Innovation, the key to mitigating resource scarcity in the 21st century

Jennifer Stoneburgh

Jennifer Stoneburgh
Cleantech Associate

Having surpassed a global population of seven billion people, we are now faced with the task of caring for them. One of the biggest challenges facing us in the 21st century is resource scarcity due to population growth, specifically in urban settings.

From 2000 to 2012, the world’s population grew by one billion people and the United Nations estimates that it will reach 8.9 billion by 2050.1 In the UAE, the population has almost tripled since 2004 – adding over 5.5 million inhabitants.2 Although the year-over-year increase in population is expected to slow over the next 40 years, the planet’s natural resources including fossil fuels, agriculture, water, forestry and mined resources will come under intense pressure.

In line with population growth, global resources extraction grew 45% from 40 billion tons in 1980 to 58 billion tons in 2005.3 Commodity prices for resources have also increased since 2000, wiping out previous price reductions (See Figure 1). Increasing urbanization will only contribute more to this demand. In 1990, less than 40% of people lived in cities. By 2010, that number grew to 50%. It is expected that by 2050, 70% of people will live in urban centres worldwide.4

Innovation, particularly around resource efficiency, will be key to leveraging existing resources in the future.

Figure 1: Commodity prices from 1990 to 2011 1A

We are already seeing the results of innovation efforts in the energy sector. The rate of growth of global energy consumption decreased between 2011 and 2012. Increased energy efficiency employed by industry to combat high energy prices is identified as a contributing factor.

Using energy resources more effectively will be imperative to mitigate energy demand in the future as well as to keep prices affordable. Energy generation is one sector that is actively harnessing the power of innovation. Advances in extraction technologies are allowing more energy to be extracted from fossil fuels, and next generation solar panels and wind turbines are continuing to improve efficiencies while reducing costs. The tendency of the sector towards the optimization of material use further reduces demands on natural resources.

The intelligence that information technology (IT) offers has also transformed the energy sector. Today’s information and telecommunications technologies are affordable, reliable, secure and can move information at increasingly fast speeds, which has broadened their use in all sectors including energy.

Next-generation technology allows energy users to measure and monitor their energy consumption at the building and circuit breaker levels. Using analytics, the information can determine equipment performance, detect malfunctions and project trends. Wireless demand management and automated demand response solutions that are available for commercial and industrial facilities, reduce peak demand by time shifting loads, easing demand on the grid.

Increased use of heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems and the growth of urban centres places incredible demands on energy systems and natural resources. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that the energy consumption of buildings, excluding industrial facilities used for production, processing or assembling goods, will increase by over 60% between 2010 and 2040.6 HVAC systems account for about half the energy consumption of dwellings and non-domestic buildings and can be readily optimized by demand management technologies.

Through the reduction of overall electricity demands and by time shifting required loads, we can save valuable natural resources. Continued integration of IT into the energy sector will improve energy efficiency and elongate the lifespan of infrastructure.

Increased population growth and urbanization is also placing large demands on water resources. The UN forecasts that water demand will increase by 30%1 by 2030, with almost half the world’s population living in regions of high water stress.7 Greywater, produced from showers, bathtubs, sinks, laundry, air conditioning drains, etc. along with rainwater can provide alternative sources of water. Greywater recycling technologies can be widely deployed in schools, hotels, apartment building and sports facilities to reduce demand on both water and treatment facilities. New systems continue to be developed with increased efficiency and better economics.

Perhaps the most compelling innovative trend entering the market is the gamification of resource management by individual consumers. Using realtime or interval data consumers can display energy and/or water consumption alongside personalized data trends. Smart phone or computer apps show how consumption compares to peers and what potential savings could be if consumption patterns changed to matched peer group. Apps have the best potential to drive consumer behavior change to reduce resource consumption.

Main entrance of MaRS Discovery District

MaRS Discovery District is an innovation centre located in Toronto, Canada, that works with partners to catalyze, accelerate and amplify innovation. In the last three years, MaRS startup clients have raised over $750 million in capital, earned over $375 million in revenue and created over 3,500 knowledge economy jobs.

MaRS Cleantech supports entrepreneurs building Canada’s next generation of growth companies focused on clean technologies, physical sciences and advanced materials. About 80% of emerging cleantech technologies are in the energy and water sector; the vast majority of these companies have global growth strategies.

Based in Toronto, Morgan Solar Inc. has developed a highly efficient solar panel using off-the-shelf manufacturing processes. Many of the processes it employs were borrowed from decades of cost reductions in the automotive sector, allowing Morgan Solar to produce an ultra-thin, non-imaging solar concentrator that eliminates much of the complexity, materials and cost need for conventional concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technologies. Their CPV module achieves double the efficiency (more than 30%) compared to conventional silicon PV modules at lower cost.

MaRS clients CircuitMeter Inc. and REGEN Energy Inc. have developed innovative technologies that capitalize on available IT solutions. CircuitMeter is able to provide realtime monitoring and the ability to identify waste energy, reduce peak demand and improve operations. REGEN Energy’s Swarm Energy Management system allows loads in buildings, such as HVAC units, to communicate with one another using swarm logic and reduce the number of loads running concurrently, reducing peak demand by up to 30%.

Clear Blue Technologies is another company that is using communications and cloud technology to deliver reliable and intelligent high-performance off-grid lighting and security solutions. Clear Blue’s technology eliminates the cost and resource demand of bringing electrical power to street lights as well as monthly utility bills.

In the water sector MaRS client Greyter Water Systems Inc. has developed programmed water management systems that control recycling and treatment of wastewater to specific user demands. Greyter’s products are focused on commercial greywater reuse and rainwater harvesting and reuse.

Leading the gamification space in Ontario is Zerofootprint’s award-winning VELOTM software. VELOTM allows users to create an energy usage plan, see the projected cost savings and track their progress. VELOTM also allow users to compare energy usage to peers and compete to reduce consumption.

Morgan Solar Inc. co-founders infront of their CPV module

Innovation in the energy sector has already increased the efficiency of energy generation technologies, improved our understanding of the smart grid and dramatically improved the efficiency of our buildings. Innovation will be a key component of maintaining the UAE’s position as a major provider of energy going forward in the 21st century. In the water sector, innovative technologies are facilitating greater reuse of water in addition to reducing broader resource demands for water treatment. As the world’s population continues to push the limits of our natural resources, market demand for resource efficient technologies will revolutionize industry and help reduce our impact on the environment.

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