A modern oracle

Antoni Martínez explains why now more than ever, we need the best and brightest minds to create technology thattransforms power generation

For 1200 years, the great and the good of Ancient Greece visited the oracle at Delphi for advice on everything from their personal lives to affairs of the state. In a trance, the Sybil would speak on behalf of the sun god Apollo, answering questions, giving orders, and making prophecies.

According to legend, and more recently confirmed by Hellenic scholars, the source of the oracle’s power was not a direct hotline to Mt Olympus, but a so-called vapour – probably ethylene – that escaped from fissures in the rocks and, in the words of Plutarch ‘polluted the earth’.

Today, predicting the future is a little more prosaic: sacrificial goats and prayers to the gods have been replaced by data analytics and sophisticated modelling. But conversely the impact of harmful gases has now become a global issue, with countries all around the world suffering from the impact of global warming.

The path to securing a sustainable future is not always a straightforward one. We are not blessed with the assistance of an oracle, so how can the energy ecosystem – encompassing start-ups, industry, researches, and venture capitalists – best understand where to focus their efforts, and harness the ideas that stand the best chance of success?

Global energy context
The importance of a stable and secure energy supply to continued international economic development cannot be understated. As the world nears a population of eight billion, at a rate previously unthinkable, the pressure is starting to show. What few natural resources are left will soon run out, once abundant energy supplies in many parts of the world are depleting and the environmental impact is being felt by us all.

But at the same time, the world is in flux. There are many factors at play when it comes to investing in ideas that will shape the sustainable future of tomorrow. The tumultuous international political scene, financial instability, and budget constraints; as well as grid availability and the nuances of country-specific regulation all help to muddy the waters.

With global energy demand projected to increase over the coming decades, particularly from emerging economies such as India and China, there is a need to lift our sights and take a longer-term view, creating a reliable, affordable, and clean energy supply that is largely resilient to these unpredictable variations.

Crucially, not one technology provides the overall answer, especially as each has its own energy-generating characteristics; instead, a diverse energy mix is the best approach.

The cost of innovation
Sustainable technologies are gaining ground with an energy transition that is widely supported, and indeed incentivised, albeit in smaller and smaller sums, by governments worldwide.

However, despite the clear demand for and benefit of innovation, the cost of is high, it is hard to predict, and the route to market is often laborious with funding hard to access. But innovation is critical to achieving the sustainable energy future that global society demands. This dynamic must change to ensure that the benefits of innovation in sustainable technologies are realised quicker, and with fewer bumps in the road.

Now, it is imperative that innovation happens to transcend the challenges faced by the renewables sector, such as high development and deployment costs; infrastructural availability; and the length of planning and approval processes. Government incentivisation and favourable policy, coupled with cross-industry and border collaboration, is crucial; yet long-term success depends on the ability of these innovations to attract investment from both equity and debt sources. Doing that will make it easier to bring viable, efficient and powerful innovations to market quickly; and it is achieved through an improved prediction of the cost of innovation to prioritise development efforts, and drive down the cost of energy.

The lower the levelised cost of energy (LCOE), the lifetime cost of a technology per unit of energy generated, the better the potential of a project, and the more likely a product is to attract funding for development, build and deployment.

Enabling Innovation
Innovation does not discriminate. Inspirational ideas for technology that truly make a difference are just as likely to come from individual entrepreneurs, SMEs an component manufacturers as they are from governments, major utility companies and multi-nationals.

For years, these established, large organisations have been using their own in-house predictive models to provide greater visibility of the impact their technology has on the LCOE, thereby clearly demonstrating the return on investment to attract funding, prioritise research and development efforts and, for policymakers, understand the required role and reach of future incentives.

However, these tools are simply out of reach for individuals, start-ups or smaller businesses. If we allow this to continue, who knows what great ideas and inspirational approaches, to our detriment, will remain untapped.

We need an accessible, collaborative approach to channel that expertise; one that makes it easier to identify which technologies we should prioritise for development and one that consistently demonstrates the impact of the innovation on the LCOE, helping to attract investment and shape policy.

Delphos – predicting the future for renewable energy
Our focus is on enabling innovators to do what they do best – creating new and exciting models that could potentially revolutionise the future of sustainable energy. And to help that happen, we’ve launched Delphos – an online tool inspired by the Oracle at Delphi – which allows inventors and innovators to see into the future.

Simply put, it makes it easier for those innovating in on and offshore wind, as well as solar power, to better demonstrate a product’s impact on the cost of energy. By having sight of what the future may look like, we can help them to secure funding and investment, and in turn, speed up the development process and market availability.

By providing a series of cost models and datasets to analyse the impact of technologies on the future cost of energy, Delphos can enable the research community, industry, policymakers, investors and students to make informed financial or comparative decisions on specific technologies and the role of innovation in the sector.

Users can input their own data to run specific scenarios. Delphos, currently being used by the UK’s Carbon Trust, also takes into account the product’s marketability and considers real-world effects to ensure a realistic LCOE prediction.

Against the backdrop of a volatile geopolitical and financial scene, an international desire to mitigate the effects of climate change and increasingly complex hydrocarbon extraction, we are becoming less reliant on fossil fuels. Yet, we need to generate more energy to meet predicted future demand. The solution rests on the shoulders of the innovators.

More innovation can reduce the overall cost of energy, yet the means to easily predict specific technology’s impact on the cost of energy, to attract investment and bring powerful technologies to market quickly, has until now been out of reach for many of these entrepreneurs. The predictive powers of the Oracle at Delphi have never been more in demand.

So those that didn’t previously have access to the ability to predict their LCOE, now have free online access to the powers of Delphos. This goes someway to giving SMEs, government, component manufacturers and research organisations the tools they need to bring innovations to market – by enabling and inspiring the relentless pursuit of innovation.

KIC InnoEnergy
Antoni Martínez is Chief Technology Officer Renewable Energy, KIC InnoEnergy. KIC InnoEnergy, founded in 2010, is the European company promoting innovation, entrepreneurship and education in sustainable energy. Supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT), and top players in the European energy industry sector, KIC InnoEnergy’s aim is to make a positive impact on the sustainable energy field. To achieve this goal, the company develops Master’s and PhD programmes, supports innovation by bringing innovative products and services to the market, and helps create successful start-ups.

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Issue 125 October 2015