As the world begins to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, there is more talk than ever about the inevitable shift to renewable energy sources. Green energy has seen a boost since the start of the global health crisis as demand for energy dropped during lockdown. Grid operators began looking for cleaner – and cheaper – alternatives to carbon fuels and found it in alternative energy sources.
But what will happen when COVID-19 is behind us and the demand for energy once again soars? Are green energy sources like solar and wind up to the task?
For the most part, according to venture capitalist Ari Stiegler, they are.
Stiegler believes that new grid-scale thin-film photovoltaic solar panels and on/offshore wind can offer low-cost, efficient alternatives to traditional energy sources like coal and oil. These sources, Stiegler said, are sustainable, however the difficulty lies in grid scale storage.
While promising in potential, Stiegler said that green energy must still overcome some inherent deficiencies in order to become a viable substitute for conventional energy sources. Green energy, for example, will need to overcome a phenomenon that experts have dubbed the duck curve, a term originally coined by the California Independent System Operator in 2012. The Duck Curve illustrates the incongruity between daily peak energy demand and daily peak renewable energy output. Sources like solar power, for example, tend to generate the highest power output during the daytime—when many consumers are at work or school. In California, energy demand typically peaks around 8 p.m., when sources like solar are no longer generating output. This presents a major problem—how can our cities rely on energy sources with unevenly distributed outputs?
The startup sector is actively pursuing solutions to this problem. The most promising of these solutions, according to Stiegler, is grid scale energy storage, in which electrical energy is stored during times when it is plentiful and inexpensive, or when demand is low, and later returned to the grid when demand is high, and prices tend to be higher.
“If we wish to elevate renewable energy sources to a position of global prominence, we’ll need to invest in cost-effective grid scale energy storage to overcome hurdles like the Duck Curve,” said Stiegler. “When it comes to green energy, startups are operating at the technological forefront, looking for ways to harness innovation to make these sources more efficient, accessible, and cost-effective.”
Stiegler pointed one firm in particular that stands out for its inventive solution – Energy Vault, named one of World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers of 2020. When a solar farm produces extra electricity during the day, Energy Vault’s specially designed giant cranes use that energy to lift and stack large blocks–recycled from waste material–storing energy through the elevation gain. Later, when more energy is needed, proprietary software lowers the bricks, converting potential energy to electrical energy, which is then sent to the grid.
When combined with solar or wind, Energy Vault’s concept is less expensive than even the cheapest fossil-fuel power plants, said Stiegler.
“Unlike hydro-storage, Energy Vault’s technology can be built anywhere, has a low environmental impact and the cost of storage is highly competitive,” he said.
As we look to a post-COVID future, Stiegler believes we will need to seek green solutions that utilize innovative technologies without breaking the bottom line.
An entrepreneur and venture capitalist who co-founded multiple tech startups, Stiegler knows firsthand how strategic investment can help revolutionize burgeoning fields. His ventures span fintech, real estate, education, and he is now devoted to finding pioneering solutions to social problems like green energy production.
“We are investing in technology offering grid scale energy storage solutions that are at least 10 times more cost effective on a $/KW basis and with less environmental impact than existing solutions,” Stiegler said. “I am keeping my eyes open for firms that can achieve this.”