ranging from energy independence to backup power, homeowners are increasingly considering solar battery storage. This market is driven by the continuous improvements in battery technology, including high-capacity batteries with long discharge times—up to 10 hours is on the horizon.

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