Innovation in renewable energy is about more than new tech

We require solutions that will make energy production, transmission and consumption more flexible and empower a new generation of consumers

Abu Dhabi, UAE - March 15, 2010 - A laborer works on the roof of the library of the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology at Masdar City. The city plans to rely entirely on solar energy and other renewable energy sources, with a sustainable, zero-carbon, zero-waste ecology. (Nicole Hill / The National

As we begin to reconcile and reconnect with a world disrupted by a pandemic that knows no bounds, the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement loom large on a horizon moving ever closer. If we are to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, increase the renewable energy market share and improve energy efficiencies,  innovation in the renewable energy industry is essential in the next decade. Though the ask is tall, the task is not improbable. In fact, it is very achievable.

But let us dispel a common misconception: innovation does not mean new technologies, not always. Though these two concepts are often intertwined, they are not the same. While the requisite research and development  will continue to procure and test new tech to advance our renewable energy capabilities, we can innovate in more ways than just this one. Indeed, this point will form a key tenet of the third biennial, and first virtual International Renewable Energy Agency's (Irena) Innovation Week, which ends on Thursday.

Innovation has been at the heart of our industry since its inception. Thanks to a tireless desire to produce cleaner and more sustainable energy solutions, renewables now represent the most cost-effective solutions for generating new power in many economies. Indeed, owing to increased deployment and technological acceleration, solar photovoltaic, or PV,  module prices have fallen by up to 90 per cent since the end of 2009, according to an Irena cost analysis report from 2019 – a particular sign of encouragement for the sun-drenched UAE, and other Gulf economies pursuing energy diversification strategies.

Today, renewables account for one-third of total global power generation, and we are witnessing substantial growth in variable renewable energy solutions. Yet, it is still the case that heavy industry and transport sectors alone will account for 38 per cent of all CO2 emissions globally in 2050, unless we oversee significant changes to policymaking and approaches to energy production and consumption.

To achieve zero emissions in these heavy industries and transport sectors, and limit global temperature rises to 1.5°C, renewables must comprise up to 50 per cent of the final energy demand in these sectors by 2050, according to Irena’s latest analysis. They currently provide just under 25 per cent. To summarise: further innovation is not a luxury, it is a necessity.

So, how do we get there? We require solutions that will make the world’s energy production, transmission and consumption more flexible, allow for a higher, cost-effective use of renewables and empower a new generation of consumers.

We have seen in recent years how the concepts of electrification, decentralisation and digitalisation have affected a shift in policymaking and procurement paradigms, unlocking flexible systems for increased deployment of renewable technologies across the world – importantly, to developing economies – especially with solar and hydrogen production and storage. On this topic, Irena's "30 Innovation Briefs" outline innovation priorities that policymakers must address to decarbonise electricity systems in the Covid-19 recovery phase.

When it comes to solar power production, emerging fourth industrial revolution, or 4IR, technologies have facilitated and accelerated efficiencies at an impressive rate. Automation technologies such as additive and 3D printing, for instance, have dramatically cut operational costs for solar power hardware. In some instances, PV panels can now be produced three times bigger in a fraction of the time – multi-day processes have been reduced to a matter of hours. Such innovative processes mean that the UAE, which already comprises more than two-thirds of the GCC’s total installed renewable energy capacity, according to Irena figures from 2018, can accelerate its ambition to generate 50 per cent of its power from renewables by mid-century, in line with UAE Energy Strategy 2050.

Beyond solar power production, 4IR technologies will also play a key role in integrating more renewable energy into the grid. For instance, blockchain technologies can provide new ways of operating the electricity system, by allowing the integration of higher shares of variable renewable power generation.

Dubai is home to the world's first functional 3D printed offices. The UAE aims to have 25 per cent of its buildings similarly manufactured by 2030. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
Dubai is home to the world's first functional 3D printed offices. The UAE aims to have 25 per cent of its buildings similarly manufactured by 2030. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

Blockchain can not only empower consumers of electricity by allowing them to take control of their energy consumption habits and payment plans, but it allows system operators of distributed generation to optimise grid operations by managing all connected devices through one centralised smart device, enabling flexibility and real-time pricing.

When it comes to renewable hydrogen, it can further support the integration of renewable electricity generation by decoupling it from local use at a given time to balance demand and supply. The versatility of stored hydrogen gas means that it can be used in a wide range of applications, such as power plants, storage, transportation, and even in homes and businesses. Its wider usage should be further considered.

The GCC governments are developing new solar power plants as part of their strategy to increase renewable energy output. Courtesy Government of Dubai
The GCC governments are developing new solar power plants as part of their strategy to increase renewable energy output. Courtesy Government of Dubai

New storage methods are also a critical component of an innovative renewable energy landscape. Battery storage systems are emerging as one of the key solutions to effectively integrate high shares of solar renewables in power systems worldwide. Recent research from Irena has outlined how electricity storage technologies can be used for a variety of applications in the power sector, from e-mobility and behind-the-meter applications to utility-scale use cases.

As these new technologies develop, we must remain mindful that they should not only carry greater economic potential, but also contribute to a lasting, positive impact on our social development and people’s livelihoods.

This is where innovation must transcend technologies and seep into the thinking of policymakers. We must look to initiate new, agile business models that champion the case for new services and incentivise further integration of renewable energy technologies – whether that is through energy-as-a-service, peer-to-peer trading or pay-as-you-go models. Furthermore, we should be looking to design new market structures and regulatory frameworks that stimulate new opportunities for market entrants, incentivising entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups.

It is these brains that we need in these times. Indeed, at times of great change, the ability to adapt and innovate determines whether we succeed or fail in the future. 2020 is one such epochal time; a watershed year that will define how we and our progeny live in the years ahead, and for how much longer our species will live on this planet. And the global energy transition is the best place to start our adaptation to this new normal by embracing an intuitive spirit of innovation.

Dr Nawal Al-Hosany is a permanent representative of the UAE to the International Renewable Energy Agency