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Powering the planet

Laura Gaze  Director, Enterprise Communications and Thought Leadership

Laura Gaze  Director, Enterprise Communications and Thought Leadership

The sources of energy that will power the planet over the next three decades

In 2011, US President Barack Obama released his “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future” where he set goals such as having 80 percent of US electricity generated from clean-energy sources by 2035. A few years later, in late 2015, the heads of state of nearly 200 countries agreed to combat global greenhouse gas emissions and contain temperatures to less than a 2-degrees-Celsius increase above the industrial era at the Conference of Parties (COP21) Paris Summit.

There’s a rallying cry echoing around the world to mitigate the perils of global warming. Thomson Reuters analysts heard it and focused their sights on the future energy landscape and what the main sources of power will be over the coming decades.

The future energy mix

By the end of the 21st century, fossil-fuel-based energy sources will be all but dried up. In their place will be the next generation of renewables, some of which have an established footprint today and some of which are still to be discovered.

Thomson Reuters predicts there will be three dominant sources of energy in the next three decades:

  • Hydro/wave
  • Solar photovoltaics
  • Nuclear fusion

Clean coal and natural gas, two other current power sources, will remain in the near-term mix; however, given their affiliation with fossil fuels and contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, among other negative environmental effects they impart, they will diminish in significance over the coming decades.


Infographic showing the major sources of power for the next few decades
Download the infographic.

Hydro/wave

Water-related innovation for generating power has been on a steady climb over the last several years, including both power secured from the movement of fluids by gravity (hydro) and oceanic/sea tidal movement (wave). The former jumped by 60 percent and the latter by 82 percent from 2010 through 2015.

Guangdong Meiyan Jixiang, GE, Toshiba, Zhejiang Ocean University and Voith are the top five organizations innovating in this space. The infographic shows the breakout of their activity between hydro and wave from 2010 to 2015. Guangdong Meiyan Jixiang had the most recent activity, with a massive spike in 2015. The others remained fairly consistent over the six years, ending lower than their aforementioned competitor. Guangdong eclipsed them all with nearly 150 unique inventions for the same period.

Solar

The technology components that harness energy from the sun fall into two categories: solar cell materials and other solar PV (photovoltaic) components. While there’s a lot more activity in the realm of solar PV components, it is the solar cell material that is essential for converting sunlight into electrons for energy. The photovoltaic process happens when photons from sunlight are absorbed by semiconducting materials, freeing electrons so they flow through it to produce electricity (voltage).

As shown in the infographic, there’s a lot of overlap between the companies innovating in solar cell materials and those in photovoltaic components. Sharp is the top innovator for solar cell materials and ranks second for other solar PV components. LG leads in terms of other solar PV components, but places fifth in solar cell materials.

Within the realm of solar cell materials, there are different approaches for capturing sunlight from solar and harnessing its energy. These include organic methods, dye sensitization, the use of silicon and other inorganics. Silicon and other inorganics lead in terms of 2015 output, whereas dye-sensitized and organic methods both declined over the last year, as seen in the infographic.

Nuclear

There are two types of nuclear innovation related to energy: nuclear fission and nuclear fusion.

Fission involves the process by which uranium atoms are split, releasing energy that in turn produces steam that powers a turbine and generates electricity. Nuclear power plants can generate a lot of electricity with minimal pollution but the fission process  produces radioactive waste that must be properly dealt with or it can be harmful to life and the planet.

Nuclear fusion is a newer process for generating energy from nuclear activity with the potential to be more environmentally sound and cost-effective. There are several different areas of fusion activity including cold fusion, inertial plasma containment, magnetic plasma containment, fusion components and tokamak or stellarator, as shown in the infographic. By far the most active area is that of the fusion components, followed by magnetic plasma containment and cold fusion, which have traded top spots with one another over the past few years.

The largest nuclear fusion contributor is the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which is not surprising as China is slated to have the most nuclear plants in development globally.

The future

Renewables dominate the future energy mix, as fossil-fuel-based solutions continue to be replaced by more environmentally friendly solutions over the course of the next 20-30 years. There will be a gradual swapping out, versus the flipping of a switch, as industries, markets and citizens adjust to the new norm of the 21st century.

Intellectual Property & Science is now known as Clarivate Analytics, and is no longer part of Thomson Reuters.


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