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A perfect storm of climate-related weather catastrophes, pandemic-related fossil fuel production bottlenecks, and an under-investment in infrastructure and renewable power has created the world’s latest global energy crisis.

Severe flooding in the heart of China’s coal country following drought conditions that hampered hydropower generation are adding to the nation’s energy woes, increasing existing supply shortages that stemmed from policy shifts and an industrywide slowdown.

Those coal constraints and a push to switch to natural gas, which is creating higher demand in the nation, is causing prices to spike around the world.

In Europe, those natural gas price spikes are compounded by the decommissioning of nuclear and coal power plants — and the depletion of existing natural gas stores following a particularly long winter across the region.

Add weaker than expected power generation from offshore wind farms in the region (and chicanery from Russia — Europe’s biggest natural gas supplier) and the world has created the perfect conditions for a modern-day energy crisis.

This fossil-fueled power crisis is coinciding with a profound need to accelerate the transition to zero emission sources of power to avoid future destabilizations of the world’s power supply and mitigate the climate emergency that threatens pretty much everything (so far this year, the US has been hit by 18 climate-related weather events that cost the nation over $18 billion).

And while critics blame low wind speeds for the UK’s energy crisis, there are several renewable-powered and zero emission technologies that are coming to market now whose development could prevent the kind of energy drought the world is now experiencing.

These days, potential solutions to the energy crisis abound, if nations would allocate the necessary resources to accelerate their development.

energy
© Shutterstock/Nortophoto

Long duration energy storage

From funding mega-batteries, to compressed air energy storage, to hauling big bricks or trains, there’s been a flood of money that’s gone in to finding ways to store renewable energy so it can be tapped when the wind ain’t blowing and the sun ain’t shining.

Through the dog days of summer and into the fall investors were at work pouring nearly $500 million into various long duration energy storage technologies.

One company, Energy Vault, is using renewable energy to move massive concrete blocks, storing electrical energy as potential energy that can be released when the blocks are moved. Set to list on the New York Stock Exchange later this year, Energy Vault has already completed one pilot project in Ticino, Switzerland with more on the way.

Meanwhile, big battery developers like EnerVenue — which is using the same energy storage technology that powers the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope — and Form Energy (launched by slew of battery industry veterans) are using novel chemistries to build storage devices that can hold hundreds of hours of energy.

In Form’s case, that involves converting iron to rust, then rust back into iron, discharging and charging the battery in the process. The company claims its battery can store electricity at a cost of roughly $6 per-kilowatt-hour, which is far less expensive than other metals.

Two other approaches are using molten salt and compressed air to store energy for long periods. At Malta, a company whose technology was spun out of Google’s moonshot factory, X, electrical energy is converted to thermal energy, which is stored in molten salt and a chilled liquid. A heat engine, powered by the temperature differential between the hot and cold substances, turns the thermal energy back into electricity.

Hydrostor, a developer of advanced compressed air technologies, also relies on a clever use of thermal energy as part of its storage solution. The company uses renewable energy to compress air in underground wells, but captures and separates the thermal energy that builds up when the air is compressed. A pool stores water next to the cavern that’s used to store the compressed air. When air is released water flows into the cavern, and when air is pumped into the cavern the water is pushed into the pool — maintaining the pressure on the air. The captured heat is combined with the air when it’s released providing more power for turbines.

And heat’s at the heart of the technology for both Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Antora Energy and Electrified Thermal Solutions out of Boston. Both are using superheated blocks to store energy at temperatures over 1,500°C, and then turn it back to electricity for the grid when needed.

Taken together, these are the kinds of technologies that the world needs to “fully retire thermal assets like coal and natural gas,” as Form Energy’s chief executive Mateo Jaramillo, the developer of Tesla’s Powerwall battery and veteran powertrain developer told The Wall Street Journal.

Utilities and independent power producers in the US are already preparing for the transition.

Vistra Corp. owns 36 natural-gas power plants, one of America’s largest fleets. It doesn’t plan to buy or build any more.

Instead, Vistra intends to invest more than $1 billion in solar farms and battery storage units in Texas and California as it tries to transform its business to survive in an electricity industry being reshaped by new technology.

“I’m hellbent on not becoming the next Blockbuster Video, ” Curt Morgan, the chief executive officer of natural gas power plant owner Vistra, told the Journal. “I’m not going to sit back and watch this legacy business dwindle and not participate.”

Next generation geothermal

Harnessing the heat that radiates from the center of the Earth is critical (or supercritical) for a clutch of startup companies that are offering a new way to generate power directly.

Their goal is to tap into the abundant resources of “the sun beneath our feet” using technologies borrowed — in many cases — from the oil and gas industry.

The potential for geothermal energy development is massive. The US government estimates that new technologies could generate “at least 5,157 gigawatts-electric for power generation purposes — nearly five times the total installed utility-scale electricity generation capacity in the US,” according to a report from the Department of Energy.

If the US just wanted to use these new technologies for heating and cooling, it could tap roughly 15 million terawatt-hours-thermal for controlling the climate of homes and businesses. Using geothermal district heating, the resources provide potentially enough heat to supply every home and commercial building in the US for the next 8,500 years.

The technological advances are coming to make this a reality. In September the Seattle-based company AltaRock Energy released the results of a new study showing that it could produce power for as little as 5 cents per kilowatt hour (that’s the levelized cost). Conventional geothermal would cost around 10 cents.

AltaRock’s SuperHot Rock geothermal could be one of the most significant developments in the energy business — if its pilot project, slated to come online in 2025 proves successful.

“Once proven in the field, SuperHot Rock geothermal resources will ultimately provide competitively priced, carbon-free power to far greater markets than can currently be reached by affordable geothermal power,” said Geoff Garrison, vice president of research and development at AltaRock, in a statement. “SuperHot Rock geothermal has the smallest environmental footprint of any renewable energy resource, sharply reduces the need for transmission infrastructure, and we believe it has the potential to meet a significant portion of global energy demand by 2050.”

If the AltaRock project is successful (and the company does still need to flip the switch on that first project), the implications for providing renewable power to the world are enormous. Nearly half of the world’s population could see their power come from SuperHot Rock geothermal using the tech AltaRock is developing. As drilling techniques improve, another 95% of the population could access the tech if companies can hit depths less than 20 kilometers below the Earth’s surface.

As the Clean Air Task Force wrote in a paper earlier this month, “SHR could provide competitive, zero-carbon, dispatchable power and could support zero-carbon hydrogen fuel production. It is one of the very few high-energy-density, zero-carbon resources that could replace fossil energy around the globe.”

Other companies are taking lessons from the oil and gas industry to create novel geothermal systems that don’t need to operate under the kind of high temperature and pressure that SuperHot Rock requires.

These are businesses like Sage Geosystems, Eavor, Fervo Energy, which are borrowing directional drilling techniques from the oil and gas industry to create new kinds of geothermal power assets. These closed loop systems can be developed in more places to expand the footprint for lower power geothermal production assets. Combining a few of these systems together could reach several megawatts — or even gigawatts — of power, according to the companies.

Tim Lattimer, the chief executive officer of Fervo, told TechCrunch earlier this year that his company intends to bring on “hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”

Oceans, rivers, and tides

One of the newest ways to generate renewable power is a callback to one of the world’s oldest — finding ways to capture the energy from all of the water sloshing around the globe.

The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that there’s hypothetically as much as 20,000 to 80,000 Terawatt hours of potential electricity generation in the silent seas waiting to be tapped from established technologies like offshore wind and newer tech including tidal stream and wave energy converters. Further on the horizon are ocean thermal energy conversion tech and companies generating power from the salinity gradient in the sea.

In all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up by the United Nations believes that ocean-based mitigation options could reduce nearly 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030 and 11 billion tons by 2050. That’s more than all of the emissions from coal-fired power plants worldwide or the total emissions from China (back in 2014).

The IPCC estimates that ocean power could slash the emissions gap by 21% between now and 2050.

The figure to the left provides emissions projections of various electricity supply technologies, with ocean energy resulting in the least lifecycle emissions.

Solving the problem of capturing ocean power requires rugged systems that can handle one of the most harsh environments on earth. For many investors it’s been too difficult to see their way clear to financing new technology focused on the ocean.

“Stay away from wave power,” one investor said. “Too expensive, and too corrosive an environment.”

CalWave is one company that’s diving headfirst into solving the problem. With a novel device that already has backing from the Department of Energy, the company has launched a pilot of its first device off the coast of California in the waters near San Diego.

“Wave energy devices are no different than wind turbines or other hydro turbines. It’s a kinetic device that captures a renewable resource to produce electricity. At the highest systems engineering level, the functions to make a technology viable are the same,” said Marcus Lehmann, the chief executive of CalWave in a statement announcing the company’s pilot. “For us, capital efficiency means that any system must be able to reduce primary loads from storm waves just like pitch and yaw control, a critical feature of our modern wind turbines.”

Beyond its San Diego project, CalWave has been tapped as one of several companies to participate in the Oregon wave power demonstration facility called PacWave.

That 25 megawatt test facility is the first of its kind in the US and a significant step forward for an industry that has been adrift, because of technical challenges and a lack of support.

It’s in stark contrast to Europe and the UK, where marine power test facilities at Orkney in Scotland have been operating since 2003 and have yielded startups like Mocean Energy and Orbital Marine Power.

“We need time and reliable long-term federal financial support to get more devices in the water,” Oregon State University’s Bryson Robertson told CNBC.

“The lack of ability for marine energy systems to quickly, repeatedly and cost effectively test is holding the industry back,” he said. That means sites like PacWave are “incredibly important.”

Marine energy resources around the US is around 2,300 Terawatt hours per year, or about 57% of the total power generated in the US in 2019, according to the DOE. With the addition of Pacific and Caribbean island nations that number rises to 6,400 Terawatt hours of power. That’s part of the opportunity that CalWave, and other businesses including Columbia Power Technologies, and Oscilla Power.

There’s more power waiting to be tapped in the rivers that traverse North America and Natel Energy is looking to spin up its technology to capture it.

The company, which recently raised $20 million from investors, is working with the hydropower project developer, Nelson Energy, to install its new hydropower generators on sites along the Red River in Louisiana that’s controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.

For this project, Natel is planning to install between 60 and 90 hydro turbines to retrofit three existing dams and add 80 megawatts of renewable power to the grid.

The company estimates that’s enough energy to power roughly 35,960 average US homes.

energy
© Flickr/Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Let’s go nuclear

Talking about nuclear power is inarguably a great way to start an argument in climate circles.

But, if the goal is reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, consider this: last year the US power sector emitted about 1 pound of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of energy produced, meanwhile, emissions from power in France were around one-tenth of a pound. The reason? Nuclear power.

French President Emmanuel Macron is doubling down on nuclear power in the country in the face of the current energy crisis, as the Financial Times reported.

He committed that the country will invest the equivalent of $1.2 billion in nuclear power by the end of the decade.

“The number one objective is to have innovative small-scale nuclear reactors in France by 2030 along with better waste management,” Macron said. “We will continue to need this technology.”

France isn’t the only nation looking to exploit the nuclear option. Korea, Russia, and the UAE are all on board for massive nuclear projects. In the UAE the Barakah reactor will provide up to 25% of the nation’s power once all the switches get flipped on the four reactors which will provide upwards of 5 gigawatts of energy.

“The Russians have been going crazy,” one energy insider familiar with the nuclear industry said. “There are factories where they’re building out reactor vessels.” These are floating 32 megawatt power plants on barges that they can bring to port towns in places like Siberia and provide power.*

Despite setbacks, the US is also forging ahead with a new nuclear program thanks to companies like the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, X-Energy, and earlier-stage startups like Oklo, which is hoping to build a very small test reactor at the Idaho national laboratory.

Both TerraPower and X-Energy have received awards from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which will see the government split the cost with utilities to build new nuclear power plants.

By directly splitting the cost with companies, government hopes to avoid the obstacles that have snarled plans for the first construction of a new reactor in the US. Eight of the 36 utilities that were intended to support the construction of a reactor from NuScale Power backed out of the deal.

NuScale is still moving ahead with plans to sell its reactors — in Poland.

With their new reactor designs NuScale, TerraPower and X-Energy are all trying to do the same thing —make the process of building nuclear reactors repeatable, safe, and economical.

These new reactor designs are inherently more efficient and safer than earlier reactor models, said the industry expert.

“The idea behind this… when you build the first ones, you’re setting up the infrastructure to build hundreds more behind the first ones,” he said. Companies expect their first reactors to come online and be generating power in the next five to seven years.

Unlike the massive reactors built in the 60s and 70s, the new models can be mass produced where businesses just set up a production line and begin making them. Companies get production licenses for the plant to make the reactors and that plant can supply multiple power plants, according to the expert.

With enough political will, the US could decarbonize its entire electricity sector using nuclear power — just like the French (who were able to basically remove carbon from their energy sector in 15 years).

Looking further into the future, there’s an even brighter vision for a nuclear future that’s waste free. Private investors are pouring hundreds of millions dollars into companies developing fusion reactors. These technologies hold promise, the first reactors won’t be online until the end of the decade (at the earliest).

All of the above

None of these technologies alone will provide a smooth transition to a fully emission-free economy, but some combination of all of them have to be part of the solution.

Investors may quibble over specifics around the viability of some of these solutions (one investor, referencing Energy Vault, told me you’d “need a shit tonne of blocks and space to actually store energy”), but they’re in agreement that all of them are vital.

Some of these, like wave and ocean energy, have long been seen as uneconomic and may only work in niche applications. Others, like Form, Antora, and the energy storage applications broadly require renewable energy inputs to be successful (and clean).

The critical factor is providing the funding to see these technologies piloted and de-risked as quickly as possible. Which, for all of the disappointments that may come from the watered down infrastructure legislation that may finally make its way out of Congress, is a lever that government and private industry can still pull.

“Technologies are great ,” the investor said, “but then a lot of this will be subject to public perception, location, and utility funding which can only really justify investments in de-risked tech that lowers total electricity cost.”

*An earlier version of this piece quoted an industry insider who said that the Russian floating reactors were 200 to 300 MW. Those reactors are land-based and are under development. They have yet to be deployed.

by Foot.Notes by FootPrint Coalition

climate

The FootPrint Coalition, founded by Robert Downey Jr, is a coalition of investors, donors, and storytellers committed to spreading the word about technologies to restore the planet. It acts as a hub where leading scientists can share their research and engage directly with their audience to support it.
With collective inspiration, imagination, and ingenuity, the FootPrint Coalition aims to achieve the overarching goal of restoring the environment. That is why aware_ is pleased to feature two articles from FootNotes, a new publication from the FootPrint Coalition.

For more entertaining and informative content about technologies to restore our planet, visit: https://www.footprintcoalition.com

Looking at a future full of wildfires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornados, derechos, and “hundred year” freezes once every ten years or less, a generation of workers are turning their attention to address the climate crisis.

In ways large and small, climate jobs are becoming more desirable and the workforce is more willing to adapt to a changing climate.

A recent study from Pew Research showed that in North America about 75% of Canadians and Americans said they were willing to make changes to reduce the effects of climate change. And the general view from the U.S. is that the country is failing to adequately address the climate emergency.

That’s why Gen-Z is stepping up, according to reporting in The Guardian.

“Once you learn how damaged the world’s ecosystems are, it’s not really something you can unsee,” says Rachel Larrivee, 23, a sustainability consultant based in Boston, told the publication. “To me, there’s no point in pursuing a career — or life for that matter — in any other area.”

The shift to confront climate challenges is happening as the demand for jobs in sustainable energy grows stronger each year.

Bureau of Labor statistics indicate that wind power and solar power installation and maintenance jobs will be among the fastest growing careers over the next decade.

And new technology companies are coming to market with solutions for everything from potential climate-related coffee shortages (ahem, Compound Foods and Atomo) to new ways to make meats and cheeses (our portfolio companies Atlast Food Co. and Nobell Foods come to mind).

There are even startups to help job hunters sort through the slew of new tech companies and opportunities for climate related jobs. They’re businesses like ClimateScape, ClimateBase, and The GreenJobs Board.

Colleges and universities are getting into the act, with schools like The University of Southern California in Los Angeles, launching the Sustainability Across the Curriculum program earlier this year to teach the college’s 20,000 undergraduate students how their majors intersect with sustainability and the environment, as The Guardian reported.

Over 60 percent of USC students were “very interested” in sustainability on-campus, while 27 percent of students described themselves as interested in campus sustainability, according to this 2020 USC survey.

There are businesses here too that are hoping to capitalize on alternative education to cultivate climate career paths.

Terra.do is one company that’s working on helping people get educated and get employed in the world of climate tech. The early stage startup wants to be the hub for climate education for the tech and investment world, with a stated goal of getting 100 million climate-conscious people substantially working on climate change solutions relevant to them by 2030.

It’s a great goal, considering that the transition to clean energy represents a $23 trillion opportunity by 2030, and a whole mess of folks are going to need to be trained on how to spend that money wisely.

climate
© Flickr/Elizabeth Stillwell

While Terra.do is focused primarily on the white collar work that needs to be done, another startup, Julius, is focused on helping companies onboard and train the next generation of workers focused on building back physical infrastructure and managing it better.

“There’s this massive changing world of work and there’re these huge environmental needs.There’s been a lot of attention paid to the technology side of things and not the people side of things,” said Julius co-founder Matthew Evans. “We don’t think the climate goals are achievable without the right thinking about the workforce and who is going to really effectuate this.”

Julius was founded to help employers navigate the green transition, Evans said. Given the labor shortage there’s increasing pressure on employers to market themselves to prospective job-seekers and folks are looking for options that can be more fulfilling, according to the Julius founder.

“Connecting learning to careers is something that universities and community colleges struggle with. The number one thing that people are looking for beyond compensation is that they’re investing in their future. This need for career advancement and a sense of what my future could be is a fundamental need and desire for folks.”

Politicians are also hoping to channel the demand for green jobs and interest in climate careers into the proposed Civilian Climate Corps.

Advocates like Tonya Gayle, the executive director of a New York-based nonprofit that preps young residents in public housing for careers in solar installation and wind farm development, said that the program could be worthwhile — if it’s linked to community initiatives.

“The people in the communities know what’s best in terms of solutions,” Ms. Gayle told The New York Times. “National service in a civilian climate corps is a powerful thing.”

Meanwhile, some Congressional members think that the best way to finance and funnel new employees into clean jobs is to use existing training programs and mechanisms.

But Congressional proponents of the bill disagree.

“Tens of thousands of young people are going to be working to future-proof our country,” Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts told the Times. He hoped the Civilian Climate Corps “will become part of the personality of the country in terms of how a whole new generation views climate change.”

Environmental scientists and lawyers can expect to make median salaries of $73,000 and $122,000 per year, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited by The Guardian. And at 8% growth rates, environmental science and other related specialist fields are seeing higher levels of demand than other career paths.

Folks working on urban farms can make roughly $71,160 and “modern farmers” at the vertical farms that are now being built by startups like Plenty and Bowery Farming make roughy $14–$15 per hour, according to Glassdoor.

“I decided to pursue this industry because I think I’m in the first generation who knows the extent to which climate change poses an existential threat to life on Earth, and also the last generation who may be able to do anything about it,” Larrivee, told The Guardian.

by Foot.Notes by FootPrint Coalition

climate

The FootPrint Coalition, founded by Robert Downey Jr, is a coalition of investors, donors, and storytellers committed to spreading the word about technologies to restore the planet. It acts as a hub where leading scientists can share their research and engage directly with their audience to support it.
With collective inspiration, imagination, and ingenuity, the FootPrint Coalition aims to achieve the overarching goal of restoring the environment. That is why aware_ is pleased to feature two articles from FootNotes, a new publication from the FootPrint Coalition.

For more entertaining and informative content about technologies to restore our planet, visit: https://www.footprintcoalition.com