Joe Biden clearly endorsed renewable energies during the second presidential debate, which took place on the evening of October 22, 2020. The specific renewable energies that have yet to be explored at a widespread industrial scale are biomass, solar and wind. Biden argued for a move away from fossil fuels while adopting wind and solar energy as sustainable replacements. Such a policy does not, of course, spell overnight doom for the oil industry; it does, however, mean that renewable energy companies might seek to ramp up production in the coming years if Biden gets elected. Increasing production, particularly in emerging solar and wind production, is territory rife for additive manufacturing.
AM’s scalability and rapid deployment (advantages that are already recognized in the oil and gas sector) make it ideal for the renewable energy sector.
AM and Green Energy
AM does occupy some space in this field and has been lauded as a space that can facilitate renewable energy uptake. T3DP’s volumetric 3D printing process, for example, might finally pave the way to 3D printed solar cells. This start-up’s method combines material science and advanced geometries to shape perovskite, a calcium titanium oxide material that can be melted with temperatures far below silicon’s melting point. The material is a more efficient base material because it requires energy to mold. T3DP’s process may yield up to fifty-five percent photovoltaic conversion efficiency. Silicone solar cells have maxed conversion efficiency out at twenty-five percent.
Actually printing solar cells is but one application, for AM’s regular advantages apply equally well to renewable energies. Sculpteo, an American 3D printing service, notes these advantages up. Faster prototyping lets manufacturers quickly work through problems by creating scale models and full-size prototypes. The objects that can be prototyped and manufactured are, moreover, more efficiently constructed. 3D printing implies less material waste. Custom parts and tools can be quickly produced to order using 3D scanners to model discontinued designs.
Simusolar, an agricultural product supplier working in east Africa, used AM to create small electrically insulating parts on circuit boards used in solar panel products.
Batteries in which solar energy can be stored are also subject to the AM revolution. In 2018, researchers at Carnegie Melon University and the Missouri University of Science and Technology developed a new technique for 3D printing battery electrodes that could improve lithium-ion batteries and charging rates. Musashi partnered with KeraCel to develop and market 3D printed solid-state batteries for the automotive sector. NASA more recently announced that it will develop in-space 3D-printed batteries with the KULR Technology Group. Indeed, AM’s potential for space exploration pairs well with its potential use in renewable energy.
3D printed concrete is also being researched as a means to quickly produce and install offshore wind turbines. Researchers at Purdue University partnered with RCAM Technologies to investigate 3D printed concrete’s ability to withstand ocean conditions. Concrete may be cheaply produced to anchor wind turbines, which are presently anchored using steel. In 2019, RCAM received a quarter-million-dollar grant from the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to develop wind turbine foundations; the company is working at the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to manufacture and test the foundations. The California Energy Commission also awarded the company three million dollars to develop its wind turbine tower and anchor printing technology. IT service provider Accucode later partnered with RCAM to push this development further: Accucode is expanding RCAM’s concrete printing technology for wider applications in civil engineering.
A more general view of AM’s applications show that it is a sustainable form of manufacturing, one that naturally pairs with renewable energy installation and maintenance. This synergy means that, in a Biden presidential victory, the AM sector is well-positioned to capitalize on an American push toward renewable energy.
Renewable Energy Potential in the US
American energy consumption does not currently favor renewable energy. Over the last decade, American energy consumption has continued to rely on fossil fuels even as energy consumption from renewable sources slowly ticks up. The move away from fossil fuels requires overlapping energy infrastructure that, over time, displaces fossil fuels. Scholars Peter Hartley and Kenneth Medlock III argue in The Energy Journal that renewable energy will remain an uncompetitive energy source in the short term. Until renewable energy is established as the dominant energy producer on power grids, the price of energy is unable to cover the long-term investment needed to make the change. This reality requires sustained government and private-sector investment before renewable energy becomes a self-sustaining production model.
The price might not be right, but demand exists in the United States and abroad. The United States annually consumes approximately four billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. This figure has remained stable for roughly a decade. 12 790 billion cubic feet of natural gas was consumed in 2019 to generate electricity; approximately 540 million short tons of coal was used for the same purpose. About 740 million metric tons of oil were consumed in the United States in 2019. Carbon-based energy was consumed over renewables by a ratio of almost 10:1.
The entire United States nuclear electric power industry produced as much consumed energy in 2019 as solar, wind and biomass combined. Demand for energy exists: the average American consumes approximately 13 000 kilowatt hours annually; the average American in 2019 paid $0.104 cents per kilowatt-hour, which means that Americans per capita annually pay roughly $1 352 for electricity. This rate is expected to stay fairly stable through to 2050. Companies that use carbon-based electricity production collect most of these payments.
If production capacity and cost are the driving factors for energy change, an efficient economy is unlikely to altruistically or spontaneously switch to technology that is still in development. Established carbon-based power grids are too integrated to simply remove.
Hence Joe Biden’s election promise to move the United States away from carbon-based energy. The former vice-president backs his vision up with a projected two-trillion-dollar government investment in renewable energy technology and installation in his first term in office. This commitment is massive, perhaps large enough to affect change on power grids. The scale of Biden’s campaign commitment outstrips gross 2018 revenues in the American electric power industry by a factor of five. Though renewable energy generation is but one part of Biden’s campaign promise, the scale of his vision suggests an influx of cash large enough to begin the transition from carbon electricity production to solar and wind power generation.
If this transition begins at the behest of the United States’ federal government, the efficient economy takes over. Companies search for the most effective means to produce wind and solar energy at all levels of the process. Additive manufacturing has already shown its utility at each stage of production, from research and development, repair, to full-scale production. It stands to reason that companies will be drawn to this emerging field.
You can read more about market opportunities for AM in renewable energy in 3dpbm’s AM Focus Sustainability eBook.