Engineers have a responsibility to work with companies developing solutions that will enable renewable energy percentages to rise beyond current limits.

+ Electricity pylons against an orange sunset. Source: istock.

In the wake of the Fukushima disaster, concerns over 'peak oil' and energy security, and the impact of shale gas and new technology, the energy landscape is facing massive changes. All of which leaves the question - how do we ensure renewable energy plays its full role in securing our growing energy needs?

I believe technology holds the key.  For example, because renewable energy is typically intermittent, it can only make up 25-30% of the total supply in the absence of smart grid management. In parts of Australia, wind generation is already reaching these limits. Similarly, residential rooftop photovoltaic technology (PV) is reaching saturation in many networks.

As engineers, I believe we have a responsibility to work with companies developing solutions that will enable renewable energy percentages to rise beyond current limits.

Matt Cooper recently wrote on Thoughts about reusing old electric vehicle batteries for energy storage in homes and wind farms. The differing drawdown rates needed by our diverse needs (cars vs homes) means this idea isn’t fully feasible yet, but developing multi-purpose storage technologies has to be a priority.

Smart metering is also a promising technology in the quest for greater renewable energy security. Smart meters can flag times of expensive energy consumption to users, encouraging them to switch energy source when they use power to spread the load across the grid.

Distributed energy – energy generated near to where it will be used and connected to a local smart grid – also has another key role to play by reducing the significant losses in transmission over distance, thereby increasing security of supply.

I believe securing affordable, climate-proof supplies of renewable energy isn’t just important for countries to survive in the future; it is also critical for them to thrive economically. But achieving this requires a long term vision (20 years or more), planning and strategic investment cycles.

In China, long-term strategic investment decisions are already having an impact on the PV manufacturing market, in which the country is now a dominant force. But the challenge is so much greater for countries with shorter term political cycles and strategies. The knock-on policy uncertainty is the primary barrier to growth in the renewable energy sector. And sadly, its one challenge that technology can’t fix.