With major shifts occurring in the energy industry, ICF’s newest technical experts explain the biggest challenges and opportunities ahead.
We have entered a new age of energy generation. The legacy formula for keeping the grid alive and well is changing—and utilities, customers, and communities know it.
The shift toward renewable energy like wind and solar has been happening for decades, but the pace increased sharply with the expansion of tax credits and increased public demand. This trend introduced both new opportunities and challenges, which continue to evolve with the market and the inevitable growing pains of new technology. So, what’s next?
As we work toward a future with increasingly diverse energy sources and a thriving grid, these are the essential factors we must address.
What hurdles are on the horizon for renewables?
In the case of solar, the status of the ITC—the investment tax credit—holds center stage. The uncertainty over whether it will end or continue impacts interest in either developing now, delaying, or pressing pause. Fortunately, there are safe harbor opportunities with the ITC that organizations can pursue. But politics—including who gets elected in the next presidential run—will impact the future of this and related programs.
For wind, similar question marks around the Production Tax Credit (PTC) apply. But in terms of tech, the challenges involve long-term quality in the build. It is essential to put the right turbine in the right place to maximize performance, minimize cost, and stretch the operating life of equipment as far as possible. It's a complex system that requires a lot of nonlinear analysis to get the design right, especially as turbines continue to increase in size and scale. And that's not only in designing the turbine, but also at the wind farm level to optimize power production.
The grid has its own hurdles to address, as recent events like the fires in California highlight. But in regard to intermittent renewable energy that generates only when the wind blows and the sun shines, there are concerns about maintaining grid stability with increasing numbers of wind and solar farms coming online. Developers want to build the assets and more customers want to buy power from renewable energy sources, but there needs to be capacity on the power grid to accept and deliver the power to customers. It's tricky from the utility side to get all of the wind and solar farms energized and interconnected.
A critical part of this equation is energy storage. Many projects coming through the pipeline have some sort of hybrid system that uses batteries for storage alongside solar or wind to maximize load stability and generation. But the industry needs to make progress on the energy storage front—including batteries and other technology—to meet the demands of the future.
Why is battery storage the hottest topic in energy?
With energy storage, the major concern is baseload power. This is usually coal-fired generation plants, natural gas plants, or nuclear plants. Conventionally, these are almost always operating. But with solar and wind, you can only operate at certain times. For wind, it has to be windy for it to generate electricity. The same with solar—it has to be sunny outside to work.
During those off-peak times—say, during the nighttime, when people are at home using their electricity by watching TV and turning on all the lights—we need a way to counter the lack of energy generation from solar. A current leading idea is to charge battery storage during the day and then discharge it to the grid at night. This way, energy generation is running for 24 hours per day.
The biggest struggle right now with battery storage is longevity. Due to the way the chemistry works in batteries, the battery begins to degrade as soon as it’s manufactured. The life cycle for most batteries is around just seven to 10 years depending on the level of use. Usually, these batteries are swapped out once their total capacity gets below a certain range. Developers have some hesitation about projects that require significant ongoing operating costs. Part of our work at ICF now is to find favorable ways for developers and utilities to keep these systems maintained and updated.
As battery storage evolves, solar and wind remain very complementary technologies. Many developers are starting to build hybrid power plants with wind and solar and storage. Solar does great during the day, but, obviously, there’s no sun at night. Wind may offer consistent performance at night and might be a bit more turbulent and inconsistent during the day. Storage fills in the gaps between the two. With all three combined, it may be possible to have a well-rounded product for power production.
What does the future of energy look like?
With larger turbines and advancing technology, wind projects are able to target regions with lower wind speeds using larger turbines. We will also see projects deploying bigger machines with larger rotors offshore. With the deployment of new technologies such as bifacial solar modules, panels will also become more efficient and adaptable to different environments. For energy storage, the evolution of technology will likely lead to larger capacities, longer life cycles, and lower degradation.
The need for connections across the energy disciplines has never been greater. At ICF, we’re bringing together our technical expertise to solve a wide variety of energy challenges for renewables, storage, and beyond. It’s a strategy that we see as critical to advance the field as a whole. Through collaboration, the energy industry will find continuously better ways to power the future—we are at the beginning of a long road of innovations to come.