French start-up Sweetch Energy has raised €6 million, with backing from EDF Hydro and renewable electricity producer CNR, to bring its osmotic energy technology to international scale.
- Sweetch Energy’s INOD technology provides a cost-competitive, zero-carbon form of renewable electricity that has previously been left untapped.
- Although renewable electricity generation reached record-breaking levels in 2021, the rate of deployment would have to almost double in order to reach net zero by 2050.
- A new source of renewable electricity could prove vital in delivering the energy transition, but its success will depend on supportive, long-term policy measures.
Sweetch Energy, based in Rennes, France, has joined the International Hydropower Association with €6 million in funds to deploy its osmotic energy technology.
Its cumulative funding has been led by industrial partners including EDF’s hydraulic division and CNR, a renewable electricity producer with shareholders including ENGIE and the CDC. With the support of its partners, Sweetch will launch its first large-scale pilot plant in 2023 before expanding its deployment internationally from 2024.
The start-up’s INOD technology uses nano-scale membranes and proprietary electrode systems to generate osmotic energy through the difference in salinity at the meeting point between fresh and salt water.
Its core benefits lie in its ability to produce zero-carbon electricity from a continuous resource that is abundantly available worldwide. In addition, the system is made using non-toxic materials and reportedly produces electricity at a cost that is competitive with other renewables.
Sweetch Energy CEO Nicolas Heuzé said: “It is an absolutely massive source of energy and not exploited so far.”
“We absolutely need new sources of renewable energy to meet the dual challenge of growing electricity demand and decarbonisation. Osmotic energy, being available on a large scale and still untapped, is a tremendous opportunity for meeting this challenge!”, adds CNR director Frédéric Storck.
Do we need another source of renewable electricity?
Renewable energy has progressed rapidly in recent decades, yet the global energy transition remains at a standstill. The International Energy Agency (IEA), in its Net Zero by 2050 roadmap notes that, despite the increasing number of countries making net zero pledges, global greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise. Reaching net zero by 2050 could still be possible, the IEA says, but the chances are growing slimmer each year.
Dominant renewable energy sources, however, have their limitations. Solar and wind power rely on favourable weather conditions, making them less reliable than conventional non-renewable energy sources. Although infrastructure could be developed to improve the reliability of renewable electricity distribution, this would demand an enormous level of investment.
Furthermore, existing clean energy technologies are extremely dependent on the supply of rare earth minerals, with the IEA estimating that global mineral supplies would have to increase by six times before 2040 to enable its net zero by 2050 scenario. The supply chains of these minerals are environmentally damaging in themselves, while the metals they provide are difficult to recycle or repurpose with current technology.
This contributes to the waste associated with current renewable energy sources, with the wind industry struggling to develop suitable technologies for recycling the composite materials of turbine blades while solar panels are expected to account for 80 megatonnes of waste by 2050.
As the global population continues to rise, energy demand will rise alongside it. As such, new sources of renewable electricity could be crucial in accommodating this demand while ensuring that the path to net zero remains viable.
New technologies rely on supportive policy
Although disruptive technologies such as that proposed by Sweetch Energy could support the global energy transition, they cannot do so in unsupportive policy environments.
This could present an issue, given the current energy crisis. As economies rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, energy demand continues to rise, meanwhile Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has limited necessary supplies.
The crisis has put governments at a crossroads, with long-term commitments to improve energy security through an increase in renewable capacity being contradicted by short-term measures such as a return to coal-firing.
To enable the global transition to net zero, the energy industry is tasked with meeting three criteria, commonly referred to as the energy trilemma. Energy must be decarbonised, reliable and affordable, but this can only be enabled by government assistance that places long-term strategies ahead of short-term security.