Cleantech Trends to Keep an Eye on

As the world tries to look beyond the pandemic and take a breather following heated COP26 debates, a heighted sense of urgency has taken shape. Nations across the world see the 2020s as a pivotal decade for the transition to net-zero, and while most of the required technologies are available to scale-up, accelerating innovation will be a crucial aspect in the coming years. In this article, we will share the energy and waste innovations that will be integral to scale-up over the coming years, and which parts of the globe have the highest demand for them.

Windmills and Solar Power

The Energy Innovations to Watch this Decade

As we move deeper into the decade, rapid deployment of clean energy technologies is essential for nations to reach 2030 decarbonization goals. Understanding this urgency, the energy sector is seeing renewed interested from both private and public investors in "hard-tech" technologies which have been difficult to commercialise. The European Union has set a 2030 reduction target of 55% compared to 1990 levels and is looking to rapidly drive deployment efforts around renewable energy, energy storage and energy efficiency.

Over the next few years, we will see a range of clean energy technologies moving to the front lines of national decarbonization efforts:

  1. In the clean power generation market, the 80% of the world’s offshore wind resource potential that exists in waters deeper than 60 metres remains largely untapped. After a decade of pilots and demos, deep-water wind is looking to move to the scale-up phase. EU-based innovators including BW Ideol, Principle Power and Hexicon are all looking for gigawatt scale-up this decade. By 2035, 11–25% of all new offshore projects globally will feature floating foundations.
  2. As more countries rely on renewables, power grid volatility is becoming a concern. Energy storage systems, able to provide power buffers for over 8 hours at a time, will become integral. Companies such as Energy Vault who are developing gravity-based storage systems using stacked concrete blocks, can provide both short (2-4 hours) and long (4-12+ hours) energy storage durations for power grids. While batteries will be an essential component of the future energy system, other storage technologies such as these will be essential.
  3. From heating systems to building insulation, cleaning up demand-side efficiency measures is vital. According to the IEA, global improvements in energy efficiency have been declining since 2015. Covid-19 added to the problem, meaning improvements remain under the level needed to achieve global climate goals. Given energy efficiency will deliver more than 40% of the reduction in energy-related emissions over the next 20 years, innovative technologies will be vital. District heating (ExerGo), waste-heat recovery (GreenTEG) and efficient lighting (LEDCity) are just a few examples of what is needed.

By 2030, a large portion of the European Union’s emissions reduction can be achieved with rapid deployment of renewables, energy storage and energy efficiency solutions. Demand-side efficiency measures, circularity in energy as well as clean hydrogen will also heavily contribute. Locations experiencing the impact of fast renewable deployments are also experiencing the need for innovative technologies. Areas such as California, Australia and the United Kingdom, while ahead globally in terms of renewable deployments, already have to curtail clean energy supply, driving the need for better means of long-duration storage and better system control.

The Waste Innovations to Watch this Decade

Due to growing population, economic growth, and urbanization, global waste production has increased dramatically over the last few decades with no signs of slowing. By 2030 it is expected municipal solid waste production will increase by 70% to 3.4 billion metric tons. By very conservative World Bank estimates, less than 33% of waste isn’t managed in an environmentally safe way, often being burnt or causing pollution. However, the low value attributed to waste and the convenience and cost of landfill sees 37% of waste disposed in landfill. Decomposing waste produces methane which is about 25 times more harmful than CO2. For countries and companies to reduce their emissions they also need to reduce waste. As such, waste strategies are critical to decarbonization efforts.

Innovation is helping to improve the efficiency of waste collection, sorting and recycling via digital tools, automation, and advanced recycling techniques. Waste also presents an opportunity: circular economy concepts and business models like reuse, rental and repair keeps materials in use for longer, out of landfill and can help retain the three trillion dollars of value lost to waste each year. For the world to realise sustainability goals and resource efficiency many technologies will need to rapidly scale:

  1. In 2018 China’s waste export ban came into place. Previously the world’s major waste sorter and recycler, China started to decline dirty exports which would often end up in landfill. Other developing economies have followed suit since. In January 2021, the EU legislated that nation states couldn’t export unsorted plastic waste. As such, waste has become a cost rather than a money earner for companies and has encouraged investment into domestic sorting and recycling infrastructure. Companies such as DePoly, a developer of chemical recycling technology for PET, continue to gain investment for pilot plants and partnerships with corporates to supply recycled plastics.
  2. Consumer demand for plastic free products is driving the market for packaging free or biodegradable consumer items. Additionally, July 2021 saw the EU’s single-use plastic ban come into effect which bans making items like cotton buds and straws on the EU market. Similar bans have taken effect in China as of January 2021 and India in August 2021. This has further driven the market for alternatives for these items. For example, Swiss innovator Lyfa, provide waste-free consumer products delivered at home in reusable packaging.
  3. Extended producer responsibility regulations from the EU Plastics Directive will transfer the cost of disposal away from the taxpayer to corporations which produce the materials which end up as waste. As such, corporates are incentivized to reduce their plastic use and track their efforts. For example, Matriq have developed a watermark technology for plastic products to track them through supply chains and end of life.

To avoid and manage the expected 70% increase in waste by 2030 these technologies need to be rapidly scaled. Regulations like the EU Plastic Directive have huge market influence and will be transformative for the EU waste system. The real impact of these will be realized in the coming years as planned efforts are ratcheted up with the EU’s 70% recycling target by 2030. Action on plastic and demand for alternatives is also strong in North America and increased government funding for recycling innovation is being made available in countries with high waste production including USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In Asia these consumer drivers are weak, but as communities develop, many are looking to technologically leapfrog by investing in automated sorting or advanced recycling infrastructure. Additionally, Asia is poised to be the bioplastics hub of the world with an expected 27% CAGR due to the size of its manufacturing sector, supportive policies, and large amount of feedstock in the region.

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