The Future of Energy

The digitization of energy

How can we get power when and where it is needed?

Soaring economic growth from countries such as China and India means that we, as a planet, are on course to increase our energy consumption at least 50% by 2030. Much of the massive growth is taking place in remote areas never before served by electricity. And at the same time, traditional sources that we've relied on for power are becoming more scarce. All of this finds us more aggressively than ever seeking new sources of energy – and new ways to transmit that power.

The race is on to find and maximize renewable energies, and innovate ways to store that power so it can be used when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, for instance. Smart grids are essential to this goal: they use software, sensors, electronic meters and the Internet to manage information so that electricity supply and demand can be handled more efficiently and deliver it when and where it's needed.

The video, article and infographic below explore the massive transformation the energy industry is going through to change the way the world is powered. The transition is significant, and will involve us making, measuring, monetizing, consuming, controlling, storing, trading, and transmitting electrical power. What role do smart grids play in this? How can the 3DEXPERIENCE platform help companies who are re-thinking the way we generate and deliver energy more efficiently collaborate and innovate?

Are we entering the age of solar?

It's 2035, and across the bright tropics and the world's deserts, huge solar arrays gather the sun's energy to generate electricity to be sent down to grids deploying newly-perfected wireless power transmission. Enough energy is stored to allow night-time power generation after sunset.

On millions of homes and offices, affordable and efficient solar panels and power-generating windows provide further smaller-scale energy generation in situ during daylight hours. People drive zero-emission cars that were developed back in the 2010s by major automakers like Audi, BMW, Toyota and Honda that run on hydrogen fuel – created using solar energy that splits waste water into hydrogen and oxygen. And as night falls, humanity gazes up at new glints amid the stars – giant orbiting solar arrays harvesting power 24/7 in the eternal sunlight of space, sent back to Earth via microwave or laser beams to giant ground receptors.

Fantasy? Far from it. The idea of solar power – and its potential to be Earth's dominant power source – has roots way back before the threat of climate change and depletion of easy to reach fossil fuels. The first solar energy cell was developed back in 1883, while writer Isaac Asimov published a 1941 story, Reason, describing a space station beaming down vast amounts of solar energy using microwave beams. US scientist Peter Glaser drew up plans in 1968 to make Asimov's dreams a reality, only to be stymied by the technological limitations of the time.

But technologies for a solar-powered world are here today, quieting critics who claim global solar power will never overcome issues over long-distance transmission from sunny to less sunny areas, or find storage solutions to allow it to carry on generating power when it gets dark.

China, for instance, is already building high-voltage power lines to spread output across its vast territory from burgeoning solar power facilities. The first three months of 2015, alone, saw the Asian giant add 5 gigawatts of solar capacity to its grid – equivalent to the entire solar supply of a major European nation like France.

Storage solutions already being used worldwide have successfully demonstrated the working of two methods. One uses solar energy to create molten salts, whose heat-retentive qualities allow them to provide the oomph to drive electricity turbines through the night. Other solar plants, meanwhile, are using the sun's rays to compress gas that is then released after dark to spin those turbines.

Look upwards

A more radical answer to issues about generating power when the sun goes down is to look to a place where it never sets – space. Both China and Japan are planning space-based solar power (SBSP) stations by 2030 that will dwarf previous projects of this kind. “An economically viable space power station would be really huge, with the total area of the solar panels reaching 5 to 6 square kilometers,” explains Wang Xiji from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

But why build power stations in space? A major reason is to tap the far higher levels of solar radiation available in space – more than 60% of the sun's energy is lost due to reflection and absorption in the Earth's atmosphere – and do it around-the-clock. “Space-based solar panels can generate ten times as much electricity as ground-based panels per unit area,” points out Chinese space engineer, Duan Baoyan.

SBSP poses huge challenges, in particular the need to ensure super-accurate transmission to avoid frying vast swathes of the Earth’s surface with an immensely powerful wandering beam. “When transmitting power by microwaves, a significant challenge is how to transmit it with pinpoint accuracy to a receiving site on the ground. Transmitting microwaves from an altitude of 36,000 km to a flat surface 3 km in diameter will be like threading a needle,” says Yasuyuki Fukumuro of Japan's JAXA space agency.

Japan's Shimizu Corporation proposes an even more startling SBSP alternative – a 400km-wide belt of solar cells around the Moon's 11,000km equator. Dubbed the Luna Ring, it could beam back enough energy to meet the world’s energy needs in a heartbeat.

Other challenges are system maintenance in the hostile environment of space and getting SBSP stations into orbit. A commercially viable space power station would likely weigh over 10,000 tonnes – yet few rockets today can carry payloads over 100 tonnes.

While creating SBSP stations poses huge challenges, they echo those faced by mankind's first ventures into space in the 1960s. Many queried the point of putting humans into space at all, and yet the technological and knowledge bonanza from meeting the challenges involved continues to reverberate through our modern world.

Ground control

But while SBSP stations provide a fantastic frontier to push technology to new limits, it’s the developments on the ground where the real potential lies. The truth is enough solar energy hits the Earth's surface – however weakened by the atmosphere – to meet humanity's power demands many times over. The 2015 Global Apollo Programme published by leading UK energy experts argued that the sun provides 5,000 times more energy to the Earth's surface than humanity currently uses.

Moreover, solar electricity has been getting steadily cheaper for years. The cost of solar panels has plunged to around 1/20th of 25 years ago, while efficiencies are rising. Current silicon-based panels convert around 20% of the sunlight falling on them to electricity – treble that of early panels; new panels based on compounds like gallium arsenide (a better electricity conductor than silicon) promise further improvement. This is despite the fact that there are inherent physical limits on the ultimate efficiency of solar panels due to various factors such as energy lost by reflection and the conductivity of materials (the Shockley-Queisser limit).

So how come only 1% of the world's electricity demands are currently supplied by solar energy? The key restraint is not technological, but political inertia driven largely by the vested interests of the giant fossil fuel businesses and a lack of proper investment, according to major reports like the Global Apollo Programme and MIT's 2015 report, The Future of Solar Energy. They show how huge global subsidies obscure the true cost of electricity generated from fossil fuels, as does a failure to add the costs of environmental and health damage they cause. 

Another reason boils down to a “mismatch between lawmakers, regulations and technological players,” according to Stéphane Declée, vice president of the Energy, Process & Utilities industry at Dassault Systèmes, a global software company.

“Our customers need to adapt to changing regulations and requirements. Using our 3DEXPERIENCE platform, solar energy players can demonstrate the viability and safety of their solutions to many different stakeholders, from regulators to financiers, from local communities to media.”

Another challenge, notes Declée, is that “with a growing share of intermittent renewable energy sources, such as solar, power generation will not always match with times of high customer demand.” The solution, according to Declée, is to develop systems that will more accurately control demand, like smart-grids, that can better balance intermittent supply with a more flexible demand, for example by storing store part of the renewable energy for use at a later time. 

Living examples

In addition to projects being run by countries like China and Japan, many companies are running innovative programs to find even more efficient and cost-effective ways to produce and store energy. Arizona's giant Solana plant is a good example of Concentrated Solar Power’s (CSP) potential to power a solar future. Its 3,000 giant mirrors focus desert rays to create super-heated water vapour that spins giant turbines, providing enough energy to run 70,000 homes. More importantly, Solana has giant tanks filled with molten salt that store enough heat during the day to run its turbines at full capacity for six hours after the sun sets. Little wonder that the number of CSP plants is set to double worldwide by 2018.

Smaller-scale technological leaps are also smoothing the way for a solar-powered future. New transparent polymer solar cells (PSCs) underpin 'solar windows' that make electricity by absorbing infrared light, while letting visible light through. "Our PSCs are lightweight, flexible and can be produced in high volume at low cost," explains Yang Yang, leader of the UCLA team that developed them. “The solar window is a game-change idea.” 

In transport, too, the game is changing. 2015 has seen the gossamer-light Solar Impulse plane making sun-powered progress around the globe, though more mainstream aviation is more likely to use the sun to make hydrogen for fuel. Electric cars powered by solar-produced hydrogen are already on the road and posting impressive figures. Eicke Weber, director of Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems, drives one that’s able to travel 300km on one 5-minute charge at the solar-powered hydrogen 'pump'.

Existing technology has already opened up the road ahead to a solar future, with space-based stations to challenge our finest engineers to push our technological envelope towards the stars. All we need is a gear change in political and economic priorities for the sun to shine bright on this potential energy revolution.

And with companies like Dassault Systèmes that help to connect the dots and bring a clearer and shared vision of what the future can bring, perhaps the dream of a solar-powered future can soon be turned into a reality.

The video, infographic and article were first published as an Advertisement Feature on bbc.com running from 29th June 2015 to 14th October 2015, and were created by the BBC Advertising Commercial Production team in partnership with Dassault Systèmes.