From solar energy to electric vehicles, manufacturers will be instrumental in bringing improved renewable energy technologies to market.

Mark Shortt

Major market opportunities in renewable energy, a megatrend that has been building for years across the globe, are coming into clear focus as demand for renewables kicks into high gear. At the same time, technology innovators appear to be making significant headway in chipping away at the costs of clean, zero-emissions technologies.

In the U.S. and abroad, researchers and engineers are laser-focused on developing and refining the materials and processes needed to decarbonize our energy infrastructures. They’re working on improving everything from solar and wind energy technologies to fusion power, grid energy storage, electric vehicle (EV) batteries, and EV charging infrastructure. Awaiting the results are the manufacturers who will ultimately make the solar modules and racks, the rotor blades, bearings, and gearboxes, and the cables and connectors needed to get these technologies up and running.

It is against this backdrop that the largest U.S. automaker has staked its claim as a leader in America’s transition to renewable energy. General Motors announced in January that it plans to become carbon neutral in its global products and operations by 2040 and has committed to setting science-based targets to achieve carbon neutrality. The manufacturer is working to not only eliminate tailpipe emissions from its vehicles, but to power its factories with solar energy produced by photovoltaic (PV) modules.

Meanwhile, the solar industry is posting record growth in PV installations, which market research firms are projecting to continue through the end of the decade. In the U.S., solar technologies accounted for 43 percent of new electric-generating capacity added in 2020, leading all technologies for the second year in a row, according to a report released by the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) and Wood Mackenzie.

The U.S. Solar Market Insight 2020 Year-in-Review report stated that the U.S. solar industry installed a record 19.2 gigawatts (GWdc) of capacity in 2020, including a record 8 gigawatts in the fourth quarter. Those additions of new solar capacity shattered the domestic solar market’s previous record of 15.1 gigawatts added in 2016, according to the report.

“After a slowdown in Q2 due to the pandemic, the solar industry innovated and came roaring back to continue our trajectory as America’s leading source of new energy,” said SEIA President and CEO Abigail Ross Harper, in a release from SEIA. “The forecast shows that by 2030, the equivalent of one in eight American homes will have solar, but we still have a long way to go if we want to reach our goals in the [coming] decade.”

In its 10-year forecast, Wood Mackenzie is estimating that the U.S. solar industry will install 324 gigawatts of new solar capacity, reaching a total of 419 gigawatts over the next decade. If that happens, it would more than quadruple the nation’s existing solar fleet.

“The recent two-year extension of the investment tax credit (ITC) will drive greater solar adoption through 2025,” said Michelle Davis, senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie, in the   release. “Compelling economics for distributed and utility-scale solar, along with decarbonization commitments from numerous stakeholders, will result in a landmark installation rate of over 50 GWdc by the end of the decade.”

Increased Focus on Energy Storage, EV Batteries

Frost & Sullivan, a business consulting firm that provides market research and analysis, reported that continual expansion of intermittent renewable energy technologies is combining with declining technology costs to fuel the global market for grid battery energy storage. The firm expects global grid battery storage to grow from 8.5 GW of annual capacity additions in 2020 to 135 GW by 2030. This translates to a market growth of nearly $14 billion—from $2 billion in 2020 to $15.94 billion by the end of the decade, F&S said in a release.

“With climate change and environmental sustainability at the center of national agendas, battery storage systems deployment is crucial to support the transition to higher levels of clean electrification relying primarily on variable renewable energy sources,” said Maria Benintende, energy and environment research analyst at Frost & Sullivan, in the release. “Additionally, the increasing power demand and generation assets distant from consumption centers necessitate transmission grid reinforcement and optimization. Batteries offer an attractive option in handling the evolving electrification issues, sparing massive investments in new transmission grids.”

New U.S. Factories for EV Battery Manufacturing

Group14 Technologies, a manufacturer of silicon-carbon composite materials for lithium-ion markets, is pushing hard to establish a domestic supply chain for batteries used in electric vehicles and consumer electronics. The company recently started commercial production of lithium-silicon anode materials at a 27,000-square-foot factory in Woodinville, Washington. It plans to break ground on another large-scale factory in the state later this year to meet worldwide demand for EV batteries.

Another battery materials company, Sila Nanotechnologies, is looking to put $590 million in Series F funding to work by developing and building a manufacturing plant that could play an important role in powering electric vehicles within a few years. The company is aiming to start production, in 2024, of an engineered silicon-anode material that is said to significantly increase the energy density of rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. That feature could enable mass adoption of smaller, longer-lasting portable electronics and long-range electric vehicles.

What makes Sila’s manufacturing process even more attractive, however, is its ability to produce higher-performing batteries on existing production equipment. Sila designed its silicon-based anode material as a “drop-in replacement for graphite” so that makers of lithium-ion batteries could improve energy density without having to replace their existing manufacturing process or equipment. The company is reported to have partnerships with BMW, Daimler, and ATL.

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