In 2015, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law that would see the state committing to renewable energy. The law gave California until 2030 to ensure 50 percent of its electricity came from renewable sources like the Sun and wind. At the time, Brown made it clear that fossil fuels are taking humanity down a dangerous path, despite their impact on getting us this far.
“We’ve got to realize that we are here today because of oil — oil and gas, [and] to a lesser extent, coal,” SFGate reported Brown saying. “What has been the source of our prosperity has become the source of our ultimate destruction, if we don’t get off of it.”
Now, only two years later, California is seemingly ahead of its own schedule. A recently released annual report from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) reveals the state is on track to meet its goal by 2020 — a full 10 years before the established deadline.
California Exceeds Expectations
According to the Renewables Portfolio Standard report, California’s three biggest utility providers — Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. (SDG&E) — all surpassed the 25 percent requirement for 2016. Renewables accounted for 32.9 percent of PG&E’s electricity; SCE reached 28.2 percent, while SDG&E reached 43.2 percent. Going forward, all three companies predict “they will meet or exceed their 2020 RPS compliance period requirements.”
As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, California has been pushing renewable energy since 2002, with both Governor Brown and former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger steadily raising the requirements over the years. Since 2008, California’s emissions have been on a decline, and it’s only expected to continue. It helps that the prices of both solar and wind contracts have dropped considerably, making it cheaper for companies to invest in renewables.
“The RPS program has helped achieve large reductions in cost for renewable electricity: between 2008 and 2016, the price of utility scale solar contracts reported to the CPUC have gone down 77%, and between 2007 and 2015 reported prices of wind contracts have gone down 47%.” In 2008, solar contracts were $135.90, but as of 2016 they’re priced at $29.17; in 2007, wind contracts were $97.11, but were as low as $50.99 as of 2015.
Most of us only think about UPS trucks when we’re expecting a parcel or wondering whether it’s true that they never make left turns. As the company’s senior vice President Bob Stoffel explained to Big Think, it is, in fact, the company’s practice to have drivers avoid making left turns to promote safety and fuel efficiency. According to an announcement made on Thursday, the company is forging ahead in their commitment to those goals with the intent to convert their New York city truck fleet from diesel to electric. UPS has partnered with Unique Electric Solutions LLC (UES LLC) to design, build, and test the converted vehicles.
“Public-private partnerships help push innovation forward and transform industries,” Carlton Rose, president for global fleet maintenance and engineering at UPS, said in a press release. The plan is also supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which is providing $500,000 for the development and testing of the conversion system.
The converted vehicles will use the UES-developed uniqueEV technology, whose vehicles supposedly have a single-charge range between 64.3 to 201 kilometers (40 to 125 miles). “This program will help UPS develop and deploy electric delivery trucks faster and more affordably. Because they are cleaner and quieter, electric vehicles are ideal for dense urban environments like New York City and are a critical part of our strategy for the future,” Rose added.
Supporting NYC’s Clean Energy Goals
The trucking industry is the latest to have joined the move towards electric vehicles, with long-haul delivery services anticipating electrification thanks to efforts by Tesla and Mercedes-Benz’ parent company Daimler AG. It seemed only a matter of time before parcel delivery services like UPS would join in on the trend, converting smaller delivery trucks into EVs. Royal Mail, the oldest postal service in the United Kingdom, has already started using electric vans for deliveries.
NYSERDA hopes to have the first production version out by spring of 2018, which would put the company on track to meet their goal of converting 1,500 UPS delivery trucks (66 percent of the NYC fleet) to electric by 2022. That’s in line with New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s goal of reducing the city’s carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030.
“This project is a prime example of the State’s investment in new and innovative technology that can help us meet Governor Cuomo’s nation-leading clean energy goals,” NYERDA president and CEO Alicia Barton said in a press statement. “I applaud UPS and Unique Electric Solutions for their leadership in developing this system that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and has tremendous potential to be used by the entire delivery industry.”
At the 75th International Cycle and Motorcycle Show (EICMA), The Piaggio Group — the Italian motorcycle maker behind the classic Vespa — finally revealed the initial design and details for its planned electric scooter. Dubbed the Vespa Elettrica (which is simply Italian for “electric Vespa”), the concept for this new, stylish scooter was previously announced at last year’s EICMA.
“Vespa Elettrica is not just an electric scooter, it is Vespa Elettrica,” according to a Piaggio press statement that accompanied the launch. The company added that it’s “a contemporary work of art with a technological heart.”
The Tesla model S is one of the most renowned electric vehicles on the market. The cheapest, 75D model, boasts an impressive range of 416 km (259 miles), while the 100D and P100D have ranges of 539 km (335 miles) and 506 km (315 miles), respectively. What if you wanted your Model S to go farther? Sure, you could stop and charge it at one of Tesla’s supercharger stations, but what if you didn’t have to stop and could instead drive for, say, another 500-600 km? All it would take is a little hydrogen.
As reported by The Drive, a gas supplier in the Netherlands called Holthausen Group managed to boost the maximum range of Tesla’s Model S by essentially hacking in a hydrogen power source. The company’s success at making an electric- and hydrogen-powered Tesla makes them the first in the world to do so. They even gave it an appropriate name: Project Hesla.
Since Tesla wasn’t involved in the process, the Model S was acquired second-hand. Getting the Model S to accept hydrogen as a fuel source wasn’t easy, with Holthausen Group engineer Max Holthausen calling the vehicle’s system “a big maze.” Holthausen had to develop and implement a workaround, which only upped the difficulty of the project.
In the end, the team made it work; the Hesla now utilizes two power sources. The first is the already-installed battery, and the second is the hydrogen stored in tanks installed inside the vehicle. It’s actually fairly simple to understand how this works: hydrogen molecules are pumped into a fuel cell, where an anode removes their electrons, which pass through a circuit to the battery to give it additional charge. The hydrogen (now ions) then pass into a cathode, where they are reunited with electrons, and bind with oxygen to form water, i.e., H2O, and exit the fuel cell. Compared to the Model S P100D’s aforementioned range of 506 km (315 miles), the Hesla’s incredibly efficient fuel cell allow it to travel nearly 1,000 km (620 miles) using a fully-charged battery and full supply of hydrogen.
Is Hydrogen the Way to Go?
Hydrogen has the potential to become a mass-produced alternative to gasoline and even electricity thanks to seawater and a specific aluminum alloy, but don’t go trying to convert your own Tesla — or any electric car — just yet.
First of all the incorporation of hydrogen power costs an inordinate amount of money. According to The Drive,the hydrogen conversion costs upwards of $58,000 dollars — tacked on top of the $79,500 Model S price tag. Then there’s the issue of replenishing the hydrogen supply. It’s not impossible, but not as convenient as recharging an electric car. There are only 39 hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., with most located on the West Coast — specifically California. The other four are in South Carolina (2 stations), Connecticut (1), and Massachusetts (1).
Despite the scarcity of refueling hydrogen tanks and the cost of the entire process, Holthausen is still moving forward with its Project Hesla. The company aims to perfect its prototype, to acquire more data over the next several months. If these tests provide pertinent information, it could give other companies that have invested in hydrogen-powered vehicles the technical savvy to catch up to the race. Of those presently relevant, Honda is releasing hydrogen cars, Toyota has a hydrogen-powered truck, and Mercedes Benz debuted its hydrogen-fueled SUV in September.
These cutting-edge companies constitute the first big automakers with fully-functional hydrogen vehicles on the road, but Holthausen and the Hesla could prompt still more ambitious parties to invest in hydrogen fuel in the near future.
According to Kiyotaka Ise, Toyota’s Chief Safety Technology Officer, the Japanese carmaker will be phasing out gas engines from their lineup, with a goal of ending production of all traditional internal combustion engines (ICE) by 2040. Ise shared the news during a press conference at the 2017 Tokyo Motor Show, saying that vehicles using solely ICE drivetrains wouldn’t align with Toyota’s goal of reducing their vehicles’ carbon dioxide emissions by 90 percent over 2010’s figures by 2050.
Ise’s statement about phasing out gas engines doesn’t mean Toyota will only produce all-electric vehicles (EVs) after 2040. Toyota’s efforts at energy efficiency and environmental sustainability include the creation of hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles as well as ones powered solely by electricity. To that end, Toyota launched an EV division earlier this year, and they’re testing a hydrogen fuel truck as a new addition to their hydrogen-powered vehicle lineup.
Toyota’s commitment to more environmentally friendly transportation options matches similar goals set by other car manufacturers, including BMW and Ford, in terms of timeline.
It’s also aligned with the future bans on combustion engine vehicles that have been announced by countries such as France, the Netherlands, Norway, India, Germany, and the U.K. No such ban on diesel- and gas-powered cars is planned for the U.S., but studies still predict 90 percent of vehicles in the nation will be electric by 2040.
The Netherlands has expressed a desire to end coal power by 2030, marking the beginning of the end for coal power plants in the European country.
The decision came from the new Dutch government earlier this week, which also announced plans to ban all petrol and diesel-powered cars by the same year. As reported by Megan Darby of Climate Home, the Netherlands will close all coal power plants by 2030, which includes three plants made in 2015 that are said to be more efficient that others. Despite their better performance, however, they quickly started to decrease in value in 2016.
In addition to phasing out coal, the Netherlands will also set a carbon floor price and seek deeper carbon cuts to make sure coal’s elimination doesn’t make it cheaper for companies to use coal elsewhere.
Making a Statement
In a report from the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), IEEFA energy finance consultant Gerard Wynn said the government’s announcement “sent a dramatic signal to electricity markets today that no investment in coal-fired power in Europe is safe.”
Wynn continued, saying, “Today’s announcement highlights the risk of investing in either new or existing coal-fired power, and the lesson is clear: National coal phase-out plans such as this, combined with the rise of renewables and the impact on demand of improved efficiency, put old electricity-production models at risk.”
In September, the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (NEAA) revealed new information that showed how global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions remained unchanged in 2016. While this was a positive sign that people can prevent additional changes to our climate, the Netherlands wants to do better, hence its new goal to reduce emissions in the country by 49 percent, as well as increase the larger EU’s emissions goals from 40 percent to 55 percent.
“Failing that,” writes Darby, “the coalition said it would seek to agree [to] stronger action with ‘likeminded’ countries in northwestern Europe, to minimize any competitive disadvantage from tougher targets.”
Battery technology has essentially been the same over the past years, albeit with a bunch of improvements that increase battery capacity and prolong battery life. Lithium ion batteries remain the popular choice, and they’re found in all of today’s battery-powered mobile devices and in many electric cars. Soon, these batteries might also be powering your houses, thanks to the likes of Tesla and other startups that now sell these home batteries to utility providers.
According to a report by The Wall Street Journal, homes located in New York, California, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Arizona, and in other states are working on new ways to make their electric grids battery-powered, an infrastructural switch which Ravi Manghani of GTM Research says is a “powerful need.” Without home batteries, the ability of utility companies to deliver power is in danger.
Utilities often have difficulty allocating excess power, particularly those on interstate markets where at certain times the price of electricity tends to dip into the negative. Usually, utilities resort to dumping excess electricity or paying others to take it. With the rise of solar power, the same issue happens. Energy generated by solar panels depend on certain conditions and, more often, generation doesn’t match the needs of homes.
In California and Arizona, the Journal reports, there’s lost of solar electricity during the day at cool times of the year and too little at night, when usage spikes. “This is not a long-term theoretical issue that might happen—this is now,” Marc Romito, Arizona Public Service director of customer technology, told the Journal. Home batteries are sorely needed.
In a Time of Need
There’s wisdom in keeping spare batteries at home, or in this case, keeping your home plugged into one. Particularly during times of disasters, home batteries can be really useful. When the grid is down, home batteries coupled with solar panels can provide much needed electricity, as was the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, where customers of Tesla and German battery-maker Sonen were able to keep their houses powered. Tesla has also, in fact, started shipping batteries to Puerto Rico, which has been largely without power since Hurricane Maria.
It’s this self-sustaining energy ecosystem that Tesla’s been working on thanks to their Powerwall and Powerpack batteries. Both work as electricity storage units, with the former designed for homes, while the latter is meant for utilities. Instead of relying on the grid, the home batteries like the Powerwall allow households to source out electricity, so to speak, following what some have called a “grid defection.” It’s enough to even power a small island.
The likes of Tesla, Sonen, and even Ikea in the U.K., are making this grid defection into a reality, in the U.S. and abroad. For example, both companies have partnered with Green Mountain Power in Vermont, which offers 2,000 home owners the chance to install a Powerwall for just $15 a month. Meanwhile, real-estate developer Mandalay Homes recently announced plans to build some 4,000 energy-efficient homes each with an 8-kilowatt-hour battery from Sonen — 2,900 of which would be built in Prescott, Arizona.
In short, as the market for electricity undergoes a radical shift thanks to the availability of renewable energy sources — especially the increasing popularity of cheaper solar home panels — power storage is becoming an important factor. Home batteries are the future.
The level of minimum power demand from South Australia’s grid hit a new record low — and it did so about a week after setting the previous low demand record, thanks to rooftop solar panels. On Sunday, September 17, only 587.8MW of power was drawn from the grid, beating the low mark of 786.42MW from the previous Sunday.
Additionally, where record low demand times in the past happened during the nighttime hours, these new records happened during the middle of the day despite higher overall energy consumption during those hours — as you’d expect with solar power.
According to Renew Economy, moderate early spring temperatures (therefore, fewer air conditioners running) coupled with a high rooftop solar output of more than 700MW account for the new record.
The new numbers indicate that 47.8% of South Australia’s demand for electricity is currently met by rooftop solar, up more than 10% in a single week. This is a regional best for South Australia, and probably beats any record set by any comparably-sized grid anywhere.
New Sources of Power
The Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) estimates a record low demand of 354MW by 2019, and a possible zero grid demand within ten years. Western Australia is on the same timetable.
As prices drop along with demand, AEMO officials are working to shift practices and thinking to match the new reality. For example, South Australia is one of the first areas to recognize the middle of the day as an off-peak time.
While the US government is not supporting these kinds of sweeping initiatives, individual cities and states like California are crushing record after record. The trend isn’t going anywhere, and is the smarter long-term investment.
Japanese automaker Toyota is serious about perfecting hydrogen fuel cell technology to power its vehicles, and it’s scheduled an initial feasibility study operations for its zero-emissions heavy-duty truck a little over a week from today. A concept version of a truck running Toyota’s specialized hydrogen fuel cell system designed for heavy-hauling use will be moving goods from select terminals at the Port of LA and Long Beach to nearby warehouses and rail yards beginning on October 23.
“If you see a big-rig driving around the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach that seems oddly quiet and quick, do not be alarmed! It’s just the future,” Toyota wrote in a press release. The company expects the daily runs to cover some 322 kilometers (200 miles) to test the fuel cell system’s duty-cycle capabilities. Afterwards, longer trips could be introduced.
Image credit: Toyota
According to Toyota, this zero-emissions heavy-duty proof-of-concept truck has already covered roughly 6,437 kilometers (4,000 miles) in development tests, where it pulled a progressive weight of cargo — 36,287 kilograms (80,000 pounds) tops — while only emitting water vapor. It packs a 670 horsepower, with 1,325 pound-feet of torque, from two Mirai fuel cell stacks combined with a 12kWh battery.
Major car manufacturers are now investing in electric vehicles, and one of their primary areas of focus has been the development of fast-charging batteries to service these cars. At present, lithium ion batteries remain the go-to option for EVs, but the amount of power they provide and their charging capacity leaves much to be desired.
In 2008, the Japanese company pioneered SCiB rechargeable battery cells, and now, they claim to have developed even better SCiB batteries that can give EVs a 320-kilometer (almost 200-mile) range after just six minutes of ultra-fast charging.
The secret to both rapid charging and preserving a battery’s robustness is the material used in its anodes — a part of a battery through which electrons pass.
In their 2008 SCiBs, Toshiba used anodes made from lithium titanium oxide. These new generation SCiBs have anodes made from titanium niobium oxide, which Toshiba said in a press release maintains 90 percent of the battery’s capacity even after 5,000 charging cycles.
On Par With Gas
While Toshiba’s new SCiB cells could definitely improve an EV’s battery life and performance, Toshiba doesn’t define what sort of “high power” charger they would require. Tesla Superchargers can supposedly pump as much as 135 kW of power, and the Model S has a 85 kWh battery with a 426-kilometer (265-mile) range. Would Toshiba’s batteries require a charger more powerful than that to reach full power in six minutes?
While today’s EVs are steadily increasing in power and, in some cases, can even outperform internal combustion engine cars, EV batteries still have room for improvement in terms of life and performance. Toshiba believes their new SCiB is up to the task of delivering these improvements.
“We are very excited by the potential of the new titanium niobium oxide anode and the next-generation SCiB,” Osamu Hori, director of Toshiba’s Corporate Research & Development Center, said in the press release.
“Rather than an incremental improvement, this is a game-changing advance that will make a significant difference to the range and performance of EV,” he added. “We will continue to improve the battery’s performance and aim to put the next-generation SCiBTM into practical application in fiscal year 2019.”
Renewable energy is lighting up the United Kingdom. This year alone, it’s set all sort of records, using all types of measurements. Back in May, the U.K. National Grid said that solar energy met 24 percent of the nation’s electricity demand, setting a new record. Then, in July, renewables — solar, wind, and nuclear energy — teamed up to provide more electricity than coal and gas combined, setting yet another record.
Now, the U.K. government has said that almost a third of the country’s electricity during the second quarter (Q2) of 2017 came from renewable energy. “Renewables’ share of electricity generation was a record 29.8 percent in 2017 Q2, up 4.4 percentage points on the share in 2016 Q2, reflecting both increased wind capacity and wind speeds, as well as lower overall electricity generation,” according to a recent government report.
Powering the Future
Renewable energy didn’t get this popular overnight, clearly. The U.K. has been improving its renewable infrastructure for the past couple of years. The recent report noted that renewables’ overall capacity increased to 38.0 GW by the end of the first half of 2017. Much of this increase comes from onshore wind power plants, which produced 50 percent more energy over 2016’s Q2 figure, while offshore wind increased by 22 percent.
Emma Pinchbeck, director of industry at nonprofit RenewableUK, was, of course, delighted with these latest figures. “It’s terrific to see that nearly a third of the U.K.’s electricity is now being generated by renewables, with wind power leading the way,” she said, according to The Independent.
The appeal of renewables isn’t limited to clean energy and a cleaner environment. Equally promising is how renewables are improving people’s lives, which Pinchbeck also noted: “The U.K.’s renewable energy sector is an industrial success story, attracting investment, creating new jobs, and powering our economy.”
Hopefully, this success inspires more nations to follow the U.K.’s lead in embracing renewable energy.
The Welsh government has set a new goal for the percentage of electricity the country gets from renewable sources: 70 percent by 2030. According to the BBC, the current figure is 32 percent. However, while the nation does have a ways to go to meet its target, its percentage is already more than twice that of the United States, which generates 15 percent of its energy from renewable sources, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Wales’ ambitious renewable energy goals were announced by Environment Secretary Lesley Griffiths. “Wales must be able to compete in global low-carbon markets, particularly now we face a future outside the EU,” she told Assembly members on Tuesday. “The ability to meet our needs from clean energy is the foundation for a prosperous low carbon economy.”
The 70 percent renewables by 2030 wasn’t the only target set by Griffiths. She also said she wants to increase the locally owned renewable electricity capacity in the country to one gigawatt by 2030. Additionally, she plans for all new renewable energy projects to have elements of local ownership by 2020, as opposed to relying solely on foreign investment.
U.K. Going Clean
Other countries in the United Kingdom are also making significant pushes to rapidly expand renewable energy investment.
The battle against climate change can only be won through worldwide cooperation and commitment. The efforts underway in the U.K. and elsewhere are an excellent start, but until fossil fuels are no longer used, any progress has the potential to be erased.
Solar energy is revolutionizing how we power houses, cities, and even cars. The energy we get from the Sun, however, is just a tiny fraction of what actually powers the solar system’s star. Enter nuclear fusion, which for the longest time now, has been rather difficult to stabilize. A nuclear fusion startup based in New Jersey called LPP Fusion thinks we might have been going about this process the wrong way, and they suggest a different approach.
To harness nuclear fusion energy, one needs to stabilize the reaction, which in itself is already difficult to produce. Fusion relies on hot plasma, which requires huge amounts of pressure and very high temperatures. On method scientists have devised is called “magnetic confinement” — where hot plasma is contained using magnetic fields.
Still, the method isn’t without great difficulties. “Guide the plasma’s instability; don’t fight it,” LPP Fusion president and CEO Eric Lerner told the Digital Journal. To do this, their scientists are developing a Dense Plasma Focus (DPF) device.
The Quest for Clean Energy
Encased in a ring of cathodes, the DPF’s hollow central anodes use electromagnetic acceleration and compression to produce short-lived plasma that’s hot and dense enough to produce nuclear fusion. Simply put, the DPF produces a reaction that’s enough to generate a tiny dense plasma ball called plasmoids, which sustain nuclear fusion using self-generated electron beams. The concept works in theory, and LPP Fusion scientists have submitted their research to the journal Physics of Plasmas for peer review.
Compared to its fission cousin, nuclear fusion is a cleaner and truly renewable source of almost unlimited energy. For reference, a single fission event generates around 200 MeV of energy, or about 3.2 x (10^-11) watt-seconds, and nuclear fusion can produce four times that. Understandably, scientists have long since pursued nuclear fusion. Today, as renewable energy becomes the norm, scientists are even more keen on controlling nuclear fusion, which some suggest could replace fossil fuels by 2030.
Wang Chuanfu, chairman of Chinese automaker BYD Co., Ltd. said Thursday of last week that he expects all cars in China to be “electrified” — i.e., either full-electric or mild hybrid vehicles — by 2030. This timetable for a shift to so-called new-energy vehicles (NEVs) seems fairly aggressive, but considering current developments in China in favor of electric vehicles (EVs), it seems much more realistic.
China’s also been very keen on electric cars, with plans for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles to comprise over a fifth of the country’s car sales by 2025. Speaking at an event in Shenzen, Wang stated that they’re confident in making this timeline work. “We are very confident about all the timetables (to eliminate fossil fuel cars) and we think it will happen earlier than expected,” he said, according to Reuters. “Various governments have announced timetables to end the sale of fossil fuel cars and this is putting pressure on everyone else.”
An Electrified Future
China isn’t the only country that wants to do away with petrol and diesel-based internal combustion vehicles. Five nations, including Germany, Norway, and France, have formalized their plans to do so and China may soon be following suit. Apart from local automakers like BYD, China might soon receive a portion of their EVs from Tesla, as Elon Musk’s company plans to build a Gigafactory in the region.
With all of these developments, “It’s certainly possible for all cars an automaker sells in China and around the world to be electrified in some way by 2030,” James Chao, Asia-Pacific head of consultancy for Shanghai-based IHS Markit Automotive, told Reuters.
As more automakers invest in EVs, as well as hydrogen fuel cell technology, and charging infrastructure continues to improve, these predictions aren’t at all surprising. With cheaper EVs in the mix, like Tesla’s Model 3, Volkswagen’s electric hatchback, and Nissan’s 2018 Leaf, more wide-scale electric car adoption seems inevitable.
In the past couple of years, the clean energy revolution has steadily been gaining ground. Aside from transitioning to cleaner, renewable energy sources, a number of countries are also bent on keeping their roads clean by banning combustion engine vehicles. With the transportation sector contributing roughly 15 percent of man-made carbon emissions worldwide, this is a noteworthy step. Listed according to when they made their decisions, here are five nations leading this clean energy revolution on wheels.
In case you’re double-checking if you missed the U.S. in this list, well…you didn’t. It’s still a dream. For now — or at least the next four years.
On Thursday, 90-year-old boatmaker Hinckley Company unveiled Dasher — the world’s first fully electric luxury yacht — at the 47th Newport International Boat Show. Nicknamed after Hinckley’s first “picnic style” boat, the 8.69-meter (28.5-foot) long, fully electric vessel represents the next generation of passenger water vehicles. Clearly, we’ve come a long way from oars and sails, to coal and gas, to powerful electric motors.
“This isn’t just an existing design, where we dropped a couple of electric motors in,” Scott Bryant, director of new product development at Hinckley Co., told Bloomberg. “The boat has been designed, ground up, for electric propulsion.”
Packed with twin 80-hp electric motors powered by BMW’s 40-kilowatt-hour i3 waterproof lithium-ion batteries, rechargeable via a dual 50-Amp dock, Dasher is the lightest boat Hinckley has ever made: barely 2,950 kilograms (6,500 pounds).
In terms of price, though, it’s not so light. Cost estimates run up to $500,000 — it is a luxury yacht, after all.
The vessel promises a performance worthy of any seafarer, boasting a cruising speed of around 8.6 knots [16 kph (10 mph)] and a range of about 35 nautical miles (NM) [64 kilometers (40 miles)]. Dasher can travel up to 22 NM [40 kilometers (25 miles)] at speeds of 15.6 to 23.5 knots [29 to 43.5 kph (18 to 27 mph)].
Though it’s the first of its kind, Dasher isn’t the only electric boat. The Duffy 18 Snug Harbor is an electric vessel designed for casual cruising, while several companies have designed their own experimental or promotional high-speed electric boats. On the larger scale, China even has plans to build an all-electric warship.
A future in which all boats (and land-based vehicles) are powered by electricity doesn’t seem that far off, and Hinckley is excited to make that transition.
“I don’t believe that Dasher will be our only electric-propulsion product. I think what we’re looking to do is to incorporate a bunch of the features that we’re introducing on Dasher into our other products,” said Bryant. “There’s so much going on in the automotive space, and just in the energy-storage space right now, that to not be a part of it is just silly.”
California is expected to take significant steps toward a clean energy future today, as the state’s lawmakers debate and vote on a bill that pushes for the use of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. Drafted earlier this year, Senate Bill no. 100 (SB 100) is California’s response to the federal government’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, communicating a clear stance in favor of clean energy.
“We absolutely do not need natural gas or coal,” Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, told NPR. “The costs of solar are so low. The costs of wind are very low.” Indeed, the declining cost of renewables is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the shift — that, and the job opportunities that renewable energy sources bring along with them.
SB 100, which has been recently revised, seeks to amend the existing California Renewables Portfolio Standard Program, which requires utilities to hit a 50 percent renewable energy target by 2030. Under SB 100, utilities will work “to achieve that 50% renewable resources target by December 31, 2026, and to achieve a 60% target by December 31, 2030,” to ultimately reach a 100 percent greenhouse-gas-free energy goal no later than December 31, 2045.
California, together with New York and Washington State, is a founding member of a bi-partisan coalition whose goal is to bring down carbon emission levels within acceptable amounts as prescribed by the Paris Agreement. This Climate Alliance now includes 13 states and Puerto Rico, representing more than 33 percent of the U.S. population.
Leading the states is Hawaii, which passed a Clean Energy Initiative bill back in 2015, which requires the islands to cease importing fuel and to run on 100 percent clean energy by 2045. With California expected to chip in, “It’s going to be a huge deal,” Jacobson said, “because other states will be inspired, other countries can be inspired.” California is the fifth largest economy in the world and uses about 30 times more electricity than Hawaii. So, if SB 100 passes into law tonight, it’ll really be a huge step forward for clean energy.
Developing clean energy and eco-friendly cars isn’t new for Korean automobile maker Hyundai. For the most part, the company has focused on fuel-cell technology, but it recently decided to shift focus, according to an announcement on Thursday.
“We’re strengthening our eco-friendly car strategy, centering on electric vehicles,” Hyundai EVP Lee Kwang-guk told a news conference, Venture Beat reports. The decision comes as the company seeks to catch up with Tesla and other rivals in the EV stage. However, it will still continue to work on fuel cells and hybrid vehicles for a “multi-pronged” approach, the car maker said in a press release.
Undoubtedly, EVs are starting to take over the automobile market. International investment bank UBS thinks the first step in market dominance of EVs would be in terms of costs. In a report published on May, analysts from the bank’s “evidence lab” predicted that EV prices will soon match those of combustion-engine cars.
According to The Telegraph, the UBS report predicts that the “total cost of consumer [EV] ownership can reach parity with combustion engines from 2018”, a trend which would likely begin in Europe. “This will create an inflection point for demand. We raise our 2025 forecast for EV sales by 50% to 14.2 million — 14% of global car sales.” UBS reached this conclusion after tinkering with a Chevrolet Bolt EV, which it described as “the world’s first mass-market EV, with a range of more than 200 miles.”
Speaking of new vehicles, the recently launched Tesla Model 3 is expected to boost mass adoption of EVs with its relatively affordable price. While it’s currently the cheapest EV out there, Nissan’s 2018 Leaf promises to cost some $5,000 less than the Model 3. This doesn’t mean, however, that electric cars aren’t going to be profitable. “Once total cost of ownership parity is reached, mass-brand EVs should also turn profitable,” the report said.
The UBS report also noted that manufacturing EVs is cheaper than they previously thought — and there’s still more room for cost reduction through strategies like developing cheaper batteries and building more charging infrastructure. These measures will be important, since more and more countries are now opting for EVs. France will ban selling petrol and diesel cars by 2040, while all cars sold in India will be electric by 2030.
Electric cars aren’t the only clean energy tech that’s been getting less costly. Renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, continue to be cheaper than their fossil fuel counterparts. The price of solar panels has, for example, dropped over the last few months. The decreasing cost of EVs seems to be part of a greater revolution towards clean energy.
We are always looking for new and innovative ways to power the myriad of devices we use each day, even more so if that power can be generated without harming the environment. Even so, few could have predicted that we would one day have paper batteries that are powered by our spit. We can now thank a team of researchers from Binghamton University for developing their paper-based, bacteria-powered batteries.
With just a little spit, the battery is able to power an LED light for about 20 minutes. The technology is not limited to lighting up diodes. There are some very important possible applications, especially for those in underdeveloped nations. The batteries could be used to power important medical tools like pregnancy tests, HIV tests, glucose monitors, and other potentially life-saving medical devices.
The batteries can be easily and cheaply assembled and anyone with functioning salivary glands can power the device. Even if you can’t muster the spit, the batteries can also be powered by a little dirty water. The research has been published in the journal Advanced Materials Technology.
The batteries can be easily and cheaply produced using only a few select materials: paper, carbon, and printing wax. “The battery includes specialized bacterial cells, called exoelectrogens, which have the ability to harvest electrons externally to the outside electrode,” professor for computer science at Binghamton University Seokheun Choi told Nexus Media. “For the long-term storage, the bacterial cells are freeze-dried until use. This battery can even be used in challenging environmental conditions like desert areas. All you need is an organic matter to rehydrate and activate the freeze-dried cells.”
This is just the latest example of science helping us to build better batteries. There are also batteries in development that will be able to hold three times the amount of energy as others, bendable batteries that could help devices better conform to our bodies, and also instantly recharging batteries that could be the final nail in the coffin for fossil fuels.
Batteries will be an integral part of our clean energy future. The ability to store and efficiently access energy generated by renewable sources will be key to the widespread adoption of these Earth-saving energy solutions.
The fight against climate change continues, and the city of Orlando has now pledged their support to the cause. The city council voted unanimously on Tuesday to push for a resolution that puts Orlando on track to run solely on renewable energy by 2050. Orlando joins 39 other cities — including San Diego, Atlanta, and Chicago — in adopting a 100 percent renewable energy goal.
The decision comes after the U.S. federal government opted to withdraw from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, which set carbon emission reduction goals to help stop human-made climate change. In the face of this lack of federal support, politicians on the local and state level have taken up the fight for a cleaner environment.
“This administration has decided not to honor our commitment to the Paris climate accord, but a lot of mayors around the country have picked up the reins to say if we’re not doing it at the federal level, it’s incumbent that we lead at the local level,” said Mayor Buddy Dyer after the resolution passed.
A Worldwide Appeal
In addition to the environmental implications of transitioning to renewables, the government of Orlando also recognized the economic benefits. Solar, in particular, has become very inexpensive.
“The power from the Sun is cheaper to produce electricity than the power from fossil fuels, including coal and even natural gas,” said Chris Castro, Orlando’s director of sustainability, following the vote. “What we want to do is maintain the affordability of our electricity rates. A lot of people think that just by going solar, it’s going to be more expensive, and that is not the case.”
The city is also keen on the job opportunities produced by renewable energy. Castro said that solar energy added 1,700 new jobs in Florida in 2016, growing 10 times faster than the state’s overall economy. Indeed, in the U.S. as a whole, renewables are providing more jobs than their fossil fuel counterparts and adding new jobs at a rate 17 times that of the overall economy.
Cities aren’t the only entities committing to clean energy targets. Various stateshave made their own pledges, with fourteen of those forming an alliance to keep the U.S. on track with the Paris climate accord’s targets. Nations beyond the U.S., including Scotland, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, and 47 others, have all set their own targets of 100 percent renewable energy generation between 2030 and 2050. These pledges are very welcome as our planet needs all the allies it can get in the fight for a cleaner environment.
Elon Musk’s Gigafactories are not even complete and they are already making huge waves in the field of energy storage. Sources talking to Fred Lambert of Electrek commented that Elon Musk recently stated that Gigafactory 1 in Nevada is “…already producing more batteries than any other factory in the world.” The 455,22 square meter (4.9 million square foot) facility began producing Powerwall and Powerpack battery cells back in January and then began production on Model 3 battery cells in June. The facility is said to be only at about 30 percent capacity.
The goal for the finished Gigafactory is to be able to produce 35 GWh’s worth of storage capacity within 2018.
Giles Keating, the chairman of Werthstein Institute, an investment consultancy, told CNBC, “There’s a kind of arms race on batteries around the world. We know that Elon Musk with Tesla has got this Gigafactory. The Chinese are racing to overtake him; they’ll have three times the capacity. And then in Germany, we’ve just heard announcement of a new plan for a $1 billion factory on batteries.”
It is clear that the competition is stiff in the battery business and, while this may not be welcome news to Mr. Musk, the rest of us, and the Earth will benefit immensely from the increased capacity to store clean energy. This competition will drive companies to create safer, higher capacity, and more efficient batteries that will continue to help us wean ourselves off of fossil fuels.
California is striding closer to a future that includes 100 percent renewable energy, faster than ever before. California Senate President Kevin de León (D) has proposed a bill which would simultaneously limit California’s hydrocarbon consumption and increase its consumption of renewables according to several goals, and the bill has, as of now, officially cleared the committee stage. Experts feel it is likely to be signed into law by Governor Brown, and when it is, it will push California to produce 50 percent renewable energy from 2030 to 2026, and set new goals for 60 percent renewable energy by 2030, and 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.
This comes at a critical time in the US. President Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Agreement and significantly weakened the EPA and other relevant agencies. Now is a crucial time for states, especially larger states with strong economic chops like California, to show leadership against climate change. Jerry Brown and the California state legislature are making it known that they are committed to doing just that. Should the bill pass, California and Hawaii will be the only two states with legal requirements for 100 percent renewable energy use by 2045, although Massachusetts is considering a goal of 100 percent renewable energy use by 2050.
Beijing is well on its way to a future powered by clean energy as the city’s municipal development and reform commission announced on Tuesday that there will be almost no coal consumption in Beijing’s plain areas by 202o.
This latest thrust in the Chinese effort to fight air pollution will all but eliminate coal use in the southern plain areas and six downtown districts of the Chinese capital city. Almost all coal use in the downtown areas will be replaced by clean energy, electricity, and gas, with all coal-fired boilers used for heating and industrial purposes converted to clean-energy alternatives.
The commission added that the city’s gross coal consumption will be capped at 5 million tonnes by 2020. Its total energy consumption will be limited to the equivalent of 76 million tonnes of standard coal by that year, which would be an average yearly consumption increase of 2.1 percent.
With these changes in place, renewable energy should account for more than 8 percent of Beijing’s total energy consumption by 2020, while the proportion of high-quality energy consumption is projected to exceed 95 percent. It’s just the latest measure in China’s aggressive war against pollution, which is designed to save lives as well as prevent the destruction of the environment.
At a panel discussion during the DS Virgin Racing Innovation Summit on Friday, Virgin Galactic CEO and founder Sir Richard Branson had a suggestion for the United States government. Instead of trying to revive the country’s declining coal mining industry — a promise U.S. president Donald Trump made in March as part of a “new era in American energy and production and job creation” — Branson suggested focusing on clean energy.
“Coal mining is not the nicest of jobs, and coal mining disappeared in Britain many decades ago,” Branson said, replying to a question by Yahoo Finance. “Pretty much every single one of those coal miners went into jobs which were far more pleasant, far less dangerous, far better for their health, and I doubt that there’s one coal miner that looks back thinking, ‘God, I wish I was down in a coal mine.’”
During the talk, Branson noted that clean energy jobs wouldn’t just benefit the coal miners. They’d also be good for the U.S. and the world as a whole. According to a study from the Michigan Technological University, the coal industry causes 52,000 American deaths each year due to air pollution, and transitioning to clean energy sources would decrease the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, helping the world in the fight against global warming.
How coal could compete with clean energy in the future has not been made clear by the Trump administration, and Branson sees the federal government’s lack of support for clean energy as a problem.
“Obviously, what’s happened in America, having an administration that put out the most bizarre statement on [the Paris climate agreement] is not good news because you do need governments to set the rules,” Branson told the audience in New York. ”And you do need to make it clear that clean energy should have a leg up over dirty energy. And you have a government that’s not setting proper differentials. That’s going to be tricky.”
The world’s first power plant combining hydroelectric and solar power is now operational in Portugal. The Alto Rabagão dam has been outfitted with 840 floating solar panels, which increase the plant’s total capacity of 68 MWh by 220 kWp. Within its first year, the station should generate 332 megawatt hours, enough to power 100 homes for a year.
The panels were created by Ciel & Terre International (C&T), developers of the floating solar system Hydrelio. The system is designed to allow ecologically friendly floating photovoltaic (FPV) panels made out of recyclables to be installed on large bodies of water rather than eating up valuable space on land.
Additionally, the panels partially shield the water, which helps to slow evaporation and the growth of algae. The panels also reduce waves within the reservoir, cutting down on the erosion of its banks.
The main goal behind C&T’s FPV panels is to generate energy while maximizing the use of an artificial body of water. Installing the panels on dams makes plants more profitable and produces more energy. The panels collect sunlight during daylight hours, and hydropower can be used during peak demand times and after dark.
C&T estimates that if only 10 percent of the world’s 50 largest dams were outfitted with FPV panels, 400 gigawatts (GW) of solar electricity could be produced.
According to The Huffington Post, if the Alto Rabagão dam project succeeds, the system might be used to meet the power demands of other countries. One of those could be Brazil, where the utility behind the project, Energias de Portugal (EDP), does business on a large scale. “It has all the ingredients to succeed, a solution of this kind,” EDP project manager Paulo Pinto told the Diário de Notícias.
Portugal has created the right climate for the project’s success by promoting strong renewables policies. The country also enjoys annual sunshine duration of 2,500 hours and a high potential for FPV solutions due to its existing hydropower capacity. The hybrid solution in this case presents a great example of how existing energy systems can be enhanced by newer technologies to create better clean energy solutions.
In the continuous pursuit of a truly renewable and clean energy source, nothing compares to nuclear fusion. Although scientists have already found ways to harness the energy from the reaction that powers stars, it hasn’t been an easy feat. Despite the advances in research pertaining to nuclear fusion, there still isn’t a stable — not to mention cost-efficient — way to power the electric grid with it.
According to the head of MIT’s Alcator C-Mod tokamak fusion project Earl Marmar, we may not have to wait long. Speaking to Inverse, Marmar said that we could potentially have nuclear fusion powering electric grids by the 2030s — that is, if we’re dedicated to continued research. “I think fusion energy on the grid by 2030 is certainly within reach by this point,” Marmar said. “2030 is probably aggressive, but I don’t think it’s wildly out of range.” This would be a timetable similar to what a Canadian collective is currently working towards.
The physics of nuclear fusion is actually something we understand pretty well at this point and it isn’t too hard to explain. At the most basic level, it’s the reverse of nuclear fission. In other words, instead of splitting atoms to release energy in fission, nuclear fusion combines small hydrogen atoms into a plasma that produces energy. In fact, that plasma produces several times more energy than what fission produces. This can’t just happen anywhere, though: it requires an environment with temperatures over 30 million degrees Celsius.
Tinkering with Technology
MIT’s tokamak reactor — named for its donut-shaped chamber — is no longer active. But, its more than 20 years of experience in fusion technology has left us with enough data to figure out how to sustain fusion reaction. That’s what we still don’t understand about using fusion: not knowing how to sustain is the only thing holding us back, according to Marmar. “So we know that fusion works; we know that the nuclear physics works. There are no questions from the nuclear physics,” he explained. “There are questions left on the technology side.”
For Marmar, the pressure exists even outside the reactors. “We need to get going, because the need for fusion energy is very urgent, specifically in view of climate change,” he told Inverse. He thinks there’s still room to push nuclear fusion further — and if we don’t at least try, it could delay progress by another decade. Marmar does concede that even if there’s committed research, the 2030s still could be a fairly aggressive timeline to adhere to. Of course, a little pressure and healthy competition to meet a deadline might be just the motivation that’s needed.
The positive impact clean energy can have on our environment is well known. Unlike their fossil fuel-powered counterparts, electric vehicles (EVs) don’t emit harmful greenhouse gases. While fracking for coal induces earthquakes, solar panels simply draw energy from sunlight, and devastating oil spills that can poison wildlife are of no concern in places where homes are powered by hydroelectricity.
Less discussed is the power of clean energy to transform communities and even our minds. However, that’s exactly what tech company Pavegen is doing with its smart flooring system, which uses triangular floor tiles to transform the kinetic energy of a person’s footsteps into electricity that can be used to power everything from street lamps to nearby signage.
Not content to simply provide the world with one more source of clean energy, Pavegen’s CEO Laurence Kemball-Cook tells Futurism he set a unique goal for his company: “We wanted to prove it was possible to change a community through energy.”
A Brighter Future
To that end, Pavegen partnered with the Shell LiveWIRE program to see if they could use their tiles to transform the lives of people living in Morro da Mineira, a Brazilian favela plagued by violence and poverty. Through the partnership, the company rebuilt the favela’s dilapidated soccer field. “We installed 200 of our tiles in this pitch, and we used the energy from people playing soccer to illuminate it,” explains Kemball-Cook.
Not only is this light giving youth a safe place to socialize at night, it’s also having a major impact on the community in which they live. “Shops are being created around the soccer pitch and businesses have been started,” says Kemball-Cook. “This whole community now is inspired and powered through the energy of footsteps.”
Perhaps even more important than the impact Pavegen’s clean energy tech is having on the day-to-day lives of the people in Morro da Mineira or Lagos is how the tech might already be impacting their future.
As Kemball-Cook explained in a video recap of the Lagos project, “We’re inspiring over ten thousand student teachers who will leave this college, who will go forward for the next years and years to come and inspire the next generation of African children to think differently about energy, to believe they can make change, and actually go and shape the way we use energy in the future.”
As for the children in the Brazilian favela, they too will take more away from the Pavegen project than some extra hours on the soccer field. “Kids living in Brazil think becoming a soccer player is one of the only things they can do to get out of the favela. That’s the only thing they think about,” asserts Kemball-Cook. “Now, this inspires the kids to be engineers.”
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Now, in a historic demonstration, one of China’s northwestern provinces just ran on only renewable energy for seven consecutive days. The trial took place in Qinghai, the country’s fourth biggest region with a population of roughly 6 million people, and as of May 2017, about 82.8 percent of the province’s 23.4 million-kilowatt capacity was already being generated by wind, solar, and hydro power sources.
According to China’s official news agency, Xinhua, the province received 1.1 billion kilowatt hours of electricity — roughly equal to burning 535,000 tons of coal — from renewable energy sources from June 17 to 23. Of these, 72 percent came from hydro plants, while the rest was divided between solar and wind.
The reason behind the week-long demonstration is simple: China wanted to show that it’s possible to power a province using just clean, renewable energy sources.
“Clean energy is the ultimate way. We need to reduce reliance on fossil fuel, improve our energy structure, and reduce carbon emissions,” Han Ti, vice general manager of Qinghai’s grid company, told Xinhua.
Aside from the obvious environmental benefits, renewables are also economically sound, even more so than fossil fuels. China plans to invest 2.5 trillion yuan (roughly $370 billion) into renewable energy, which would generate more than 13 million jobs according to the National Energy Administration. Meanwhile, the solar industry in the U.S. is creating jobs at 17 times the rate of the rest of the economy.
Truly, clean energy does appear to be the best path forward for both our planet and our society.
Rumors that Tesla is looking to establish a firmer foothold in China by building a factory in the region have been circulating all week. First, China Daily shared the news, then both Bloomberg and Reuterspicked it up. Now, the world has confirmation straight from Tesla that the electric vehicle (EV) manufacturer is indeed in talks with local government in China.
Tesla is working with the Shanghai Municipal Government to explore the possibility of establishing a manufacturing facility in the region to serve the Chinese market. As we have said before, we expect to more clearly define our plans for production in China by the end of the year.
Tesla is deeply committed to the Chinese market, and we continue to evaluate potential manufacturing sites around the globe to serve the local markets.
While details of a deal haven’t been confirmed, anonymous sources told both China Daily and Bloomberg that one would be signed yesterday.
By manufacturing cars for local distribution in China, Tesla could avoid the 25 percent import tariffs it currently pays, but the company stressed in its statement that it would continue manufacturing the bulk of its cars in the United States: “While we expect most of our production to remain in the U.S., we do need to establish local factories to ensure affordability for the markets they serve.”
Scientists consider nuclear fusion the “holy grail” of energy production for good reason. Not only could it provide a virtually unlimited amount of energy, the energy would also be clean.
To that end, nuclear scientists have been hard at work since the dawn of the Atomic Age to replicate this energy that feeds the stars, and just this week, a team from the Chalmers University of Technology published a new study in Physical Review Lettersthat outlines a way to eliminate one of the biggest remaining obstacles.
While nuclear fission creates energy by splitting atoms, fusion works in reverse. By combining two light nuclei, usually hydrogen atoms, nuclear fusion generates several times more energy than fission. Sustaining this reaction, which occurs within conditions of intense pressure and high temperatures, is difficult on its own, and the matter is further complicated by runaway electrons, which can damage or even destroy fusion reactors.
The Chalmers researchers came up with a method to manage these runaway electrons. They found that injecting heavy ions in gas or pellet form into the reactor slows down the erring electrons by colliding with them. “When we can effectively decelerate runaway electrons, we are one step closer to a functional fusion reactor,” study co-author Linnea Hesslow said in a university press release.
A Renewable Game Changer
As efforts to improve the world’s renewable energy sources continue, many see nuclear fusion as having the most potential. It can provide clean energy, with virtually zero carbon emissions, and it isn’t seasonal like solar and wind.
“Considering there are so few options for solving the world’s growing energy needs in a sustainable way, fusion energy is incredibly exciting since it takes its fuel from ordinary seawater,” Hesslow added.
“Many believe it will work, but it’s easier to travel to Mars than it is to achieve fusion. You could say that we are trying to harvest stars here on Earth, and that can take time,” Hesslow explained. “It takes incredibly high temperatures, hotter than the center of the Sun, for us to successfully achieve fusion here on Earth. That’s why I hope research is given the resources needed to solve the energy issue in time.”
A team of researchers from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has developed a paint that can be used to generate clean energy. The paint combines the titanium oxide already used in many wall paints with a new compound: synthetic molybdenum-sulphide. The latter acts a lot like the silica gel packaged with many consumer products to keep them free from damage by absorbing moisture.
According to a report on RMIT’s website, the material absorbs solar energy as well as moisture from the surrounding air. It can then split the water into hydrogen and oxygen, collecting the hydrogen for use in fuel cells or to power a vehicle. “[T]he simple addition of the new material can convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel production real estate,” explained lead researcher Dr. Torben Daeneke.
The Future of Energy
Though the paint isn’t expected to be commercially viable within the next five years, Daeneke told Inverse he believes the end product will be cheap to produce. He also claims the paint would be effective in a variety of climates, from damp environments to hot and dry ones near large bodies of water: “Any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”
The paint could be used to cover areas that wouldn’t get enough sunlight to justify the placement of solar panels, maximizing the capability of any property to generate clean energy. Any surface that could be painted — a fence, a shed, a doghouse — could be transformed into an energy-producing structure.
When this new material finally makes its way to consumers, it’ll join the ever-growing list of innovative technologies that are moving humanity away from fossil fuels and toward a future of clean, renewable sources of energy.
Photosynthesis is one of nature’s most efficient phenomena: aside from providing much of the oxygen human beings need to breathe, this naturally occurring process gives plants the food and energy they need to survive. It utilizes visible light — which the Earth has an abundance of — to provide the “fuel” they need. Researchers have been working on ways to artificially recreate this natural process in labs, in the hopes of producing fuel, too —specifically methane.
Now, a team of chemists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Virginia Tech have designed two supramolecules, each made up of a number of light-harvesting ruthenium (Ru) metal ions attached to a single catalytic center of rhodium (Rh) metal ions.
“By building supramolecules with multiple light absorbers that may work independently, we are increasing the probability of using each electron productively,” Gerald Manbeck, lead author of the study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, said in a press release.
Clean Air & Clean Energy
While both could act as catalysts, the researchers set out to determine which of the two supremolecules they created did the job best. They found that the one with six Ru light light absorbers could produce some 280 hydrogen molecules for every catalyst in a 10-hour period. Meanwhile, the supramolecule with only three Ru ions could produce 40 hydrogen molecules for four hours — at which point it stopped working.
“To promote catalysis, the Rh catalyst must be low enough in energy to accept the electrons from the Ru light absorbers when the absorbers are exposed to light,” co-author Etsuko Fujita explained. What that means is that the larger of the supramolecules was slightly more electron-deficient, which made it more receptive to electrons needed for synthetic photosynthesis.
This work is a huge step in realizing the goals of many researchers who seek to use photosynthesis for the purpose of creating clean energy fuel. The great thing about synthetic photosynthesis is that it could be used to remove pollutants in the air, too, because carbon dioxide is a necessary component in the process. In that way, it achieves two goals for the price of one: cleaning the air and providing cleaner energy.
Estuaries are ecosystems constantly in flux — brackish bodies of water where fresh and ocean water meet and mix. These coastal “living laboratories” have long been of interest to scientists, and now researchers may have found a way to harness their power — literally.
Researchers at Penn State have developed a new hybrid technology that merges the most effective pieces of existing methods for capturing energy created from differences in salt concentrations in water. This new blended process generates unprecedented amounts of electrical power in places where saltwater and freshwater meet.
Until now, the most successful and commonly used method for seizing the energy from salt concentration differentials has been pressure retarded osmosis (PRO). PRO selectively lets water through a semi-permeable membrane while holding salt back and creating osmotic pressure that moves turbines, generating power. However, the membranes tend to clog up, and the method is less useful with extremely salty water. Reverse electrodialysis (RED), solves some of these issues by transporting salt through its membranes rather than water, but it generates only small amounts of power.
The Penn State researchers solved the problems by creating an electrochemical flow cell that features both the RED and Capacitive mixing (CapMix) technologies. CapMix is a fairly new technique that draws energy from the voltage that is created when two electrodes are immersed in water whose salt concentration changes. While CapMix yields too little power to be viable by itself, marrying it to the RED technology increased energy production efficiency by more than four times compared to RED alone — attaining a higher level of energy production density than even the PRO method.
The researchers say that harnessing the difference in salt concentration with their technique has the potential to create energy sufficient to meet as much as 40 percent of the world’s electricity needs. Since a recent survey revealed that solar roofs could provide 25 percent of the energy used in the U.S., this technology could go a long way toward eliminating most of the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.
If this technology is as efficient as this study suggests, countries would simply need to head to the coast to get the technology in place — assuming they could afford it. The Penn State team and other teams around the world have been working not only on perfecting the technologies, but also on keeping the price points low to ensure they’d be accessible to all.
Although the results are promising, the work isn’t done yet. The researchers need to research how stable the electrodes remain over time. They also need to know how other seawater elements such as sulfate and magnesium could affect the cell’s performance. Hopefully they’ll see positive results from more long-term testing soon so this carbon-neutral energy source can be harnessed. As the U.S. moves toward further deregulating the fossil fuel industry, timing could be crucial.
A recent collaboration between the Israelian government and ElectRoad, a company focused on enabling the large-scale use of all-electric buses, to develop technology that allows buses to charge while driving has recently passed its first round of testing. This has won the company $120,000 in investment and the chance to test the technology in 2018 on a 1/2 mile route in Tel Aviv. If this testing goes well, an 11-mile path will be implemented between the city of Eilat and the Ramon International Airport. But more importantly, the success of this testing could signal the feasibility of the technology in other countries.
The technology works using electromagnets. Inverters are installed along the side of the road to provide power to plates of copper embedded in the road, and when these interact with similar copper plates under the bus, the fields interact and power is produced. In addition to this mechanism, the bus will be equipped with a small battery that will provide it with power when it is not above the electromagnetic strip, and allow it to accelerate, which requires a greater force. To learn more, watch the video below:
While this technology is promising, there are still significant hurdles that need to be overcome. The first is the issue of implementation. ElectRoad claims that they can equip one kilometer of road in a single evening, but this is yet to be tested in a city context.
The second problem is that this solution may have come too late because of more recent advances in battery technology. Over the last few years, the cost per kilowatt hour of a lithium battery has decreased from 1000 dollars to 200-300 dollars. Dustin Grace, Director of the battery company Proterra, has stated that “What these auto manufacturers are finding when they’re getting into the $100-to-$200-per-kilowatt-hour range is these vehicles are really on parity with other vehicles.” Therefore, if we just look at these numbers, there is no pressing need to work on rechargeable solutions.
What are the Potential Benefits?
The biggest advantage of this form of powering buses is sustainability. The Buses will not use polluting fossil fuels that simultaneously rob the planet of natural resources and damage caused by pollution. If the technology could be extended and applied in cars and other types of vehicles, this could be a feasible solution to the problem of cars and trucks accounting for 20% of U.S emissions.
This technology could also contribute to a greener world in a more subtle way: by producing power. This idea has not yet been integrated into the design, but Oren Ezer, chief executive and co-founder of ElectRoad, claims that the system could be used two-ways, meaning that the buses would feed electricity produced by braking back into the grid.
The device is a two-roomed photoelectrochemical cell. In one room of the cell, air is filtered in and purified using a photoanode. The process produces hydrogen, which is collected by a cathode behind the membrane that separates the two rooms. This hydrogen can be stored and later used as fuel.
“In the past, these cells were mostly used to extract hydrogen from water. We have now discovered that this is also possible, and even more efficient, with polluted air,” explained Professor Sammy Verbruggen, an author of the study, in a university news release.
As it stands, the device is just a proof-of-concept design. It only measures a few square centimeters, so it couldn’t begin to take on our massive existing pollution problem. However, the idea behind the device is incredibly promising.
A Pollution-Free Future
While the researchers’ tiny device is still a long way from being useful against pollution, this type of thinking and innovation is the key to progress. Clean energy production and pollution are both massive and worsening environmental, financial, and medical issues. Climate change is not slowing down, and so our efforts to combat it should only be intensifying.
Thankfully, many of the world’s governments are doing just that. China, for instance, is a leading contributor of greenhouse gasses and air pollution. The toxins in the country’s air pose an immediate and serious health risk for its citizens. In response, the nation has been heavily investing in renewable energy sources and aims to improve emissions standards. Recently in Rhode Island, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. was installed, shutting down a nearby diesel plant, and countries like Germany, Costa Rica, and Canada are all making huge strides toward the elimination of fossil fuels.
Innovation and creative solutions like this air-cleaning fuel cell are part of the answer. Change is possible — we just have to be willing to embrace it.
Many have billed nuclear fuel as a utopian source of electricity: efficient and potentially limitless. A modern nuclear reactor generates 34 years worth of electricity from 1 kg of fuel, but it has declined from accounting for 18% of the world electricity market in 1996 to 11% today; experts expect it to drop further. In the video below, M. V. Ramana, of Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, and Sajan Saini, a writer and lecturer in the Princeton Writing Program, explain the problems with this mode of producing energy .
The two biggest issues with nuclear energy are the set-up costs for its production and dealing with the waste from that production
Nuclear power relies on fission of the uranium-235 nuclei that perpetuates the initial split in other nuclei in an environment moderated by control rods. The power garnered from this process is used to heat water, which in turn powers an electric turbine generator. If the flow of water being heated stops, it can result in a meltdown where the uranium particles melt, releasing radioactive vapors which can escape into the air if security protocol fails.
Every couple of years, a portion of the spent fuel — composed of uranium that failed to fission, the products of fission, and plutonium — is removed from the reactor to be stored in water which both cools it and blocks its radiation. This decay can take up to hundreds of thousands of years. In addition to this, plutonium can be siphoned off to make bombs, posing a security risk not only from accidental discovery but also deliberate weaponization that could result in devastating effects.
Scientists are currently working on methods that utilize the same principles without these negative externalities, though, meaning that nuclear fuel could become the solution to the world’s energy crisis. And, hey, if Micheal Shellenberger says it, there must be some reason behind it…
For the procrastinators of the world, simply hitting a deadline is often an achievement worthy of celebration. Clearly, battery researcher Jeff Dahn is not one of those people. Less than one year into a research partnership with Tesla, his team has created cells capable of doubling the lifetime of the company’s batteries — a milestone they weren’t expected to hit for another four years.
“I wrote down the goal of doubling the lifetime of the cells used in the Tesla products at the same upper cutoff voltage. We exceeded that in round one,” explained Dahn at the Q&A. “That was the goal of the project, and it has already been exceeded.”
The aluminum coating identified by Dahn’s group withstood an arduous testing process using machines developed as part of the research, coming through the tests with barely any degradation. The coating is so tough, in fact, that Dahn believes the batteries and Tesla’s cars could actually last 20 years.
Once fully incorporated, these longer-lasting batteries will no doubt be a huge incentive for anyone thinking about buying a Tesla product.
Not only will the company’s cars last longer thanks to these battery cells, they’ll also dramatically increase the return on investment of Tesla’s residential and commercial energy products, the Powerwall and Powerpack. A one-time purchase would lead to decades of clean, reliable energy and transportation — great news for both consumers and the environment.
Perhaps most exciting of all is the fact that the team still has four years of research ahead of it. “We are not going to stop — obviously — we have another four years to go. We are going to go as far as we can,” Dahn asserted. If year one is any indication, the progress made by the time the partnership ends should be nothing short of revolutionary.
On April 30, 85 percent of the electricity consumed by the European nation was generated by renewable sources like wind, solar, and hydroelectric power. “Most of Germany’s coal-fired power stations were not even operating on Sunday, April 30,” Patrick Graichen of the Agora Energiewende initiative told Renew Economy.
The New Normal
Though noteworthy right now, Graichen expects days like April 30 to be “completely normal” by 2030 due to Germany’s firm commitment to clean energy.
Indeed, that commitment compelled National Geographic to call Germany “a leader” in the energy revolution amongst large industrial nations, and it’s easy to see why. By 2030, the nation hopes to have banned combustion engines altogether and, by 2050, it plans to have its carbon emissions at just 20 percent of 1990’s levels.
However, Germany’s not the only country setting a good example for the rest of the world.
The world’s lineup of electric vehicles is getting a new addition in 2018, and it’s going to be an SUV from German automaker Audi. The concept for this e-tron Sportback vehicle first came out in September 2015 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Now, Audi has opened up reservations for buyers based in Norway for $2,500. That’s the price to reserve — the actual price of the electric SUV has yet to be announced.
In terms of what it could deliver, the e-tron SUV boasts a 499-km (310-mile) range on a single charge of its 95 kWh battery (which, by the way, can be fully charged in 50 minutes). That’s more than the 465-km (289-mile) single charge range of Tesla’s Model X SUV’s 100 kWh battery. In addition, Audi is considering adding an autonomous driving software to the SUV’s features.
In terms of looks, the e-tron is stylish, and could be more so if Audi decides to trade the side mirrors for a couple of cameras instead. Inside, it’s dashboard will be covered in OLED screens — perfect for network connectivity based on LTE Advanced.
Scientists around the world have been trying to trigger photosynthesis — the natural process by which a plant converts carbon dioxide into fuel using sunlight — in a synthetic material in a way that could have practical uses, but with limited success. Now, scientists have announced a breakthrough in the field that revolutionizes the power industry.
Researchers had always hit a wall when looking for a way to trigger the necessary chemical transformation using visible light. The materials they found that could absorb those wavelengths of light were either rare or expensive, making the process financially impractical to pursue. Cheaper materials worked with ultraviolet rays, but those account for only four percent of sunlight.
When they tested the MOF within a blue LED photoreactor — a cylinder lined with strips of blue LED lights — the hoped-for chemical reaction occurred. The air was cleaned and the CO2 was converted into two types of solar fuel: formate and formamides.
“This work is a breakthrough,” said Uribe-Romo in a UCF news release. “Tailoring materials that will absorb a specific color of light is very difficult from the scientific point of view, but from the societal point of view we are contributing to the development of a technology that can help reduce greenhouse gases.”
Plant Power for the People
The Earth is rapidly heading toward the worst CO2 levels it’s seen in more than 200 million years. In fact, in just the 150 years since the Industrial Revolution, the planet’s atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases have increased from 280 ppm to nearly 405 ppm. If the current trend continues, we could hit 2,000 ppm by 2250.
Plants are our allies in the pursuit of clean air as they naturally convert CO2 into oxygen. Being able to recreate their natural process on a large, more directed scale could prove invaluable in the fight against climate change.
“The idea would be to set up stations that capture large amounts of CO2, like next to a power plant,” explains Uribe-Romo in the press release. “The gas would be sucked into the station, go through the process and recycle the greenhouse gases while producing energy that would be put back into the power plant.”
That ability to not only eliminate pollutants in the air but also produce clean energy opens up additional potential uses for the new material. Perhaps it could be used to power cars while also cleaning the air along freeways, or in solar roofs that keep the lights on inside and the air outside free of CO2. Once the seemingly impossible has been accomplished, everything else sounds pretty simple.
On the heels of announcements about a more affordable Model 3 and a Tesla pickup truck, Tesla has begun to prepare for the mass-market in earnest for the first time by making more charging stations for available for their vehicles. To that end, Tesla’s blog announced on Monday, April 24, that the company would be doubling the Tesla charging network in 2017. This includes expanding existing sites in city centers and along highways so drivers need never wait to charge before getting back on the road.
Since the charging network began in 2012, Tesla has constructed more than 5,400 Superchargers to make long distance travel possible and even convenient for Tesla owners. They’ve also built more than 9,000 Destination Charging connectors equipped with Wall Connectors at restaurants, hotels, and other locations.
By the end of 2017 Tesla plans to have more than 10,000 Superchargers and 15,000 Destination Chargers in place around the world. Superchargers will increase by 150 percent in North America, and 1,000 additional Superchargers will be built in California alone. Site selection is underway now so many will open before summer travel season begins. Tesla will place charging sites in urban centers for quicker charging. Larger sites, which will accommodate simultaneous charging for several dozen drivers, will be constructed along the most-used travel routes for Tesla drivers.
New Age In Energy
Tesla’s investment in infrastructure represents a vote of confidence in the success of its newest products as well as the potential for the auto industry to continue shifting toward electric vehicles. Tesla’s overall plan is to change the way we think about power and energy. Experts are already acknowledging that Tesla will be disrupting the auto industry, and the energy industry is next.
Tesla’s newest solar panels integrate seamlessly with the Tesla Powerwall battery system and will be available this summer. By 2018, the Tesla Gigafactory will reach full capacity; when it does, it will be producing more lithium ion batteries than the rest of the world combined. These tools will allow Tesla owners to power their homes — and their vehicles — with solar power, greatly reducing their carbon footprints.
With the ability to harness and store enough renewable energy, we could end our reliance on fossil fuels once and for all — and Musk thinks that’s something Earth urgently needs. In terms of the effects of pollution and fossil fuel use, he’s right: our planet can’t wait.
Anyone watching the solar market has seen an amazing increase in solar photovoltaics (PV) sales over the past nine years, and GTM Research reports that the industry is still growing during the first quarter of 2017. In just under a decade, the solar market has experienced a 30-fold increase, and 2016 alone saw a notable surge in annual global PV demand in excess of 50 percent over the previous year.
At one point in March, the share of California’s power demand going to solar actually topped 50 percent for the first time. This was no fluke. For a few hours just last week, 40 percent of the state’s power demand was filled by utility-scale solar generation, according the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
This doesn’t account for the fact that some homes and businesses use rooftop PV to generate power — about “4 million kilowatthours (kWh) during the peak solar hours,” the IEA calculates, “suggesting that the total solar share of gross demand probably exceeded 50 percent during the mid-day hours.”
Preparations for Tesla’s Model 3 electric vehicle production are well under way, and one of the most recent development comes from an Austrian cable company. The company — which has not been named publicly as of yet — will be supplying aluminum cabling for the Model 3, according to a report from the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation.
As part of a business deal worth as much as $5.4 million (5 million Euros), Tesla ordered 3,000 kilometers (1,864 miles) of “shielded aluminum cables” which will be used to connect the Model 3’s electric motor to an onboard battery pack. The cables are expected to be delivered to Tesla’s Gigafactory 1 in Sparks, Nevada, where the Model 3’s electric motors and gear boxes will be manufactured.
The deal was a result of “intensive development and sales activities,” according to the Austrian company’s Facebook page. This is the company’s first dealing with Tesla, though they are no stranger to working with car manufacturers: they’ve struck previous deals with Ford and Chrysler.
Smaller and Lighter
The Model 3 will be the latest addition to Tesla’s line up of EVs. It’s expected to be smaller and lighter than previous models, assets that the aluminum cabling supports. Supposedly, these Austrian-made cables are lighter than traditional cabling materials, and not to mention cheaper — so their addition isn’t expected to upset the vehicle’s $35,000 starting price.
Electric vehicles (EV) are becoming increasingly popular. One clear proof is Tesla’s recent ranking as the most valuable car maker in the United States, topping industry veterans Ford and General Motors. As Tesla beats the EV competition on the ground, other companies are trying to conquer the skies. One of these is Siemens, and their Extra 330LE aerobatic plane just proved that electric planes can be as fast and as tough as their counterparts powered by fossil fuels.
On March 23, the Extra broke two world records for electric planes. One was in the World Air Sports Federation’s (FAI) category of “Electric airplanes with a take-off weight less than 1,000 kilograms.” Over a three-kilometer distance at the Dinslaken Schwarze Heide airfield in Germany, the Extra reached top speeds of around 337.5 km/h (209.7 mph). A slightly modified version of this electric plane also set a record for the “above 1,000 kilograms” category, reaching a speed of 343 km/h (213 mph).
Then, on March 24, the Extra became the first electric plane to perform an aerotow. In a nearly silent maneuver, the Extra towed a type LS8-neo glider at a height of 600 meters in just 76 seconds. “This aerotow provides further highly visible evidence of our record-setting motor’s performance capabilities,” said Frank Anton, eAircraft head at next47, a Siemens venture capital unit. “Just six such propulsion units would be sufficient to power a typical 19-seat hybrid-electric airplane.”
Cleaning the Skies
Airplanes are huge contributors to fossil fuel utilization. Planes for international flights, like a Boeing 747 for example, consume about 4 liters (1 gallon) of fuel every second. A ten-hour flight can burn as much as 150,000 liters (36,000 gallons) of fuel, and as much as 12 liters of fuel per kilometer (5 gallons fuel per mile).
Electric planes like the Extra 330LE could give us a big boost towards lessen carbon emissions in the skies. According to Anton, it won’t be long before electric planes can be used for commercial flights. “By 2030, we expect to see the first planes carrying up to 100 passengers and having a range of about 1,000 kilometers,” he said. Siemens is making it possible for hybrid-electric propulsion systems to be the future of aircrafts, and it is working with Airbus to scale their propulsion systems.
A company called Wright Electric made a presentation this week at the Tech Crunch Y Combinator Demo Day showing off a plan to design and develop a 150-seat commercial aircraft that operates completely (or at least partially) on electric power. Wright’s core is comprised by a team that was formerly working with NASA to investigate electric aircraft viability. Other design team members also have strong aviation backgrounds coming from Boeing and Cessna.
According to Wright Electric’s blog, its first step is to retrofit a Piper Cherokee into a flying testbed aircraft. Wright hopes to secure funding to prove its concept and then plans to build a nine-seat commercial aircraft that flies without jet fuel.
Fast-forwarding several years — and through layers of red tape in the government approval process — Wright envisions its 150-seat planes replacing the stalwart Boeing 737 on short-haul routes such as NYC to Boston. The BBC says Wright has the interest of European low-cost carrier EasyJet, which hopes for electric flights from London to Paris within ten years. The airline told the BBC, “EasyJet has had discussions with Wright Electric and is actively providing an airline operator’s perspective on the development of this exciting technology.”
The Road to Clean Flight
Apart from employee salary and the airplanes themselves, fuel is the top expense at most airlines. Alternative methods of powering planes aren’t really anything new, and other electric or hybrid concepts have come and gone. Airbus created its E-Fan aircraft to explore the realm of possibility of electric aircraft. Although it’s been successful in the form of a tiny plane with a solo pilot, Airbus has since realized a hybrid version of the plane — equipped with both electric and internal combustion engines — is more viable.
Wright has said it may end up with a hybrid system as well, depending how available battery technology progresses in the nest few years. But there can be no doubt that airlines will do whatever is reasonable and ethically possible to reduce operating costs.
Over the past few years, several airlines have even implemented alternative biofuels to power their jets on select flights. In 2016, United Airlines launched an initiative to use biofuels on every flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to San Francisco (SFO). Alaska Airlines has experimented with a sustainable biofuel based on leftover limbs and branches from the Pacific Northwest timber industry.
How much battery power would it take to power a plane for a 300-mile flight? The problems with batteries on aircraft have been well-publicized, from the fires on the early Boeing 787s, to bulk lithium-ion battery shipments on UPS. Is it possible? Yes. But ten years seems a bit too ambitious when they don’t even have a conceptual plane flying. Their mindset toward eliminating or reducing jet fuel use is commendable, and the reduction in jet fuel use would be beneficial to the environment.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has determined that trading natural gas for clean energy is best both for the environment and the budget. Forecasts show that switching half of the country’s power needs to renewables by 2050 will generate savings that outweigh the costs of investment. In fact, as the UAE invests $150 billion into renewable power between now and 2050, it will save $192 billion as it reduces its dependency on subsidized natural gas power.
Minister of Energy Suhail Al-Mazrouei announced the UAE’s clean energy plans, expressing the nation’s “bullish” enthusiasm about the project. Following through with the plan will “save the environment and at the same time save us lots of money,” he said in an interview with Bloomberg.
As solar power makes the news as the cheapest source of new energy, countries in sunny regions are reassessing their power strategies. Most of these nations rely on liquid natural gas — for now. Al-Mazrouei explained that Middle East states need to break free from their dependence on subsidized gas power, which is incredibly inefficient.
“We have so many open-cycle power plants it doesn’t make sense to continue with them — they’ve very low efficiency,” he said. “The reason they are there is because gas is subsidized.”
Capitalizing On Natural Advantages
The UAE has now set a clean power target that is “incredibly ambitious” according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, joining other nations around the world who are working to maximize their green energy use.
Back in July 2016, Tesla noted that owners of the company’s EVs had driven a combined total of more than 2 billion miles. In an effort to speed up the journey to three billion miles (while simultaneously “showcas[ing] the uncompromised capabilities of Model S and Model X”), the company launched its Electric Road Trip.
Now, more than eight months after the road trip kicked off, Tesla has hit another milestone. The company’s fleet of electric vehicles all over the world have now collectively covered more than four billion miles of road — and counting!
The Road Ahead
When Tesla first launched its EVs and started laying down its network of charging stations, the company was met with a lot of skepticism. In 2014, someone even went out of his way to do his own electric road trip and found the whole thing impractical.
On March 11, 2011, the Great Tōhoku Earthquake triggered a 15-meter-high tsunami wave that hammered the eastern coast of Japan. The wave flooded the buildings, disabled the cooling and power supply of three reactors, and caused the nuclear fuel rods to overheat at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. With the power out, the emergency cooling generators weren’t functional, and explosions began in the reactor containment buildings; this in turn caused nuclear material to leak out of the plant. As every emergency response system failed, all three cores melted down almost completely within the first three days.
According to the World Nuclear Association, “The accident was rated 7 on the INES scale, due to high radioactive releases over days 4 to 6.” The meltdown released 940 PBq of radioactive material — about 15 to 18 percent of what Chernobyl released, which was about 5,200 PBq. The combined total of confirmed deaths and missing persons from the broader events was more than 22,000, but all of these people were alost due to the natural disasters and by health conditions immediately afterwards. There were no recorded deaths caused by the meltdown itself.
The Japanese government ordered more than 154,000 people to abandon their homes immediately following the accident because of concerns about radiation. As of last year, most of these people, about 97,000, remained displaced. Fukushima is thus far the most expensive disaster in history — the economic damages of this disaster are estimated at about $235 billion.
Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the plant’s operator, has used robots to assess the damage, especially in areas where there is too much radiation for humans to work. Toshiba, a partner in the cleanup effort, has provided a scorpion-like robot for damage assessment, and the company also created an amphibious robot for fuel rod removal. Unfortunately, the radiation has made proper functioning impossible for most of the robots for any extended period of time.
A Nuclear Energy Future
Although the Fukushima Daiichi accident brought the previously simmering global debate about nuclear energy to a rolling boil, nuclear energy has actually become far safer after the accident. Experts agreed that the Fukushima disaster could have been avoided, and this alone suggests that, when best practices are followed, nuclear energy is safer than this experience would suggest.
Furthermore, “passive” safety systems that can cool reactors despite a power loss have become the industry standard since the accident. In the U.S., plant operators are enhancing procedures developed after 9/11 to ensure the safety of nuclear installations.
Nuclear plants generate clean energy without the greenhouse emissions, preventing around 80,000 deaths caused by air pollution annually. Nuclear is also safer than most other sources of energy: natural gas is 1.3 times as dangerous, coal is 27 times as dangerous, and hydroelectric is 46 times as dangerous. While the Fukushima Daiichi accident is a tragedy we will not soon forget, it does not negate the many benefits that nuclear energy represents.
China’s National Bureau of Statistics show a 4.7 percent drop in coal consumption in 2016, indicating that the plan is working already. In fact, the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook Report estimates that China’s coal use probably peaked in 2013, and has been falling significantly since that time. China is using multiple clean energy tactics to achieve its goals, and has begun a $474 billion renewable energy program; $361 billion of that will go into renewable fuel by 2020.
According to China’s National Energy Administration (NEA), in 2016 the country more than doubled its solar energy production. By the end of the year, China hit 77.42 gigawatts, allowing the generation of 66.2 billion kilowatt-hours of power. This made them the largest producer of solar energy in the world, at least in terms of capacity. NEA’s development plan indicates that China intends to add over 110 gigawatts of capacity by 2020.
China is also in the process of building the largest waste-to-energy plant in the world. The Shenzen East-to-Waste plant is only one of 300 facilities that generate sustainable energy as they address the mounting waste problem in the world’s most populous country. The Shenzen plant is scheduled to be online by 2020, and although it is not solely a green solution (as it produces some CO2 emissions), given its role in waste reduction, it is part of the overall green picture in China.
Cutting global emissions by half by 2050 calls on the full deployment of existing energy efficient potential. Despite energy efficient technologies’ proven track record as a cost-effective mean to reduce energy consumption and related emissions, its full potential is yet to be tapped. The investment gap is a key element in explaining the remaining potential.
Public money is increasing – but more is still needed from the private sector. Today, an average of around $130 billion has been invested in energy efficiency improvement yearly, equivalent to 15% of fossil fuel investment, or one fifth of power sector investment. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that to achieve the below 2-degree scenario, energy efficiency (EE) investments need to reach $560 billion/year over the next 15 years, an increase of over four times the current level.
Higher private investments are needed to bridge the gap. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) shows that 86% of those investments need to be private.
In 2016, low-interest rates prevailed in mature economies, at close to zero. Money is available and cheap, with Bain & Company projecting that the volume of total financial assets will be 10 times larger than the value of global GDP growth to 2020. Concurrently, an increasing number of private financial players are willing and stringently committing to greening their finance. Yet, the EE gap is still unfilled. Why?
Private investments are still hindered by the enduring (if unfounded) risk perception of energy efficiency projects. Contrary to traditional investments, EE gains are intangible in nature (they don’t come with incremental physical production) and difficult to measure. The uncertainties surrounding EE savings, reinforced by the absence of an internationally recognized monitoring protocol, result in a perception that EE operational risks are high. Energy efficient technologies are often assumed to be unreliable; with a concomitant risk of not transforming into adequate return cash flows. This results in much higher transaction costs.
Making the Transition to a Low-Carbon World
In the coming 15 years, 3 billion additional people will join the middle class. Today, around 2 billion people still lack access to reliable electricity. Our challenge in the next 40 years is to provide energy services for close to 5 billion additional people, building a system that delivers 100GJ per capita to more than 9 billion people, while cutting our emissions by half. This entails a sharp decrease in our carbon intensity and an efficiency improvement by a factor of three.
It’s time for action. Projects are not happening at the necessary scale or pace. Cities, for instance, soon host to more than 70% of the world population, have a significant potential for increased savings. While smart city projects are on the rise worldwide, their development remains at the planning phase and viable business models for easy scaling up are still to be found. Execution challenges pile up and have led for instance to the push back of Masdar City completion from 2016 to 2030. Similar hurdles also plague China’s ambition to build 154 smart cities, where several newly created eco-cities are abandoned by developers before completion.
Buildings, where half of world’s electricity is consumed, are among the most inefficient infrastructures, with 80% untapped EE potential. The IEA estimates that buildings energy performance per square meter needs to improve from a rate of 1.5% per year in the past decade to at least 2.5% per year over the next decade to 2025. Solutions exist to get us there. Building control systems can deliver 30% energy savings by combining comprehensive automation, control, and monitoring of energy use, with a payback of less than 3 years. Similarly, in other sectors, deploying available technologies by bridging market barriers, could unlock the 79% unrealized efficiency potential in infrastructure, and the 58% potential of Industries.
The digitization of the economy and the advancement of smart grid technologies, such as intelligent metering, automated analytics, demand response, enable customers to produce, consume, store and sell within a dynamic electricity system.
Customers are at the center of the New Energy World transformation. Yet in our current energy system, less than one third of total generation reaches end-users. The rest is scattered along the energy value chain in production and T&D losses. Lagging behind in this transition will be detrimental to individuals and the planet, by giving citizens less choice on how, what, and when they consume energy.
What Can be Done?
Scaling up of risk-sharing instruments. Previous experiences with risk mitigation instruments have been very successful. The case of the International Finance Corporation (IFC)’s risk-sharing facility and programs come to mind with Commercializing Energy Efficiency Finance (CEEF): a program that provides guarantees to EE investments in Eastern Europe. IFC guarantees up to 50% of the loss from loan defaults, a risk-sharing arrangement that encourages commercial banks to lend. Local banks select projects and design their credit facilities. The IFC has also been active in China under a similar mechanism. From 2006 to 2009, the China Utility Based Energy Efficiency Finance Program (CHUEE) provided USD 512 billion in loans to 78 companies without a default loss.
The European Union should be commended for building on such success and launching the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI), jointly with the European Investment Bank (EIB) and the EU Commission. Such initiative provides a EUR 16bn guarantee from the EU budget and EUR 5 billion of EIB’s own capital, and encourages higher risk projects in Europe. This scheme has recently loaned EUR 100 million to Energies POSIT’IF, a public-private company that aims to make condominium buildings in Paris region more energy efficient. The loan and risk guarantee enables the provision of financing to owners and resulted in the tripling of apartments expected to undergo renovation in the coming year.
Additional work is still needed to analyze the best combination of financial and other instruments (such as training, education, capacity building or awareness building) for reducing high levels of perceived risk. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) is working closely with local financial institutions and technical partners to transfer international best practice skills, supporting the origination of technically feasible investment opportunities.
To unlock private investments, policy-makers need to rise up and provide adequate policy signals. Risk-sharing instruments should be scaled up and deployed. Subsidies and other market failures insulating customers from the true price of energy should be corrected; including the internalization of climate change externalities. The establishment of a platform for continuous public-private dialogue would facilitate alignment of stakeholders involved in enabling and accelerating this transition: financiers; industries; policy makers; citizens. Leveraging existing institutions and initiatives that facilitate international public-private exchanges, data and resource sharing on these issues, is urgently needed.
Of course, there is a downside: the electric car boom is a troubling trend for fossil fuels. As plug-in electric vehicles threaten to take over the roads, fossil fuels are steadily on the decline. The powerful oil industry has started to find itself resorting to somewhat desperate measures, including efforts attacking the incentives for electric vehicles and even introducing legislation that would penalize electric car drivers.
These electric vehicle fees, according to fossil fuel lobby groups like the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers (AFPM), are designed to level the playing field (an interesting take, since the oil business is significantly larger than the electric car industry).
Reportedly, for more than a year, Koch Industries has spent nearly $10 million dollars, and plans to do so every year, on a campaign to boost petroleum-based transportation fuels and attack government support for electric vehicles. This campaign was presumably created because of the risk [electric vehicles] place on the oil and coal industry. American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing state legislation machine funded by the Koch brothers and several other multinational corporations, introduced in December of 2015 a resolution to discourage states from providing subsidies for [electric vehicles] at their States and Nation Policy Summit.
China has already relaxed its policies to allow for more electric vehicles on the road. In the spirit of healthy competition, will the U.S. follow suit in progression, or go in the opposite — and regressive — direction?
The lifeblood of modern civilization is affordable, free-flowing energy.
It gives us the power to heat our homes. Grow and refrigerate food. Purify water. Manufacture products. Perform organ transplants. Drive a car. Go to work. Or procrastinate from work by reading a story about the future of energy.
Today’s cheap, bountiful supplies make it hard to see humanity’s looming energy crisis, but it’s possibly coming within our lifetimes. Our numbers will grow from 7.36 billion people today to 9 billion in 2040, an increase of 22%. Rapidly developing nations, however, will supercharge global energy consumption at more than twice that rate.
Fossil fuels could quench the planet’s deep thirst for energy, but they’d be a temporary fix at best. Known reserves maydryup within a century or two. And burning up that carbon-based fuel would accelerate climate change, which is already on track to disrupt and jeopardize countless lives.
Nuclear reactors, on the other hand, fit the bill: They’re dense, reliable, emit no carbon, and — contrary to bitter popular sentiment — are among the safest energy sources on earth. Today, they supply about 20% of America’s energy, though by the 2040s, this share may drop to 10% as companies shut down decades-old reactors, according to a July 2016 report released by Idaho National Laboratory (INL).
The good news is that a proven solution is at hand — if we want it badly enough.
Called a molten-salt reactor, the technology was conceived during the Cold War and forgoes solid nuclear fuel for a liquid one, which it can “burn” with far greater efficiency than any power technology in existence. It also generates a small fraction of the radioactive waste that today’s commercial reactors — which all rely on solid fuel — do.
And, in theory, molten-salt reactors can never melt down.
“And it does a whole bunch of things it doesn’t do today, like make energy without emitting carbon,” he added.
What’s more, feeding a molten-salt reactor a radioactive waste from mining, called thorium (which is three to four times more abundant than uranium), can “breed” as much nuclear fuel as it burns up.
Manhattan Project scientist Alvin Weinberg calculated in 1959 that if we could somehow harvest all the thorium in the Earth’s crust and use it in this way, we could power civilization for tens of billions of years.
“The technology is viable, the science has been demonstrated,” Hans Gougar, a nuclear physicist at INL, told Business Insider.
Demonstrated, because government scientists built two complementary prototypes during the 1950s and ’60s.
They weren’t good for making nuclear weapons, though, so bureaucrats pulled funding for the revolutionary energy technology. The last working molten-salt reactor shut down in 1969.
Today, entrepreneurs such as Sorensen are working tirelessly to revive and modernize the technology. So are foreign governments like India and China.
China now spends more than $350 million a year developing its variation of the Cold War-era design.
The story of how we got here is neither short nor simple, but it explains why Sorensen and others are betting big on humanity’s coming “Thorium Age” — and why the US continues to stumble at its dawn.
The Argument for Nuclear Energy
Its brutalist architecture may not be sexy, but nuclear energy unlocks a truly incredible source of carbon-free fuel. Ounce per ounce, uranium provides roughly 16,000 times more energy than coal and creates millions of times less pollution.
The argument to support growth in nuclear energy is so clear to James Hansen, a seasoned climatologist and outspoken environmentalist, that he passionately advocates for the use and development of the technology.
“To solve the climate problem, policy must be based on facts and not on prejudice. The climate system cares about greenhouse gas emissions — not about whether energy comes from renewable power or abundant nuclear power,” Hansen and three other well-known scientists — Ken Caldeira, Kerry Emanuel, and Tom Wigley — wrote in an editorial for The Guardian in 2015.
“Nuclear energy can power whole civilizations, and produce waste streams that are trivial compared to the waste produced by fossil fuel combustion,” they wrote. “Nuclear will make the difference between the world missing crucial climate targets or achieving them.”
Climate science aside, the economics of nuclear energy are enough of a draw to make the technology worthwhile.
Today, the industry is already profitable, albeit well subsidized. Still, if you level the energy playing field against other power sources by taking into account government subsidies and tax breaks, capital costs, fuel costs, and other factors that affect the price-per-megawatt-hour of a power plant, nuclear energy remains a financial win in the long run.
Nuclear power’s 2016 levelized costs make it about twice as cheap as natural gas “peaking” plants (which fire up to meet sudden peaks in energy demand). Nuclear also beats the overall cost of many coal-fired power plants. And that’s before you account for the extraordinary hidden costs of fossil fuels against public health and the environment, including particulate pollution (which kills tens of thousands of people a year) and exacerbating climate change.
Nuclear also wins financially against solar rooftops, many fuel-cell energy schemes, and some geothermal and bioenergy plants.
That isn’t to say that current nuclear power plants are flawless. However, they’re irrefutably amazing power sources, currently meeting one-fifth of the US’s energy needs with just 61 power plants. They’re also incredibly reliable, always-on sources of baseload electricity, heat, and medically useful radioisotopes.
Yet great titans fall hard, and the reasons why are key to the continued delay of the Thorium Age.
Why Nuclear Energy is Collapsing in America
While new reactors are planned or are coming online soon, many have stalled and the industry has stagnated, with eight of the US’s 99 decades-old reactors planned for shutdown by 2025.
Flibe Energy’s Sorensen partly blames aggressive government subsidization of wind and solar energy, which leads to the problem of negative pricing.
“We’ve created rules that disturb the energy market substantially,” Sorensen said. “The first rule is that whenever wind and solar come online, we have to take the power. That’s called grid priority. The second rules is, they’re paid no matter how much power they make.”
Sorensen characterized this as the “murder” of nuclear energy, since those plants can’t be shut on and off quickly. He also said this is hurting the environment by causing companies to invest more heavily in gas plants (which can be ramped up and down quickly).
“These two put together create negative prices, and if you’re a nuclear power-plant operator, and you’re trying to obviously make money selling power to the grid and the prices go negative for large portions of the day, that’s economically unviable,” he said. “That’s what’s causing reactors to get shut down.”
But other issues are kneecapping nuclear too.
Time and cost
Energy sources such as hydroelectric and wind are still cheaper than nuclear, and a fracking boom has fueled investment in natural-gas-fired power plants.
Reactors also take many years and billions of dollars to permit, build, and license for operation: They’re exceedingly large and complex works of engineering (though you only need a high school diploma to operate one once they’re finished).
The average US reactor is about 35 years old. They can run for decades with constant maintenance. The Oyster Creek nuclear generating station outside of New York City, for example, has operated since 1969. But many are being eyed for shutdown, and once they’re shut off, reactors can take more than a decade to decommission, demolish, and bury.
A dysfunctional uranium fuel cycle in the US has not helped, where just 3% to 6.5% of solid uranium fuel is burned up — and the remaining 93% to 97% is treated as radioactive waste and not reprocessed and recycled.
“Nuclear radiation ticks all the boxes for increasing the fear factor,” David Spiegelhalter, a statistician at Cambridge University, told New Scientist after the Fukushima disaster in 2011:
“It is invisible, an unknowable quantity. People don’t feel in control of it, and they don’t understand it. They feel it is imposed upon them and that it is unnatural. It has the dread quality of causing cancer and birth defects.”
Fukushima’s reactor meltdowns killed no one, according to a 2013 World Health Organization report. Even in “the two most affected locations of Fukushima prefecture,” people in the first year would receive only two to three CT chest scans’ worth of radiation exposure.
“Let me throw out other names you might not be familiar with: San Bruno. Banqiao Dam,” Sorensen said, referring to the two accidents that killed eight (in a 2010 California gas-line explosion) and as many as 230,000 people (in a series of 1975 Chinese dam collapses), respectively.
“These are catastrophic incidents with hydropower and natural gas that really did result in large losses of human life,” he said. “And yet the public doesn’t have a terror of hydroelectric power or natural gas.”
What Does the Data Say About Nuclear Energy’s Safety?
Measuring immediate deaths against gigawatts of electrical power is a typical way to assess the safety of energy sources, and a 2010 analysis by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) used this.
But adding in incidental deaths that occur later, such as 9,000 estimated cancer fatalities from Chernobyl (which the OECD left out), does change the numbers, as does including pollution deaths and incidental Banqiao Dam deaths.
“Nuclear power has consistently been proven to be the safest and most effective form of power that we have today, and by using thorium nuclear power, we can take that admirable safety record and go even further,” Sorensen said.
But grasping the promise and potential perils of a thorium-powered future, or any other atomic-energy scheme, means you’ve got to know a thing or two about nuclear physics.
These numbers suggest that more than 99% of us aren’t intimately familiar with how nuclear energy works — so here’s a bit of background about the atomic magic that provides roughly one-fifth of US power.
What Reactors Do
A commercial nuclear reactor’s job, like any fossil-fuel-burning plant, is to generate heat. Systems around the reactor harvest that flow of energy, use it to boil water into steam, drive turbines, and ultimately create electricity. Instead of burning fossil fuels, though, nuclear reactors “burn” heavy elements, typically uranium.
But uranium isn’t just uranium.
The element is found as, and can be transformed into, different isotopes, or various weights or “flavors” of the same atomic element:
uranium-238 (U-238), which makes up 99.27% of natural uranium ore
uranium-235 (U-235), which is just 0.72% of natural ore, but a key ingredient in weapons and reactor fuel
uranium-233 (U-233), which isn’t found in nature yet is essential to thorium molten-salt reactors (more on this later)
The larger the number, the more chargeless neutrons are jammed into an atomic nucleus, and the heavier it is. Take away or add a neutron, and you can radically alter an isotope’s stability (and radioactivity), the types of radiation it emits, and what happens when it’s blasted by more neutrons.
The most common isotopes of uranium aren’t very radioactive.
For half of any U-238 to decay into lighter atoms — a measure called half-life — it takes 4.6 billion years. That’s a very, very long time to spread out a set amount of radiation. U-235 isn’t much more radioactive with a half-life of 704 million years.
Compare that to radon-222 (Rn-222), a gas with a half-life of nearly four days. It’s tens of billion times as radioactive as U-235, ounce for ounce, simply because Rn-222 decays so much faster. (Which is why it’s a problem if it seeps out of the ground and into your basement.)
Yet we don’t use Rn-222 as a nuclear fuel. One atomic property matters much more than all the others inside a reactor core.
One of the most important things about a nuclear fuel is the chance its nucleus will react with a flying neutron, a property called neutron cross section.
Physicists measure cross section as an area, in “barns,” which you can imagine as a baseball glove. The larger the cross section the bigger the glove, and the more likely it is to catch a neutron — the baseball in this analogy.
The speed of a neutron greatly affects what happens next, and it can get weird.
A neutron can scatter, get captured (and turn a nucleus into a new isotope), or, of tremendous importance, get caught in the glove, suddenly fission it into pieces, and spit out two or three more baseballs in the process.
When those extra neutrons slam into nearby isotopes and cause them to fission, too, it’s a chain reaction.
Energy vs. Bombs
Fission chain reactions are the key to nuclear reactors (and nuclear bombs), since each fission event turns a little bit of mass into pure energy.
However, only a handful of isotopes are fissile — meaning they spit out enough neutrons and have the right cross section to “go critical” in a chain reaction.
U-238’s thermal cross section is about 0.00003 barn. That is a very tiny glove. Meanwhile, U-235’s cross section is 583 barns, making its figurative “glove” millions of times as big, and a highly fissile fuel. U-233 is also fissile with a respectable cross section of 529 barns.
This is all gravely important.
A controlled chain reaction is a nuclear reactor. A runaway fission reaction is a nuclear disaster or a weapon of mass destruction.
It took thousands of the world’s brightest scientists in the Manhattan Project many years to crack open these and deeper mysteries of nuclear physics, then design technologies like bombs and reactors, so we’ll skip most of that backstory. (“The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes is one of the best books to explore that history.)
But in addition to figuring out how to “breed” Pu-239 from U-238, scientists learned to transmute thorium into U-233.
Breeding Atoms: As Real as Alchemy Gets
If you press Sorensen for a simple analogy that illustrates how energy from thorium works, he may plunk you down in a wet forest.
“If you’ve ever gone camping as a Boy Scout or something like that, and been caught in a rainstorm and had to start a fire, you know that you’re really looking hard for dry wood. Wood that will immediately burn. That’s kind of how some of the uranium we have today is,” Sorensen said. “It’s like the dry wood. It’s the kindling.”
Which makes thorium the wet wood: Get your nuclear fire hot enough and it will burn too.
“That’s an imperfect analogy, but what happens in a thorium reactor is thorium absorbs neutrons and it forms a new fuel — uranium-233 — that can then sustain the reaction,” he said. “It can produce enough neutrons to continue turning more thorium into U-233.”
This transformative process is called breeding, and it’s the key that unlocks the promise of thorium — and explains its eventual abandonment during the Cold War.
Manhattan Project scientists, who embraced a “try everything” race to the bomb, didn’t figure out thorium breeding until late in World War II.
They initially focused on enriching U-235 in natural ore from less than 1% to about 90%, which is considered weapons-grade material.
But enrichment was painfully inefficient, requiring city-size industrial complexes with mile-long buildings. (All $1 billion worth of enriched uranium went inside the “Little Boy” bomb, which killed more than 100,000 people in Hiroshima.)
Plutonium, an element not found in nature — and specifically the isotope Pu-239 — eventually changed everything, since it was a simpler (though still arduous) path to nuclear weapons.
The highly fissile isotope could be “bred” from common U-238 by pounding it with neutrons, then chemically removing the fresh Pu-239 with a bath of nitric acid— no mile-long buildings full of machinery required.
But in tandem, the Manhattan Project also explored making a third fissile material, U-233, from thorium.
The scheme involved fueling up a reactor, then using the neutrons to bombard thorium — and breeding it into U-233.
But U-233 quickly became a dead end for the military.
For one, U-235 and Pu-239 were precious bomb-making materials, so burning them up in reactors was risky. Breeding U-233 from thorium also created significant amounts of a worrisome contaminant called U-232, which scientists had not yet figured out how to remove.
U-232 emits a lot of alpha radiation, which can trigger spontaneous fission — not good for a nuclear weapon you don’t want to randomly explode. Its decay products also emit a lot of gamma radiation, which can wreck electronics and harm or kill people who handle bombs. In addition, gamma rays can blow a bomb’s cover, since they are detectable by airplane or satellite, and pass through all but the heaviest radiation shielding.
Scientists like Seaborg weren’t even certain a U-233-powered bomb would blow up very well. Apparently, they were right: A 1955 “Operation Teapot” weapons test using U-233 fizzled (the US government has yet to declassify all the details, though).
So in 1945, with Pu-239 production firmly in place, confidence in that weapons material, and a looming Japanese surrender, the defenders of breeding thorium into U-233 “went to zero,” Sorensen told Business Insider.
“Was that the right decision? It’s very hard to know,” Sorensen said. “Those people thought that they were making a decision to preserve the future for their children […] So I hesitate to levy judgments on those decisions made in the past.”
But in the years leading up to the war’s end, Manhattan Project scientists were dreaming up ways to turn their wartime research into commercial power sources, and one group arrived at a brilliant concept: a super-fuel-efficient “breeder” reactor that ran on thorium and U-233.
A Powerful Postwar Revival for Thorium
The concept of the breeder reactor was fairly straightforward.
It would dramatically increase the chances for fission, boost the flow of neutrons, and breed more fissile fuel from a “fertile” material than the reactor burned up. Breeding U-238 into Pu-239 created an excess of plutonium. Meanwhile, breeding thorium into U-233 broke even, burning up just as much fuel as it made.
The choice of fuel makes all the difference.
The plutonium fuel cycle is a great way to make weapons. Meanwhile, the thorium fuel cycle can produce almost limitless energy.
A fluid-fueled design was ultimately envisioned by Manhattan Project scientists to “eliminate the considerable difficulty of fabricating solid fueled elements,” Sorensen wrote in his thesis. Liquid fuel also made it easy to remove both useful fission products — for example, for medical procedures, and those that poison nuclear chain reactions. The gas xenon-135 (Xe-135) is a common uranium fission product, and its 3-million-barn cross section gobbles up neutrons and chokes reactors.
Physicist Alvin Weinberg later wrote the idea to use fluid fuels “kind of an obsession” of his, to the extent he eventually succeeded at building his first molten-salt reactors in Tennessee.
But Weinberg, then the director of Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), thought LWRs were too heavy and inefficient for a jet airplane.
In fact, even modern LWRs — which all US commercial nuclear power plants operate today — fission or “burn up” just a few percent of their fuel before it needs to be replaced. That’s because neutron-absorbing waste builds up in the fuel, can’t be removed, and chokes fission.
“When you go to gas station, do you feel good about burning 10% of it? What about 5%?” Sorensen said, referencing the low burn-up rate of solid-fueled commercial reactors. “You want to burn it all. Why should we expect anything different?”
A molten-salt reactor emerged as the clear choice, since it could be built small: The fluid dramatically increases the efficiency of nuclear fission by making it easy to remove fission products, helping it burn up almost all the nuclear fuel and boosting energy output.
By 1954, Weinberg’s team had built the proof-of-concept Aircraft Reactor Experiment (ARE), a 2.5-megawatt power plant that ran on a small amount of uranium-235 dissolved in molten salt made of fluorine, sodium, and zirconium.
It was the first working molten-salt reactor ever built.
Dissolved inside the reactor’s molten salt, U-235 fuel powered a fission chain reaction. The atomic heat warmed up an adjacent loop of coolant (filled with molten sodium) by 300 degrees, from 1,200 to 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Incoming air cooled the sodium, and pumps returned it to the fluid-fueled reactor core for reheating.
“The Air Force was delighted by the aircraft reactor experiment,” Weinberg wrote in his 1994 autobiography, “The First Nuclear Era,” since this was hot enough to drive jet-engine turbines.
Weinberg’s new technology never made it inside the “The Crusader” nuclear B-36 bomber (which actually did fly carrying a working reactor) before President John F. Kennedy canceled the entire USAF project in 1961.
However, Weinberg had squeezed years’ worth of research on molten-salt reactors out of the effort by then — and wasted no time spinning his work into the Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE).
Weinberg’s Thorium Dream is Born
Weinberg and his colleagues designed MSRE over five years as a prototype for a commercial power plant.
It contained a loop filled with a molten salt made of fluorine, lithium, and beryllium — or FLiBe, the namesake of Sorensen’s energy-from-thorium startup — plus zirconium. The salt carried around dissolved U-235 and eventually U-233, making MSRE the world’s first reactor to run on U-233 fuel. A second loop of molten salt cooled the reactor.
The reactor went critical in 1965, ran for thousands of hours with only minor issues, and was put into standby mode after its first run ended in 1969. Weinberg thought of MSRE as a proof-of-concept, and he planned to develop it into a full molten salt breeder reactor (MSBR).
This new version would blanket the neutron-shooting core with thorium dissolved in, transforming the element into U-233. Systems would then filter out that new fuel and feed it into the core — all without having to shut down the reactor.
He also envisioned a world flush with thorium molten-salt breeder reactors as cheap, clean energy sources not only for the US but also for the developing world.
According to “SuperFuel,” a 2013 book on thorium energy’s demise and promise by journalist and author Richard Martin:
“Fed by the dream of inexhaustible, inexpensive energy, Weinberg’s projections became grandiose. The Oak Ridge scientists studied the ‘construction of giant agro-industrial complexes built around nuclear reactors . . . A complex built around thorium breeders could sustain 100,000 farmers and laborers, ‘feed five million others and export fertilizers to grow food for 50 million additional people.’”
But it was not to be.
‘It Hasn’t Been Done Before, so We Shouldn’t Try It at All’
Martin argues that a stubborn naval engineer named Milton Shaw derailed Weinberg’s Thorium Age indefinitely.
Shaw led the Atomic Energy Commission’s research wing during Weinberg’s tenure at ORNL, and in 1972, Shaw issued a rambling report that terminated Weinberg’s project. Shaw then diverted the funding to the liquid metal fast breeder reactor — a plutonium-fueled design that cost taxpayers $8 billion but never actually built a reactor.
In “SuperFuel,” Martin exposes Shaw’s rickety argument for killing the MSRE, a point that forms his book’s central argument (his emphasis):
“It was the first of many versions of what would become a familiar argument: It hasn’t been done before, and doing it would be challenging. So we shouldn’t try it at all.”
Martin then argues similar thinking has stuck with the US government ever since Shaw’s letter (his emphasis):
“Shaw’s reasoning was perfectly circular: Private industry will not invest in the MSBR as a commercial venture without the support of the government. We, the government, won’t support it. Thus private industry won’t invest in it.”
Weinberg was quickly pushed out of ORNL and into retirement. His molten-salt reactors never demonstrated the full thorium fuel cycle — breeding thorium into U-233 — but another project did.
Situated in western Pennsylvania and spearheaded by Shaw’s boss, Navy Admiral Hyman Rickover, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station pulled off the feat, yet inside a solid-fueled LWR (one that helped pioneer the development of the first nuclear-powered submarine).
Martin succinctly describes Shippingport’s success in his book:
“The Shippingport Atomic Power Station first went critical in December 1957 and produced energy for the Duquesne Light Company for 25 years. It occupies a unique position in the history of nuclear power. It was considered the first full-scale nuclear power reactor with no military use: all it did was produce energy. […] Shippingport proved that you could use thorium as an inexpensive and safe nuclear fuel in a light-water reactor and that you could breed additional fuel with it. This was not alchemy, but it was close.”
Sorensen and other entrepreneurs would discover this history decades later and attempt to revive Weinberg’s dream.
Rekindling the Thorium Dream
Sorensen first learned of molten-salt reactors in 2000, when he was an engineer at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. His task at the time was to figure out how to power human bases on other worlds.
As Martin describes the moment in his 2009 feature for Wired, Sorensen saw a 1958 book called “Fluid Fuel Reactors” on the shelf of a colleague. The book laid out the lessons of Weinberg’s molten-salt reactor experiments for ANP, and teased his vision of a thorium-powered future.
He ultimately left NASA to join a nuclear-energy company, then struck out on his own to chase the thorium dream with Flibe Energy.
“For the longest time I thought that good ideas always got developed,” Sorensen said. “I’ve learned that the opposite is actually true. Most of the time, good ideas languish. And only through dedicated and committed effort are you able to see a new technology brought to fruition.”
In the next decade or so, several safer, more efficient next-generation reactor technologies may hit the market. Sorensen puts them into two groups: molten-salt reactors that don’t use thorium or solid-fueled technologies that could, but are comparatively minor (and therefore easier-to-license) upgrades to the LWR design.
Sorensen is a proponent of a third group and the one he’s staking his career on: the liquid-fluoride thorium reactor, or LFTR (an acronym pronounced “lifter”).
The LFTR is Sorensen’s own spin on Weinberg’s thorium breeder reactor work from the 1960s.
A 2015 independent review of the LFTR concept by the Electric Power Research Institute deemed it a “potentially transformational technology for meeting future energy needs in the face of uncertain market, policy, and regulatory constraints.”
Here’s part of the laundry list of reasons why Sorensen and others say that’s the case:
Fuel burn-up is extraordinarily high. LFTRs could fission about 99% of their U-233 liquid fuel, compared to a few percent for solid fuel.
It’s easy to clean up. Solid fuels build up fission products, or new elements generated by the splitting of atoms, which poison fission reactions and often end up being treated as waste. Liquid fuels, meanwhile, can be processed “online” — and the fission products continuously removed, refined, and sold.
There’s less waste and it’s shorter-lived. For the above reasons, hundreds of times less radioactive waste is left over from LFTR operation compared to LWRs. And what remains requires burial for about 300 years, as opposed to 10,000 years.
LFTRs operate under safe, normal pressure. All commercial reactors compress water coolant to extreme pressures — upwards of 150 times that found at Earth’s surface. One small breach can lead to a catastrophic explosion. If a LFTR pipe breaks, however, molten salt will only spill on the ground and freeze.
Environmental contamination is far less likely. LWRs can release gases, fuel, and fission products into the air and water. Molten salt freezes and traps most contaminants.
LFTRs can be made small and modular. LWRs require giant, reinforced-concrete containment vessels that scale with their operating pressure. LFTRs require small containment structures, so they could be made small — possibly to a size that’d fit inside a semi-trailer.
They should be much cheaper and faster to build. LFTRs don’t require many of the expensive safeguards that LWRs do. Their potential to be modular could also lead to mass manufacture of parts and reduced cost.
LFTR is immune to meltdowns. Molten salt that overheats will expand, slowing down fission.
The design is “walk-away safe.” No nuclear power plant today can claim this. LWRs require backup power systems to cool solid fuel at all times. If power is knocked out to a LFTR, a freeze plug melts and lets the molten salt fall into underground containment units, where it freezes and stops fission.
Electricity output is better. LFTRs are so hot, operating at roughly 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, they can use more advanced heat-to-electricity conversion technologies.
The excess heat is very useful. It could boil and desalinate ocean water into drinking water, help generate hydrogen for fuel cells, break down organic waste into biofuels, and power industrial processes.
The “kindling” to start a LFTR is flexible. Burning up old nuclear weapons material is possible, since fissile U-233, U-235, or Pu-239 can be used to start the reactor.
The list goes on.
With these and other benefits, it’s easy to get excited about LFTRs, other molten-salt reactors, and even thorium-fueled LWRs.
But it all raises the question…
If Thorium Reactors are so Great, What’s the Holdup?
It basically boils down to this: “The science is easy. The engineering is hard.”
That’s the verdict from Gougar and his colleague at INL, nuclear engineer Dave Petti.
“This is true in many, many advanced systems, nuclear and nonnuclear for that matter, where the scientists’ proof of concept is everything to them,” Petti told Business Insider. “To the engineer, getting it to the commercial-viability stage is their goal. And those are two very different hills to climb. ”
Petti sees three barriers to powering civilization with commercial thorium LFTRs.
Molten Salt is a Health Hazard
LFTR’s molten salt contains beryllium to help regulate nuclear fission, but it’s a big health hazard. If there’s ever a leak or spill of the material, Petti says it solidifies into a crumbly “snow” that workers might inhale, raising their risk of a lung cancer and a disease called berylliosis.
Molten salt also contains lithium, which a reactor can breed into a radioactive gas called tritium. It’s less of a threat than beryllium, but it can bond to water and make it slightly radioactive, possibly leading to cancer and birth defects. Luckily, such tainted water doesn’t stick around in the body, which flushes out half of any amount within 10 days, according to a Savannah River Site fact sheet.
Dave Swank, a retired nuclear engineer who worked with commercial reactors for more than 35 years, emailed Business Insider to point out other hazards of molten salts.
“Salts can be very harmful to metal piping (think of salt used on the road and what it does to car bodies),” Swank wrote. “Another challenge is the use of [fluorine] which is highly toxic due to its strong ability to strip electrons.”
But good engineering, proper safety protocols, and protective equipment for LFTR staff would minimize these and other risks.
Engineering New Reactors Takes a Long Time and Costs Billions
The second barrier is the most exhausting but, Petti says, not insurmountable — especially if you have a billionaire in your back pocket.
“You have to demonstrate the technology works, scale it up, and make sure it’s reliable for the commercial product,” Petti said. “And it takes a lot of time and a lot of money to get the technology from a proof of concept all the way to a commercial endeavor.”
LFTRs Create Weapons-Grade Material, but it’s Complicated
Petti said the LFTR’s big bugaboo is its proliferation risk, since U-233 fuel could be used to make a nuclear weapon.
Fortunately, built-in contamination — by highly radioactive U-232, as previously noted — is a good deterrent, since the isotope quickly decays into thorium-228, which shoots out deadly (and easy-to-detect) gamma radiation.
Still, there is a way to greatly reduce this danger: an intermediate step between thorium and U-233, called protactinium-233 (Pa-233). This makes it possible to filter out Pa-233 and, months later, get a relatively pure and minimally contaminated lump of U-233.
“When we talk to the nonproliferation experts, the safeguard issues are huge,” Petti said. “Being able to prove that you can’t do something nefarious has a big impact on the design.”
Gougar added: “It’s not that NSA doesn’t trust Kirk [Sorensen]. It’s Iran or North Korea.”
That’s not to say it’d be easy.
First, it may take a large and easily visible industrial-scale process to cleanse enough stolen U-233 to make a bomb, which minimizes the threat of terrorism. Also, at least as envisioned by Sorensen, the LFTR concept is a closed-loop system — so getting access to the liquid fuel and siphoning off materials would be exceedingly difficult.
Then again, for a nation like North Korea, stealing material from a US reactor is not the concern. Rather, it’s a theft of the blueprints for one, then adapting that design to operate as a powerful new source of weapons-grade nuclear material.
That security concern may also be a moot point, however, since both China and India are already working on developing the technology, and aggressively so.
Given that scenario, it might be better to create and license LFTRs in a highly regulated environment (like the US) so that nonproliferation safeguards are built into the design long before it’s exported (or stolen) and adopted.
LFTR advocates also point out that many nations can already create and refine fissile U-235 and Pu-239 with traditional LWRs.
There’s Still a Long Road to the Thorium Age
Addressing all of the niggling details, according to current government estimates, might take until 2050 to fully realize a commercial LFTR or other type of thorium molten-salt breeder reactor.
Similarly arduous timescales are true of other “generation four” nuclear reactors, which is why they, too, aren’t yet powering US homes and businesses.
“Maneuvering the licensing process is a huge challenge. The regulatory framework is not currently streamlined to support these novel innovative technologies,” Rita Baranwal, a materials engineer at INL, told Business Insider.
Long-established nuclear-energy companies aren’t interested in overturning decades of “business as usual” to gamble on a technology that’s radically different from anything in their portfolios. After all, the LFTR may work but end up being outcompeted on price for the energy it generates.
So instead, most companies are riffing on current LWR and related designs to improve efficiency, safety, and the tortuously slow speed of licensing a reactor.
“To their credit, though, the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] recognizes this and is working with the [Department of Energy] to improve the licensing process as well, while keeping its mission at the forefront: the safety of the public,” Baranwal said.
Baranwal is also trying to help companies advance more disruptive designs. After 11 years working in the nuclear-power industry, she left in August 2016 to be the founding director of INL’s new Gateway for Accelerating Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program.
Per Peterson, a nuclear scientist at the University of California at Berkeley, likened GAIN to NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services — a program that helps commercial spaceflight startups like SpaceX get going.
“You can look at a large company like [United Launch Alliance] and compare its capability to develop rocket designs with SpaceX. The big, incumbent nuclear firms face issues around technological lock-in. And they can’t avoid it because of the scale they have to work and operate,” said Peterson, who is also on Flibe Energy’s board of advisors.
“I think there’s real potential for small-scale businesses,” he said. “It’s like with biotechnology: a small company will get a drug through phase two or three trials, then large pharmaceutical companies pick it up.”
Even if a small demonstration LFTR works, it isn’t guaranteed to scale up. Some unforeseen design issues may rear their ugly heads. And there are two other things that Baranwal, Gougar, Petti, and others can’t help with: market forces and people.
LFTR could be a super-safe slam dunk for commercial power, but antinuclear (or anticompetitive) interests could threaten its future. And if the technology can’t compete with natural gas, wind, solar, hydroelectric, legacy nuclear power plants, and more, it could just be a failed business venture — Weinberg’s desert-oasis metropolises be damned.
That doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying: The stakes will only get higher as we use up fossil fuels and humanity’s numbers grow.
And as for Sorensen, the LFTR is certainly a dream worth chasing.
“This is something that’s going to benefit their future tremendously; it’s going to lead to a new age of human success,” he said, speaking to readers. “And if they want that, they need to be talking to their elected officials and demanding it, in fact, and saying ‘we want to see these things happen.’ Because only a society that decides to embrace this kind of technology is going to ultimately realize its benefits.”
Regular readers of Futurism probably understand, by now, what it means when the word “smart” is affixed to any common piece of technology — it means a serious upgrade, most likely with internet connectivity, the ability to process huge amounts of data, and probably even an artificial intelligence (AI) program of some kind. For example, a telephone lets you communicate with someone across great distances. A smartphone, on the other hand, lets you plug into the world’s nervous system. One is a useful tool. The other is an indispensable facet of modern life.
Now, if that’s what smart technology can do to a phone, imagine what it can do to an entire city. It’s this dream — of giving our huge urban areas a technological upgrade — that’s being pursued by research teams around the country. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is even throwing its weight behind the effort, shelling out funding through its Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP) project. The project’s goal is to create “resilient complex adaptive systems” for critical infrastructure — in other words, “smart cities” that are more like living organisms than the sprawling congeries of inert buildings and disconnected systems that they are today.
Narayan B. Madayam, who chairs the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rutgers University, already has a mental blueprint of what a future smart city will look like. “A smart city is where every device, every entity, and every object can connect for whatever the needs,” he explains. “Wireless connectivity is the glue that holds everything together, and the bottom line is to improve the quality of life in cities and quality of the planet.”
Mandayam is part of a multidisciplinary research team formed by Rutgers to tackle the smart city problem. He’s joined by Janne Lindqvist, an expert on human-computer interaction, and Arnold Glass, professor of cognitive psychology at the School of Arts and Sciences. And if that seems like a surprising trinity of scientific disciplines for research into smart cities, well, perhaps it shouldn’t.
The challenge of building a smart city far surpasses the “simple” engineering obstacles to creating a fully connected urban environment. To employ a biological analogy, it’s more like genetic engineering than mechanical engineering, and part of the solution will require rewriting a city’s DNA — that is, its people.
The engineering obstacles certainly are formidable. Any smart city worth its salt will possess a fully integrated infrastructure, with smart transportation services (including autonomous vehicles), internet and communication systems, water services, and electrical and power grids all connected and unified. Such a massive, city-wide system will undoubtedly require significant upgrades in infrastructural computing power just to process the massive amounts of raw data. New algorithms and AI programs will each have their roles to play, and — like something out of an old science fiction novel — the largest cities may really come to have something like a “central computer,” either distributed or localized.
Part of the challenge will also be creating multiply redundant systems, with numerous backups should one system fail, and also the ability to isolate failures and prevent them from spreading. This will be crucial to limiting the damage inflicted by natural disasters (storms, tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and even volcanic eruptions) and, of course, the ubiquitous menace of malicious human activity (war, terrorism, cyberattacks, etc.). The corollary is obvious: A more connected city is one that’s more vulnerable to attack. That’s a thorny issue that the designers of our future smart cities must also someday confront.
But psychology will also have a surprisingly important role in the design and implementation of any smart city. It’s necessary to understand the mentality of the urban crowd. How do people move about? How do they react in stressful situations? What is their response to certain policies? No question, there’s something a little dehumanizing about it all — if human behavior is reduced to simple mathematics, then what are human beings save a collection of predictable, living molecules floating about in a big urban beaker?
Moreover, cognitive psychology is envisioned as having an active part to play — influencing, rather than just categorizing, human behavior. It will be used as a tool to guide people to make “better,” more sustainable choices and nudge them into accepting a “better” city. But all that has an ill taste to it, since “better” is a creature of the moment, apt to change with changing times. Really, it seems like it could be a form of scientifically applied propaganda, and that has always produced unsavory results, no matter how laudable the original intention.
This is a new frontier for city planners, and one they’ll have to traverse with the utmost caution.
The City of the Future
So what will a “smart city” actually look like? This is the point where a little informed imagination may help us wrap our minds around the subject. The future smart city will employ a number of purpose-built AI programs and machine-learning algorithms to process the vast amounts of incoming “sensory” data. These programs will leverage rapid improvements in computing and neural networks in the coming decades. In fact, smart cities may witness the birth of the first truly “human-scale” AIs capable of reactive and independent cognition.
Sensors — whether cameras, acoustic networks, and other wireless systems — will communicate information about the health and status of the city and its infrastructure. Geostationary and other satellites and orbital platforms will monitor the city’s atmosphere, pollution levels, weather systems, and local environment across the EM spectrum, with particular attention paid to potential threats from earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, and other natural disasters.
Sufficient energy to power our smart city will be generated from clean, renewable sources — wind, solar, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps even fusion further down the road — with each power system compartmentalized for quick isolation and outfitted with robust backup systems in case of failure. Urban “stack farms” will put vertical building space to efficient use in producing food for the city’s population, conferring on the smart city an unheard of degree of agricultural autarky. Integrated transportation systems, meanwhile, will reduce traffic congestion and strongly limit pollution.
These are just a few of the more notable features of the future smart city. With over half of the human species huddling together in dense urban areas, it’s inevitable that our cities will need to be upgraded. Cities of the future will be less defined by their skylines and more so by the sophistication of their “smarts.”
“To make a smart city happen, a tremendous amount of investment in infrastructure will be needed, but the benefits will likely far outweigh the costs,” Mandayam concludes.
The article itself is something of an encomium for the president’s energy policy during the last eight years, but it succinctly argues a point that has already made headlines: namely, his belief that global technological advances and market forces—to say nothing of cultural and social shifts—have imparted an irreversible momentum to the trend toward clean energy.
“[T]he mounting economic and scientific evidence,” President Obama writes, “leave me confident that trends toward a clean-energy economy that have emerged during my presidency will continue and that the economic opportunity for our country to harness that trend will only grow.”
It’s an important argument, with far-reaching implications for the future, and it bears a closer examination.
A New Energy Economy
The president contends that CO2 and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by the energy sector have finally been “decoupled” from economic growth; in other words, that societies are no longer faced with the insupportable dilemma of having to accept economic decline and lower standards of living in order to reduce emissions. This economic reality has formed the greatest barrier to the self-imposition of limits on carbon emissions.
The use of fossil fuels has always been predicated on their cheapness and widespread availability—a low-cost means of fueling economic growth. But it seems now that emissions can remain flat while the global economy continues to grow, a historic turning-point in the economics of renewable energy. Fossil fuels will remain a cheap source of energy for a while yet; but they’re not inexhaustible, and access to them is vulnerable to the fickle winds of geopolitics, which makes them highly unattractive as a future energy source.
All of this serves to underscore the president’s point: ineluctable market forces are dictating the future energy economy, largely because technology is rewriting the terms of the equation.
Consider this: in the 20th Century, access to cheap fossil fuels was crucial to keep the wheels of industry spinning, to inject lifeblood into burgeoning economies, to power vehicle traffic and logistics, and to supply power to huge cities and rural communities alike. Now, it’s possible for a home to be almost entirely separate from the grid, powered by solar panels, and yet still have access to all the amenities associated with 21st Century living. So the trend has been from energy centralization to decentralization—a future without a vulnerable power grid, and without energy companies monopolizing access to power.
The attraction here is irresistible, and we can only expect further improvements and innovations as consumer demand for energy independence increases; falling prices for solar, battery, and electric car technology will also accelerate the evolution away from fossil fuels. At first, the new technologies—whether solar, wind, hydroelectric or tidal—will complement conventional sources of energy; but as investment increases and costs decrease, they will slowly supplant carbon-based energies and (hopefully) pave the way for a new energy economy of mixed renewable and fusion power by midcentury.
An International Effort
“It is good business and good economics to lead a technological revolution and define market trends,” President Obama writes in his article.
And the man’s got a point. It’s likely that energy—how to acquire it, produce it, manufacture it and do so as cheaply as possible—is going to be a major issue in the coming century; perhaps it will even be the defining issue. “[C]ountries and their businesses are moving forward,” the president observes, “seeking to reap benefits for their countries by being at the front of the clean-energy race.”
Nations like Germany and Costa Rica have already proven that it’s possible to run entirely on renewable energy, and we can expect more of the same in the coming decades.
So it makes sense for our country to lead in the 21st Century’s “Scramble for Energy.” With all its intellectual and financial capital, together with the sizable technological lead it already possesses, the United States is poised to become the Saudi Arabia of the new energy economy.
The president concludes his analysis on a hopeful note: “Prudent U.S. policy over the next several decades would prioritize, among other actions, decarbonizing the U.S. energy system, storing carbon and reducing emissions within U.S. lands, and reducing non-CO2 emissions.”
And it seems that, between current market forces and technological advances, this will largely be the case for the foreseeable future—irrespective of administrative policy in this or any other country.
The transition from one year to the next is always a little uncertain – an uneasy blend of anxiety and optimism, it’s also a time of retrospection, introspection, and even a little tentative prognostication. And since the latter is our stock-in-trade at Futurism, we believe now is the perfect time to look ahead at what 2017 has in store for us.
Here’s a look at some of the ways the coming year promises to revolutionize our energy future.
2017 may well be the year that some of the most promising emerging energy markets…well, emerge. Foremost among these is Africa, where we’ve seen the spread of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar startups—such as PEGAfrica—which provide solar arrays to households in West Africa on credit.
The business model obviates the need for a secure energy infrastructure by combining solar photovoltaics (PV) with energy storage and mobile pay technology—a simple, effective plan for supplying electricity where it’s most needed. PAYG solar is spreading through Africa like wildfire and 2017 promises to see more of it, with new startups getting in on the act, and new technologies refining the business model. Africa could be the new energy frontier, with a renewable energy infrastructure that might just become the envy of the world.
Major Corporations Go Green
If the use of renewable energy is to become economically competitive, then it’s incumbent on the largest energy consumers to commit to its development and consistent use—and this is just what we’re beginning to see the major Silicon Valley tech corporations start to do. Google has announced that it plans for all of its data centers to be powered by renewables no later than 2017. Facebook’s targets are more modest, but its newest data center—set to be constructed this year in Los Lunas, New Mexico—will receive 100 percent of its power from renewable energy.
All of this translates into a massive new injection of capital investment in renewable energy technology, which could make 2017 the tipping point for innovation and affordability as major energy companies and startups alike scramble to fill this huge unmet need. At the same time, the aviation giants are bankrolling something of a green revolution of their own—this time involving the use of renewable jet fuels.
Meanwhile, the coming year will see a number of new innovations in the evolution of cleaner, more efficient energy systems as scientists and startups leverage massive national investments in research and development to pioneer novel technologies.
And let’s not leave out fusion research: 2017 could be the year of remarkable new breakthroughs in fusion energy, with startups like General Fusion and Tri Alpha attempting to achieve on a (comparative) shoestring what lavishly funded behemoths like the ITER Project have failed to do.
The Fly in the Ointment
Extrapolating 2017 from the developments in 2016 is all very well and good; but when it comes to forecasting the future, it really boils down to the unanticipated. And there are many variables that could change the equation—perhaps none more important than the incoming Trump administration.
President-elect Trump has signaled a desire to shift the country’s energy policy away from the Obama administration’s commitment to renewable energy—in fact, reinvigorating the fossil fuel industry, particularly coal, was a major cornerstone of his campaign. But if his pledge to upgrade the country’s infrastructure is to bear fruit, it will have to include some degree of renewables, since the increasing efficiency and affordability of clean energy is making it more economically attractive. Ironically, 2017 may see tremendous private and public investment in alternative forms of energy, especially if Trump’s promise to wean the country off its OPEC dependency (holding one’s breath is not advised) is to have any chance of success.
And then there’s the Tesla wildcard—by which we mean that Elon Musk could change the rules of the game at any moment. Last year’s introduction of the Tesla “energy ecosystem” opened up the possibility of a future in which every home becomes a power plant; and we can only expect more similar developments in 2017. The cliché “game-changer” was coined for people just like Musk; look to see him further justify that sobriquet in the coming year.
Last year was full of surprises—some anticipated, others decidedly not. 2017 promises to be no different. Market forces and accelerating research and investment means the avalanche in disruptive new energy technologies will continue in the new year; we clever little apes will persist in finding extraordinary new ways to eke out more energy to power our thirsty civilization.
So stay tuned to Futurism—we’ve got everything hungry minds need to survive 2017.
With the help of sophisticated lasers and infrared spectroscopy, researchers from Imperial College London have captured the chemical reactions that take place during photosynthesis to show just how fast these processes happen. “We can now see how nature has optimized the physics of converting light energy to fuel,” study author Jasper van Thor said in a news release.
The team’s study was focused on understanding the Photosystem II enzyme reaction. During that part of the photosynthesis process, light energy is used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. Prior to this study, that process was presumed to be the slowest part of photosynthesis.
The team at Imperial College was able to prove otherwise by creating crystals of the Photosystem II enzyme and shooting them with lasers. By recording the process using infrared spectroscopy, they were able to demonstrate that the Photosystem II enzyme reaction takes place more quickly than the first part of photosynthesis when light is harvested by proteins and chlorophyll molecules.
Looking to Nature for Answers
Not only have the researchers disproven the long-held belief that the harvesting process was faster than the Photosystem II reaction, they’ve also captured the photosynthesis process on film. Given that each process takes place in just picoseconds (trillionths of a second), the “movie” they’ve recorded is no longer than a few nanoseconds (billionths of a second), but that’s long enough to give scientists a better understanding of the photosynthesis process.
“We can now see how nature has optimized the physics of converting light energy to fuel, and can probe this process using our new technique of ultrafast crystal measurements,” said van Thor. “For example, is it important that the bottleneck occurs at this stage, in order to preserve overall efficiency? Can we mimic it or tune it to make artificial photosynthesis more efficient? These questions, and many others, can now be explored.”
Unlike current solar energy systems, artificial photosynthesis converts solar energy into a storable fuel. If we can use the insights into natural photosynthesis that these researchers have provided to improve artificial photosynthesis, it would go a long way toward alleviating a number of the world’s problems. We could reduce global warming and help end hunger here on Earth, and perhaps even survive as a species in space. As long as we had the Sun, we would have a free, unlimited source of energy.
Sin City is setting the benchmark for sustainability in the U.S. with the announcement that its city government is now powered entirely by renewable energy.
When a large solar array, Boulder Solar 1, came online on December 12, Las Vegas was able to purchase the amount of carbon-free electricity it needed to power all of its buildings, facilities, and streetlights, according to Quartz. The city is now drawing power from a mix of hydroelectric turbines, including the Hoover Dam, as well as solar panels.
The total shift to renewable energy was a goal that city officials have been working toward for the better part of a decade. Their vision took a giant leap forward last year when Las Vegas struck a deal with NV Energy to provide power for the city’s main facilities using clean energy sources. In total, this transition to renewable energy is estimated to save the city around $5 million per year in energy spending, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
World Leaders in Sustainability
Mayor Carolyn Goodman is correct in her assessment that this milestone pegs Las Vegas as a “world leader in sustainability,” but that’s not to say that the city is alone in its efforts to push for green initiatives in an era of global climate change.
The smaller city of Burlington, Vermont has been recognized for being the first in the country to shift its entire energy supply from fossil fuels to a combination of hydroelectric, wind, and solar power sources. In 2015, Aspen, Colorado was also able to source all of its energy needs through renewable means. Major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Phoenix have openly declared their commitment to push for green initiatives, noting that “the cost of prevention pales in comparison to [the] cost of inaction, in terms of dollars, property, and human life.”
Outside the U.S., countries have made equally notable strides toward green energy. For example, Britain has pledged to close its remaining eight coal-fired power plants to make way for renewables by 2025. Spain is already producing enough wind energy to power millions of homes every day and is optimistic about the possibility that wind power could eventually supply all of its energy needs. And proving that it is possible to power a whole country using only renewable energy sources, Costa Rica has managed to run for over two months on hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, and solar power alone.
Aarhus, a gorgeous city in Denmark, is making renewable energy history with the world’s first water treatment plant completely powered by electricity generated using household wastewater and sewage.
Due to some stringent new regulations, the Marselisborg Wastewater Treatment Plant was upgraded to be able to generate more than 150 percent of the energy required for the plant to operate. The unspent energy can be used to pump drinking water throughout the system, serving 200,000 people, or sold back to the grid to compound efficiency.
To generate the energy, the plant creates biogas out of the wastewater. Carbon is transported from the waste and fed to bacteria which produce biogases, mostly in the form of methane, which are finally burned to generate the power used to run the plant.
New Scientist attributes the success of the plant to “strict environmental regulations targeting water discharge, and a mandate for reducing nitrate and phosphate pollution.” The upgrades necessary to make the plant energy efficient did come with an upfront cost of nearly €3 million, but officials expect to easily recoup that cost within the next five years.
From Nature to Novelty
This accomplishment is just one example of how municipalities are working with nature to devise novel ways to power our world. Fossil fuel usage is an immense threat to the environment, and therefore the long term survival of our planet. Any way that we can work to mitigate or even reduce the damage we are doing to our planet is a welcome development.
The United States has begun harnessing the power of the ocean with tidal power generation. Chile has embraced solar power so well that it’s too much for their infrastructure to handle. Costa Rica even ran on 99 percent renewables last year. With the cost of renewables rapidly becoming more economical than fossil fuels, we are approaching the beginnings of a golden age in clean energy generation.
Solar power has been making some impressive strides in 2016. The first three quarters of this year have already seen more new installations of solar panels than the entirety of 2015. A report by GreenTech Media shows that in the third quarter (Q3) of this year alone, enough solar panels to generate 4,143 MW of electricity were installed in the United States. Q3 of 2016 has seen a 191 percent rise in installations from the same quarter last year, making it the new record holder for new solar power installations in the country.
Increased affordability could be a major driving force in the sudden boom in new installations. Priced per watt, there was a $0.14 drop between the first and third quarters. This brought total prices of residential solar power below $3.00 per watt.
Coming for Coal
Along with solar power becoming more affordable in general, it is also approaching coal in terms of cost effectiveness. This trend is also helped along by government programs that award tax breaks for the adoption of renewable energy. A report from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) shows the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) of various means of generation.
According to the EIS, LCOE “represents the per-kilowatt hour cost (in real dollars) of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle.” For new plants set to go online in 2022 the LCOE of coal power is predicted at $139.50/kWh compared to solar photovoltaic power’s $66.30/kWh.
Energy experts are predicting that coal is a fading industry that will never return to its former grandeur. We can expect to continue to see this kind of sharp growth in solar power along with other forms of clean energy generation. A new study from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that 25 percent of the United States’ energy needs could be filled by rooftop solar installations alone. Immediate economic interests are finally aligning with long-term environmental concerns.
Every day, that great big ball of nuclear reaction in the sky that we call the Sun graciously sends enough energy to Earth to fulfill all of our power needs ten times over. Sadly, we humans are not yet able to harness all this power as efficiently as other organisms on our planet.
While we have a long way to go before we can even begin to compete with photosynthesis, we are making progress. A new study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that 25 percent of the United States’ energy needs could be filled by rooftop solar installations alone.
Not every rooftop is ideal for solar paneling, and a combination of many factors determine how much electricity any given rooftop can generate. These factors include average sunlight of the area, as well as how much of that sunlight is allowed to reach the roof, uninhibited by pesky tall buildings, trees, or other shade-throwing structures.
Using this knowledge, the researchers at NREL studied a plethora of data to determine what percentage of rooftops would prove suitable for solar electricity generation. The study concluded that the U.S.’s suitable rooftops could collectively generate 1,118 gigawatts (GW) of power, enough to meet a quarter of our needs.
Currently in the U.S., solar power accounts for much less than one percent of total energy consumed. A few other renewable sources such as wind, geothermal, and hydroelectricity account for only a sliver more of our total clean energy consumption. Despite progress in clean energy solutions, more than 81 percent of the energy needs of the country are still met by climate-damaging non-renewable sources.
Recently, there has been a push to promote solar energy usage, particularly as an alternative to coal. The technology necessary to harness solar power is becoming much cheaper, which is going to make shifting from these dangerous fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives not only smart in terms of the environment, but also our wallets.
While U.S. President-elect Donald Trump is busy filling his presidential cabinet with climate-change deniers and fossil fuel execs, high-profile environmental advocates are responding by investing in a $1 billion clean energy fund with a 20-year duration.
The Breakthrough Energy Ventures (BEV) fund will focus on research and technology dedicated to lowering greenhouse-gas emissions in areas such as electricity generation, storage, transportation, industrial processes, and agriculture. That focus may be pretty broad, but given the amount of money and attention investors plan to put into the project, we can certainly be hopeful that the climate change action plan will be bolstered by significant technological innovation in the future.
The people behind the BRV fund have the capital to make real change happen — Quartz estimates the total net worth of the BEV directors to be nearly $170 billion. Joining Microsoft-founder Bill Gates at BEV are Alibaba founder Jack Ma, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Softbank’s Masayoshi Son, Virgin Group’s Richard Branson, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and tech investors John Doerr and Vinod Khosla, and many others.
Addressing Climate Change
2015 holds the distinction of having the highest annual surface temperature on record. Ocean temperatures also broke records last year, with the eastern Pacific 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the longterm average and the Arctic 8 degrees Celsius (14.4 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than the average. Because of thermal expansion and the melting of glaciers, 2015 set the record for highest global sea level, as well. As 2016 winds to a close, it looks like this year’s statistics are poised to overtake last year’s numbers.
Multiple scientific institutions have issued public statements pointing to human activity as the primary driver of climate change. Though it faces a new White House administration that has shown outright skepticism on the realities of climate change in the past, the BEV fund is ready to tackle the challenge head on.
“The dialogue with the new administration as it comes in about how they see energy research will be important,” Gates said in an interview with Quartz. “The general idea that research is a good deal fortunately is not a partisan thing.”
Gates adds that the success of this venture goes beyond funding, significant though it may be, and shared that he will be working personally to engage more partners that can support this vision. If his impact on helping the environment is anything like the mark he made on the world of technology, we should be in capable hands.
By 2025, no diesel vehicles will be rolling the streets of Paris, Mexico City, Madrid, or Athens. The mayors of these cities made a pledge to ban diesel cars and trucks at this year’s C40 Mayor’s Summit, a biennial meeting of leaders that aims to follow through with global environmental efforts.
Diesel fuel is known to produce harmful emissions and pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides—which could form ground level ozone. These by-products are known to cause respiratory problems. Several clean energy options are becoming available to the public, and the cities plan to promote the use of alternative fuels in place of diesel, as well as walking and cycling instead of driving.
The global effort to curb emissions has been progressing, and seeing cooperation from municipalities improves chances for proper implementation. “Mayors have already stood up to say that the climate change is one of the greatest challenges we face,” says Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is also currently the chair of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.
“Today, we also stand up to say we no longer tolerate air pollution and the health problems and deaths it causes — particularly for our most vulnerable citizens.”
Motor company Nikola just unveiled a first of its kind, 100 percent emissions-free hydrogen-powered semi-truck. The vehicle can travel between 1287 and 1931 kilometers (800 and 1,200 miles) on a single tank of fuel, a distance as far as San Francisco to Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Named Nikola One, the semi-truck promises to deliver over 1,000 horsepower and 2,000 foot-pounds of torque, which would give it almost twice the power of current diesel-powered semis. High-density lithium batteries power the vehicle’s fully electric drivetrain.
Lack of supporting infrastructure is one of the main hindrances to adapting vehicles running on alternative energy. To solve this, Nikola plans to build 364 hydrogen refueling stations in the United States and Canada to sustain the fuel demands for their trucks. They hope to break ground on the first in 2018 with a goal to open the refueling stations for business by 2019. To sweeten the deal for potential buyers, they’re even pledging to include unlimited hydrogen fuel during a 72-month lease term.
In addition to sharing these details on the Nikola One, the company also revealed that they’ve partnered with trucking company Ryder, which would service and maintain Nikola trucks in over 800 locations. A smaller, more agile version of the truck was unveiled as well: the Nikola Two. Production for the Nikola One should begin during the first half of next year, and the company hopes to release both models by 2020. As that point, they will be one more example of the global shift toward clean energy.