Traditionally, power generation has been dominated by fossil-fuel energy, namely gas and coal power plants. If there is today a debate on whether or not the current average increase of the earth temperature has been created by men and its activities, there is no doubt (and clear evidence!) that released Co2 contributes to global warming acceleration due to the well-known greenhouse effect. Those emissions could be eliminated through the process known as Carbon Capture and Storage, in which the Co2 is captured during or after the combustion process. Unfortunately the captured Co2 needs to be stored, which increases the associated costs and risks (e.g. earthquakes or sudden Co2 release) of the produced energy.
Co2 emissions can also be mitigated through the use of not less controversial nuclear power. However, the topics of safety (e.g Fukushima) and waste disposal continue to pose fundamental environmental challenges.
Some natural resources have been used for many years in order to generate electricity. This is the case of Hydro as well as High Enthalpy (temperature) Geothermal powerplants. Unfortunately, large rivers, mountains or geothermal waters (typically located at earth mantel faults) are not available everywhere on the planet.
The last 10 years have however seen the rapid raise of intermittent renewable power generation, namely wind and solar power encouraged by the rapid and impressive drop in the technologies costs. Today, more than 50% of new capacity installed yearly is from renewable plants. This trend is further accelerating as the price of Photovoltaic (PV) panels continues to drop at a rate without precedent for the power generation industry. Indeed, the learning curve of the PV panel technology follows the exponential rate of the semi-conductor (e.g. computer) industry, marking an ever increasing gap with the rotating machinery learning curve. Those renewable resources are however intermittent (the sun rarely shines at night, the wind is rarely constant) and are pushing the current transmission grids to their limits. These latter institutions must guaranty the providing of power, at given frequency and voltage whatever the electricity demand is at one point in time. If they fail to do so, the very feared black outs can occur in villages, cities and entire regions. For this reason, fossil-fuel power plants are running at low load to be able to kick in at any point in time. At this point of operation, fossil-fuel plants are very inefficient and generate more Co2 than in normal operation. In other words, in order to allow for renewable generation as well as grid balancing, large amounts of Co2 are being released to the atmosphere.
The very fast rate of individual PV rooftop installations is complicating further this picture by introducing a large amount of decentralization and additional challenges in the control of balancing mechanisms. In order to mitigate the risks of black-outs individuals are starting to look at battery systems for their household. As for PV, the realization of mega battery plants (such as proposed by Tesla) could bring prices down to a level enabling a wide spreading of the storage technology. It becomes conceivable that the we will then experience an “Uberization” of the energy market where individuals will balance production and needs directly with other individuals or that Microgrids (enabling electrical islanding in case of an disaster or unforeseen event) will take a prominent role in the short to mid term horizon.
The cards between energy players are therefore being reshuffled. Technology innovation is playing an ever increasing role in a fast rolling society. There is no silver bullet but many pieces of the complex puzzle are today at hand. Large traditional generation and transmission utilities have to start adapting now to the on-going decentralization. Visionary market and technology management will transform this complex situation into unique opportunity to provide humanity everywhere on the globe with clean, abundant and affordable energy.