THE BLOG
01/23/2016 10:10 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2017

5 Key Trends for the Future of Clean Energy

James Goldsmith via Getty Images

In November 2015, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (BEC), a team of private investors, announced a multi-billion dollar fund to "get energy technologies out of the lab and into the marketplace." The scope of the initiative, including the marketplace, is relevant: development and demonstration of new-energy technologies are no guarantee for successful commercial deployment.

Three key reasons contribute to the challenge of commercializing new-energy technologies:

Time-to-bankability: Finalizing all stages of bankability reviews requires months and years as opposed to weeks and days in other areas of high technology. At-scale data collection, often for more than 12 months, is a key element to achieve product certification and meet requirements of independent engineering reviews. These certifications and reviews are major inputs to achieve bankability, a critical commercialization milestone for most energy technologies. Finalizing all stages of technology, supply chain, performance and reliability reviews can take years.

Capital intensity: Simulation, testing, and developing at-scale demonstration projects is already capital intensive. But in order to achieve up to 20-year lifetime requirements for large-scale energy technology deployments, many more requirements have to be met. For example, accelerated life-time testing of components and systems are adding to the commercial-development cost. Moreover, capex layout for building tools, fixtures, and product can be substantial.

Ecosystem development: Investors and entrepreneurs in energy technology need to develop an ecosystem from day one, consisting of early-adopter customers, partners from the financial industries for financing and from the insurance industries for risk reduction, partners in product development and supply chain, and partners in independent engineering and certification. Building trust over the course of development and demonstration periods is critical to have strong partners at the inflection point of commercialization.

Against these challenges, 2015 was a landmark year with five key trends that have the potential to accelerate the commercialization of energy technology for the future:

Clean energy overtakes fossil fuels

The electricity system has been shifting to clean and this trend is here to stay. According to a 2015 analysis from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the world is now adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. The shift occurred in 2013, when the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable-electricity capacity, compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels.

This trend is even more surprising when considering the 2000 IEA world energy outlook at the beginning of the millennium that forecasted the share of renewables would climb to only 3% by 2020 and from then 2%. The 2015 IEA world energy outlook already revised the share of renewable energy in global power generation to more than 26% by 2020 from 22% in 2013 -- a remarkable shift in a very limited period of time.

New sources of capital and financial products

Private investors from sovereign-wealth funds, pension funds, family offices, to corporate VCs have increased their engagement in energy technology, providing patient capital to reap the benefits of taking a longer-term view. These new sources of capital are thought to turn the "valley of death" for energy entrepreneurs into a "valley of opportunity," as recently analyzed in a Stanford research paper. Additionally, new government initiatives such as the U.S. Treasury permitting "mission-related" investments incentivize charitable foundations to invest in clean energy technologies.

Recent product innovations in the insurance and re-insurance industries also support managing risk in energy-technology ventures more effectively and efficiently. Risk-transfer solutions to the insurance markets improve capital and revenue protection as well as forecasting of cash flows. Examples for energy technology insurance products include technical performance guarantees, warranty insurance or liquidated damage solutions. Alternative risk-transfer structures have become much more common through the rise and experience gained with PV solar and can significantly increase the success of project-finance structures.

The rise of distributed generation

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goal number 7 has set a universal access target for electricity access. Specifically in developing nations, distributed generation (DG) has increased access to electricity in meaningful ways. The deployment of solar power solutions, often combined with development tools such as microfinance and female entrepreneurship, are being adopted rapidly. But even in 2015, an estimated 1.2 billion people worldwide are still without access to electricity.

Policy makers and regulators play a very important role to encourage new DG energy technology deployment and to innovate in DG energy. Expectations for this SDG are high, considering the impact decentralization has had on telecoms. In 2002, mobile phones for the first time overtook fixed lines. The phenomenon was as prominent in developing nations as in mature economies. Rapid advancement and cost decline in mobile technologies as well as targeted policy and regulation contributed to its rise and impact on development. For electricity access, the future may be unevenly distributed today. But with DG technologies evolving and smart policy and regulation, the best of the energy paradigm shift from centralization to decentralization is yet to come.

Commercial and industrial customers take the lead

2015 was a record-breaking year for corporate purchasing of large-scale wind and solar energy. Commercial and industrial customers contracted capacity of ~3GW, far exceeding the 2014 record of 1.2 GW. Google alone has purchased 2 GW of clean energy to date. Driven by ambitious sustainability agendas, Fortune 500 players from technology, retail, and increasingly manufacturing industries are sourcing energy directly from utility scale projects.

Sixty percent of Fortune 100 and more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies already have clean energy or climate targets. At the end of 2015, 53 Fortune 500 companies have pledged to go 100% renewable through the RE100 initiative that was launched only in September 2014. In order to also accelerate the development and commercialization of new energy technology, these private companies can play an important role by supporting R&D and pilot projects as part of their sustainability commitments.

Government-funded cross-technology development

At COP21 in Paris, 20 governments pledged to double their energy R&D in the Mission Innovation initiative. Basic and applied research to support system-level innovation matters in energy technology where new entrants either have to; comply with requirements of existing infrastructure such as grid systems; adapt existing system architecture with the help of other players, e.g., smart grid innovators; or develop a new system as in the case of, for example, microgrids.

In either scenario, energy generation, storage, distribution and demand has to be considered holistically across hardware, software and service players. Government funded R&D organizations can play an important role for system-level integration and much more can be done. For example, existing research agendas may merit a fresh look. Noam Chomsky critically questioned MIT"s research agenda in May 2015 as still being oriented toward Cold War defense priorities even in our times where a number of different national-security priorities could be considered, including energy security. The observation is supported by a BEC analysis: the ratio of U.S. federal government R&D to total spending in energy is 0.4%. In defense, the ratio is more than 22 times higher.

Building on the achievements of 2015, we have the potential of impacting and accelerating the future development of energy. Bringing new energy technologies into the marketplace is challenging. But the five trends described above capture a snapshot of the positive development to shift the mindset in the energy industries from long-cycle, incremental improvements to rapid, breakthrough commercialization. With global multi-stakeholder agreements such as the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the COP21 Paris agreement, public-private cooperation has a reinforced mandate. Now is the time for action. We should seize the moment and momentum.

Valerie Feldmann is participating in the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting in Davos.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The World Economic Forum to mark the Forum's Annual Meeting 2016 (in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, Jan. 20-23). The Forum's Technology Pioneers program recognizes young companies from around the world that are involved in the design, development and deployment of new technologies that have the potential of significantly impacting the way business and society operate. Read all the posts in the series here.