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The clean industrial revolution is here

Renewable energy is often talked about as if it is a fairly new idea. It’s symbolic of a utopian future in which there is ample clean energy for all, but this isn’t a new idea at all. Renewable energy was being harnessed long before the industrial revolution and before electricity, with sailing ships, windmills, water turbines playing a key role in shaping human society.  Even with the advent of electricity, renewable energy was a key technology from the very beginning.  The first town in the world to boast an electricity supply generating enough surplus to allow sale of electricity to the public was Godalming in Surrey, England, which in 1881 obtained its power from a water-driven turbine. Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse built the first hydro-electric power plant at Niagara Falls in 1885, a key event in the widespread adoption of electricity.  Tesla was a strong advocate of renewable energy including wind, hydro, solar and geothermal.  He wrote in 1900 that:

Whatever our resources of primary energy may be in the future, we must, to be rational, obtain it without consumption of any material.

Despite this, fossil fuels became our primary energy source in the 20th Century, helping to power huge changes in society that have given many people in the world a standard of living that people had previously never dreamed of, while simultaneously causing much of the environmental crisis that we now face.  Fossil fuels took over not just because they were cheap and abundant, but perhaps more importantly because they enabled us to harness energy wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted.  We didn’t need to wait for the wind to blow or the rains to fall and we could generate power where it was needed, rather than where nature provided it.

Solar canals in India generate electricity while reducing water loss
Solar canals in India generate electricity while reducing water loss

We’re now entering what some are referring to as the clean industrial revolution and I believe that we are on the tipping point of changes that are still hard to predict. In the clean industrial revolution, clean renewable sources of energy will displace fossil fuels as our primary energy source.  Renewable energy technologies have come a long way in the last few decades and are on the verge of becoming cost competitive with fossil fuels in generating electrical power.  However, although renewables are an important piece of the puzzle, they’re not revolutionary on their own. After all, they’ve been around for a very long time already and reduced costs and improved efficiencies don’t allow them to compete with fossil fuels in terms of our ability to harness them when we want and where we want.

The truly revolutionary technology therefore is energy storage, a.k.a., batteries. We tend to think of batteries as things that are used for limited applications like starting car engines and powering TV remote controls. However, even without any huge break-throughs the technology has been advancing steadily in terms of cost and energy density, to the point where it’s now enabling electricity to become a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Almost anything that uses energy could be powered by electricity, and anything that runs on electricity could be powered by renewable sources and batteries in the near future.  Not just phones and computers, but homes, factories, towns, cars, tractors, boats and maybe, just maybe even aeroplanes.

Batteries can now power homes, factories and vehicles
Batteries can now power homes, factories and vehicles

You see, just as fossil fuel powered engines gave us access to power wherever and whenever we wanted it, battery technology is on the verge of doing the same for electricity. It will allow us to harness energy from renewable sources (and even fossil fuel sources) and store it until we want to use it. Critics will say that batteries are too large, too heavy, and too expensive to threaten fossil fuels, but we are just reaching the point where that is no longer true in many applications. Investment into battery technology is rapidly increasing as the smart investors realize that we’re moving towards a world in which almost everything will be powered by electricity, and that batteries will be the key technology that makes it possible.

Tesla is currently building its Gigafactory, which will produce more batteries per year than current global production.  It will be the largest building on earth by footprint and will be powered entirely by a combination and solar, wind, geothermal and yes, you guessed it, batteries.

Tesla Gigafactory
The Tesla Gigafactory

Daimler is investing massively in battery technology.  Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of the Board of Management of Daimler AG and Head of Mercedes-Benz Cars announced that:

To get closer to fully electric driving, we keep investing big in the key component of emission-free vehicles: powerful batteries. We are now devoting another 500 million Euros to build a second battery factory in Germany.

Dyson recently purchased solid-state battery company Sakti3 for $90 million and the UK government accidentally revealed that it is helping to fund the company (which is known for making vacuum cleaners and hand dryers) to develop its own electric vehicles.  German electronics firm Bosch also recently purchased a Silicon Valley battery start up Seeo, while Chinese company BYD, the world’s second largest battery manufacturer now also manufactures cars, buses and has announced that it will begin production of trucks at its new factory in California.

BYD 100% electric bus
BYD 100% electric bus

Not to mention that Airbus managed to fly a battery powered plane across the English channel last year.  OK, it was a very small plane on a relatively short journey, but it is a sign of things to come.

It’s easy to shrug it off the impact of battery technology at this stage, but I believe that big change is coming in the next few years and that historians will one day look back at this decade as the start of the clean industrial revolution and crediting batteries as one of the key technologies that made it possible.

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