Skip to main content

Setting the agenda: Innovation within the energy sector needs to ‘up its game’

energy
(Image credit: Image Credit: Skeeze / Pixabay)

Energy is the crux that makes our world go round. For decades, the sector has functioned in one way and one way only – by the use of fossil fuels. But the damage caused is taking its toll on our planet.  Society has a huge part to play in reconsidering its consumption; from driving cars on short, walkable journeys to turning up the heat. The energy sector has an even bigger role to play in educating the masses on how energy works, the processes involved to make energy happen and where the fuel used to power items comes from. 

The energy sector is a vast industry with many different arms that tap into each aspect of our everyday lives – even if we do not think about it. However, realization is spreading that we can no longer continue as we have. Globally, there is a growing consciousness that more sustainable solutions must be found to aid the energy transition. The Net Zero goal of 2050 is fast approaching, and embracing innovation is the only way to make Net Zero our new normal.

As humans, we are inherently resistant to change, and the energy sector is a great example of just how resistant industries can be. However, we have started to witness growth in renewable energies and innovative technologies that will provide the solutions for a greener tomorrow. The energy sector’s sluggish response to innovation must end, especially with global deadlines nearing and finally industries waking up to the fact that their end-users are calling for something different too.

Slow innovation is having an impact 

In 2020, renewable sources of electricity grew faster than they have since 1999 and for the first time clean energy companies raised more money than fossil fuel companies through public offerings. This is great news but it has taken far too long for this to come into play. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency reports that even with economically viable and scalable renewable-based solutions available for around two-thirds of the world’s energy supply, population growth and rising energy demand could outpace energy decarbonization without urgent investments in research and development. 

Here is our first issue with new innovation – resistance from the top. This is both from policymakers and the larger companies that have traditionally held the monopoly on the system, with them being the last to adopt innovative solutions even though they have had the means to foster and nurture new talent.

We are seeing new players in the game working with several innovative solutions: smart grids and intelligent energy, nuclear and hydrogen to name a few! These new players are driving forward new ideas and calling for support from the government for policy to be swifter and sharper. And although innovative thinking is no longer solely dependent or necessarily driven by government policy to take center stage, it is clear there is a risk to decarbonization projects without it. 

We are also still witnessing the larger companies in the industry, specifically oil and gas, still spending their time lobbying to control, slow, or outright block climate-motivated policies. With the UK government’s ten-point plan for a green industrial revolution published late last year, it is clear to most that it certainly does not go far enough to hold global warming to below 1.5 degrees. Perhaps it is also evidence of the interest and symbiotic relationships between government and the gas and oil industries; considerable revenue is raised by the government from these industries and the big companies hold a great deal of economic and political power as a result. 

The other main sticking point for technological advancement in the energy sector is infrastructure. Does the industry focus on innovation that can repurpose current infrastructure or does this hinder the energy transition when a whole system transformation is the only way to secure the sustainable use and supply of energy for our planet? 

A resistance in infrastructure to technological transformation stems from conflicting lifecycles. Infrastructure is built with long life in mind, but technology development is rapid and evolves at quite a pace which does not allow many opportunities for technology to bridge the infrastructure gap. The World Economic Forum highlighted in a 2019 report that finding ingress points for new technologies during the initial stages of planning, and maintaining the flexibility to adapt to unforeseen technological changes, are crucial tactics in the battle to transform infrastructure.

The good news...there is willingness for change 

There are sectors that are more willing to embrace new technology and innovative ideas. 

Transportation is one example where we are seeing more movement than most with innovation receiving a slightly warmer response but once again, we have locked on to a ‘silver bullet’ – the battery. Batteries are just one solution and certainly provide a great one for certain transportation needs however the reality is that battery technology alone cannot decarbonize the entire industry (no matter what Elon Musk may think). With this sector alone needing technological solutions that suit a variety of different applications, we need to embrace innovation to answer the questions of efficiency, ease and safety.

Understanding what solutions fit best where and how they can work together will be the unlocking of full decarbonization in this sector. For short trips and when you can access charging infrastructure, Battery Electric Vehicles are the answer. For larger and longer transportation applications, hydrogen fuel cell technology provides a decarbonized solution.

The aviation industry, one of the biggest polluters and one of the hardest to decarbonize, has seen a number of developments occurring whilst it has been pushed to the brink of complete shutdown. The biggest aviation players have been investing their time and money in innovative solutions to create a sustainable future for the industry instead of launching straight back into what they know. In the last year alone, we have already seen a commercial hydrogen aircraft take to the skies with backing from British Airways and Bill Gates. 

The global pandemic has allowed industries the space to think about their next moves as economies prepare to build back better. There is evidence that innovators are thinking about how industries can revive and what opportunities there are for using cleaner energy sources simply as a selling point for new and old products. 

Society is becoming more aware than ever of the need to change to renewable sources for energy and power. Savvy providers will be eager to sell their own commitment to reducing pollution and operating on a ‘greener’ level and will start to look for opportunities to do so.

Vidal Bharath, Chief Operating Officer, Bramble Energy

Dr Vidal Bharath is the Chief Operating Officer at Bramble Energy, combining his project and supply chain management experience, with the development and commissioning of hybridised portable fuel cell systems.