Top 12 Areas for Innovation Through 2025: Distributed Energy

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The second in a series of 12 technology innovations from the futurist research firm Social Technologies is "Distributed Energy," an innovation that will give consumers more options and provide new ways for commercial and private interests to source the power they need.

The second in a series of 12 technology innovations from the futurist research firm Social Technologies is "Distributed Energy," an innovation that will give consumers more options and provide new ways for commercial and private interests to source the power they need.

"Distributed energy (DE) is localized, and because it is not part of the extant power grid, it usually comprises storage technology as well as local power management," explains Christopher Kent, an analyst at the global research and consulting firm Social Technologies based in Washington, DC, who is the author of the second in a series of 12 briefs that shed light on the top areas for technology innovation through 2025.

Kent points to several drivers of DE.

"At its most basic, DE can be as simple as a diesel-powered generator installed to ensure continuous power during a sudden disruption," he shares, noting that more recently DE has been associated with hybrid power as DE power plants. "These often use a combination of generation methods---such as photovoltaics and batteries, or fuel cells and microturbines."

The biggest driver of this innovation, of course, is demand.

"As pervasive computing expands, so will the need for DE," Kent believes. "Distributed-energy systems for small-scale, on-the-go power will be in high demand for applications ranging from power for intelligent devices, appliances, and remote routers, to solar rechargers for handheld computers and mobile phones."

When it comes to the increasing focus on environmental concerns, he believes DE is well-suited to take advantage of green, hybrid, or renewable energy sources for power generation by avoiding carbon dioxide and other polluting emissions.

"Additionally, the ability of DE technology to deliver power with relatively few infrastructural upgrades makes this attractive to World 2 and World 3 countries that need power, but lack the wherewithal to build a robust transmission infrastructure of their own."

CHALLENGES AHEAD

While the idea of DE is expanding in many areas, Kent believes significant obstacles will have to be overcome before the idea can flourish commercially. These include:

  • Efficiency. One big problem that plagues DE generation, particularly PV solar, is efficiency. "Standard silicon-PV efficiency is 31%, and it has many limitations," Kent says. "Breakthroughs in PV design using cheaper, more flexible conductive plastics are only achieving maximum efficiencies of 6.5%. Even cutting-edge, quantum-dot solar cells are at 2% efficiency. For DE to move forward, this issue needs to be addressed."
  • Capital cost. Capital cost runs a close second to storage concerns as the chief impediment to large-scale commercial rollout of DE systems, Kent notes. At this time, he says, most DE systems are still more expensive than today's electrical generators. Material costs are often the driver and here again the cost of the biofuel reactor design is driven by the price of its catalyst---rhodium, while the cost effectiveness of innovative new batteries using silver is affected by silver prices.
  • Storage capacity. Unlike the utility grid, which generates and then immediately delivers power, DE systems need a new way to store the power they create. While batteries are popular for energy storage, they are still large compared to some of the new DE generators being developed.

WILDCARDS

However, Kent believes three possible developments could radically change the direction of DE:

  • Fossil fuel swings. "An unexpected constraint in energy or an untenable spike in energy prices could supercharge the demand for DE as consumers seek new power options." Conversely, he adds, a rapid drop in oil prices would remove a lot of the financial and national security incentives supporting development of DE networks.
  • Vehicle to grid. Development and popularization of plug-in electric vehicles could shore up support for the grid system. "Drivers of plug-ins would take advantage of the ubiquity of grid-distributed electricity."
  • Room-temperature superconductors. Finally, he says, development of superconducting materials which operate at room temperature---avoiding the cost and equipment of chilling materials to present superconducting temperatures---could make a whole host of energy-storage techniques more economically feasible.

LEARN MORE

To determine the relevance of these findings and forecasts for major business sectors, set up an interview with Christopher Kent by sending an email to Hope Gibbs, leader of corporate communications, at hope.gibbs(at)socialtechnologies.com.

Christopher Kent Futurist
Christopher Kent is a writer/analyst with more than 10 years' experience tracking emerging public policy and social policy issues, primarily with Stratfor (Strategic Forecasting), a leading geopolitical-intelligence service. His expertise spans topics such as consumer and industry trends in the energy sector, the future of China, consumer lifestyles in Europe, and the impacts of microcredit in World 3. Christopher also oversees Social Technologies' internship program. He has an MA in the history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance from the University of Toronto, and an undergraduate degree in history and English from Marquette University. Areas of expertise: Media and entertainment, tourism and leisure, technology.

About Social Technologies
Social Technologies is a global research and consulting firm specializing in the integration of foresight, strategy, and innovation. With offices in Washington DC, London, and Shanghai, Social Technologies serves the world's leading companies, government agencies, and nonprofits. A holistic, long-term perspective combined with actionable business solutions helps clients mitigate risk, make the most of opportunities, and enrich decision-making. For information visit http://www.socialtechnologies.com, the blog http://changewaves.socialtechnologies.com, and the newsletter http://www.socialtechnologies.com/changewaves.

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