Horizon scanning: Six innovations set to shake-up sustainability in 2018

Following a year of steady progress for the green economy, edie scans the horizons to highlight six key areas where innovation could make big strides in 2018.

While keeping one eye on the present, edie has scanned the horizons to identify six broad innovation areas that could be set to ignite in 2018

While keeping one eye on the present, edie has scanned the horizons to identify six broad innovation areas that could be set to ignite in 2018

Following the regulatory ‘chop and change’ approach of 2016, last year was relatively steady and consistent as nations and businesses continued their low-carbon evolution. One constant in 2017 was edie’s green innovations of the week, which showcased promising and potentially revolutionary ideas and devices that could streamline sustainability in the future.

But following a year of record-low prices for renewables, the disruption of the transport and energy markets and the focus on the plastics problem, 2018 will likely usher in new ideas, systems and companies that could address key societal and global issues.

While keeping one eye on the present, edie has scanned the horizons to identify six broad innovation areas that could be set to ignite in 2018.

Deepsea windfarms

Wind energy is an established renewable energy source, but that hasn’t stopped the innovators from attempting to harness its potential out at deeper seas. The world's first floating windfarm started delivering electricity to the Scottish power grid in October 2017, utilising an innovative battery storage system to provide power for around 20,000 households.

Located 25km offshore of Peterhead in Aberdeenshire, the 30MW project - operated by Statoil in partnership with Masdar - is expected to generate around 135GWh of renewable electricity annually.

The concept of floating windfarms, which use mooring lines to keep turbines upright, looks set to open up new opportunities in the Atlantic and Mediterranean ocean, while Statoil is currently talking with state governments in Hawaii and California and with representatives in Japan and Seoul about future projects.

Dutch grid operator TenneT wants to take the concept of floating farms one step further. The company recently unveiled plans to surround an artificial island in the North Sea with windfarms. The company released a study highlighting how the windfarm island could be billions of pounds cheaper than conventional windfarms and power cables. The abundance of deep sea potential, as well as other innovative sea-based systems such as tidal stream energy, could make big waves in 2018.

Low-carbon jet fuel

When it comes to reducing emissions, the transport sector is lagging. While travel of the four-wheeled variety is shifting away from a reliance on petrol and diesel, a global deal on aviation was left out of the Paris Agreement. The sector has since come together to form its own global deal, but success will likely depend on the development and accelerated uptake of low-carbon fuel.

Developments in this area are being trialled in the sector, but it is a collaborative approach with another carbon-intensive industry that is causing the most optimism. LanzaTech is one company that is forming partnerships with steel companies, including China Baowu Steel Group and Shougang Steel to create a fuel that offers up to 70% reductions in emissions.

Scientists are now able to create jet fuel with microbes that transform carbon to ethanol – a lower-carbon aviation fuel that has the potential to meet one-fifth of the aviation industry’s global needs. Around 150 million tonnes of CO2 emissions could be cut globally if gases from the steel industry were used to manufacture ethanol.

LanzaTech is already supplying the fuel to Virgin Atlantic, while the world’s largest steel maker ArcelorMittal is creating an €87m pilot plant at its steel facility in Ghent, Belgium to create the ethanol fuel mix commercially. Reports suggest that for every tonne of ethanol produced, carbon emissions could be cut by 2.3 tonnes.

Bio-based plastics

Plastics had their “diesel moment” in 2017. The villainization of the combustion engine paved the way for the rise in electric vehicles (EVs), and a similar process is underway regarding plastics. High-profile coverage driven by Blue Planet II has showed the world the insidious harm that discarded plastics are causing, and while governments and businesses take small steps attempting to shape the resource into the circular economy, short-term replacements are needed.

Currently, bio-based plastics account for less than 1% of global plastics production. Demand is being driven a high level through the likes of Coca-Cola (which wants to increase its bio-based material use from 30% to 100% in the future).

In 2009, Coca-Cola became the first beverage company to introduce PlantBottle, a plant-based bottle package, with more than 40 billion rolled-out into circulation across 40 countries – a feat which the company claims has eliminated 365,000 tonnes of carbon. Since then, the company has launched a second version of that bottle, which is made from 100% plant-based bioethonal plastic.

Elsewhere, furniture retailer IKEA is itself eyeing up a new range of alternate polystyrene packaging – which takes longer than conventional plastic to decompose. The company is trialling mushroom-based packaging from New York-based Ecovative, which can decompose naturally in a matter of weeks. With numerous high-profile companies onboard already, expect edie’s weekly innovation round-ups to be littered (pun intended) with bio-based solutions.

Hydrogen transport

If 2017 was the year of the electric vehicle, then 2018 may well act as a window of opportunity for hydrogen fuel cells. A wave of optimism and a plethora of zero-emission options have swept across the transport sector, but as we uncover more about the costs and infrastructure requirements of the EV revolution, will hydrogen stake its claim in the market?

In 2017, numerous stories emerged, all suggesting that companies with one eye on the horizon view hydrogen technology as a viable piece of the low-carbon jigsaw puzzle. South Korean motor company Hyundai unveiled a hydrogen vehicle concept – set to go on sale this year - as one of the 14 new “environmentally focused” vehicles to be introduced by 2020.

Hyundai is part of the Hydrogen Council, which will pledge $10.7bn towards hydrogen projects over the next five years. Oil giant shell is another council member and launched three of the UK’s first fully-branded hydrogen refuelling stations in recent months.

At a more innovative level, British manufacturer CGON launched new hydrogen additive technology that can reportedly reduce engine emissions by as much as 80% and offer up to a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency in vehicles. With fuel cell shipments growing by two-thirds in recent years, 2018 could be the year the hydrogen mirrors the EV explosion of the last two years.

Virtual Power Plants

Technology is making its mark on the energy market. Renewables have integrated into grid mixes and the rise in battery technology means firms can now store generated and surplus energy. Global energy storage and renewables integration (ESRI) will be worth more than $23bn by 2026 and enhanced cloud-based technology could create even bigger benefits.

Virtual Power Plants are cloud-based control systems that use production data from distributed energy resources such as solar systems and battery storage systems using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors. Once the data has been collected, Virtual Power Plants can manage a reliable power supply and choose times to feed the power to communities or grids.

According to P&S Market Research, the global potential for these systems could reach nearly $1.2bn by 2023 and the UK Government is keen to be at the forefront of this growth. Battery developers Moixa secured government funding to expand its flexible energy platform that transforms third-party batteries and electric vehicles (EVs) into "virtual power plants".

The largest portfolio of energy storage in the UK is set to be up and running by the end of this year, as renewable energy provider Anesco announced proposals to bring 185MW of energy onto the grid. Big data analytics start-up LimeJump will commercially operate the scheme, which will join a wide range of storage projects already operating within Limejump’s Virtual Power Plant. Expect more announcements as the year rolls on.

Blockchain

Blockchain is considered the world’s most secure digital ledger, and people around the world are finally beginning to understand its potential. At COP23 last November, the UN’s Hack4Climate event called on international developers to focuse on the five main ways blockchain is influencing the environmental field: identification & tracking of emissions, carbon pricing, sustainable land use, sustainable transport, and distributed energy.

The technology is of interest to the UN and the business community, because it has the capability to automate transactions. Acting as a digital ledger, blockchain creates a verifiable audit trail that can be used for any transaction, and this is where its impact on sustainability begins to take shape. Blockchain can be implemented – and in some cases, is already used – across numerous sectors, from forestry and fisheries to carbon accounting and energy.

In 2017, companies such as Nestlé, Unilever and Walmart agreed to work with IBM to explore how the global food supply chain can benefit from blockchain technology. Sainsbury’s and Unilever are also trialling the technology to improve sustainable farming practices in their supply chains. There’s even a plastic offset scheme being driven by the transparency of the technology.

Blockchain still has technological barriers to hurdle, but it is ingrained into markets to point where it is here to stay – from identifying blood diamonds to sourcing sustainable timber. Last year saw numerous blockchain ventures commence in the energy sector, and it is very apparent that 2018 will create a similar buzz for the technology across a variety of sectors.

Matt Mace


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green innovation | technology

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Technology & innovation
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