Renewable Energy Innovation: What to Expect in 2024
A look forward to some of the power products, innovations, and technologies that will impact renewable energy generation, distribution, and storage in 2024 and beyond.
As worldwide demand for energy increases, innovation continues to focus on renewable energy production, distribution, and storage. In 2023, energy suppliers continued diversifying energy sources and reducing their reliance on carbon-based fuels. Both local and grid-scale renewable power applications were front and center for many of the latest power generation, management, and distribution technologies.
Ravenswood generating station in New York. Image used courtesy of Unsplash
What can we expect in renewable energy developments in 2024?
High-Voltage Power Devices
Innovations in high-voltage power semiconductor devices will continue to impact and drive advancements in renewable energy production. Power FET (field effect transistor) switches are the building blocks for the rectifiers, inverters, and converters used to condition power generated from renewable sources to power loads and for delivery to the grid and storage systems.
For component manufacturers, unit volumes in most renewable applications will be smaller than for automotive, so much of the power technology used in high-voltage renewable applications will be technology repurposed from solutions developed for electric vehicle (EV) powertrain and charging applications.
While power density is less critical in renewable power applications, solution size still matters, particularly in residential systems such as home solar, that must fit neatly within the confines of a residence. For these mobile and residential renewable energy use cases, wide bandgap devices, like silicon carbide (SiC), will continue to be popular for inverters and other power conversion circuits for their high power densities and high voltage capabilities.
IGBT power module. Image used courtesy of DigiKey
For larger scale, fixed renewable energy applications, more mature high-voltage technologies like insulated gate bipolar transistors (IGBT) will find use for their robustness, long operating history, and lower costs. While these devices can’t operate at the high switching speeds of SiC or gallium nitride (GaN), they perform sufficiently well at lower frequencies where power density is not a primary design objective. New investments will continue to advance their capabilities.
Along with renewable energy production, energy storage is vital within the renewable power ecosystem to help match on-demand power needs with intermittent production sources like wind and solar.
As with battery technologies, advancements in energy storage capabilities are better measured in years, not months. Lithium-ion batteries are a proven energy storage technology with a high energy density, making them ideal for mobile applications like EVs. However, lithium-ion batteries can be expensive for larger, grid-scale applications like renewable energy storage, making it difficult to meet long-duration storage requirements while being economically viable.
For lithium-ion-based storage solutions, addressing these shortcomings will continue to be a major area of focus for future development.
Flow battery construction. Image used courtesy of XL Batteries
As an alternative to lithium-ion, flow batteries have shown great promise as a long-duration, rechargeable energy storage platform. Since flow batteries are constructed with large tanks of electrolytes, the per-unit energy storage costs decrease as battery size increases, which is the opposite of lithium-ion batteries. This makes them well suited to larger, grid-scale renewable energy storage applications.
In addition to electric batteries, mechanical or gravity-based storage technologies like pumped hydro and other energy storage solutions such as heat batteries will continue to attract investment dollars to further their development.
Renewable Energy Trends
As power production from renewable sources like wind and solar continue to grow, so will the markets for the power components and systems that represent the building blocks for the inverter, rectifier, and conversion solutions that help transfer energy from renewable sources to the grid, to long-duration storage, or directly to loads.
Local power generation solutions like residential, commercial, and industrial solar will continue to evolve alongside grid-scale deployments. Each will have a different set of priorities relative to size, cost, and other functional requirements, and the appropriate technologies will be adopted accordingly, such as wide bandgap (SiC, GaN), silicon MOSFET, IGBT, and so on.
Microgrid incorporates renewable sources. Image used courtesy of Eaton
Grid modernization will remain a priority as operators seek to improve reliability and get the most from their existing infrastructure. This will include software and artificial intelligence-driven algorithms that will be increasingly important in managing grid power networks and integrating intermittent renewable sources.
Virtual batteries are a good example. Virtual batteries allow operators to “intelligently” access distributed power sources, like EV batteries, to use this spare “network” energy to help meet peak demands across the grid without investing in expensive excess capacity.
Hydrogen and Alternative Fuels
In the renewable energy model, electricity is generated from non-carbon energy sources like wind, solar, or nuclear for delivery to the grid, to be stored for later use or used to power loads locally.
For mobile platforms (EVs) or off-grid power applications like backup power generators, alternative fuels like hydrogen add an extra layer of flexibility for transporting carbon-free energy. As a store of energy, hydrogen can replace batteries within EVs to power fuel cells that drive electric powertrains. It can also be used as a fuel source for remote power generation, replacing diesel fuels, and for other off-grid power applications.
Hydrogen as part of the energy ecosystem. Image used courtesy of DOE
When hydrogen is produced from carbon-free electricity sources such as wind and solar, the hydrogen fuel is carbon-free, with water as the only by-product of its use. However, the challenge remains to produce clean hydrogen cost-effectively so it can be widely adopted as a fuel source.
In a future less reliant on carbon-based fuels, energy specialists will look toward hydrogen and other alternative fuels, like ammonia, to replace marine diesel. These will add an important dimension to the energy ecosystem and will continue to be a focus for public and private investment in 2024 and beyond.