Clean energy which does not burn limited fossil fuels to capture, or generate excessive carbon emissions in use requires modern technologies to harness, convert, transfer and store renewable energy as electricity, move it onto the electric grid, ensure through smart technology that the grid is responsive and robust, and, ultimately, ensure that its end use applications are efficient and that demand is kept as low as possible. Semiconductors are the material that enables these technologies.
Semiconductors Harness, Convert and Transfer Renewable Energy
The photovoltaic (PV) cells that make up solar panels rely on semiconductor materials to transfer light energy from the sun (in the form of photons) into usable electric energy (electrons) which can be transferred to the grid (Taylor-Smith, 2018).
Meanwhile, semiconductors’ capacity for allowing electricity to pass through them at a modulated rate enables them to convert energy harnessed by other renewable energy technologies such as wind turbines and hydropower. In this application they act as efficient rectifiers, smoothing the electric current harnessed from renewable sources (including solar) so that it can be transferred to the electric grid with minimal loss of electric energy in the process.
Semiconductors also have a role in ensuring renewable energy sources are harvesting power optimally. They are installed in secondary devices such as sensors in solar panels, drives and pumps in wind and water turbines, and protection circuits in energy conversion and transfer stations to ensure the entire operations run smoothly and efficiently, with minimal loss of power.
Without the conversion of other forms of energy to usable electricity, and between alternating to direct current electricity, renewable energy would not be able to be transferred onto the grid and used by businesses and consumers.
Semiconductors Enable Responsive, Robust and Efficient Use of Electricity
Semiconductor materials such as silicon also enabled the information age due to their ability to house millions of microscopic transistors – the on-off switches that binary computer programming is built from. This new use of information has enabled advancements such as industrial and home automation, the internet and, more recently, the internet of things (IoT).
These advancements have enabled the modern smart electric grid to link up devices (nodes) throughout the system, ensuring supply is matched to demand and current is well distributed. Smart grids equipped with semiconductor material parts are able to, for example, charge electric vehicles at night when offices and homes are not using electricity.
IoT technology is also helping end use applications to reduce their demand. In smart, IoT-enabled homes, for example, lights switch on and off automatically and furnaces only work when needed.
Semiconductors Need Clean Energy
As well as enabling the harnessing, conversion and transfer of renewable energy to the grid – not to mention the information technology that maximises energy efficiency – semiconductors also have a role to play in clean energy due to the large amounts of energy they take to manufacture. Large semiconductor manufacturing facilities can use up to 100 megawatt hours of energy per hour, accounting for 5% to 30% of their total operating costs (depending on location).
Semiconductor materials can help to reduce this demand, however, through IoT-powered technology. This technology can monitor and automate semiconductor fabrication to ensure that it is using minimal energy resources in semiconductor manufacture. In this way, the role of semiconductors in clean energy is laced throughout the energy equation.