What is the Future of Renewables?


Renewables have greatly expanded on a global level. Last year, growth in renewables outcompeted oil, representing a minimum 70% total capacity growth in nearly all regions with the exception of Africa and the Middle East, where renewable growth constituted 52% and 26%, respectively.  

The expansion of renewables in 2020, however, will be less certain due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The current world events have triggered a reduction in oil and gas production as millions of people stay home to avoid spreading infection. 

“The current drop in carbon emissions is unlikely to be sustainable, while low fossil fuel prices could potentially hamper the competitiveness of alternative energy sources,” Jennifer Gordon, senior fellow for the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, told Forbes. “The pandemic will likely slow the energy transition for a number of reasons, even though it also has made the need for clean and reliable power even more immediate.” 

While renewables are likely to come up against some roadblocks, they may also benefit from some unique opportunities. For example, geothermal energy plants, which generate power from heat trapped deep beneath the earth, were once thought too costly to build. But as oil producers pull back on production, they are creating a ripple effect on prices throughout the energy market. Drill manufacturers, for instance, are slashing their prices. More affordable drills would reduce costs associated with building geothermal energy plants, which would allow them to produce cheaper electricity.  

Innovative Ways to Reduce the Cost of Renewables

Although the high-cost of renewables poses challenges to the advancement of renewable energy, researchers are working on creative solutions. 

A team at the University of Southern California recently discovered a way to potentially make renewable energy storage cheaper by building redox flow batteries that store energy as a liquid. 

“To date there has been no economically viable, eco-friendly solution to energy storage that can last for 25 years,” the study’s lead author Sri Narayan told New Atlas. “Lithium-ion batteries do not have the long-life and vanadium-based batteries use expensive, relatively toxic materials limiting large-scale use. Our system is the answer to this challenge. We foresee these batteries used in residential, commercial and industrial buildings to capture renewable energy.” 

In Africa, a UK startup wants to use abandoned mine shafts to produce clean energy at half the price of lithium-ion batteries. The project, known as “gravity energy,” would mimic hydropower by swinging 12,000 ton weights down unused mines. The system would use electric winches to lift the weight to the top of the shaft. After generating a high amount of renewable energy, the system drops the weight, which generates additional power. A complete system would utilize 24 weights at 12,000 tons in shafts as deep as 800 meters to create enough electricity to power 63,000 houses for over an hour.   

Traditionally, renewables have depended on expensive precious metals such as ruthenium and iridium to function. However, researchers from West Virginia University have developed a new chemical compound that could make renewables both more sustainable and affordable. The compound is a photosensitizer made from zirconium, a far more plentiful material than most precious metals. Because zirconium can convert light into electricity, it could be used to make a number of renewables more efficient and affordable. For example, solar panels are equipped with silicon, which means they depend on a strong light source to collect and store energy. Manufacturers have tried to replace silicon with dye-sensitized materials to help absorb light, but these dyes are made from the precious metal ruthenium. The zirconium compound could serve as a potential alternative.  

“The problem with most solar panels is that they don’t work well on cloudy days. They are pretty efficient, inexpensive and have a long lifespan, but they need intense light conditions to function efficiently,” Carsten Milsmann, the professor who led the study, told PHYS ORG. “One way around that is to make dye-sensitized versions where a colored compound absorbs light to produce electricity in any weather condition. In the future, we could design buildings that produce energy, essentially making the façade of your building, including all of its windows, into a power plant.” 

Connecting Distributed Energy Resources

Leveraging distributed energy resources (DERs) can also help countries reach their renewable energy goals for 2020 and beyond. 

Introduction to IEEE Std 1547-2018: Connecting Distributed Energy Resources is a six-course program focusing on IEEE Standard 1547-2018. This standard provides technical specifications for interconnection and interoperability between utility electric power systems (EPSs) and distributed energy resources. It also provides requirements relevant to the performance, operation, testing, safety considerations, and maintenance of the interconnection. 

Contact an IEEE Content Specialist today to learn more about getting access to these courses for your organization. 

Do you want to learn more about Standard 1547 for yourself? Visit the IEEE Learning Network


Swisher, Katlin. (13 April 2020). Illuminating the future of renewable energy. PHYS ORG. 

Ridden, Paul. (10 April 2020). Flow battery could make renewable energy storage economically viable. New Atlas. 

Pontecorvo, Emily. (10 April 2020). As oil crashes, ‘America’s untapped energy giant’ could rise. GRIST. 

Jackson, Felicia. (9 April 2020). Renewable Energy Outstrips Fossil Fuel. Forbes. 

Silverstein, Ken. (6 April 2020). COVID-19 Is Killing Oil And Gas But The Virus Could Also Poison Renewables. Forbes. 

Stevens, M. Laurence. (9 April 2020). Renewable energy storage gives a new lease of life to end-of-lifecycle mine shafts. Africa Mining Market.  

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