Renewables: New Technologies for Old Forms of Energy
Renewables: New Technologies for Old Forms of Energy
Renewable energy sources are the future of electricity production and sustainable development. Few people know, however, that the history of these technologies is linked to space missions, experiments in the early nineteenth century and a long string of innovations that continues to this day.
49 countries have announced their desire to get 100% of their power from renewable energy sources by 2050. According to a group of researchers from the universities of Stanford, Berkeley, Berlin and Aarhus, there are actually 139 nations that could aspire to this goal by the same date. Renewables as the only source of energy? Utopia, a chance, a forced solution or an achievable goal?
The facts are clearer than dreams or ambitions. Hydropower is an energy guarantee for many countries. Solar and wind technologies continue to grow in terms of investments, efficiency, competitiveness and new installed capacity. Geothermal energy is expanding in both new markets and mature economies.
All the renewables are very concrete forms of energy that, in addition to having a rosy future, can look back on histories, at times lasting over a century, that are interesting to learn about.
When NASA Discovered Solar
When we talk about forms of clean energy as “new” or alternative to fossil fuels, we forget that they have deep roots and come from long decades-long journeys of innovation and technological development.
Solar photovoltaic was born in the middle of the twentieth century alongside the first space programmes. They needed to prevent the equipment on board the satellites from failing due to energy depletion. On board the Vanguard 1, NASA tested the Bell solar battery, built in 1954 by Daryl Chapin and Calvin Fuller. And it was a success: the cells worked for years.
The first concentrated solar power plant in the world dates back to 1981 and is “made in Enel”. In Adrano, we were renewable pioneers with the creation of the Eurelios project, which can boast the status of being the first plant in the world to put energy produced by the sun into the grid.
Over a Century of Geothermal Energy
For the first industrial use of geothermal vapours, we can thank Francois de Lardarel: a young French officer in Tuscany following the Naponeonic armies, who tested a technique that was a predecessor of geothermal energy in 1818. His successors used it to build the first geothermal plant in the world in 1913.
"Our 35 plants in operation in Tuscany come from de Larderel’s intuition. They produce almost 6TWh a year and meet more than 30% of the regional energy demand."
The technological evolution and innovation of that idea from the beginning of the nineteenth century is just the first page of a story that has now spread to Chile, Indonesia, Germany and the United States, where EGP is putting its experience to use in the geothermal sector.
Wind: from Persia to Scottish Cottages
Windmills, predecessors to our current wind turbines, already existed in Persia about 5000 years ago, but the first wind turbine dates back to 1887. It was built by James Blyth, a Scottish electrical engineer and scholar, who invented one to power the lights in his summer cottage in Marykirk, making it the first residence in the world powered by renewable energy.
The story of wind energy is intertwined with the study of aeronautics has been passed down to us with its usual three blades, which are now common in most wind turbines installed today on all continents, thanks to the intuition of a young man that built the first example in Denmark in 1956.
"Nowadays, wind is one of the most widespread and competitive renewables, with more than 500 GW of global installed capacity, predicted growth of approximately 59 GW in 2018 and a promise to contribute decisively to the green revolutions underway in Latin America and Asia."
Water: the Most Ancient Innovation
Energy from water is the oldest renewable energy source and, at the same time, the one most projected toward the future. On one hand, large hydropower plants have guaranteed the highest percentage of clean energy for many countries for almost a century, on the other, futuristic technologies to make use of the immense energy potential of the sea are the most advanced research expressions into new forms of energy.
"Hydroelectric energy now represents about 90% of the global production from renewable sources and contributes 17% to the global total of installed capacity."
The large dams built at the beginning of the twentieth century – the very first one was built in Canada in 1879 at Niagara Falls – are now joined by new colossal ones, thanks to projects in China and Latin America. But small water-flow systems are also growing, as are systems to make existing plants more and more efficient.
Marine energy is perhaps the least well-known of the forms of renewable energy, but according to estimates, it could reach 71 GW of installed capacity worldwide. Tides, waves and currents are unexplored assets that are present around the planet. New technologies, experimentation and pilot projects are springing up on this resource, bit by bit around the world.
Until a few years ago, renewable sources as a whole were just a drop in the ocean of global energy production. By 2022, according to the World Energy Outlook 2017, the generation capacity from clean sources will grow until it is 43% of the global energy mix. And the future is just getting started.