Fuel of the future: 5 trends to follow

July 27th, 2018
Fuel of the future: 5 trends to follow

Energy usage is a major part of any facility's operating budget. Facility managers who are interested in reducing energy spend should follow these emerging trends:

1. Wind farms and big batteries

In January, Tesla made headlines with a first-of-its-kind mega battery in Australia. Built for wind-farm company Neoen, the Hornsdale Power Reserve is a 100-megawatt battery connected to a wind farm in South Australia. In May, Electrek reported that not only had the battery produced $1 million in its first month of operation, but also saved an estimated $30 million in its first four months online.

Since the Hornsdale Power Reserve came online earlier this year, a handful of other energy projects in Australia have opted to use Tesla's technology. Plus, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has suggested that a 1-gigawatt plant could be a reality in the near future.

It's likely that facilities will be able to benefit from clean energy stored in a massive battery within the next decade. The technology is already there – it's just waiting for an investment.

2. Carbonate fuel cells

In recent years, facilities that demand near-perfect uptime have turned to hydrocarbon fuel cells as part of an energy plan with multiple failsafe features. Modern uninterruptible power systems promise 99.99 percent reliability – or roughly 53 minutes of downtime a year, according to Electrical Construction & Maintenance magazine.

A carbonate fuel cell generates energy by converting hydrocarbon fuel into electricity. Depending on the type of fuel cell, it may run on processed hydrogen extracted from natural gas or hydrogen pulled from water through reverse electrolysis.

Currently, these systems depend on highly processed fuel, which can be very costly to produce. However, facilities with hefty downtime costs could still benefit from this highly reliable source of energy.

Carbonate fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity.Carbonate fuel cells convert hydrogen into electricity.

3. Natural gas

Natural gas has the potential to fuel a huge percent of U.S. buildings, but it still has to compete with coal. Energy derived from coal is still one of the cheapest forms of energy available. Looking ahead to 2030 and beyond, however, natural gas could become a much more viable option.

As developed countries introduce stricter regulations on the coal industry to reduce air pollution, natural gas facilities could prove to be a more environmentally conscious option. Globally, natural gas prices remain high. But in the U.S., advanced processing technologies have actually made domestic prices drop, reported SNL Interactive.

In essence, natural gas is both a currently feasible source of affordable energy and a trend that will continue into the future. If prices remain the same or drop – as new processing facilities come online – the fuel could even threaten the affordability of coal and nuclear power.

4. Nuclear Fusion

Turn on a recent sci-fi film, and you might hear astronauts talking about nuclear fission. For a long time, hydrogen power has promised to end modern dependence on fossil fuels. However, the actual technology has been slow to materialize.

Current nuclear power plants rely on a process known as fission. According to Duke University, in a fission reaction, neutrons are accelerated and then driven into an unstable isotope, which breaks apart. When the nucleus of the isotope splits in two, a large amount of energy is released.

In the future, scientists hope to harness another type of nuclear reaction, fusion. In a fusion reaction, two isotopes are submitted to immense pressure, causing them to form a heavier nuclei. At the same time, a massive amount of energy is released.

Though some fusion experiments have been successful on a very small, unstable scale, the process for generating reliable energy from nuclear fusion is still unknown.

Someday, nuclear fusion could power facilities.Someday, nuclear fusion could power facilities.

5. Gasoline

Though a number of new fuel types have grown in efficiency in recent years, none are in a position to completely take over the dominance of crude oil products. In our lifetimes, it's likely that gasoline will remain a common source of fuel.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that liquid fuel inventories will increase by 0.6 million barrels per day in 2019. Furthermore, combustion engine technology – which is over a century old now – only continues to improve, allowing fuel to go further than ever. When utilized in conjunction with other fuel types, gasoline remains a viable option for many applications.

The future of fuel is uncertain, but there's no doubt that facility energy consumption will continue to be a major player in the space. Facility managers should be on the lookout for new fuel options as they come to market.

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