This story is adapted from the print version, featured in Tough Tech №7: The Transformation Issue. You can download the full publication here.
From those primal days huddled around a fire for warmth or harnessing the power of the sun to preserve hides and food, humans and human evolution have been inextricably tied to the energy ecosystem. Today, we demand more energy, in more places, than at any other time in our history. Yet the challenge of satisfying this demand runs headlong into the existential crisis of climate change — how are we to satisfy the demands of future generations without resigning ourselves to an uninhabitable planet?
The path to a carbon-free energy ecosystem will not be easy — success will require internalizing lessons from the past and present. Understanding historical energy flows will not just help us appreciate the inherent complexity of the modern energy economy but also guide us in picking the right metrics, testing the right hypotheses, and enabling the right discussions with multiple stakeholders in this global ecosystem.
In its simplest avatar, the energy ecosystem is best viewed as a sequence of linear events.
The ‘Source, Transport, Use’ paradigm provides a useful lens to examine how the energy value chain has evolved over the centuries to its present form and what changes will be necessary for a low-carbon era.
The supply side of the energy equation captures all the effort required to harness energy from sources as simple as wood to complex offshore rigs for oil or uranium for nuclear fuel.
Our primary energy supply comes from a surprisingly finite number of sources:
- Chemical bonds: oil, gas, coal, wood
- Nuclear material: fission and fusion
- Light: solar energy
- Kinetic energy: wind
- Potential/gravity: hydro
- Heat: geothermal
Once harnessed, energy needs to be moved to the point of end use. Despite centuries of innovation, we essentially move all our energy either in the form of chemical bonds (e.g., gasoline and diesel) or electrons (millions of miles of wiring across the planet).
While moving energy may sound simple, it requires a significant amount of capital and infrastructure (e.g., electricity grids, vast networks of oil and gas pipelines, and gas stations).
Note that not all forms of energy are transportable. Solid/liquid forms are easier to transport, while heat energy travels poorly as it is easily lost to its surroundings.
The demand side of the energy equation captures all human activity that involves the use of energy in some shape or form. It includes mobility, heating/lighting, and increasingly the use of energy for data and computation, across both personal and commercial end uses.
The demand side can vary significantly between countries, depending on population, economic output, and quality of life.
Note that significant amounts of energy are wasted due to anthropogenic inefficiencies and to the core principles of thermodynamics.
Until the 19th century, the energy ecosystem was powered primarily by wood and coal. Advances in our ability to drill into the Earth’s surface and extract oil and gas led to the momentous rise of these resources in our supply mix. This rise was furthered by demand-side inventions (e.g., the automobile, the rise of commercial shipping, and aviation) and supply-side innovation (e.g., refining, off-shore drilling) leading to an increasingly nuanced energy ecosystem.
The supply and demand sides of the energy ecosystem are like two different representations of the same puzzle. The key difference is that the supply side involves a small number of large pieces (carbon-based chemical bonds, nuclear, biomass) while the demand side involves an astronomical number of small pieces (anything that requires energy).
80% of US primary energy supply comes from carbon-based sources like oil, gas, and coal. Of the 100 quadrillion BTUs (known as quads) of energy that we use every year, roughly 80 quads are supplied in the form of C-H, C-C chemical bonds while the remaining 20% gets distributed between renewable sources like nuclear, solar, hydro, and wind.
The reason for the popularity of carbon-based sources is simple: when burned, these fuels release vast amounts of energy as dictated by natural laws of physics. These fuels are also inexpensive and relatively easy to obtain, refine, and combust.
Of the 100 quads of energy supply, 37 quads are transported in the form of electricity to various demand centers.
The other 63 quads are moved in the form of chemical bonds (think gasoline and diesel) for the simple and practical reason that chemical bonds are highly dense, meaning more energy can be transported more efficiently.
The demand side of energy use in the 21st century is fragmented and spans a vast network of use cases, including personal, commercial, and industrial uses.
The demand side of energy involves over one billion machines: everything from cars, trucks, and planes to cell phones, dishwashers, and water heaters.*
Just over 50% of the energy supplied in our economies is wasted. While many cite this as a major problem, it should be noted that energy efficiency is a way to reduce the carbon intensity of a carbon-based energy system. It is critical to remember that carbon emissions are primarily a supply-driven problem, and it is equally if not more important to decarbonize our supply sources.
*As estimated by Saul Griffith in his handbook “Rewiring America.”
What could a CO2-free energy ecosystem look like?
The fundamental source of carbon emissions is the carbon-heavy supply side of the current energy ecosystem. As a result, any CO2-free energy system must either rely on carbon-free primary sources or mitigate CO2 emissions from fossil-based primary sources. Almost immediately, the size of the problem becomes clear. We need to find a way to replace the 80 quads of CO2-intense primary energy supply — approximately 80% of total U.S. energy consumption in 2019 — that are currently coming from carbon-based sources with a combination of clean sources and mitigation measures.
Pathway 1: Electrify Everything
We know how to produce green electrons from solar, wind, and other renewable technologies. Such sources have become increasingly cost-effective and reliable to operate. Other zero-carbon dispatchable sources like fusion energy and supercritical geothermal are quickly approaching commercial viability.
But the effort required for and implications of undertaking such a transition cannot be overstated. Only infrastructure (think: transmission lines, electric vehicle charging stations, land allotments for solar and wind farms) at the scale and speed necessary to make effective change.
An energy system with electricity as the sole carrier of energy will require quadrupling our existing electricity supply from 450 GW to 1800 GW!
Supply sources like solar, wind, nuclear, geothermal, will need to be developed and deployed on massive scales.
A distribution infrastructure that can handle increased loads and inherent intermittency of several supply sources.
The current grid has largely operated under the convenience of certainty guaranteed by fossil fuels. It will need to adapt to a future where supply sources are smaller, distributed, and more interactive.
A distribution infrastructure that can handle increased loads and inherent intermittency of several supply sources.
The current grid has largely operated under the convenience of certainty guaranteed by fossil fuels. It will need to adapt to a future where supply sources are smaller, distributed, and more interactive.
Interview №1: Adam Wallen, CEO & Co-Founder, VEIR
Electricity transmission is invisible to the vast majority of us…until it stops working. Can you help us set the scene? How did we get to now? What did those innovations look like?
The last innovation goes back to Edison. I jest, but the innovations in our sector are related to demand — the greater the load, the more power required, and accommodating that increase in power means making more robust traditional metal conductors and deploying them at ever-increasing voltages. Fifty years ago, the state-of-the-art was a 138kV line and now high-voltage transmission is 345kV and greater. This means we need larger rights-of-way and taller towers; you need larger margins around these lines. We’re even seeing lines in the >1,000 kV range in parts of China. Innovation in this area is mostly around “high temperature, low sag” conductors.
Smart grid applications have also arisen in the past decade or so. These platforms help us use our electricity more efficiently by managing surges in load to flow electrons better through the existing wire infrastructure.
What needs to change regarding the interplay of regulation and innovation to help us electrify everything?
The government can help stimulate innovation by working with utilities, regulatory bodies, and legislators. Utilities, from a regulatory perspective, are measured on the reliability and durability of their systems. Electricity is critical infrastructure, and consumers expect extremely low downtime; keeping the lights on is priority #1, and utilities can be penalized in regulatory proceedings when reliability suffers. They are not incentivized to adopt new technologies. And if there is an innovation that they want to put into their rate base, they must prove to regulators that such an innovation is not a reliability concern. Put simply: no innovation in the power space will be integrated into the grid until the utility feels comfortable with it.
Such risk can be mitigated by the creation of new programs by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and state regulators that incentivize the evaluation and demonstration of new technologies, particularly in places where they provide added redundancy without disturbing the active grid. New incentives may be needed because, in these locations or testbeds, the technologies may not immediately provide benefits that fully justify their installation. The Department of Energy (DOE) and similar government agencies can also implement loan guarantee programs for new technologies.
Let’s say these three groups — utilities, regulatory bodies, and legislators — cooperate to drive innovation? What does such an ecosystem look like?
All three recognize the fact that if we want to electrify everything, things must change. There are outstanding questions regarding streamlining permitting processes — will it be at FERC or outside of FERC? But all these groups understand that innovation must come. We cite the Princeton University study finding that we’ll need to double the capacity of the grid if we are to simply meet business-as-usual electrification goals; if we look at a high-electrification case in 2050, we’ll need to triple the capacity of the grid. All the stakeholders recognize that it is going to take a coordinated effort to find the right capital, to do the demonstrations, and to prove the robustness of any new technology plugged into the grid.
Why haven’t we seen HTS transmission lines before? And what’s changed regarding their commercialization today?
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the DOE funded a huge amount of research into HTS in general at the national lab level. But the DOE’s program ended about a decade ago, which slowed innovation in the sector.
There are over a dozen HTS transmission projects globally. All those deployments are underground and short-distance solutions for urban use. Think about a densely populated urban setting like Manhattan or Chicago, for example; it would be hard to bring in a new 345kV line, you must use existing civil works. You must pull out the old underground conductors and put HTS in; then you can achieve a 5X increase in the amount of power you can get into an urban core.
Past HTS transmission projects (and others overseas) are closed-loop systems and must be cooled with bespoke cryogenic plants. And due to the thermodynamics of underground systems, such plants cannot be more than ten miles apart. VEIR, on the other hand, is an above-ground open-loop system. Our system requires us to refresh the liquid nitrogen refrigerant, but at distances greater than 40 miles apart.
There seems to be considerable momentum, both political and technological, toward a CO2-free energy ecosystem. What could get in the way of such a future?
Everyone seems to agree that transmission is needed. The transmission lines on the grid in the United States are, on average, 40–50 years old — well beyond life expectancy. Transmission is needed in every state, whether it is blue or red. But no legislator wants to go into his or her district and say, “we’re going to put a 200-foot transmission tower next to your house” to accommodate electricity demand.
Our message is consistent: if we want to meet decarbonization goals, we need more transmission. Wouldn’t you want to do that with technology that looks like distribution [smaller, street sidelines? Transmission is a common denominator that unites various infrastructure policies and creates new jobs, while, with our technology, eliminating legislative headaches and “not in my backyard” complaints.
Pathway 2: Green Electrons & Synthetic Chemical Bonds
Electrify the energy ecosystem, to the greatest extent possible (depending on location-specific resource availability, costs, policy incentives, etc.) while developing alternate liquid and solid fuels that are carbon-free.
- Leverage adjacencies and synergies with existing infrastructure
(e.g., fuel distribution)
- Move disruption upstream in the value chain to create invisible change on the demand side
- Move renewable electrons cheaply and efficiently to areas where they are in short supply
There are sectors like heavy-duty marine transport, commercial air travel, and heavy-duty industrial vehicles that because of their capital cost and established infrastructure will be especially slow to transition to electric propulsion platforms. Alternative liquid fuels and hydrogen can provide.
Scaled-up carbon-free sources of electricity (see Pathway 1).
Technologies that can convert electricity and heat into portable chemical bonds like synthetic carbon fuels, ammonia, hydrogen, etc. Retrofitted distribution channels to work with new fuels.
Phased electrification of demand-side depending on cost and availability of substitutes.
Interview №2: Roger Harris, VP Technology Commercialization, Cemvita Factory
Can you explain the challenges of decarbonizing the chemical industry and how Cemvita’s platform can help us remove one gigaton of CO2 by 2050?
In order to successfully decarbonize industry, we must have a true understanding of the source of CO2. Heavy industry is responsible for almost a third of the CO2 emissions worldwide each year; that’s approximately 10 gigatons — a huge amount!
We must also understand that even if we had a giant green button that could stop all CO2 emissions today, the CO2 concentrations already in the atmosphere will trigger severe weather consequences similar to what we are already seeing.
We’re looking to become a plug-and-play solution, working hand-in-hand with our clients to use CO2 as a negative cost feedstock through bio-engineering. We want to make the building blocks that people are already using in the chemical industry — people will be able to stick with the plastics that they are familiar with, but those plastics will no longer be made from fossil fuels. We can make products that are very much in our clients’ value chain.
Can you shed some light on that process? And what other chemicals are you making?
We’ve passed a watershed moment in genetic engineering. We’re seeing the ability to generate genetic information, understand that genetic information, use that genetic information, and manipulate that genetic information. All four of those abilities are on an increasing exponential curve like we saw in the 1980s and 1990s with computing processing speed and power. They also are following the computing paradigm of an exponential decrease in cost. So we now have the ability to understand and generate genetic materials at incredible speeds for incredibly little money.
Our bioethylene project is up and running, but we see ourselves as a platform company, having a range of molecules that are created through our biological processes in collaboration with industrial partners. It’s about coming up with the molecules with the greatest potential value for our clients — and one that is easy to fit into their existing processes.
The chemical industry seems, from the outside, to be full of powerful incumbents with established processes and significant capital invested in hardware. What’s compelling them to change?
I am an optimist — I would like to think that everyone sees the global issue at hand and realizes that we must move toward a sustainable end goal, which starts with transitioning to CO2-neutral and CO2-negative technologies.
There’s a lot of learning that needs to be done on the part of the end user. Many people don’t know that throwing out a single-use plastic cup or bottle is actually contributing to CO2 emissions. With that education will come pressure for manufacturers to change.
We’ll also see action from a regulatory standpoint. Punitive CO2 taxes will play a wider role than we are witnessing today. I’ve been in discussions with a few large petrochemical organizations, and many have indicated that if there is a carbon penalty and a carbon solution, that have similar costs, their investors and their customers would much rather see them doing the right thing.
How do you see the relationship evolving between you and the large, established industry players? What does that relationship look like in 15 or 20 years?
First and foremost, we want to collaborate with heavy industry and the existing incumbents. There are big players with big money that are looking to move away from fossil fuels — we’ve seen a $1.3T disinvestment in the space over the last few years. We provide them with a transition option, so they can create roadmaps for CO2-negative products over 5, 10, 25, or 50 years.
We also hope to empower small operators to adopt our technology
in a distributed fashion, to find the regulatory framework that works best for it, and to implement it there safely, and cost-effectively.
What are the greatest challenges with the large-scale commercialization of chemicals and fuels produced via synthetic biology?
In our case, there is no way to escape the fact that CO2 is a fully oxidized, zero-energy molecule. It is difficult to work with such an inert feedstock. The second challenge is trying to bring new technology into an industry that is inherently risk-averse. The fossil fuel industry has been boiling oil for over 100 years, and there is $6T worth of assets that still have significant life to them. We must give our customers the sense that all risk has been mitigated and that we’re not creating a dead as-set. Finally, the volumes we’re talking about are immense. Any undertaking to replace even a small piece of the pie is going to require a big capital investment. And that will take a lot of courage from the first mover.
Is it possible to unite a sector with so many players with such diverse interests?
The CO2 issue is so difficult because it is at once a global and regional problem. There is a massive imbalance between those responsible for and those experiencing the most negative effects of climate change.
We all must commit to the science and accept that there is a situation in need of remediation. And that remediation is more than just slowing down what we’re doing; it involves reversing what we’ve done. Thankfully, we have the tools to truly optimize CO2 capture in a structured and programmable manner.
Pathway 3: Green Electrons + Green Fuels + Green Heat
Supplement electrification and synthetic fuels with direct geothermal heating to minimize conversion and distribution inefficiencies. Utilize local heat production while leveraging existing heating and cooling infrastructure.
Small-scale geothermal climate control platforms have already been successfully commercialized worldwide. The United States currently offers a federal tax credit of 26% through 2022 on geothermal systems for homeowners. Companies like Dandelion and ClimateMaster are streamlining system purchase and installation. Further market adoption is not limited by technology readiness.
Other, more technically ambitious geothermal approaches, like those being commercialized by Quaise Energy, promise to provide zero-carbon electricity at terawatt scale.
Technologies to mine geothermal heat efficiently and at scale, anywhere on the planet.
Electrification and synthetic chemical bonds are noted in Pathways 1 & 2.
Infrastructure to deliver geothermal heat to residential, commercial, and industrial end-uses. Transport solutions for electrons and synthetic chemical bonds are noted in Pathways 1 & 2.
Retrofit solutions for existing heating and cooling equipment to work with geothermal heat instead of fossil-fired heat. Phased electrification is noted in Pathways 1 & 2.
Interview №3: Carlos Araque, CEO & Co-Founder, Quaise
Can you explain the importance of supercritical geothermal energy in the clean energy transition?
Supercritical geothermal energy is as power dense as fossil fuels and as clean as renewables. It is the most abundant clean energy source on the planet and can play a vital role in transitioning our global energy system away from fossil fuels.
Quaise intends to unlock this energy source through its novel drilling technology, which can go deeper and hotter than ever before possible. By going deeper and hotter, geothermal becomes truly global and power-dense, which means it takes less time, less land, less material, and less labor to build clean capacity than incumbent technologies. All of those things are hugely important when you are talking about the terawatt scale that the clean energy transition requires.
What does energy utopia look like? And what’s stopping us from reaching it?
Imagine going into a gas power plant and saying, “we’re going to make
a small geothermal field around you, and we’re going to make that geothermal field produce steam — exactly the same steam that your turbines currently consume — so stop getting your steam from the furnace by burning fossil fuels and start getting you steam from the ground.”
We can convert power plants at the rate of dozens per year, so the energy transition will accelerate greatly. And we would be doing this with a fraction of the effort of the shale revolution in the oil and gas industries in the last decade. A fraction of that effort can convert the entire fleet of fossil fuel power plants in the United States within 10 years. Now, that’s scalability at the rate that the energy transition requires.
Can you speak more to the “effort” of the shale revolution? Are you referring to time and money? Human capital?
By effort, I mean what it took for an entire industry to mobilize materials and labor to meet a goal. The United States became the world’s top producer of oil and gas because the oil industry was able to produce oil in new ways using the existing workforce, existing tools, and existing assets. They closed the technology gap of being able to extract oil and gas from impermeable geological formations — and when they closed that gap, everything else was already in place to support a massive boom. Prior to this, the idea of creating permeability in impermeable rock to pull fluids from that rock was considered economically and technically impossible.
To put the effort into perspective, the U.S. alone was drilling 30,000–50,000 wells per year to extract oil and gas. At Quaise, we’re talking about drilling 1 thousands per year to meet the same demand and taking advantage of existing oil and gas infrastructure to deploy geothermal extraordinarily fast.
What needs to change regarding the interplay of regulation and innovation to get us there?
We need to treat geothermal like we treat oil and gas. Period. It is vital that geothermal becomes as simple, seamless, and quick to do as oil and gas, which is the result of 100 years of regulatory improvements. Put it in the same bucket. Put it in the same category, and we’re there.
What does a partnership between an energy upstart like Quaise and an incumbent look like?
Power companies are finding themselves with fewer and fewer options with respect to their existing fossil-fired thermal generation. They’ve got to do something about it. We’re saying, “Hey, you don’t have to write off those assets — those thermal power plants — we’ll repower them for you and you can continue using them.” The alternative for them is to write off those assets.
What gives you hope of a greener, more verdant future?
The fact that there are viable solutions on the table today. If fusion weren’t in development, or deep geothermal wasn’t possible, then I’d be concerned. I would be concerned that we’d be transitioning to an energy landscape anchored by wind, solar, and batteries. Such a future would have deep ecological consequences — as profound as the consequences we are experiencing today — because traditional renewables do not have the power density — the land, labor, materials, and time per unit of energy — that are needed for this global energy transition.
I believe that we cannot have a more prosperous world if we make backward progress with regard to power density. If you accept that statement, then you must find solutions with a power density as good as or better than fossil fuels.
Many of those communicating these big-picture visions struggle with capturing the scale of the challenge. How do you truly capture that scale?
We need to understand what a terawatt is a million megawatts. It’s staggering. The entirety of the United States uses about one terawatt, and it’s taken us 100 years to get there. And we’re talking about an energy transition at a far greater scale.
To put a terawatt into further context, the oil and gas industry, just to maintain the status quo of 100 million barrels per day, has to put a terawatt, into the system, continuously. And the entire wind and solar fleet, worldwide, is just now getting to one terawatt and it’s taken 30–40 years to get there.
We have to transition 20–30 terawatts! A terawatt is no joke. So, when I hear about projects that do one mega-watt, that is addressing only a tiny fraction of one percent of the problem.
Pathway 4: Green [Electrons + Fuels + Heat] + Fossil Fuels & Carbon Capture
Making primary energy generation totally carbon-free is an essential goal for the energy economy of the future. However, much of the renewable energy technology and infrastructure is not currently ready to be deployed at the scales necessary to meet the accelerated decarbonization timeline the world must adopt to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. As we make this transition to a fully decarbonized grid, carbon capture technologies will be necessary to capture and sequester the carbon still being emitted by the fossil fuel industry in the meantime.
If and when the grid is as decarbonized as it can be, it is possible that renewable energy technologies and massive infrastructure upheavals may not be affordable for all economically vulnerable populations around the world. For these areas that will continue to rely on fossil fuels, carbon capture will still be critical in removing ongoing emissions, as well as the hundreds of gigatons of CO2 that humans have emitted into the atmosphere over centuries.
Technologies to cheaply capture CO2 from point sources (e.g. power plant exhaust) and direct air capture (DAC).
Electrification and synthetic chemical bonds noted in Pathways 1 & 2 and methods to harness geothermal heat in Pathway 3.
Note: In these scenarios, Carbon Capture Utilization & Storage (CCUS) is viewed as a “source” simply because it enables fossil sources to become cleaner. It does not imply that CCUS has to be co-located with fossil extraction or that oil and gas producers are directly responsible for bearing the costs of CCUS.
Utilize existing fossil infrastructure where possible. Additional infrastructure (e.g., pipelines) to transport captured CO2 to sequestration and end-use sites.
Transport solutions for electrons and synthetic chemical bonds noted in Pathways 1 & 2 and geothermal heat delivery in Pathway 3.
Technology solutions to utilize captured CO2 as a carbon source for various end uses (e.g., liquid fuels, construction materials). Phased electrification was noted in Pathways 1 & 2 and retrofit solutions to utilize geothermal heat in Pathway 3.
Interview №4: Peter Psarras, Research Assistant Professor: Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, University of Pennsylvania
Many of those communicating revolutionary technologies, especially with regards to climate change, struggle with capturing the scale of the challenge. How do you put the work ahead into perspective?
When I talk about scale, it’s about the rate at which we need to grow CCS
(carbon capture and sequestration) processes — essentially an order of magnitude every decade. It helps to break it up like that, it translates our 2050 goals to what we must achieve today.
In terms of actual volumes of CO2 that need to be processed, I use the analogy of the growth in mobile phone popularity since the 1990s. Back then a mobile phone was a clunker, a luxury item, and now there are more than one per capita in the world. That’s astonishing growth! That’s basically the scaling that we need to do with CCS in terms of units of CO2 moved.
On the other hand, articulating the full scale of the challenge can quickly get terrifying and be viewed as putting the cart before the horse. As an example, I just helped the American Chemical Society do a video on CCS in which they were trying to calculate the amount of air that would need to be processed — and it is essentially half of the whole atmosphere.
To many, CO2 removal and carbon capture sound like the stuff of science fiction — can you talk about some of the most promising approaches and their significance?
We can look at what’s actually been proven and what’s been practiced for years — CO2 scrubbing and point source capture. It’s always more efficient to go those routes (than direct air capture) — just block it from getting into the atmosphere in the first place. There are a lot of arguments about how appropriate or costly these approaches are, but none of those arguments, in my mind, is aligned with the state of climate emergency we find ourselves in. Think of it this way — your room is on fire; are you going to get out a whiteboard and ar-gue about what window you’re going to escape from?
Anything that plays on the Earth’s natural carbon cycle is interesting to me. We study mineral carbonation in our lab, which is essentially an enhanced weathering process — you get capture and storage in one step and you obviate the need for most of the infrastructure associated with other approaches.
Which approaches excite you the most?
We’ve had promising ideas for many, many years, but there’s never been a demand for CO2-derived products until now. We’re seeing this ridiculous surge in demand. So much so, that in 5 or 10 years, we’ll see a significant penetration of CO2-derived goods in the marketplace. But there are still barriers to adoption, especially with carbon storage — that approach is far more difficult than we anticipated, both technically and from a regulatory standpoint.
I have to mention Heirloom Carbon, co-founded by one of our students. Heirloom is commercializing a technology that enhances carbon mineralization, a natural geologic process, using natural and earth-abundant minerals like alkaline oxides that can bind CO2 at ambient conditions. Careful engineering can enhance the kinetics from perhaps years to just days.
I was an author on California’s Livermore Lab “Getting to Neutral” report from 2020; in it, you see waste biomass as a major component of the state’s decarbonization initiatives. You see the same thing in Princeton’s Net-Zero America report. Using waste biomass as a feedstock we can produce hydrogen and CO2. If the CO2 is stored away securely, the hydrogen has a negative carbon footprint and this opens the door to a number of potentially carbon-neutral products using H2 and CO2 as co-feedstocks, like plastics or fuels.
What gives you hope?
The best minds are coming to the table to solve these challenges.
And I’ve also seen a real shift to humanitarian elements, where for so long climate change was cast as an environmental problem. We’re seeing many more people realize that this is our future — that our behavior directly impacts that future. All this, even in the face of an adversarial political climate, is hopeful. We’ve realized that we can’t say “2050” like it’s a million years away anymore. The practice round is over.
From a practical perspective, I am happy at the amount of scrutiny this space (CCS) is receiving. It makes it next to impossible for bad actors to continue with any type of market or regulatory manipulation. Meaning that we will get better data and better results with approaches that truly work.
A proposed timeline and metrics that matter.
The pathways outlined above provide templates for how we might start visualizing a decarbonized energy ecosystem. However, the path each country, state, or community takes will depend on local resources, policies, costs, and several other factors. There will be no silver-bullet solution that fixes problems everywhere. Rather the energy system of the future will involve the complex interplay of several solutions working together and taking the local context into account across four key classes of metrics economic, spatial, social/political, and temporal factors.
Transitioning away from the status quo will require inventing and deploying new technologies at an unprecedented global scale. In addition to tackling the core innovation challenge, it will be important to ensure these new solutions are cost-competitive with their more CO2-intense counterparts. This, in turn, will require establishing cost benchmarks for new technologies, allocating investments to pilots and engineering studies to explore/exploit economies of scale, and designing appropriate policy levers to align incentives.
In addition to managing costs relative to fossil counterparts, it is also important to note that low-income and economically disadvantaged communities around the world spend a significantly higher portion of their income on energy. As a result, some technologies may not be viable solutions for vulnerable populations due to afford-ability concerns and will require developing alternative solutions and policy support to enable wider adoption.
Specifically, regarding pathway 4, major technological and political advancements will need to be made for carbon capture to become an economically viable technology. As the technology currently stands, the cost of capturing carbon from point sources is around $53/t CO2 on average, while the cost of capturing carbon from DAC ranges from $250-$600/t CO2.1,2 Tax incentives like the 45Q will (over the next 7 years) promise up to $50/t CO2 captured for carbon that is permanently sequestered in underground geologic reservoirs.3 This is a step in the right direction, but still not enough to make carbon capture an economically viable option as it stands right now. Major technological advancements that lower the cost of capture combined with continually more progressive tax incentives will be vital to the viability and much-needed implementation of carbon capture technologies.
The transition to a no-CO2 energy landscape is also going to be a transition in the way we allocate and utilize land. The new technologies we deploy will vary in their demand for space, in the same way that countries around the world will vary in the availability of land (think Singapore vs the U.S.). Accounting for this supply-and-demand dynamic will be critical for matching and deploying the right technology set for a given geography.
Social | Political
Ensuring reliable, cheap, and safe access to energy is critical to the socio-economic fabric of any economy. Managing a change in how we source and utilize energy on a global scale will inevitably lead to change across several social dimensions (e.g., skills, jobs, climate migration, energy poverty). While these issues may seem unrelated to technology at first, effectively managing and providing solutions to relieve them will be critical for the next generation of energy technologies.
While countries may vary in their ability to pay for new technologies, availability of land and socioeconomic issues, the unifying challenge they all face is the compressed timeframe in which to combat the threat of climate change. As a result, of all the metrics relevant to the energy transition, the most important ones are the timescales related to development and deployment of new technologies.
Learning rate is a commonly used metric to measure the development timescales of new technologies and is defined as the time taken to bring technology to pre-defined scales and represents how quickly we can bring the economies of experience to bear on the costs of any given technology. Learning rates vary from technology to technology and depend on factors like capital intensity and policy support, both of which will be critical levers to go beyond traditional learning rates in the energy industry.
Deployment timescales also depend on capital intensity and policy support. However, an additional factor that can play a crucial role in our ability to deploy technology is the timescale to train and develop the required skills in the workforce. Technologies that require skills that are readily available or require minimal retraining of the existing workforce will have a natural advantage in accelerating the deployment timescale. As new technologies reach maturity, it will become critical to anticipate potential talent bottlenecks and account for workforce development costs and timelines. Policy support and strategic partnerships between different players (e.g., start-ups, incumbents, national labs) will play a critical role in speeding up both the development and deployment timescales.
The most recent IPCC report has provided a much-needed perspective on the urgency of the climate crisis. With atmospheric CO2 levels at their highest concentration in over 2 million years, we are now looking at breaching the 1.5°C threshold between 2030 and 2035. The need to commit to a decarbonization pathway has never been more urgent.
While the report makes it abundantly clear that human activity lies at the heart of the problem, humanity is also capable of rising to the challenge and finding the right solutions. The IPCC report itself, put together by 234 authors from 66 countries and capturing insights from >14,000 studies, is a testament to what we can achieve when we put our collective minds to it. As you read this, millions of people across the spectrum of society — technologists, entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers — from all over the world are hard at work to bring the pathways above to reality. Their collective efforts are at once inspiring and hopeful — together, we will find a path to a cleaner CO2-free future