Is A Sustainable Energy Future Possible? An Analysis of Renewable Storage Technology

Serpe, Rex, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Wayland, Kent, Department of Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

With climate change rapidly spiraling out of control, balancing out our effect on the Earth and stabilizing the climate is more important than ever. In the midst of this growing problem, the overarching focus of this thesis and technical project is an exploration of renewable energy technology and how it can be used to develop a more sustainable relationship with the planet. Currently, the world is heavily reliant on a non-renewable energy system which contributes extensive pollutants and greenhouse gasses into our planet’s ecosystem. The fundamental flaw with this energy system is an imperfect method of producing energy via the combustion of fossil fuels. This energy economy has also furthered and enabled the use of combustion engines and other machines which utilize non-green fuels. Fundamentally, what is required is a transition to renewable methods of energy generation such as solar, wind, and hydroelectric. However, a significant challenge of this transition is the means of storing the energy produced by these methods. While fossil fuels can easily store the energy required to power our world, renewable methods are more volatile and require additional storage mechanisms. The engineering challenge of generating, storing, and utilizing renewable energy is explored in the technical project, while the feasibility and logistics of a planetary-scale energy infrastructure shift are explored in the thesis. The ultimate goal is a deep understanding of both the technical challenges and real world logistics associated with going green, which our species must do if we hope to inhabit the Earth much longer.
The challenge explored in the technical project was to develop a solar-powered bike radar system to notify cyclists of oncoming hazards. This required a careful implementation of solar power generation and efficient energy storage and utilization. Because the system runs on batteries and is powered only by the sun, minimizing energy consumption was a key design constraint, which provided useful real-world insight for the challenges associated with battery-powered systems. Ultimately, the team was able to produce a functional product which ran completely on solar power and effectively notified cyclists of oncoming hazards through an intuitive handlebar-mounted display. Bringing the product to a functional state involved hands-on development of hardware and firmware as well as a challenging debugging process, both of the code and the circuitry. This development cycle showed that consumer electronics with built-in energy harvesting systems are feasible for real world use, but certainly bring their own challenges and should be utilized only in necessary cases.
The STS thesis took a deep dive into the current literature on renewable energy storage technology, to determine what strategies would be most effective for an planetary-scale energy grid and what costs would be associated with transitioning. A variety of papers were analyzed, including Plebmenn et al’s work which found that a global energy storage system could be developed for a cost on the order of 5 trillion euros. Conversely, an analysis by Pickard found that roughly 13 trillion dollars would be required to transition the United States completely to renewable generation, along with an additional 28 trillion dollars of storage cost. This discrepancy highlights a key issue in the literature- vast differences in cost estimates. This stems from the fact that due to the volatility of renewable energy sources, the exact amount of storage which is required to stabilize the grid is difficult to determine. However, a key takeaway from the analysis was that given significant but feasible spending and efforts consistently over the next 50 years, a transition to a renewable energy economy is possible. Ultimately, then, it seems that whether or not humans will be able to enter a sustainable relationship with the planet is more of a social issue than a technical one.
Ultimately, the work accomplished towards this thesis and technical exploration provided valuable insight. However, it seemed at times that the one semester development cycle for the technical project limited the possible scope and complexity somewhat artificially. A project with a longer development cycle could have been accomplished with more nuance and technical rigor. Due to the logistics of the capstone course and necessity of in-depth technical reports, a disproportionately small amount of time was spent actually doing technical development, which seemed to be indicative at times of poor course planning. Still, valuable experience was gained. The process of writing the STS thesis required consumption of significant amounts of new and interesting information and led to numerous novel conclusions which were certainly worth the effort required to produce the paper. Further efforts could continue to explore ways in which to actually motivate world governments to pursue renewable technology solutions and the psychology associated with that pursuit.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Climate Change, Renewable Energy
Issued Date: