Emissions models can understate the difficulty of rapidly reducing carbon dioxide this decade
The surprise climate bill’s electricity provisions would help the country surge toward its emissions reduction goals
On Monday, the Biden administration announced a suite of policy changes intended to boost the use of solar power within the US. While each individual policy change is relatively minor, combined, the changes address everything from manufacturing and importing to installation and integration with the power grid. While the administration is continuing to try to negotiate a deal that expands renewable energy via legislation, none of the initiatives announced today requires anything beyond executive action.
Who makes the panels?
At present, China dominates the manufacturing of solar cells and panels. But the Trump administration included solar hardware in its tariff war with the country. The Biden administration chose to eliminate the tariffs on the solar cells most often used in utility-scale installations but maintained them on other classes of cells. Complicating matters further, the US Commerce Department recently started an investigation into whether other countries in Asia were being used as conduits to ship panels around the tariffs.
Combined, these issues raised worries that tariffs would limit the growth of solar in the US, which is a problem given that it’s the cheapest way to generate power in many areas of the country and is central to the government’s plans to limit carbon emissions.
’’About a year ago, President Joe Biden set an ambitious climate target: The US should cut its greenhouse gas emissions roughly in half by 2030. That’s consistent with what we’d need to do to reach some of the goals of the Paris Agreement, but it provides very little time to get our emissions under control.
That raises some obvious questions. Is it even possible? If so, how? To find out, a group of energy experts used six different models of the US energy economy, tasking each with reaching a state where emissions are consistent with our goals. The good news is that all the models provide routes to getting there. While the exact details vary from model to model, their common features strongly hint at where our focus needs to be.
Greenhouse gas emissions come primarily from energy use, both for generating electricity and powering transportation. Industrial processes can also release either carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gasses, some of which have an even higher warming potential. It’s possible to track the costs and benefits of altering the weight of each of these sources. In some cases, it can involve switching an industrial process to alternate materials or from fossil fuels to a renewable source. Alternately, it could include offsetting continued emissions through things like carbon capture or reforestation.
Earth Day was April 22, and its usual message—take care of our planet—has been given added urgency by the challenges highlighted in the latest IPCC report. This year, Ars is taking a look at the technologies we normally cover, from cars to chipmaking, and finding out how we can boost their sustainability and minimize their climate impact.
In South America’s Atacama Desert, salt flats are dotted with shallow, turquoise-colored lithium brine pools. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children chip at the ground for cobalt. In China, toxic chemicals leach neodymium from the earth.
This is the energy mineral rush. People around the world are scrambling, drilling, drying, and sifting to get at a range of metals needed for our energy transition. Renewable energy technologies are central to the fight against climate change, but they’re heavily reliant on minerals—naturally occurring, solid materials made from one or more elements. But extracting and refining them presents humanitarian, environmental, and logistical challenges.
Any kid who’s ever flown a kite has learned the lesson: Once you can get the kite off the ground and high into the air, you’re more likely to find a steady breeze to keep it aloft.
A fledgling wind power industry is taking that lesson to heart. Flying massive kites 200 meters or more above the ground, companies are using the wind they find there to generate electricity.
At least 10 firms in Europe and the United States are developing variations of this kind of kite power. If they succeed, kites could make it possible to build wind farms on land that isn’t windy enough for conventional wind turbine towers. Kites might also be a better choice for offshore wind power, and one day could even replace at least some anchored towers now in use.
Compared to fossil fuel plants, renewable power facilities cover a lot of ground. That ground can be put to additional uses; many wind farms are also farms, and even solar plants can work well with agriculture. But these sorts of developments are definitely not compatible with conserving sensitive habitats for wildlife or plants. Even wind farms, which have a relatively small on-ground footprint, require access roads and regular servicing.
Early studies on the matter suggest this might be a serious problem, as they found that a number of renewable power facilities had been built on land that had been identified as a sensitive habitat. But new work from researchers at the University of Southampton indicates that the problem isn’t as severe as it seems. The actual footprint of existing wind and solar farms on sensitive habitats is small and should be able to be kept small in most countries.
To understand present problems, you must have an idea of what land has been developed and what needs to be conserved. The researchers used two different sources to identify the footprints of current renewable power facilities. For sensitive habitats, the team started with a database of all existing protected areas. It supplemented that with maps of the ranges of all land vertebrates listed as threatened on the “Red List,” as well as the World Wildlife Fund’s list of ecoregions. The protected areas were considered a starting point, and areas for potential expansion were identified based on their ability to protect the most threatened species.
With the rapid pace of development in electric vehicles, we will likely get to a place where eliminating carbon emissions from one form of transport is possible. But cleaning up the remaining major modes—planes, trains, and ships—appears to be considerably more challenging. A new analysis suggests we have a good idea of how to improve one of those.
The study, performed by California-based researchers, looks at the possibility of electrifying rail-based freight. It finds that the technology is pretty much ready, and under the right circumstances, the economics are on the verge of working out. Plus, putting giant batteries on freight cars has the potential to create some interesting side benefits.
Giving freight a jolt
Right now, most freight in the US is moved by diesel-powered locomotives. In a typical year, these locomotives produce about 35 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, and the rest of the pollutants they make are estimated to cause 1,000 premature deaths and $6.5 billion in health damages.
The US is expected to burn 22 percent more coal than last year, marking the first annual increase in the use of the polluting fossil fuel since 2014, the Energy Information Administration said.
“The US electric power sector has been generating more electricity from coal-fired power plants this year as a result of significantly higher natural gas prices and relatively stable coal prices,” the government agency said. Coal is selling for record prices, though, and economists say that skyrocketing energy costs are fueling inflation.
President Joe Biden has set a target of reducing economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 50–52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. The news is a setback for those plans, but the EIA predicts that the bump in coal use will be transitory, with 2022 consumption down 5 percent from this year.
Chinese President Xi Jinping used his speech to the United Nations General Assembly to announce a major new step towards controlling global emissions. After reiterating his own country’s climate pledges, Xi said that China would start making it easier for other countries to keep emissions in check: new support for renewable energy projects and an end to construction of coal plants.
China finances a lot of infrastructure projects in developing economies as part of its foreign policy efforts; these often have the side benefits of involving Chinese companies and engineers. When these projects involved production of electricity, they often involved China’s most heavily used source: coal. As such, the number of coal plants slated for construction in the developing world was large and raised legitimate questions about the prospect of meeting any global carbon emissions targets.
China had already committed to having its emissions peak at the end of this decade and to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. But until this point, its development banks were continuing to finance coal plants, and its companies would often construct them. In a recorded speech played at the UN today, however, Xi indicated that this would stop: “China will step up support for other developing countries in developing green and low-carbon energy and will not build new coal-fired power projects abroad.”
In order to support a buildout of renewable energy, which tends to over-generate electricity at certain times of day and under-generate at others, the grid is going to need a lot of batteries. While lithium-ion works fine for consumer electronics and even electric vehicles, battery startup EnerVenue says it developed a breakthrough technology to revolutionize stationary energy storage.
The technology itself – nickel-hydrogen batteries – isn’t actually new. In fact, it’s been used for decades in aerospace applications, to power everything from satellites to the International Space Station and the Hubble Telescope. Nickel-hydrogen had been too expensive to scale for terrestrial applications, until Stanford University professor (and now EnerVenue chairman) Yi Cui determined a way to adapt the materials and bring the costs way, way down.
Nickel-hydrogen has a number of key benefits over lithium-ion, according to EnerVenue: it can withstand super-high and super-low temperatures (so no need for air conditioners or thermal management systems); it requires very little to no maintenance; and it has a far longer lifespan.
The technology has caught the eye of two giants in the oil and gas industry, energy infrastructure company Schlumberger and Saudi Aramco’s VC arm, who together with Stanford University have raised $100 million in Series A funding. The investment comes around a year after EnerVenue raised a $12 million seed. The company is planning on using the funds to scale its nickel-hydrogen battery production, including a Gigafactory in the U.S., and has entered a manufacturing and distribution agreement with Schlumberger for international markets.
“I spent almost three and a half years prior to EnerVenue looking for a battery storage technology that I thought could compete with lithium-ion,” CEO Jorg Heinemann told TechCrunch in a recent interview. “I had essentially given up.” Then he met with Cui, who had managed through his research to bring the cost down from around $20,000 per kilowatt hour to $100 per kilowatt hour within line of sight – a jaw-dropping decrease that puts it on-par with existing energy storage technology today.
Think of a nickel-hydrogen battery as a kind of battery-fuel cell hybrid. It charges by building up hydrogen inside a pressure vessel, and when it discharges, that hydrogen gets reabsorbed in water, Heinemann explained. One of the key differences between the batteries in space and the one’s EnerVenue is developing on Earth is the materials. The nickel-hydrogen batteries in orbit use a platinum electrode, which Heinemann said accounts for as much as 70% of the cost of the battery. The legacy technology also uses a ceramic separator, another high cost. EnerVenue’s key innovation is finding new, low-cost and Earth-abundant materials (though the exact materials they aren’t sharing).
Heinemann also hinted that an advanced team within the company is working on a separate technology breakthrough that could bring the cost down even further, to the range of around $30 per kilowatt hour or less.
Those aren’t the only benefits. EnerVenue’s batteries can charge and discharge at different speeds depending on a customer’s needs. It can go from a 10-minute charge or discharge to as slow as a 10-20 hour charge-discharge cycle, though the company is optimizing for a roughly 2 hour charge and 4-8 hour discharge. EnerVenue’s batteries are also designed for 30,000 cycles without experiencing a decline in performance.
“As renewables get cheaper and cheaper, there’s lots of time of the day where you’ve got, say, a 1-4-hour window of close to free power that can be used to charge something, and then it has to be dispatched fast or slow depending on when the grid needs it,” he said. “And our battery does that really well.”
It’s notable that this round was funded by two companies that loom large in the oil and gas industry. “I think it’s nearly 100% of the oil and gas industry is now pivoting to renewables in a huge way,” Heinemann added. “They all see the future as, the energy mix is shifting. We’re going to be 75% renewable by mid-century, most think it’s going to happen quicker, and those are based on studies that the oil and gas industry did. They see that and they know they need a new play.”
Don’t expect nickel-hydrogen to start appearing in your iPhone anytime soon. The technology is big and heavy – even scaled down as much as possible, a nickel-hydrogen battery is still around the size of a two-liter water flask, so lithium-ion will definitely still play a major role in the future.
Stationary energy storage may have a different future. EnerVenue is currently in “late-stage” discussions on the site and partner for a United States factory to produce up to one gigawatt-hour of batteries annually, with the goal of eventually scaling even beyond that. Heinemann estimates that the tooling cap-ex per megawatt hour should be just 20% that of lithium ion. Under the partnership with Schlumberger, the infrastructure company will also be separately manufacturing batteries and selling them in Europe and the Middle East.
“It’s a technology that works today,” Heinemann said. “We’re not waiting on a technology breakthrough, there’s no science project in our future that we have to go achieve in order to prove out something. We know it works.”
Kevala, the startup that collects and analyzes energy grid infrastructure data for utility companies, renewable energy providers, EV charging companies, regulators and other energy industry stakeholders, has raised $21 million in a Series A round.
The company says it will use the funds to grow its team from 60 employees to around 100 by the end of 2021 and increase the deployment of its grid analytics tools.
Kevala’s Assessor Platform, its interactive cloud-based grid analytics toolbox, allows a range of energy industry stakeholders to leverage massive quantities of data the company has collected from public sources, as well as from its clients, in order to predict and plan for things like “extreme weather events, renewable energy adoption and increasing demand from vehicle, building and industry electrification,” according to a statement released by the company.
Today, there is a greater range of energy sources and receptors than ever before. There’s also more extreme weather conditions, with the latest power outages in New Orleans due to Hurricane Ida being a prime example of ways the current grid system falls short. Visualization software that uses AI to cross reference not only demand on the grid but also other relevant information, like demographics of a specific location, maps of electrical wires and locations of solar panels, is going to be essential for managing it all. Google’s moonshot arm, X, is starting to move into this space via a recent partnership with AES, an electricity distributor. The two will work together to simulate and virtualize AES’s distribution grids in Indiana and Ohio. While Google has big business muscle behind it, Kevala has been working in this space since 2014 and is potentially poised to become an industry leader.
“Kevala has first mover advantage in providing comprehensive big data analytics on grid infrastructure,” said Zulfe Ali, managing partner at C5 Capital, in a statement. C5 Capital’s fund focused on data-driven technologies transforming critical infrastructure, C5 Impact Partners LP, led the Series A round alongside Thin Line Capital. Senior energy sector executives Tom Werner, current chairman and former CEO of SunPower Corp., and Mark Ferron, former California Public Utilities Commissioner, also participated in the round.
“We’re incredibly excited to partner with the company as it expands into new markets such as cybersecurity and national security, as well as new geographies outside of the United States,” continued Ali.
Kevala already has nearly the entire country mapped in terms of above-ground distribution infrastructure, and is working on expanding its coverage internationally. The company’s data set, which Kevala founder and CEO Aram Shumavon says is in the terabytes range, is largely sourced from publicly available data. That can mean data that’s observable from satellite imagery or found in building permits that allow the company to see things like where wind turbines are located or where rooftop photovoltaic (PV), or solar powered, systems are.
“We can take all the houses in a localized area, check it against the weather, and see what the energy consumption will be, what do we think the PV production would be for all of the PVs on those rooftops, and you can start to see how investments in different technologies will affect the overall loading and utilization of the grid and begin to better understand how resources could be utilized to drive cost savings, or alternatively, might increase the cost of that infrastructure as a whole,” Shumavon told TechCrunch.
During a walkthrough of Kevala’s dashboard, Shumavon explained how energy industry stakeholders might be able to, say, predict which neighborhood might see an increase in EV ownership based on household income and other demographics data. From there, visualizing the ratio of electricity to rooftop PVs to other renewable energy is helpful in predicting power usage, but Shumavon took it a step further by playing out a scenario of placing a battery in that location.
“Could I reduce the cost of the grid in this area by limiting the need for building out new infrastructure in the form of wires, and instead shifting that load to another period of time?” said Shumavon. “And that savings can be also calculated for any investment that might be able to provide a similar service, whether it’s a battery or an investment in an energy efficiency measure, or potentially a rooftop PV system or a demand response program where you agree to not charge your car during peak hours.”
That’s just one example of the types of analyses Kevala is performing everyday. The startup also hopes to increase its cybersecurity services to help protect grid infrastructure. Shumavon said one area Kevala is particularly interested in is third-party devices that have the ability to be compromised and potentially used to destabilize the grid. For example, someone with malicious intent might hack into thousands of IoT-connected washing machines and suddenly turn on all of the heating coils in the machine, creating a drastically increased load that can affect both the supply and demand of electricity.
Monitoring a situation like this is usually outside the control of traditional utility control systems, but Shumavon says through overseeing energy use data, Kevala is able to observe anomalies and mitigate them when they happen, as well as plan for attacks on the horizon so stakeholders are ready with an appropriate response. Kevala is also focusing on data privacy.
“We’re seeing increasingly large amounts of information about end-use customers become potentially available when they use electricity and how advanced metering infrastructure, like smart meters, can contain very detailed information about when people consume electricity and how much,” said Shumavon. “Being able to make sure if those data need to be used by third parties that they’re not revealing information that would be considered personally identifiable is another area where we provide service, which is a strong corollary to cybersecurity work. We really see cybersecurity and privacy as two sides of the same coin.”
The push for renewable energy has brought offshore wind power to the forefront of many an energy company’s agenda, and that means taking a very close look at the ocean floor where the installations are to go. Fortunately Bedrock is here to drag that mapping process into the 21st century with its autonomous underwater vehicle and modern cloud-based data service.
The company aims to replace the standard “big ship with a big sonar” approach with a faster, smarter, more modern service, letting companies spin up regular super-accurate seafloor imagery as easily as they might spin up a few servers to host their website.
“We believe we’re the first cloud-native platform for seafloor data,” said Anthony DiMare, CEO and cofounder (with CTO Charlie Chiau) of Bedrock. “This is a big data problem — how would you design the systems to support that solution? We make it a modern data service, instead of like a huge marine operation — you’re not tied to this massive piece of infrastructure floating in the water. Everything from the way we move sonars around the ocean to the way we deliver the data to engineers has been rethought.”
The product Bedrock provides customers is high-resolution maps of the seafloor, made available via Mosaic, a familiar web service that does all the analysis and hosting for you — a big step forward for an industry where “data migration” still means “shipping a box of hard drives.”
Normally, DiMare explained, this data was collected, processed, and stored on the ships themselves. Since they were designed to do everything from harbor inspections to deep sea surveys, they couldn’t count on having a decent internet connection, and the data is useless in its raw form. Like any other bulky data, it needs to be visualized and put in context.
“These datasets are extremely large, tens of terabytes in size,” said DiMare. “Typical cloud systems aren’t the best way to manage 20,000 sonar files.”
The current market is more focused on detailed, near-shore data than the deep sea, since there’s a crush to take part in the growing wind energy market. This means that data is collected much closer to ordinary internet infrastructure and can be handed off for cloud-based processing and storage more easily than before. That in turn means the data can be processed and provided faster, just in time for demand to take off.
As DiMare explained, while there may have been a seafloor survey done in the last couple decades of a potential installation site, that’s only the first step. An initial mapping pass might have be made to confirm the years-old maps and add detail, then another for permitting, for environmental assessments, engineering, construction, and regular inspections. If this could be done with a turnkey automated process that produced even better results than crewed ships for less money, it’s a huge win for customers relying on old methods. And if the industry grows as expected to require more active monitoring of the seafloor along every U.S. coast, it’s a win for Bedrock as well, naturally.
To make this all happen, of course, you need a craft that can collect the data in the first place. “The AUV is a piece of technology we built solely to enable a data product,” said DiMare, but noted that, originally, “we didn’t want to do this.”
“We started to spec out what it looked like to use an off the shelf system,” he explained. “But if you want to build a hyper-scalable, very efficient system to get the best cost per square meter, you need a very specific set of features, certain sonars, the compute stack… by the time we listed all those we basically had a self-designed system. It’s faster, it’s more operationally flexible, you get better data quality, and you can do it more reliably.”
And amazingly, it doesn’t even need a boat — you can grab it from the back of a van and launch it from a pier or beach.
“From the very beginning one of the restrictions we put on ourselves was ‘no boats.’ And we need to be able to fly with this thing. That totally changed our approach,” said DiMare.
The AUV packs a lot into a small package, and while the sensor loadout is variable depending on the job, one aspect that defines the craft is its high-frequency sonar.
Sonars operate in a wide range of frequencies, from the hundreds to the hundreds of thousands of hertz. Unfortunately that means that ocean-dwelling creatures, many of which can hear in that range, are inundated with background noise, sometimes to the point where it’s harmful or deters them from entering an area. Sonar operating about 200 kHz is safe for animals, but the high frequency means the signal attenuates more quickly, reducing the range to 50-75 meters.
That’s obviously worthless for a ship floating on the surface — much of what it needs to map is more than 75 meters deep. But if you could make a craft that always stayed within 50 meters of the seabed, it’s full of benefits. And that’s exactly what Bedrock’s AUV is designed to do.
The increased frequency of the sonar also means increased detail, so the picture its instruments paint is better than what you’d get with a larger wave. And because it’s safe to use around animals, you can skip the (very necessary but time-consuming) red tape at wildlife authorities. Better, faster, cheaper, and safer is a hell of a pitch.
Today marks the official launch of Mosaic, and to promote adoption Bedrock is offering 50 gigs of free storage — of any kind of compatible map data, since the platform is format-agnostic.
There’s a ton of data out there that’s technically “public” but is nevertheless very difficult to find and use. It may be a low-detail survey from two decades ago, or a hyper-specific scan of an area investigated by a research group, but if it were all in one place it would probably be a lot more useful, DiMare said.
“Ultimately we want to get where we can do the whole ocean on a yearly basis,” he concluded. “So we’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“This is an idea that’s older than even the space program,” Caltech’s Harry Atwater told Ars over Zoom. Citing Asimov and Clarke, Atwater conjured an image of gleaming solar panels floating above the Earth on a large metal truss, all wired in to hardware that converts the current to a form suitable to beam back down to Earth. Unlimited clean power, delivered around the clock.
He then went on to explain why the system he was working on would end up looking nothing like that vision, even if it would ultimately accomplish the same thing.
A long gestation
In August, Caltech announced that a member of its board of trustees had given over $100 million meant to foster the development of space-based power. The timing was somewhat odd, given that the donor, Donald Bren, had started the process over a decade ago. At the time, Bren had described his interest in space-based power to the university administration, which began identifying faculty who had research interests that might be relevant to the project.
IKEA won’t just sell you smart lights — it’ll soon sell you the electricity to power those lights, provided you live in the right country. Electrek notes that IKEA has revealed plans to sell clean energy to Swedish homes through a Strömma subscription service. Pay the (as yet unmentioned) fee and you’ll get certified solar- or wind-generated electricity with usage you can track through a mobile app.
The home furnishings giant didn’t say whether it would expand the clean energy sales to other countries, although it hoped to let people “use and generate” renewable energy in “all our Ingka Group markets” by 2025. The company already sells solar panels.
The retailer is no stranger to eco-friendly efforts. It stopped selling non-LED lights and will soon drop non-rechargeable alkaline batteries. It’s even planning to turn a Swedish city into a sustainable community. And there’s little doubt this will help burnish IKEA’s public image. It can address concerns about the chain’s environmental impact by serving as a clean energy source.
It’s still a significant move, though, and we wouldn’t be surprised if other larger stores followed suit. It’s not just a feel-good effort that could reduce emissions — sales of excess clean energy could recoup costs and boost profits.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Engadget.
If you were paying attention at the start of this century, you might remember the phrase “hydrogen economy,” which was shorthand for George W. Bush’s single, abortive attempt to take climate change seriously. At the time, hydrogen was supposed to be a fuel for vehicular transport, an idea that still hasn’t really caught on.
But hydrogen appears to be enjoying a revival of sorts, appearing in the climate plans of nations like the UK and Netherlands. The US government is investing in research on ways to produce hydrogen more cheaply. Are there reasons to think hydrogen power might be for real this time?
A new report by research service BloombergNEF suggests that hydrogen is set for growth—but not in transport. And the growth has some aspects that don’t actually make sense given the current economics.
It’s a little known fact that the carbon footprint of the technology sector is great than the entire aviation industry (Aalto University and LUT University). At the same time, tech companies (like many others) are generally attracted to carbon offsetting schemes which don’t actually remove carbon from the environment and are often riddled with flaws.
Only carbon removal offsets contribute towards net-zero because they actively take carbon out of the sky. And yet, so far there are very few schemes making carbon removal a focus, largely because only the biggest companies are able to play in this space, partly due to cost and the nascent nature of the technology.
This is where new startup Supercritical comes in.
The startup says its platform can help businesses get to net-zero by measuring their climate impact and selling high-impact carbon removal offsets.
It’s now raised a £2m / $2.7m in a pre-seed funding led by London’s LocalGlobe venture firm. The raise is also significant because the team was that which took Songkick to exit.
Supercritical says its platform assesses a company’s carbon impact, creates an actionable plan for reducing their emissions, and recommends a portfolio of high-quality carbon removal offsets for companies to purchase. It will effectively be building a marketplace of carbon removal projects such as enhanced weathering, bio-oil sequestration, and direct air capture.
Right now these technologies tend to be costly as many are so early in development, but the opportunity is for Supercritical to become a market-maker for these emerging solutions, aggregating demand to help them scale and innovate faster.
The startup already has clients including accuRx, Tide and what3words are already customers. Supercritical is also a member of the TechZero task force, a group of UK tech companies claiming to work toward NetZero Carbon impact.
Supercritical CEO and co-founder, Michelle You, said: “Businesses are rightly suspicious of traditional carbon offsetting options, which do nothing at best and at worst are outright fraud, but most companies lack the time and the expertise to find an adequate alternative. Our mission is to make it possible for any business to start the journey to net zero. Climate action can’t just be the reserve of the world’s biggest companies, and this is a crisis that can’t wait.”
Remus Brett, who led the investment from LocalGlobe, said: “Supercritical is providing a service that is as timely as it is essential. With COP26 approaching, the question of how businesses can meaningfully address their climate impact is a critical CEO issue. We are excited to be backing the exceptional team at Supercritical as they scale the only platform that helps companies focus their efforts on carbon removal rather than offsets.”
The startup is pushing at an open door. To keep warming below 1.5°C – one of the key goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement – at least 8 billion tonnes – of carbon needs to be removed from the atmosphere every year, so the voluntary carbon offset market is set to be worth at least $100bn by 2030, and that’s inside nine years.