Innovating towards a new era of sustainable energy
Shifting the world to sustainable energy requires more than building solar and wind plants — this new way of generating energy requires innovation on every level. Besides developing more efficient components and storing power safely, Enel Green Power is looking at how to recycle and reuse wind turbine blades, exploring which farm animals and natural plants can co-exist alongside solar plants, and working to remove sediment from reservoirs to improve hydroelectric performance.
Enel Green Power started work in 2008 inside the wider Enel Group, aiming to develop and manage the power generated from renewable resources at the utility. Now, as a global Renewables Super Major, it operates in 21 countries around the world, with 1,200 plants producing 49 GW from wind, solar, hydroelectric and geothermal — helping to drive the shift to sustainable power as part of the effort to decarbonize and fight climate change, while also providing access to electricity in disadvantaged areas.
Leading such efforts requires technology and a constant drive to innovate. For example, Chile's Las Cruces is now home to Latin America's first wave energy converter, which captures the power of waves to produce clean electricity, which in turn powers an array of sensors monitoring the ocean and collecting data. The 14-meter, 10-ton PB3 PowerBuoy was installed by Enel Green Power at the Open Sea Lab of MERIC (Marine Energy Research and Innovation Centre).
"The test phase with the PB3 PowerBuoy will also allow us to understand the machine's behavior under real operating conditions in a marine environment over the long term," says Gioacchino Bellia, Enel Green Power's Head of Innovation Geothermal, Marine and Hydro. "From the electrical connection to remote monitoring in the marine environment: there are several aspects that a project such as this will enable us to evaluate."
More established sustainable sources — wind, hydro and solar — are already in use around the world, but despite their popularity with sustainable power companies, further innovation is still required to solve unexpected challenges.
Pontecosi is an area of natural beauty in world-renowned Tuscany, Italy, and it's also the name of an artificial lake that has been providing hydroelectric power to the region since 1924. To restore the natural river transportation of sediments, reducing their accumulation in basins — a common problem with reservoirs — Enel Green Power is testing a new technique using a small electric vessel that shoots jets of water to break up sediment. It then collects it with a pump to be flushed downstream in a way that replicates the natural flow of the river. The Enel Green Power test could be a sustainable solution to this hydroelectric challenge.
Wind power is another form of sustainable energy that is well used by renewable companies.
In agreement with the Open Innovability® approach, Enel Green Power is exploring solutions to make the materials used to manufacture wind turbines “renewable” by working on circular economy models. First, Enel Green Power is identifying the best available methods to recycle or reuse the materials of defunct wind turbine blades. For example, the recycled fiber of wind blades can be used in the nautical sector, in insulation, and in the construction of asphalt and building materials with advanced and superior features. "Our goal is to promote the development of a new end-to-end process: from decommissioning blades to reusing the secondary raw materials within new production processes," says Fabio Fugazzotto, Head of Wind Innovation at Enel Green Power.
Second, Enel Green Power is looking to make wind turbines out of materials that are inherently more recyclable. The company recently partnered with Swedish start-up Modvion, which builds towers from wood rather than steel, making the turbines easier to recycle, transport and install. "Bigger and taller towers are possible thanks to Modvion’s modular design and engineered wood —nature’s own carbon fiber," says Otto Lundman, Modvion’s co-founder and CEO. "Taller wind turbines can reach stronger winds and are more stable, and larger rotor blades can capture more energy. This makes bigger wind turbines more efficient in terms of resources, and reduces the land take necessary to produce a given quantity of electricity."
When it comes to solar photovoltaics, Enel Green Power is working to prove that farming and solar power production can co-exist, combining energy efficiency not only with sustainable use of land, but also with the protection of biodiversity – by way of demonstration, the company is running ten different experiments worldwide. The building of new photovoltaic plants could represent an opportunity to recover abandoned land: working with partners from industry, academia and startups, Enel Green Power is studying which plants and animals can be successfully integrated with photovoltaic power plants – they mustn't grow too tall and cast shade on the solar panels, for example – with herbs and flowers in Greece and vegetables in Spain, while in Italy, the trial is considering also raising rabbits.
"These experiments will produce a huge amount of data that will be compiled in an Atlas to support future decisions, enabling new power plants to select the best farming solutions and related business models based on the solar technology, the local climate and the analyses of the social, economic and environmental context," says Miriam Di Blasi, Head of Environment and Impacts Mitigation Innovation at Enel Green Power.
These are but a few examples of blending sustainability with technology can accelerate the energy transition — and Enel Green Power is at the forefront.