The Future: It's Electrifying!
By Kate Bartlett and Emma Foster
Load shedding. That’s what large parts of the world call scheduled electricity cuts. In countries like South Africa it’s so routine, that the state power utility has launched an app to tell you when and for how long to expect to be in the dark — so you know whether to cook dinner early! South Africa, like much of the wider world, looks set to benefit from the global movement away from fossil fuels to clean sources of electrification.
In today’s Sunday Magazine, you’ll learn about one organization that’s doing exactly that. We also look at how solar is taking the rest of the world by storm, from the rise of electric cars in the U.S., to e-rickshaws in Bangladesh, to floating solar panel farms in Singapore and Japan’s ambitious plan to install solar panels on the roof of every home. This is certainly solar electricity’s moment in the sun.
a new solar system
Earlier this month, the Southeast Asian city-state of Singapore unveiled one of the world’s largest floating solar farms: 122,000 panels spanning an area the size of 45 soccer fields. The game-changing, government-run project could reduce annual carbon emissions by about 32 kilotons while quadrupling solar energy production by 2025. The project will produce enough power to run Singapore’s five water treatment plants. Pivoting from its oil-refining past, with Royal Dutch Shell recently halving capacity there, Singapore is looking to a greener future by positioning itself as a regional hub for carbon trading and sustainable development services.
Australia’s ‘Sun Tax’
It’s pretty bright Down Under and almost 3 million (out of 8.3 million) Australian households now boast solar panels, a number that’s expected to double over the next decade. By 2025, the new head of the Australian Energy Market Operator wants the electricity grids to be able to run on 100% renewable energy. But now some Australians say they’re being punished for doing good. Homes with solar panels whose owners export excess electricity onto the public grid could be taxed in an attempt to prevent electricity “traffic jams.” Authorities say it’s a fair move, but some environmentalists argue homeowners should be rewarded, not penalized, for the clean energy they provide.
South Africa’s Solar Shacks
In South Africa, huge numbers of people who live in informal settlements — shacks made from cardboard and tin and erected on any available land — are still living in the dark. One project, Energy 4 Wellbeing, is turning on the lights in the Qandu-Qandu informal settlement in Cape Town by providing solar minigrids. “There’s no running water, no electricity and it’s on a wetland. Most people are unemployed . . . it is dirt-poor,” Jiska de Groot, a clean energy expert at the University of Cape Town, tells OZY. De Groot’s team is now building solar towers and connecting them to the shacks. With three towers built so far, residents have lighting at night and can charge their phones, although refrigeration, which requires more energy, is still a problem. Having won last year’s Newton Prize for her work on urban energy transformations, de Groot and colleagues are now working on a new project on solar-powered fridges. The response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive, she says, especially because solar energy is safe. Previously, some shacks were illegally connected to the electricity grid, leading to fires and electrocutions.
Land of the Rising Sun
Japan already leads the world in solar capacity per square meter. Now, in order to meet its ambitious 2030 emissions target (reducing its 2013 rate of carbon output by 46%), the roof of every building could be fitted with solar panels. The country, which is about the size of California, plans to have 108 gigawatts of solar capacity online within a decade. How? Half of all federal government and municipal buildings will be fitted with solar panels, while many office buildings and most farms will be required to have solar capacity. But that’s not all: The nation’s trade ministry also says every house and apartment built after 2040 must have at least one solar panel, with countries such as South Korea set to do similarly.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Even as manufacturing in this city and across the Rust Belt collapsed over the past several decades, the U.S. found itself the largest importer of lithium-ion batteries, the power source for electric vehicles. President Joe Biden has set the target of achieving a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035, but doing so would require a solar energy workforce four times its current size — some 231,000 people. If Biden’s American Jobs Plan is passed, it could create a million jobs in renewable energies. The U.S. president has also proposed investing $174 billion to take on China in the electric vehicle (EV) market. That investment would help U.S.-based auto manufacturers to produce the vehicles, establish tax incentives for car buyers and build a national network of EV chargers. The plan also proposes electrifying 20% of school buses and the federal fleet, including U.S. Postal Service vehicles.
recharge your batteries
While lithium-ion technology is a step forward compared to the lead-acid batteries of the past, complaints have persisted around the batteries’ durability, transportation difficulties and prohibitive cost. Although prices have fallen by 98% over the past three decades, the batteries are still a major factor contributing to higher prices of EVs. Why? The cathodes in lithium-ion batteries require metals such as nickel, lithium, cobalt and manganese to store maximum amounts of energy. Not only are these metals expensive to mine, they are environmentally costly and ethically questionable. Congolese cobalt mines linked to some EV companies have been exposed for using child labor.
Green and Clean
New developments in the world of lithium mining aim to solve some of these issues. Currently, lithium is extracted largely through hard rock mining and from underground reservoirs, processes that can result in serious negative environmental impacts such as contaminated waterways and soil. But that could change very soon. Recently in Germany, California and England, high-grade lithium deposits have been found in geothermal waters. Extracting lithium from these waters is projected to use less water and land and emit less carbon. Could green lithium be the future of battery tech?
Solid-state lithium batteries could become an important, nay revolutionary, successor to the liquid-based lithium equivalents used to power vehicles today. Rather than depending on the latter’s toxic, often highly flammable liquid electrolyte, solid-state batteries employ a solid electrolyte, which eliminates the need for a cooling element. It also optimizes energy-storing capabilities and battery life. These futuristic batteries could potentially bring down manufacturing costs, making electric vehicles cheaper for customers. Several manufacturers are chasing this holy grail of battery tech — researchers at Cuberg in Silicon Valley, Saft R&D and Harvard University are all working on designing and developing solid-state batteries.
So who’s dominating the battery industry? China makes the most lithium-ion batteries in the world, with 93 factories compared to four in the U.S. China also manufactures the most solar panels, contributing 80% of the global supply in 2019. Furthermore, the country has one of the largest solar farms in the world, located in Qinghai province. “But buying Chinese solar panels to reduce emissions is like using gas to put out a fire,” writes Henry Wu, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security think tank. Why? Because to make the raw materials needed to produce the panels, China uses coal-powered electricity. But that’s not even the biggest problem — there are human rights issues too. Last month, the U.S. blocked some Chinese manufacturers of the raw material polysilicon, used in building solar panels, due to allegations the companies were using forced labor. Wu suggests the U.S. should look at changing its supply chains to European producers to avoid reliance on China and to expand its domestic supply of renewables.
mustang sally goes electric
No Greased Lightning!
Now, as concerns over fossil fuel use and climate change take center stage globally, car manufacturers have decided that electric vehicles are the future. Classic American motor brand Ford, for instance, plans to roll out the F-150 Lightning pickup truck next year. And ol’ Mustang Sally’s gone electric too: Ford’s Mustang Mach-E was named this year’s North American Utility Vehicle of the Year, bringing its iconic design into the carbon-free age. It can be charged super fast and has an extended range battery so you can go the extra mile.
A Lightbulb Moment
The idea of electric vehicles has been around for some time. The invention of the alternating current motor in the late 19th century even saw some claim to have conceived of a car that ran on “cosmic rays” — though that story is disputed. The real game-changer in making mass-manufactured electric vehicles a reality is the lithium-ion battery. Without them, we wouldn’t even have modern devices such as smartphones. The battery, invented by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Stanley Whittingham in the 1970s, has decades later proved revolutionary for the electric vehicle world: It boasts a greater energy output and weighs less than its lead-acid counterpart. Since the 1970s, Whittingham’s invention has been refined by numerous other scientists who have made versions of the battery that are safer and more practical.
If you’ve ever visited Southeast Asian capitals such as Bangkok or Jakarta, you’ll have been struck — though hopefully only figuratively — by the huge number of tuk-tuks, motorbikes and rickshaws plowing through the streets. As ever more people in the region move to urban areas and a growing middle class enjoys greater purchasing power for privately owned vehicles, governments are finding that they need to reimagine urban transport systems in order to meet emissions targets. Thailand is one country looking to position itself as an electric vehicle hub, with electric ferries recently launched on Bangkok’s aquatic thoroughfare, the Chao Phraya River. Meanwhile, a team of designers and experts from the Asian Development Bank have helped roll out e-rickshaws, or pedicabs, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in a bid to establish a sustainable source of transport.
Formula E Racing
One of the biggest gripes with electric motors centered for years on power. No longer: Though the Formula E motorsport was seen as counterintuitive and even a lesser form of entertainment by petrolheads when it first held races in 2014, as the electric car market revs up, it’s only natural that the racing world has started to follow suit. Technological advances mean batteries can power cars for longer race periods, which in turn leads to a more thrilling sporting spectacle. Formula 1, the marquee international motorsports competition, has itself put forward an ambitious plan to become more sustainable via a net-zero racing emissions impact by 2030.
what’s next for charger installations?
From the Sun’s Rays to Your Car Engine
Still, a battery is a battery, meaning someday, whether in your neighborhood or out on the open road, it will run out and need to be recharged. But here’s a cool, clean solution: Solar power could become the cheapest and most eco-friendly way to charge an electric vehicle, even at home. While you’ll need to add extra solar panels to your residential system (experts estimate on average eight to 14 solar panels are needed to power an EV), the cost benefit of charging from home far outweighs the initial outlay. Alternatively, using electricity from the grid to charge your EV can be twice as expensive as going the solar route. Not to mention, it’s worse for the environment.
From the Sun’s Rays to Your Car Engine
Still, a battery is a battery, meaning someday, whether in your neighborhood or out on the open road, it will run out and need to be recharged. But here’s a cool, clean solution: Solar power could become the cheapest and most eco-friendly way to charge an electric vehicle, even at home. While you’ll need to add extra solar panels to your residential system (experts estimate on average eight to 14 solar panels are needed to power an EV), the convenience of charging from home could eventually outweigh the initial outlay. Using electricity from the grid to charge your EV, over time, can be more expensive than going the solar route. Not to mention, it’s worse for the environment.
On the Road
EVs may be the future of ground transportation, but for people living in rural areas — as one in five Americans do — the choice isn’t yet so clear-cut. For the most part, charging stations are concentrated in urban areas and along interstate routes, and while today there are more than 100,000 across the country, six years ago there were just 16,000. Huge changes, however, are in the works: President Biden’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan includes building a nationwide network of EV charging stations that will number at least 500,000 by 2030.
But will that suffice? California Gov. Gavin Newsom is set to ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. As a result, the California Energy Commission reports the Golden State will need 1.2 million EV charging stations by 2030 to support the expected surge in electric car ownership. And California isn’t the only one set to implement major change. Electric automaker Rivian is planning to install chargers in all 56 of Tennessee’s state parks and in rural areas of Colorado, while other manufacturers are set to open charging stations to electric vehicles of all stripes.