The world is changing fast — we are in the middle of a silent renewable energy revolution and builders need to understand these quiet but disruptive changes in order to ride the wave of change without being swamped by it.
Production of renewable energy from wind and solar is growing as costs are falling. In most locations, it is less expensive for utilities to build new renewable plants than to build a coal-fired power plant and often it’s cheaper than natural gas. Homeowners are increasingly installing solar panels and batteries, and purchasing electric vehicles, as prices continue to decline. Innovations are in development that will speed progress to an all-electric, carbon-free, renewable energy-based economy. How will these innovations affect builders? How should builders prepare?
Cheaper, More Efficient Solar Panels
Current silicon-based solar panels have a maximum of 23% efficiency with a theoretical maximum of 30%. Perovskite-based panels have a current maximum efficiency of 25% with a potential of 40%. Perovskite is easy to manufacture, uses readily available raw materials, has a much quicker energy payback than silicon cells, has a smaller environmental footprint, is easily scalable, and once in large-scale production may cost 50% less than silicon panels.
Perovskite solar panels, soon to be on the market, will be a game changer because they are more efficient, will become less expensive, and will be more effective on east- and west-facing rooftops. The combination of lower cost and the ability to be cost effectively installed on a variety of roof orientations will lead to a new surge in solar installations for buildings, vehicles, and utilities. . These technologies will make zero energy, zero carbon, and positive energy homes more cost effective and enjoy higher consumer demand. Buyers who are not ready for zero energy homes can purchase zero energy ready homes knowing that when lower cost solar panels become available and affordable, the homes can easily be upgraded to zero energy.
On-Site Energy Storage
The price of lithium ion batteries is coming down and there is considerable research on improving the safety, energy density, capacity, and cost of lithium ion battery technology — including a gel polymer system. And this month Tesla announced a variety of battery and manufacturing process improvements and increases in scale that could reduce the cost of lithium utility storage batteries by about 50% per kilowatt-hour within three years — although it will likely take longer.
On-site storage will become mainstream as prices drop and as homes and businesses become part of an integrated, distributed grid, helping to satisfy peak energy demand in the evening with peak solar production from midday. On-site storage also provides a huge benefit as a backup source of power, especially in times of floods, wildfires, wind events, and routine power outages.
Utility-Scale Storage Supports a Renewable Grid
Since renewable energy sources are intermittent, it’s essential for utilities to store energy for peak use hours to achieve an effective grid-based on renewable energy. A wide variety of innovations in storage technology that are gradually coming to the market, including Tesla’s improved lithium battery, will provide long-term, low-cost energy storage for utilities. This improved storage capacity will unleash the power of renewables to outperform and underprice fossil-fuel-generated electricity to the point that renewables will replace fossil fuels as the primary energy source for utility power.
Distributed Energy Will Speed the Transition to Renewable Grids
Distributed energy systems, also called virtual power plants, will speed the transition to an all- renewable grid. These systems aggregate energy produced by hundreds or thousands of individual energy sources, from rooftop solar panels, wind generators, hydro, and behind-the-meter batteries. Through advanced controls, this energy can be dispatched to the grid when and where needed, as if it were a large stationary electricity generator.
Distributed energy systems often use block chain technology, which integrates and manages a wide variety of production and storage systems. It can modulate home and business energy use, storage, and vehicle charging through smart meters, and integrate it with centralized power plant production and grid storage to support all-renewable energy grids. Block chain systems, such as PowerLedger, will link micro and macro renewable energy production and consumption through a trading platform. Businesses, homes, and utilities will be able to share energy peer to peer or sell it to local or national energy markets. Block chain pilot projects have been established by utilities around the world, and several virtual power plant projects are already underway.
All-Electric Homes from Renewable Electricity
Building all-electric homes is one of the simplest ways builders can prepare for this future. As the grid provides increasing amounts of lower cost renewable energy, all-electric homes will substantially lower carbon emissions and reduce homeowner energy costs. Building all-electric homes with energy efficient heat pump HVAC, heat pump water heaters, and fast induction stove tops will become imperative for builders who want to build homes that consumers want and our climate needs. And zero energy homes built today will, as the grid uses more renewable energy, become zero carbon or carbon positive homes capable of powering electric vehicles (EVs). Homes powered and heated by fossil fuels will soon be discounted in the marketplace.
More Efficient Electric Vehicles
Yamaha motors is producing a smaller more efficient electric motor that will allow more space for batteries and better performance at a lower cost. These motors can independently power each wheel, for two- or four-wheel-drive vehicles, and are adaptable to all types of EVs from motorcycles to large SUVs. They will likely be appearing in Toyota, Lexus, and Subaru vehicles as early as 2021. More efficient, better performing, off-the-shelf, electric motors that can be used in a wide variety of vehicle designs will spur the adoption of EVs and the shift to a renewable-energy-based transportation system.
With its battery improvements, Tesla hopes to reach a $25,000 list price for future Model 3s — making the purchase price comparable with internal combustion vehicles (ICE) and making the total cost of ownership even lower. With lower cost and longer range, EVs will become the transportation of choice, so all homes should be pre-fitted with Level 2 EV electric charger capability. Builders and designers should build positive energy homes with enough renewable energy to power both the homes and the family vehicles.
How Builders Can Join the Renewable Revolution
Lower cost solar, lower cost home battery storage, and lower cost EVs, combined with intelligent decentralized grid integration and management will place zero and positive energy homes and buildings at the center of the low- carbon economy that is unfolding fast. Today, the construction industry is churning out thousands of homes that will be “energy obsolete” within a few years. Instead, builders and the industry should build every home today so that it has a place in the coming low-carbon economy. Go for full-on positive energy, with on-site solar, battery storage, grid-integration, and EV chargers whenever possible. If those steps seem out of reach, then build each home to be zero energy ready, all-electric, and designed to easily integrate home battery storage and EV charging. The future is almost here. Every home built today should be ready for it.