The clean energy revolution has already begun. For the past few years, if not the entire past decade, it has been laying foundations and building momentum.
In the next few years, we will enter “the knee of the curve” — the point where the rate of change for clean energy impact goes from geometric to exponential.
Think of a graph shaped like a hockey stick. Clean energy outputs are about to go to from the flattish part of the hockey stick (the part that makes contact with the ice) to the near-vertical part (the long handle).
As we’ve noted before, solar and wind power are now highly competitive on price economics alone. Solar is cheaper than coal in dozens of Chinese cities. Wind energy output is expected to outpace coal in Texas next year. And production costs are still falling as unit volume ramps up.
But solar and wind are only the beginning. We will also see transformative impact from exotic clean technology solutions you’ve never heard of.
The clean energy impact of the 2020s will be explosive because it’s not just clean technology that is getting cheaper and faster; it is technology capability in general that is exploding in power and falling in cost.
Take microchips for example, and the famous prediction known as “Moore’s Law.” For a long time, the big driver of progress was the rate at which more transistors could be added to a microchip.
Now, though, noted venture capitalist Marc Andreessen believes that Moore’s law has “flipped.”
Here is what that means: Instead of chips becoming ever more powerful at an exponential rate, the most powerful chips are now becoming ever cheaper — falling in cost — at an exponential rate.
The endpoint of this is, say, a wireless-enabled device with the power of a supercomputer that costs 49 cents and fits in the handle of your toothbrush.
Or imagine a computational array more powerful than the latest iPhone, but so cheap and small it gets embedded in greeting cards. That’s where we’re going.
As computational power becomes as cheap and freely available as tap water, a lot of the clean energy solutions that were previously nonviable — because of the price economics and the computational challenges in solving the design issues — will suddenly cross a tipping point viability threshold, and see instant wide demand given the need to replace fossil fuels.
Take “blue energy” for example.
Blue energy sounds like a new age concept, or something that strong-willed depressed people have, or perhaps a rallying call for the Smurfs. But blue energy is a real thing, and it is just one of the transformational clean energy technologies that could have a huge impact over the next decade.
Blue energy, also known as osmotic power generation, was first discovered in the 1970s by an American-Israeli chemical engineer named Sidney Loeb. It is an old idea that was too far ahead of its time, in economic terms at least — but the present-day explosion of computing power, coupled with industrial 3D-printing techniques and other new innovations, means the time for blue energy could be “now” (or some point in the next few years).
The blue energy production process exploits the result of what happens when freshwater and saltwater are mixed together in large quantities. It just so happens that fresh water and salt water mix together naturally in places known as “estuaries” — the area where a river runs into the sea.
To create blue energy, you set up a tank with a “semipermeable membrane” — a cloth-like barrier that only water can pass through — with fresh water on one side of the tank and salt water on the other. If you do this in an estuary, the river provides the freshwater and the ocean provides the saltwater naturally.
The membrane lets water through, but not salt. This causes a pressure imbalance in the tank. Water on the “fresh” side can flow through to the saltwater side, but not vice versa.
As the pressure imbalance grows, the growing volume of saltwater gets pushed into a turbine generator. The generator then makes electricity.
It’s a brilliant idea. Mother Nature provides the setup and the basic physics — all you need is a river that runs into an ocean. The challenge is getting the economics right — figuring out how to manufacture the membranes and build the plants at an energy generation price point that is profitable.
And that challenge — the economics part — helps explain why the clean energy revolution is going to go vertical in the 2020s. There are multiple wild ways to create energy that were conceived many years ago, or even decades ago, that weren’t economically viable with 20th century technology. That changes now.
The compounding effects of 21st century technology — again, think super-cheap computing power, 3D industrial printing techniques, dramatically improved production processes, and more — will continue to lower the cost of established alternatives like solar and wind, while opening the door for even more exotic concepts like blue energy.
This will change the world of energy as we know it.
TradeSmith Research Team