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Emerging technologies in Power Energy and Power Waste control

Wind farms will be floating in the Nordic sea providing power to off-shore oil platforms. The image shows a rendering of the wind farm once completed in 2022. Image credit: Equinor

Our quest for cheap, usable energy is unrelenting. In these last few years we have added the additional requirement of sustainability both in terms of using renewable resources and i terms of using processes that are not affecting the environment (as an example, leveraging tides is surely a way to harvest renewable resources -they will affect over billion of years the revolution period of the Earth but by that time the Earth will have been made a scorching rock by the expanding Sun so it is not an issue- but the underwater dams used to harvest the tides are adversely affecting the underwater ecosystem and as such are no longer being pursued).

The evolution of technology is offering newer solutions and it is bringing to the fore older ones that have been sidetracked because technology was not sufficiently mature. Next year, 2020, might bring into focus a few emerging technologies like floating photovoltaic panels, molten salt reactors (that may solve the problem of radioactive waste disposal making use of Thorium – something I remember Carlo Rubbia advocated several years ago at the post Kyoto agreement STS meetings) and Green Hydrogen with 10 Countries that are seriously moving towards its adoption.

A technology that is ready for deployment is the one of dynamic export cables. This technology provides the possibility of connecting floating wind farms (see the rendered image in the photo) to usage points also floating offshore. One of the problem of floating wind farms is how to connect the floating wind turbines to the point of use considering that they keep moving as they float in the sea. The movement che reach tens of metres and this places a strain on underwater cables resulting in ruptures (that are very cumbersome and costly to fix). Anchoring wind farms to the sea bottom disrupts the ecosystem and after some trials has been abandoned.

Now the Norwegian oil company Equinor has given the green light to build a big floating wind farm in the North Sea that is expected, once completed in 2020, to deliver up to 88 MW using 11 turbines deployed in a water depth up to 300 metre at a cost of 6.4 M$ per MW. This is still higher that the cost per MW on land, but it is lower than the 7.4 M$ per MW that took to develop the first prototype plant in 2017. Once completed it will meet up to 35% of the power needs of the offshore oil platform in that area of the North Sea.

Graphics showing the amount of power produced in the US, its sources and its use. What is amazing is the amout of power produced that is not used but gets wasted for various reasons: almost two third, to be precise, is being wasted. Source Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

Although the investment cost per MW is higher than the one on land, the effectiveness is way better since the power produced can be delivered at a short distance.

This represents another step in the trend towards producing power locally, near the point of use. It is very important since a lot of the power we are producing is actually never used because it gets wasted in transmission.

Simply carrying electricity over high voltage wires and then through the low voltage distribution grid in very good electrical grid leads to a 6% waste (if that seems small think that it is equivalent to 60trillion BTU -British Thermal Unit- in the US each year), in less efficient ones, like in India (notice that in the India case, as in some Italian regions, the waste is also due to electricity theft…), the waste can reach 30%.

If we consider the whole unused power, taking into account all factors -see graphics-, we reach the staggering figure of 2/3 of the produced power being wasted!

The use of a combination of technologies, including smart grids, IoT, artificial intelligence and blockchain in the next decade may contribute to decrease this waste significantly. It is important, since most of the time when we discuss the issue of power shortage we end up looking just at the production side, whilst there is so much that can be gained if we take a look at the whole life cycle of energy.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.