Every year seems to go by faster than the one before and technology has kept up the pace. From the invention of the lightbulb to new means of transportation, humanity has kept evolving and putting its imagination and knowledge to the test, opening up new possibilities that might have seemed impossible before. But this unfaltering progress towards an ever more extraordinary tomorrow cannot leave the planet or its people behind, which is why today’s idea of innovation cannot be understood without sustainability.
Achieving the energy transition for a net zero emissions future is an effort that concerns us all. The global goal established by the United Nations, limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2030, will require cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 45%. And to meet this challenge, innovation and the energy sector are set to play a key role.
In this race towards sustainability, technologies such as green hydrogen, artificial intelligence and increasingly efficient batteries are becoming some of the most groundbreaking options. At Enel, we want to contribute actively to international efforts to tackle climate change by boosting those technologies with the potential to safeguard our future. As the year has come to an end, let us delve into the innovations that have positioned themselves as the most promising over the course of 2022.
1) Ion-based batteries, harnessing the full power of renewable energies
For a few seconds on a sunny afternoon last April, renewables broke a record for California’s main electricity grid, providing enough power to supply 94.5% of demand. The moment was hailed as a milestone on the path to decarbonization. But what happens when the sun sets and the breeze stops?
Handling the fluctuating power production of renewables will require cost-efficient storage for hours or even days at a time. New types of iron-based batteries—recognized by the MIT Technology Review as one of the top ten breakthrough technologies of 2022—might be up to the task.
As part of its efforts to develop renewable energy storage, Enel is investing in new, more efficient and sustainable batteries, including iron-based ones. Enel Green Power España has partnered with Oregon-based ESS, a manufacturer of batteries able to store energy for between four and 12 hours, to provide a solar plant in Spain with 17 ESS long-duration iron flow battery systems with a combined capacity of 8.5 MWh.
In collaboration with Massachusetts-based company Form Energy, Enel is also working towards ultra-low-cost, long-duration batteries. Intended to eventually be produced for less than $20 per kilowatt-hour (cheaper than even the most optimistic projections for lithium-ion batteries), these cutting-edge iron-air batteries are expected to deliver 1 megawatt of power for 150 hours.
Both projects are banking on batteries that use iron, one of the most abundant materials on the planet, as opposed to scarce minerals like cobalt or nickel. This means that they could eventually be cheaper than other grid storage contenders, like lithium-ion and vanadium flow batteries. And even though there are still challenges to face, if iron-based batteries can be deployed widely at a low enough cost they could help power more of the world with renewable energy.
2) Green hydrogen, a key ally on the road to decarbonization
There is another energy pillar with an enormous potential for storing surplus energy from renewable sources, as well as for decarbonizing sectors for which electrification is not an option, such as heavy transport: green hydrogen.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 34 million metric tons of green hydrogen will need to be produced by 2030 to meet governments' climate commitments, and up to 100 million metric tons to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, with a total investment of $700 billion.
The recent price hike of natural gas (up by more than 70%) has helped boost investment in green hydrogen production, with 25 countries allocating more than $70 million to the sector in 2022. According to the IEA, in regions with access to a range of renewable primary energy resources and dependent on imported fossil fuels, producing green hydrogen could already be more cost-effective that grey hydrogen.
Enel Green Power (EGP) contributes actively to these ambitious global goals, through initiatives like the fast-track NextHy Booster program to help scale-up those startups developing green hydrogen solutions. Strategic partnerships with allies such as Fortescue Future Industries in Latin America and Australia, the Saras and Sapio Groups in Italy or Highly Innovative Fuels in Chile, are also key to Enel’s work to promote green hydrogen innovation.
3) Artificial Intelligence and robotics to enhance renewable power plants
Artificial Intelligence (AI) can accelerate the energy transition by making energy systems more efficient and smarter, optimizing processes such as power plant construction and outage prediction, as explored in the report “Harnessing Artificial Intelligence to Accelerate the Energy Transition” developed by the World Economic Forum, BloombergNEF and Deutsche Energie-Agentur in collaboration with Enel. AI can even help utility companies bid for renewable assets in wholesale markets with the help of quick, highly accurate machine learning-powered forecasts.
Coupled with automated technologies, advanced robotics are making a difference for renewable energies in tasks such as wind turbine maintenance. Enel is at the forefront of these innovations, collaborating with startups such as Latvia-based Aerones to develop intelligent technology that can be controlled remotely for cheaper, quicker, and safer maintenance services for the wind energy sector. Another of Enel's partners, UK-based Perceptual Robotics, has developed a similar solution, combining robotics, AI and machine learning to automate wind turbine maintenance to keep them operating at optimal capacity.
Hydroelectric power is yet another sector benefitting from smart robotics: projects in collaboration with Enel such as WIreless Sensors for hYdro monitoring (WISY) deploy drones to monitor and maintain hydroelectric plants, informed with data collected by a network of wireless sensors.
As part of its commitment to this cutting-edge technology, Enel recently inaugurated its new AI and robotics laboratory in Tel Aviv (Israel), the most advanced in Enel's global innovation network. The lab will support startups focusing on the advancement of AI and robotics technologies for the automation and digitalization of renewable energies, as well as the development of innovative, sustainable materials.
4) A perfect symbiosis: agrovoltaics and the synergies between renewables and agriculture
The simultaneous use of land surface for both solar photovoltaic power generation and agriculture, known as agrovoltaics, gives rise to promising synergies between the two sectors. Among its benefits, solar panels can help mitigate the stress caused by UV radiation on crops, reduce water consumption by helping the soil retain moisture, and protect plants from weather phenomena such as hailstorms.
The large areas of land required for solar energy installations raise concerns about the displacement they may entail for other activities, such as farming. Coincidentally, croplands are estimated to have the greatest median solar potential, due to conditions that impact solar panel efficiency including temperature, wind speed and humidity. The dual use of these contested grounds could prove fundamental in avoiding competition between agro-zoological activities and solar energy production facilities for available terrain. Hand in hand with efforts to increase PV plants’ efficiency, agrovoltaics can also help to conserve land resources and reduce deforestation.
Agrovoltaics accounted for a solar capacity of 14 gigawatts in 2021, up from just 5 megawatts in 2012. Enel Green Power recently launched a pilot program involving nine solar plants in Spain, Italy and Greece, aimed at proving the mutual benefits of coexistence between large solar energy facilities and agricultural or livestock activities as a way of ensuring the preservation of biodiversity.
5) Moving into the future with electrified solutions
The transportation sector contributed 37% of all energy-related CO2 emissions in 2021. Currently, transport relies predominantly on fossil fuels, with more than 90% of its energy coming from the combustion of crude oil-derived products. In order to align the sector with global goals for net zero emissions, the current transportation model must shift towards less carbon-intensive travel options—a pivotal change in which electric mobility must be its focus.
Enel is helping companies such as mass media giant Mediaset transition to electric mobility. Recently, Mediaset partnered with Enel's electric mobility company Enel X Way to create a charging hub at its Cologno Monzese headquarters equipped with a smart electric network consisting of up of 210 charging points.
Intelligent solutions such as the one being developed by Enel X together with Israeli software platform Optibus make it possible to optimize the scheduling and charging times of electric buses, which could be a decisive step towards the electrification of urban bus fleets for zero-emission public transport in cities.
Sustainable mobility technology can even be recycled for other applications besides transportation: this is the proposal that EGP is developing together with Nissan and Italian company Loccioni. By connecting new and used batteries from electric vehicles, the Second Life project provides energy (with a total available charge of up to 4 MW and a maximum accumulated energy of 1.7 MWh) to a power plant in Melilla, Spain.