Greek philosopher Aristotle believed, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” For more than 2,300 years, people have been using this principle to denote how the totality of a system cannot simply be described by a basic inventory of its components. When it comes to sustainable energy, this two-millennia-year-old maxim holds true; no single source of energy will solve the problem of climate change on its own.
The days of monopolistic energy are numbered. We are literally surrounded by energy. The light that arrives from the sun, the air that blows across coastlines and mountains, and the vast water of the world’s oceans can provide enough renewable energy to power our way out of global warming and into an era of true energy democracy. Today, major technological advances are enabling humanity to harness the energy from these natural sources, which just a few years ago, were not cost-effective to even try. Happily, for our planet, we have the means to tackle the existential challenge we face from a rapidly changing climate.
The Three Musketeers for a Sustainable Planet
Solar, wind and hydrogen make a powerful triad when it comes to obtaining always-available (24/7), clean, and affordable energy. In several cities, these three technologies already complement each other to power the grid, homes, businesses, factories, and transportation. Together, solar panels, wind turbines, and hydrogen fuel cells form a symbiotic relationship that can reliably move entire local economies forward with zero CO2 emissions.
By themselves, none of these three renewable energy sources currently solves the problem of energy availability or sustainability. For example, wind and solar are variable energies. Wikipedia defines this term as, “Renewable energy sources that are non-dispatchable due to its fluctuating nature.” In other words, no energy is produced by solar when the sun is not shining, nor by turbines when the wind is not blowing. The intermittency of solar and wind is especially challenging for electric utilities, which are trying to balance the grid and deal with peak energy demand. Hydrogen fuels cells suffer from another kind of limitation—the current cost to extract, store, and transport hydrogen gas to power them—although this is changing with new technologies, such as Hydrogen 2.0.
This is another phrase that has been widely attributed to Aristotle’s 2,300-year-old teaching. Solar, wind, and hydrogen complement each other beautifully, and together, provide a viable answer to the problem of global warming. This is especially relevant in light of the global and local compromises to reduce carbon emissions by countries, cities and entire industries around the world, such as the Paris Agreement and the Aviation Deal on Climate change, both signed last year.
Better together means issues like variability can be minimized or eliminated when these three clean energies work together. For instance, a cloudy, windy day brings solar to a halt but is ideal for wind. If both sources feed the same grid, the flow of energy can be maintained at a steady state. Conversely, when demand for electricity is low or weather conditions are excessive, these two sources may generate excess electricity. Rather than being wasted, the energy surplus can be used to produce hydrogen from water, which can then be stored and subsequently used to produce electricity when solar and wind are not available. In this manner, hydrogen perfectly complements renewables by providing a way to “store” excess energy.
Solar, wind and hydrogen also work together in unexpected and playful ways. Take, for example, the first self-sufficient boat powered only by “nature” via the clean energy of solar, wind and hydrogen. According to an article in Popular Mechanics last week, this boat will embark on a six-year journey around the world in the spring and is “equipped with solar panels, wind turbines and a hydrogen fuel cell system that will be powered by wind, the sun and self-generated hydrogen.” An overarching goal of the boat’s fuel sources is to “demonstrate that there are many solutions for energetic transition.” The cooperation between these technologies―and what it says about the future symbiosis of them―could not be more elegant.
A sudden and complete move away from carbon-emitting fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal is simply not feasible at this point. Societies need time to adjust and make sustainable energy alternatives broadly available and affordable. Solar, wind, and hydrogen can help make this transition in a way that does not hurt the growth and well-being of people and economies. For instance, 2016 marked the year when the total constructed energy-producing capacity of renewables overtook that of coal. Although this was a rather modest milestone for several technical reasons, the path from there to a win-win transition is now open and clear.
Solar: Energy Independence Meets Functionality
Solar energy has been present for decades. Since the 1970s when solar panels were first installed on the White House by President Jimmy Carter, people recognize a solar panel when they see one on top of an office building, a parking lot, or powering highway lighting and signs. Companies like Solar City and Tesla, both in California, merged to integrate their technologies to make the solar-powered home a reality for more people. In fact, one of the biggest news stories for solar energy last year was the introduction of the Solar Roof by these two companies. Their Solar Roof tiles (which actually look like roof tiles, and not solar panels) gather solar energy with the same efficiency as the most popular solar panels in the market. This industry continues to have record-breaking years in terms of adoption. According to the Solar Energy Industry Association, 2016 utility-scale solar installations (the largest channel for solar) topped 14 GW of capacity, almost double the amount installed in 2015.
Wind: Turbines Sprout in Mountains, Valleys and Coastlines Around the World
Wind is another technology that keeps breaking records in terms of installed capacity. 2016 was another record-breaking year. The year started with a record 433 GW of wind power (a growth of almost 30% over the previous year) with 314,000 wind turbines producing electricity globally. Wind power alone saved the world from releasing 637 million tons of CO2 emissions. Electricity grids around the world are increasingly relying on wind to produce electricity. This past December, RenewableUK’s Executive Director Emma Pinchbeck said, “It’s terrific to see wind power smashing another record. It shows that wind is playing an increasingly central role as a reliable part of our new modern energy system.” Technology keeps making this industry ever more efficient. Companies like Siemens in Germany and Denmark are adapting new innovation models from other industries, such as crowdsourcing and big data mining, to improve the output of their wind turbines.
Hydrogen: The Always Available Fuel of the Universe
Hydrogen is also experiencing a period of unprecedented growth in terms of adoption. In 2015, the number of megawatts shipped globally grew by 65% to a total of 300 MW in the form of 60,000 hydrogen fuel cells. Places like California have committed to building an infrastructure of power stations to service an ever-increasing fleet of public and private fuel cell transportation options, such as Toyota’s Mirai, which launched in 2014. Another area of rapid innovation is the sourcing of hydrogen energy from water using technologies such as Hydrogen 2.0, which can be used to store excess wind and solar energy 24/7 as mentioned above. Hydrogen 2.0 will enable the on-site and on-demand production of hydrogen fuel for use in applications that not only can augment renewables but can also power transportation and industry with zero carbon emissions.
Solar + Wind + Hydrogen = A Better Planet
When it comes to sustainable energy to transition us to a cleaner and healthier planet, the sum of solar, wind and hydrogen is, indeed, greater than each one as a stand-alone. The three fuel sources, when combined into a strategic energy plan for cities and countries, complement each other by keeping the flow of electricity constant, while providing a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Each of these three industries continues to solve the challenges that face each renewable energy source individually. Solar, wind and hydrogen is a triumvirate made to last and grow.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.