Convincing the market of energy innovation: considerations for rainpower and beyond

It’s been an exciting few years for the energy and cleantech sectors. Whilst renewable technologies such as solar PV and wind were once dismissed as too intermittent, or too unproven a technology to be trusted, they are now at the very heart of the UK’s energy system. According to government figures, wind and solar overtook nuclear as the main source of electricity production in March 2018. We can put this mainly down to the plunging price of renewables in the age of oil price volatility, but we can also put it down to a much deeper trust of renewables’ viability amongst the investor community who recognise the high, inflation-linked and government-backed yields that investment into renewables can offer.

Rightly or wrongly, it took solar and wind years to garner this trust, credibility and financial backing. Enter a new technology like rain power onto the scene – how can innovators in this sector gather support and backing quickly? It’s all about building trust in the tech and telling the right story behind the tech from day one.

As solar power installation soars globally, a team at Soochow University in China saw a gap in the market. Solar power is great when the sun is shining, but what about when it rains? The power output can decrease under cloudier skies, but by placing two transparent polymer layers on top of a solar PV cell, these can then take the friction caused by raindrops to then generate a static electricity charge. Pretty cool, right? Further to this, the research team has future plans to integrate the polymer layers into mobile and flexible devices such as electronic clothes.

However, the sceptics are already voicing their views, with Professor Keith Barnham, at Imperial College London stating that wind power is still the best complementary power to PV, working just as well in the rain. There are many views like this which might suggest that rain power technology might take years to become a commercially viable reality.

So, where next? Latch onto the most practical use case, seize it and shout about it… For example, many have pointed out that there is actually a stronger case for building data centres in places with cooler weather as it’s cheaper to cool the technology. So, could these solar panels be used in these colder environments? With this practical and widespread use case, the Soochow team could package a credible offering to the data centre industry all the while starting to attract investment to tap into the residential PV market.

Once the benefits of the technology are made manifest, they must then create a brand and story that inspires and evokes trust, even a following. When you think of your Googles, Teslas and Apples of the world, you think of a look, feel and experience rather than just the product itself. The Soochow team, like many in the cleantech sector, will need to find a way to create a sense of awe, community and relatability with their product; possibly by creating a brand, possibly through a strategic partnership with those with the right credentials.

Once the story, brand and packaging is in place, you can start to take your proposition to the public, investors and government to push this latest innovation as a part of the energy mix.

It’s never been a more exciting time to be a researcher or entrepreneur in the energy space. But it can be a challenge to rapidly build trust, prove the viability of your technology and earn support. The difference between those ideas that thrive long-term and those that don’t, all comes down to the credibility of the technology when applied to projects at scale and the brand attached to them. It’s exciting to see where this technology might head in the future, and to see what innovations are shaping the grid in years to come.