Short term challenges in the energy harvesting market
May 27, 2011 Raghu Das
IDTechEx began exploring energy harvesting for small devices four years ago when it was obvious that conventional batteries were a dead end for many wireless sensor applications. 90% of the time when companies do not pursue wireless sensors is due to the high cost of replacing their batteries every few years. There is a great need for energy harvesters here. The free IDTechEx journal www.energyharvestingjournal.com covers global progress with the topic on a daily basis. Since it started, there has been an enormous amount of innovation - from more than ten categories of energy harvesting technologies being developed (heat, light, vibration, RF...) and new battery and low power electronics development. The pieces have been coming together for a few years with large and small companies involved. It is more than just replacing conventional batteries in wireless sensors, as it includes extending battery life in consumer electronics to vehicles and even reducing our reliance on grid energy by using, for example, paving slabs that can power nearby lighting when walked on.
So where is energy harvesting today?
Despite all this progress, IDTechEx is increasingly being asked that if the technology is ready, why is it not used more today? Seemingly ready energy harvesters are shown at many events - including the IDTechEx global series of events on the topic which are growing rapidly. To answer this, let us first look at where energy harvesting is today. Despite the focus on wireless sensors, energy harvesting is widely used in consumer products - hundreds of millions are deployed in cigarette lighters for example, wind up toys, radios, PV powered calculators and high end wristwatches. Much more will happen in these markets over the coming decade.
However, the most immediate focus beyond those more established markets is to use energy harvesters to power wireless sensors. Here EnOcean are by far the most successful, with hundreds of OEM products sold to integrators to buildings, many of which include energy harvesters. Microstrain, Perpetuum and some others also have successfully deployed energy harvesting powered sensors in different applications.
The latest energy harvesting forecasts from IDTechEx are shown in the chart below. This is the amount of money spent on the energy harvester component in different applications. For a full break down and analysis of the sector read the IDTechEx report Energy Harvesting & Storage 2011-2021 - see http://www.IDTechEx.com/energy for details.
However, given the opportunity for the technology no supplier is anywhere near their full potential. IDTechEx see a key reason for this is the fragmented nature of the value chain. There are many developers of energy harvester components - and they usually only wish to/can do just that part, where their competence lies. They wish to be horizontal - selling the energy harvester to a broad range of applications. However, almost all energy harvesters need to be carefully chosen and "tuned" for a specific application. That involves adjusting the energy harvester itself or the conditioning/interfacing/storing electronics. There are companies that now supply low power electronics, but again they are typically "horizontal" players, wishing to just design and sell the best electronic ICs but not do much more.
This leaves the question as to who is buying the energy harvesters and low power electronics and building the complete product, accounting for the specific requirements of the application. Many assume it may be, for example, those making wireless sensors. Schneider Electric is doing this, for example, but integrators of wireless sensors do not necessarily have the competence to do this and they seek to buy a solution and not create it. There is also confusion with many different - and overlapping - "standards". In consumer electronics, maybe the industry hope that the toy, electronics etc companies will work out how to put this all together. This creates a barrier of entry for them.
How do we solve this?
This problem is typical to many other new technologies. Take RFID for example - players on the left of the value chain wishing to sell a component horizontally realised they had to move to the right of the value chain and, at least initially, offer as much of a product/solution as possible to convince users of the genuine benefit the technology can bring - and not just hark statements of how useful it could be for them. As the industry matured, some fell back to a horizontal position, others had completely changed their business model and continued with the new strategy. Most frequently, we do not see chip makers moving beyond just making chips, but those making other enabling components may need to.
EnOcean, Microstrain and Perpetuum have all done exactly this - offering a complete solution for a particular industry. Those solutions may be ideal for the intended application but for other applications new products need to be continually developed. We are beginning to see much needed collaboration between all the component players in the value chain to tackle this problem - which is a huge opportunity for those that get it right.
The latest progress on energy harvesting, including insight from end users and many hands on demonstrations, will be covered at Europe's largest event on the topic - Energy Harvesting & Storage in Munich, Germany on June 21-22. See http://www.IDTechEx.com/ehEurope for details. This is the ideal venue to network with new partners and assess the challenges and opportunities for yourself.