To stay within the targeted limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, scientists insist that we need to reduce the carbon that’s already in the atmosphere as well as dropping new emissions to net-zero. In so far as fossil fuels—including coal, oil, and natural gas-- still supply 80% of the world’s energy needs (2020 numbers), it is clear that those emissions have to be cut at least in half by 2030.
The good news is that, according to the IPCC report (April, 2022), we can do it. Renewables are now significantly undercutting fossil fuels as the world’s cheapest source of energy, according to a new report. In a 2022 piece by Umair Irfan in Vox covering the final instalment of the IPCC report which examined tactics to mitigate climate change, the price of solar electricity has dropped 89% between 2009-2019. Onshore wind energy has also dropped in the past decade – by 70%. Of the wind, solar and other renewables that came on stream in 2020, nearly two-thirds – 62% -- were cheaper than the cheapest new fossil fuel. It is no surprise then, that projections from the EIA suggest solar power will account for 46% of new U.S. electric generating capacity, with wind at 17% and nuclear @ 5% in 2022.
The challenging news is that meeting that goal will, however, require major transitions in the energy sector. Existing clean energy technologies were, as recently as 2020, evaluated by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and four main decarbonization approaches were identified as significant if we were to reach our goals: electrification of end usage (particularly heating and transportation); carbon capture, utilization, and storage; low-carbon hydrogen and hydrogen fuels; and bioenergy. This is because, even if we cut most of our carbon emissions down to zero, the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere can affect climate for hundreds to thousands of years.
So, even as keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the surest known way to prevent further warming, the search is clearly on for other solutions. Scientists say we will not meet targets to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius without removing some of the CO2 we have already emitted. The IPCC projects between 100 billion and 1 trillion tons of CO2 would need to be removed this century.
The unsettling news is that, of the more than 400 technologies within those four categories identified by the IEA, few are on track to meet the necessary goals:
- In low-carbon electricity, where we have made important progress in solar, wind, geothermal, and nuclear generation, our infrastructure and use in industry is lagging. The development of long duration storage as a solution to extend the reach of renewable energy --otherwise limited by the amount of time the sun shines and the wind blows -- is not where anyone wants it to be--yet. Battery storage is critical in the transportation sector as the race is on to accelerate the speed by which electric vehicles can be charged AND accelerate the longevity of those batteries. This matters as individuals and communities search for ways to protect themselves from economic impacts and power outages. It matters to utilities as they search for solutions to provide reliability, integrate clean energy into the grid, and reduce the cost of energy. Lithium-ion batteries, which are both improving and becoming cheaper ( 97% in the past three decades ) are vital to the transportation sector because, as they become less expensive and more efficient, so do electric vehicles. Graphene aluminum-ion batteries are promising ever more improvements and cost efficiencies although not ideal for long-duration energy storage --yet. Adden Energy, a Harvard spinoff, announced in September 2022 a “game changing” new solid-state battery which promises, among other things, a 3-minute charge for electric vehicles.
- As far as carbon capture is concerned, there are two carbon removal strategies:
- One is biological and looks to the natural world for solutions, amplifying the carbon-capturing qualities of the ocean, forests, and sedimentary rocks, creating underwater kelp farms, planting trees, and expanding soil carbon sequestration. “Greening up agriculture” is a term entrepreneurs are using as they look to develop floating solar, the “air gen” system which makes electricity out of moisture in the air, and “perovskite-silicon cell which converts sunlight into electricity. There are even various large-scale schemes to intervene in the earth’s oceans, soils, and atmosphere being explored through climate geoengineering.
- The other is more technological or chemical. Direct air capture is designed to eliminate carbon, either by sucking it out of the air and storing it deep underground (sometimes called “carbon mineralization”) or by converting it into something else (fuel, for example). This technology has caught the attention of the business world and the government. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act offers massive tax credits to companies per ton of carbon they capture. At the end of the day, given carbon capture, removal, and storage’s long-term importance for the decarbonization of energy-intensive industries and reduction of historical emissions, the challenge lies in making them commercially viable, at scale, and swiftly.
- Another way to store renewable energy is by using electrolyzers to extract hydrogen from water. In this technology, engineers run an electric current through water and collect the hydrogen molecules that break off. These can be burned for heat, stored in fuel cells or turned into chemicals such as methane for processes that require fossil fuels. When the electrolyzer system is used to produce hydrogen as a fuel, the only emission is water vapor. This concept is better known as ‘Power-to-X’ --taking grid electricity (power) and turning it into something else. In this case the ‘X’ is hydrogen fuel. Hydrogen is also being looked at to decarbonize heavy industry --a high-polluting sector that has mostly been overlooked. The high heat needed to process industrial materials — such as concrete, iron, steel, and petrochemicals — is responsible for about 10 percent of global CO2 emissions, according to a report from the Centre on Global Energy Policy. Zero-carbon hydrogen is attracting attention not just for use in industrial transportation but also as chemical energy for industry.
- And, then there is bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) -- whereby plants are burned for energy at a power plant, which then captures and stores the resulting emissions so that the CO2 previously absorbed by the plants is removed from the atmosphere. It can then be used for enhanced oil recovery or injected into the earth where it is sequestered in geologic formations.
- Technologies and ventures that turn methane into biogas, known as renewable natural gas (RNG) are also taking off. Vanguard Renewables is, for example, partnering with companies like Unliever and Starbucks to turn their food and agricultural waste (including manure) into renewable natural gas and by-products such as fertilizer. Some of these investments will no doubt be controversial with climate activists, who are likely to argue (legitimately) that they perpetuate natural gas extraction processes.
- There is no doubt, however, that regulating methane gas is critical for advancing President Joe Biden’s goal to slash U.S. emissions in half from 2005 levels over the next decade and achieve a net-zero economy by 2050. In the challenge to cut gas leaks a number of companies are developing emission tracking tools:
- A new initiative called Climate TRACE, for example, is working on an app that can track all human-produced pollution and trace it to its source. TRACE’s goal to promote radical transmission transparency through publicly available, comprehensive data, could drive accountability on emission reductions as well as more accurately alert corporations, municipalities, and countries where they can cut emissions. They are not alone in working to harness satellite data into actionable information.
- The DoE has already awarded $5 million to LongPath Technologies, which is developing a methane gas detection network in the Permian Basin.
- Another high-profile project is Methane SAT, a satellite operation being launched by the Environmental Defense Fund. The organization’s launch partner is Elon Musk’s SpaceX rocket company, and the hope is to put a satellite into orbit in fall 2022. Infrared detection technology from Ball Aerospace will be on board.
- Another satellite network to watch is Carbon Mapper, which includes climate-tech firm Planet and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The first launch in its “constellation” of satellites for monitoring methane and CO2 is anticipated in 2023. (More on methane detectives.)
- And what of the group of industrial chemicals known as hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)? Used primarily for cooling and refrigeration, they are 3,790 times more damaging to the climate than carbon dioxide (CO2) over a 20-year period. Cooling accounts for more than 7% of global GHG emissions and is expected to triple as the earth heats up. In response, the Biden administration passed the AIM Act in 2021 directing the EPA to phase down production and consumption of HFCs in the U.S. by 85% over the next 15 years. While emerging methane innovations mainly seem to be about capturing, monitoring and reusing, there are dozens of entrepreneurs developing entirely new approaches to cooling --that sidestep HFCs.
Time is of the essence.
Overview of climate mitigation options and their estimated ranges of costs and potentials in 2030
Courtesy Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)