Navigant Research Blog

Nature’s Role in Renewable Energy Innovation

— July 6, 2016

BiofuelHuman innovation has led to some astounding advances throughout history. We now live in a world that past generations couldn’t possibly imagine. One of the primary drivers of this increase in global development comes from the use of fossil fuels. While fossil fuels are responsible in part for the rapid rise in standard of living that many of us experience, the continued reliance on these resources has led to issues of environmental pollution and scarcity among others. While renewable energy technologies have emerged to help alleviate some of this dependence, issues with regards to efficiency continue to hinder the industry and its technologies from reaching their true commercial potential.

One of the more intriguing fields of study attempting to improve some of these efficiency levels is biomimicry. Biomimicry refers to the imitation of natural systems and elements for the purpose of solving complex human problems. This field has an incredible number of potential applications, and has already led to advancements in the areas of energy, architecture, transportation, agriculture, medicine, and others. With the use of biomimicry, we can draw inspiration from nature’s complex elements and systems to help improve the efficiency of today’s renewable energy technologies. Whether it be something as small as a butterfly or as large as a whale, nature is starting to provide us with ideas to help save us from ourselves.

A Gap in Potential

While the solar energy industry has continued to witness increases in efficiency limits alongside falling costs, there is still a gap to be filled in order for the industry to reach its full potential. Researchers from the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute are looking to biomimicry—more specifically, butterfly wings—as a means of maximizing the efficiency of solar concentrators. Before taking flight, the Cabbage White butterfly has been observed warming up its muscles by using its wings to reflect sunlight onto its body, a process known as reflectance basking. Insights gained from these observations have already led to promising results. Researchers were able to produce a solar cell using butterfly wings that resulted in 42% greater solar output than their traditional solar cell using reflective film tape. Continuing to advance these ideas into a new generation of solar cell prototypes can help fill in some of the gap associated with solar technologies.

Biomimicry has also led to advances in the field of wind power. Looking to the oceans of the world, humpback whales need dexterity and maneuverability in order to adequately feed themselves and navigate the open ocean with efficiency. This is accomplished primarily through tubercles—large, irregular bumps on the animals’ fins that increase lift and angle of attack. These tubercles are now being replicated on wind turbines and have been shown to help improve lift, reduce drag, and increase the angle of attack before stalling. Even these relatively small advancements in efficiency can have a significant impact when applied to the large installed wind turbine bases we see in the United States, China, Germany, India, Spain, and beyond.

Looking Ahead

The evolution of renewable energy technologies has accelerated in recent history. In order to maintain significant change, an array of innovative, economical, and feasible solutions will need to be implemented. One of the drivers in this recent push to address environmental problems is an attempt to save the systems and elements invoked in biomimicry. Studying the natural world in order to derive solutions to human problems is a powerful thought and will hopefully provide a means of addressing the gap that remains between the status quo and the upper limits of these technologies.

 

3D Printing Providing a Boost to Building Energy Efficiency

— June 29, 2016

ManufacturingAdditive manufacturing has shown significant potential toward reducing manufacturing energy consumption and material waste. While these techniques are still evolving, the creation of objects with 3D printing, using computer models and depositing materials layer by layer into a predefined pattern, has the potential to revolutionize manufacturing. An article from Energy Policy estimates that 3D printing can provide cost savings of nearly $593 billion from energy and material savings. The applications for 3D printing span from the creation of medical devices to objects as large as wind turbine blades. In addition to saving energy and materials used in traditional manufacturing processes, 3D printing also has the ability to improve the performance of mechanical systems.

The Heat Exchanger

As its name implies, a heat exchanger is literally used to transfer heat from one source to another. For many decades, it has been a critical component in power generating stations, chemical plants, engines, refrigeration systems, and  facility heating or cooling systems. Heat exchangers have an impact in every industry, but despite its wide range of uses, the technology has seen minimal improvement or change for many years.

3D Printed Heat Exchangers

Recently, the University of Maryland used 3D printing technology to manufacture an innovative air to refrigerant heat exchanger in a single piece. The heat exchanger weighs 20% less and performs 20% more efficiently compared to traditional heat exchangers, while also being manufactured in much less time. The single-piece heat exchanger is constructed to be more resistant to pressure or leakage. From the perspective of building energy consumption, heating and cooling accounts for nearly 50% of energy costs. A 20% increase in effectiveness for heat exchangers, which act as both the evaporator and condenser in heating and cooling cycles, is a substantial improvement toward reducing building energy consumption. The University of Maryland estimates that the product has the potential to save nearly 7 quads of energy, or roughly the equivalent to 252 million tons of coal.

As 3D printing technology continues to evolve, game-changing techniques will lead to products that not only require less material, energy, and time to produce, but that also operate with effectiveness that was previously unattainable with traditional manufacturing processes.

 

California Water Summit: A New Landscape for Water Management

— June 21, 2016

??????????????????Drought is not new to California, but 2012-2015 has been the driest 4 consecutive years in history. With climate change forcing us to face the idea of a new normal, the biggest question is: What if the next drought is even worse? This year’s California Water Summit highlighted how the discussion around California’s water situation is shifting focus from emergency measures to long-term preparation. This will require stakeholders to generate new solutions to address water management, both from the top down and the bottom up.

Top Down: Putting the Right Systems in Place

The California Department of Water Resources has been managing the variety of funding opportunities available to public utilities and others through Proposition 1. One focus area relates to the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which requires the formation of Groundwater Sustainability Agencies (GSAs) to oversee the management of the groundwater basins that provide over half of California’s water in dry years. The process of forming GSAs requires the input of many stakeholders on how to protect our watersheds from unsustainable use. As this effort evolves, it will be important to help these entities organize effectively and meet their planning requirements.

Another hot topic as resources become scarcer is that of water rights. Nobody wants to lose their access to water, but things have definitely changed since this fragmented system was put in place, resulting in suboptimal use of a precious resource. The summit called upon a number of Australians to share their experiences with the electronic water markets implemented in response to a culmination of factors, including their own drought that lasted over a decade. Though the endeavor was technologically challenging, the Australians said the largest obstacle was political inertia.

The California Water Summit also exhibited a strong focus on recycled water as an important water supply. Case studies showed the criticality of regulation and investment that support this resource as consumers become more comfortable with expanding its uses.

Bottom Up: Aligning the Resources

The Pre-Summit Workshop was dedicated to public-private partnerships, termed P3s, as a way to spur investment in water infrastructure. Various opportunities were discussed throughout conference sessions, including grant funding, which can take up to several years to secure. The summit wrapped up with a number of case studies that highlighted the importance of involving various stakeholders at every step in the process. One set of stakeholders to be particularly aware of is disadvantaged communities, as these sometimes overlap with areas hardest hit by drought.

Infrastructure is composed not only of large civic construction projects, but also of the more subtle IT networks that enable more precise management of water-related systems. These investments are also necessary as utilities seek to eliminate inefficiencies from leaks and other sources of waste. As the saying goes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” We can expect increasing focus on (and hopefully investment in) California water data over the next few years.

 

New Distributed Energy Services Model Targets Large Corporate Energy Users

— June 9, 2016

AnalyticsThis past week, MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts announced they will pay exit fees to Nevada Power to allow them to purchase wholesale power on their own. To do so, MGM and Wynn will pay $86.9 million and $15.7 million in fees, respectively, to ensure their decisions are ratepayer-neutral. MGM Resorts indicated that important drivers behind its decision to leave Nevada Power included not only the desire to reduce its energy spending, but also to procure more renewable energy to meet its customers’ desire for environmentally sustainable travel destinations.

Given these developments, it is reasonable to wonder what type of energy companies might be best poised to help companies analyze and execute similar strategies. Further, Navigant is watching closely to see if this kind of disruptive customer choice will spread to other utility service areas and emerge as one of the megatrends discussed in Jan Vrins’ Take Control of Your Future  blog series.

An Integrated Approach

One recently formed company that appears poised to meet the turnkey energy needs of customers like MGM Resorts and Wynn Resorts is Edison Energy. Edison Energy, part of the deregulated service offering of Edison International, has recently assembled several acquisitions under a single banner that can support an integrated approach to energy procurement (renewable or otherwise) through the use of energy efficiency and distributed renewable generation paired with battery energy storage. The companies under the Edison Energy banner include:

  • SoCore Energy, a distributed solar storage developer that helps commercial and industrial companies and rural cooperatives to develop onsite solar storage, energy efficiency, and demand response solutions.
  • Eneractive Solutions, a full-service energy services company that develops and executes energy efficiency projects at colleges, universities, schools, data centers, and other commercial and industrial sites.
  • Delta Energy Services, a custom energy consulting services firm that focuses on energy management strategies, energy procurement, and enterprisewide energy data management for large commercial and industrial energy users.
  • Altenex, which provides renewable energy advisory and procurement services focused on long-term power purchase agreements for renewable energy on behalf of large corporate clients with significant sustainable energy commitments.

At Navigant Research, we see battery energy storage as a key unifying technology that will position energy efficiency, demand response, and onsite distributed generation technologies like these to take advantage of new virtual power plant software and power market rules driving distributed energy resources business models. New turnkey offerings addressing the needs of large corporate entities like what Edison Energy is now doing along with new efforts by GE Current and Duke Energy Renewables should be watched closely as large corporate energy users look to chart new courses to take control of their future  and meet their sustainable energy needs.

 

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