“An exciting, original approach how we can fast track the green economy and green finance by combining opportunity and responsibility in new compelling ways.”
—Terry Tamminen, Former Secretary, California Environmental Protection Agency and Chief Policy Advisor to the Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger
If we strip away the alarmism about a world polluted beyond redemption and a global civilization in catastrophic decline, the transformational new insight the simulation model in Limits to Growth offered in 1972 was this: how can a population can adjust to its habitat’s ultimate carrying capacity, given finite resources?
In today’s resource hungry economy and with a growing population, a logical way forward is to reduce the resource intensity. Ideally, one would run the economy in a closed loop, where resources are recycled and reused. This requires massive amounts of energy. The ability to provide energy from renewable resources becomes itself a critical constraint. As UNFCCC COP21/CMP11 kicks off next Monday in Paris, let us not forget that in a perfect world, renewables would turn out electricity at a few cents a kilowatt-hour (kWh), solar panels would capture energy at night, and storage solutions would compete with gasoline in terms of energy density and ability to release energy.
The good news is the power of science and entrepreneurship: a lot is possible though that until recently would have sounded like science fiction. What if mobile phones could be charged superfast in 30 seconds? Or electric cars in three minutes?
This may become reality in 2017: similar to proteins used by body builders to grow bigger faster, StoreDot—a start-up born from the nanotechnology department at Tel Aviv University (Israel)—used biological semiconductors made from naturally occurring organic compounds known as peptides—short chains of amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins—to accomplish this. The firm plans to release a fast-charging battery capable of replenishing an electric car to full in just three minutes in 2017.
If we are serious about accelerating the energy transition, formulating ambitious CO2 emissions reduction requirements is not enough. We also need to fulfill with commercially viable solutions. Allocating capital to core technologies creates this possibility in the first place, as discussed in detail in “Building the Impact Economy”—to bring technologies with breakthrough potential to market such as e.g. in solar photovoltaics next-generation solar cells and nano coating, or hydrogen on demand, and many others.
Marrying money and scientific prowess alone will not do the trick though. Governments also need to unblock the route to market by stepping up ARPA-E and Climate-KIC type programs funding the supply side of innovation, bearing in mind that:
Storage is essential to unlock the usefulness of intermittent sources of energy, but needs to move from linear to algorithmic progress in terms of performance and price.
Solar is a “staple crop” of the energy transition, but with the best commercial silicon module reaching efficiencies just above 20 percent, needs to deploy other more efficient technologies at scale. Remember the ‘solex’ in the James Bond movie “The Man with the Golden Gun,” released right after the first oil crisis? The ambition level is less crazy than it sounds. For example, applying quantum physics and nanotechnology to come up with a next-generation solar cell, one can develop a completely new way of harvesting solar energy without the band gap limitations of conventional solar cells. Their single element solar cell utilizes rectenna technology, which consists of an antenna and a diode combination. The nano scale antenna captures sunlight at a high efficiency and the diode then rectifies the energy into usable direct current. As the antennae can be tuned to respond to any frequency of solar radiation, the solution can utilize a wide spectrum of the sun’s energy. Efficiencies of well over 50 percent, perhaps even 70 percent, become possible.
Energy efficiency may be less “sexy” but easier to implement. More than three-fourths of the EU’s housing stock is energy inefficient. Service and residential buildings are currently responsible for 40 percent of energy consumption in Europe, ahead of transportation and the industrial sector. Just consider the power of marrying digital solutions with artificial intelligence to slash this figure.
E-mobility is essential, but needs to scale so to become more than entertainment. Storage is unnerving here as well. The major challenges today’s batteries face are cost, lifespan, safety, as well as performance over a wide temperature range (-30 to 52oC). The chemical energy stored in 1kg of coal is 24MJ/kg. Combusting this coal in a thermal power plant with an efficiency of 40 percent would correspond to a useful energy of 9.6MJ/kg of coal. By contrast, the energy density in the Tesla S model, perhaps the most advanced commercially, available Lithium-Ion technology corresponds to 233Wh/kg (0.84MJ/kg). Batteries currently used in hybrid and electric cars average only 150 Wh/kg, compared with gasoline’s 12,000Wh/kg (44MJ/kg).
The digital revolution is essential to smart production, transmission and use of energy, but it would be a mistake to forget to invest in hardware next to software. Today’s economy still benefits from inventions made more than fifty years ago such as the transistor or nanotechnology. We now need the next hardware breakthroughs.
Finally, unconventional energy technologies are harder to evaluate, but may hold interesting contributions in store. Consider low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR). LENR is a type of nuclear reaction theorized to occur at near room temperatures, thought to have roughly four orders of magnitude more specific energy and three orders magnitude greater peak power than gasoline.
Let us hope that the Paris talks starting next week do their share to contribute to a successful energy transition that occurs fast enough—while bearing in mind that UNFCCC is just one piece of a larger puzzle. We will not see a Mona Lisa emerge if we just focus on getting the nose right.
To look at another building block, stay with us for a look at what can be done in the resource hungry textile and garment industry, coming up in the next blog post of this series.