No Manhattan Project, But Don’t Say No To Breakthrough Innovations

a polar bear and her baby
The polar bears say "keep the innovations coming - it's getting warm out here!" (image by Just Being Myself, CC 2.0 licensed)

While I agree with Joseph Romm on Climate Progress that we can’t count on a “Manhattan Project”-style endeavour to engineer our way out of the climate crisis in the short term, nonetheless, I think it’s reasonable to have a certain expectation that technology will improve over the right timescale, so we can be ready to take advantage of it.

A few weeks ago Martin Brown had a great post on his Fairsnape blog on Recession Thoughts and Tips. One of his many excellent suggestions was

Stand in the future and observe the industry in 2016/2019 – climate change will not be ‘put on hold’ during the recession – so do you have a route to zero mapped out?

His suggestions apply, of course, not only in a recession, but also if you want to help make big changes happen. In particular, “Standing in the future” is critical for those who are trying to make changes in response to climate change to visualize how things must be (for us to survive) in 2020 or 2030, because only then can we figure out how to get there.

The key challenge for that kind of thing is thinking big enough! Small example: If you’d asked me twenty years ago, or even ten, if it was every going to be possible to watch video on my phone, I’d have said “No, there’s just not going to be enough bandwidth for that to happen. I don’t ever expect that to be something we can do.” Was I ever wrong! And I consider myself open-minded and an outside the box thinker!

It’s very likely that the technologies and practices that get us out of a climate change disaster aren’t invented yet, or at best are in labs somewhere. Those of us – the rest of us – who need to take those inchoate and early ideas and turn them into market realities need a LOT of imagination to forcefully move the world out of its current ruts.

That’s why I often post news about discoveries coming out of labs, or going into the development process. Daniel Nocera’s [intlink id=”162″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]hydrogen reforming[/intlink], and [intlink id=”181″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]nanotechnology breakthroughs[/intlink], or technologies like or based on them, will be changing our lives in the next 10, 20, or fifty years – whether by mitigating carbon, or helping us store or generate renewable energy, or perhaps in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

If there are particular technologies you are watching, let me know in the comments – I’ve love to hear about them.

DoE Secretary Steven Chu: We Need Nobel-Level Breakthroughs

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu
Secretary of Energy Steven Chu

Yesterday the New York Times published an interview (including some of the original audio) with our new Energy Secretary, Steven Chu. Among other comments, he said that to address the climate emergency, we need “Nobel-level breakthroughs” in several key areas – batteries, biofuels, and solar photovoltaics.” As an illustration, he pointed out:

The photovoltaics we have today, … without subsidy, and without even the additional cost of storage, it’s about a factor of five higher than electricity generation by gas or coal. Suppose someone comes along and invents a way of getting … solar photovoltaics at one fifth the cost, so you don’t even think about subsidies anymore. You just slap it everywhere… That, in my opinion, would take something, which I would say, is a bit of a breakthrough.”

There’s no arguing with that idea – if solar PV were five times cheaper, no one would need complicated “payback period” models to justify installing it. (Luckily, we do have those models, and so some people are taking the plunge.)

Of course, this is just the story of how technologies advance – it’s very familiar from the rise of semiconductors. A technology needs an ever-expanding “feedstock” of innovations, discoveries, and breakthroughs to grow at an exponential rate. In semiconductors, the history of technologies such as FET, MOS, CMOS, new clean room techniques, different types of lithography, and many other innovations each offered ever decreasing feature size and lower cost. This parade of innovations combined to ensure that just when one technology was reaching its limit of compactness, another newer and more efficient technology would be there to take its place. When the new one ran out of steam the cycle would repeat. (And several of those innovations resulted in Nobels.)

One example of the “old thinking” on PV is the projections about its availability and cost. Many of these projections assume a linear improvement in price/performance. To help save the world, the price/performance of solar electricity and batteries and efficiency and fuel cells must come down faster than the typical, linear projections – just as it did for semiconductors.

Luckily, despite a current dip in investment and research levels due to the economy, this is happening in the solar photovoltaics domain. [intlink id=”210″ type=”post”]New[/intlink] [intlink id=”218″ type=”post”]discoveries[/intlink], new manufacturing methods, and [intlink id=”66″ type=”post”]new thinking[/intlink] will continue to drive the price down. With luck, Chu’s support from his bully pulpit in the DoE can accelerate this process.

Hat tip to Watthead for turning me on to this interview.

Fuel Cell Innovation Update

The week I started this blog in August 2008, there were [intlink id=”5″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]three major fuel-cell related discoveries[/intlink] making the rounds in the science magazines. Since then, there have been [intlink id=”7″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]new announcements every week[/intlink] of an [intlink id=”229″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]improved catalyst or membrane or electrolyte[/intlink]. As these discoveries mature into real products and enter the market, the option of using fuel cells for energy storage, both for homes as well as vehicles, will become more and more cost-effective.

Energy storage is potentially a big part of the zero-net energy house picture, and is certainly critical for the hydrogen automobile transition. I thought I’d highlight a few recent discoveries and advances in the world of fuel cells, the “energy storage of the future.”

  • Cheaper Fuel Cells with nanotubes instead of platinum:

    “Fuel cells haven’t been commercialized for larger-scale applications because platinum is too expensive,” says Liming Dai, a materials-engineering professor at the University of Dayton, in Ohio, who led the work. “For electrodes, you need a cheaper material that still has a high performance.”

  • A new catalyst could make ethanol fuel cells practical for portable gadgets

    The new catalyst, developed by researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory, breaks the carbon bonds without high voltages, efficiently releasing enough electrons to produce electrical currents 100 times higher than those produced with other catalysts.

  • A new fuel cell uses a cheap nickel catalyst

    Now researchers in China have developed a fuel cell that uses a new membrane material to operate in alkaline conditions, eliminating the need for an expensive catalyst. The power output of the new prototype, which uses nickel as a catalyst, is still relatively low, but it provides a first demonstration of a potentially much less expensive fuel cell.

  • A novel low-temperature electrolyte could make solid-oxide fuel cells more practical

    Solid-oxide fuel cells are promising for next-generation power plants because they are more efficient than conventional generators, such as steam turbines, and they can use a greater variety of fuels than other fuel cells. They can generate electricity with gasoline, diesel, natural gas, and hydrogen, among other fuels. But the high temperatures required for efficient operation make solid-oxide fuel cells expensive and limit their applications.

Home-generated energy is sustainable, non-polluting, and carbon-free. As the price of energy generation continues to drop, it’s possible to imagine [intlink id=”329″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]the nation’s homes becoming the nation’s power plant[/intlink]. But that can’t happen until we have effective home-based energy storage.

High Tech Innovations Vs. Low Tech

Bamboo thicket
Bamboo - Fast Growing CO2 Sequestration (Image by Joi, CC 2.0 licensed)

I read Technology Review for the latest innovations and breakthroughs in fuel cell technology, transparent solar cells, exotic new batteries and things like that. But there are tons of much lower tech innovations happening all the time. I happened to meet a guy the other night who’s working on a new startup related to building construction.

They’ve developed a new structural component – basically a really strong sheet of plywood – and some connectors, and they think based on their current testing results that they can build houses for 70% of the cost of regular 2×4 stud construction, much faster. They have almost no waste on the job site, and the waste in their factory is all reused. The system is fairly green as well – the feedstock for their plywood is bamboo, one of the best plants for taking up CO2 – and they use non-toxic glues and finishes. And their construction method will work very well for [intlink id=”393″ type=”post”]passive houses[/intlink] as [intlink id=”368″ type=”post” target=”_blank”]discussed elsewhere[/intlink] on “Keeping The Lights On”.

But just like the fuel cell breakthroughs, these low-tech innovations have a tough road to travel to success. For a new building process, you have to convince builders that it’s a better alternative, and that they’ll make more money faster. You also have to certify that the houses will stand up in an earthquake, weather a big storm (or ten of them, over the years), and do all the normal things that houses do in their lifetime. You can be sure that other innovators are coming up with competitive building technologies, all trying to accomplish the same thing as you – displace the old way. So not only do you have to deal with differentiation and other competitive marketing activities, but this also means the air around the head of your prospects is blue with pitches from every direction about “revolutionizing the industry” and “lower cost, faster” and “extremely green.”

If you accomplish all those things, and get a good competitive position, then you have to actually make the new materials and all the fittings, making sure you can address the trickier needs of real houses – which are not just square walls and right angle corners.

I think the new plywood-based approach I saw can address all these issues, but my point is that just because it’s good, it’s still going to be a difficult journey. That’s true of any new innovation.

I hope to do an interview in March with the “plywood people” and put it up on the blog, and I’ll be asking them how they plan to address all these issues as they ramp up. It should be interesting to watch them and other innovations in the building trades, especially in this time of massive investment in green building and energy efficiency.

Avoiding The Cliff Ahead

Uluwatu Temple, Bali (HDR)
A cliff in Bali (image by seanmcgrath, CC 2.0 licensed)

My green building and blogging colleague Barry Katz just had a post about James Howard Kunstler on his The Future Is Green Blog. Kunstler is one of the “dystopians” featured in a  New Yorker article last week. Kunstler is not sanguine about what the future is going to look like for us and our descendants. He thinks that not only is global warming likely to cause a disaster, but so is the current, or an upcoming, financial meltdown. Barry writes:

In his view, anything short of ending our dependence on cars for personal transportation is a doomed enterprise.

In his blog ClusterF**k nation, Kunstler writes:

I’ve been skeptical of the “stimulus” as sketched out so far, aimed at refurbishing the infrastructure of Happy Motoring. To me, this is the epitome of a campaign to sustain the unsustainable — since car-dependency is absolutely the last thing we need to shore up and promote.

Could the terrible things he predicts happen? In the New Yorker interview he provides as an example and a warning the famous fall of the Roman Empire – the city of Rome itself went from a population of over one million in 100 AD to less than 50,000 in a little over 400 years. And there certainly have been many other similar collapses in history – even in pre-Columbian North America there were multiple population collapses due to resource overuse (and genocide, but that’s another topic).

The difference today – at least we hope – is that we have some Cassandras – Al Gore, Kunstler, the IPCC, me and Barry Katz, among many others – warning us, and we have the means and opportunity to take the warning. The question is, do we have the will to put the pedal to the metal to address the problems? For me, I see that as doing the following, and doing it much faster than anyone is actually predicting is possible today:

  • Immediately stop wasting energy – this means getting our houses and commercial buildings more efficient, both new and existing ones; getting more efficient cars on the road
  • Build out utility scale renewable energy as fast as humanly possible
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy generation (e.g., photovoltaic roof panels and paint, mini-wind turbines, ground source heat pumps) and get them cheap enough to deploy everywhere
  • Develop and commercialize technologies for distributed energy storage – effective energy storage is one of the key sticking points for my vision of zero net energy homes and for accelerating the decline of traditional power plants
  • Figure out a way, or several ways, to get some of the CO2 back out of the atmosphere – reforestation is a start (and can make a significant difference, according to this study)
  • Finally, make structural changes to the rules and incentives of life so people will work closer to where they live, will be able to take public transit in a reasonable way, choose to build highly efficient homes not because its the right thing to do, but because it’s the law, or there are other concrete benefits, and so that businesses will find it’s profitable to save the world – whether it’s through being more efficient themselves, or by helping the rest of us “do the right thing”

I call this blog “Keeping The Lights On” because I am optimistic that we’ll figure out how to have a decent life without CO2, that we’ll figure out how to keep the oceans from rising too much and losing too many species, and that civilization won’t collapse due to a financial crisis in the meantime. There are a lot of hurdles to be leapt to accomplish this, and many of them will be costly – but that means that someone’s going to make some money on them, so there will be incentives. And that’s the other half of the title – “Profitable Applications” – business can drive this transition, for profit. The big challenge is getting business ramped up fast enough to save our butts – I think it can happen, and even with the economy in its current sad state, we’re still seeing hopeful signs.

Well, that’s a couple of pages full of assertion and conjecture – I’d love to hear your thinking on this.

Friedman to Detroit: Batteries R U

Soyuz Boosters
Soyuz rocket (Photo by James Duncan, CC 2.0 license)

Following up on my post yesterday about the Detroit bailout, today I wanted to mention Tom Friedman’s op-ed in Sunday’s New York Times “The Real Generation X.” It is primarily about how Obama’s stimulus package should focus on preparing us, especially our young people, for the future, not saving old dinosaur industries like Detroit:

We not only need to bail out industries of the past but to build up industries of the future — to offer the kind of big thinking and risk-taking that transforms enormous challenges into world-changing opportunities.

But what I thought was both charming and an important call to action was specifically about the auto industry bailout – an audacious challenge to Obama and Detroit:

You want my tax dollars? Then I want to see the precise production plans and timetables for the hybridization of all your cars and trucks within 36 months. I want every bailed-out car company to move to hybrid electric drive trains, because nothing would both improve mileage and emissions more — and also stimulate a whole new 21st-century, job-creating industry: batteries.

I love the audacity of this idea. It’s a big idea, and breaks the commonly held “20 year” rule that says it takes 20 years for a laboratory discovery to make it into industrial production. But we’ve overcome that rule occasionally before, in moments of great crisis, haven’t we? The Manhattan Project and the conversion of U.S. industry to war production during World War II, and the Apollo program both accelerated the 20 year rule significantly.

Do you have other audacious suggestions for Obama, or examples of technologies that broke the 20-year rule? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section!

Economic Stimulus Via Renewable Energy Transmission Grid

Let’s hope Obama focuses the stimulus package on things we know we need to do anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind energy and solar energy projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative.

Arizona sunset
Arizona sunset

Al Gore and I are in agreement that Obama can kill two birds with one stone by structuring his economic stimulus plan around improving the U.S.’s energy posture – which everyone agrees we need to do, both to achieve energy independence and to mitigate climate change. In his op-ed in today’s New York Times he said:

Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

So, following up on my post from Friday, let’s focus the stimulus package on things we know need doing anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind and solar projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative: Solicit the top five or ten proposals for new grid projects (a lot of organizations have already put these together), have a six month vetting process, and for the ones that pass the vetting process, provide substantial incentives for investing in those projects, or guarantee the first $100 million of financing for each.

It’s important that the incentives are given to worthy projects, hence the vetting process, but time is clearly of the essence in getting these projects started, hence the six month window. Who does the vetting? Could be a “blue ribbon panel” (assembled very swiftly), or could be an existing industry group that volunteers (again, in response to an incentive of some kind if necessary).

The idea here is that new grid is likely to be cost-effective and pay for itself (that is, investors will get their money back) but in the current financial market and given the curent set of regulations covering conventional energy it’s difficult to actually raise that money. So the Feds can step in and help make sure that these projects, that are desirable for the economy and the nation in the long-term, are able to get off the ground in the short term. You want to avoid the Feds from “choosing the winners” – that will still be done by the market. But you also need to give the market a nudge along the lines of “we’ll give you some incentives to invest in this rather than in a non-productive financial instrument or in conventional energy.”

There are lots of legitimate fears out there about economic stimulus programs – they’re expensive, they’ll have to be paid back eventually, and they solve the wrong problems. So what does Obama and his brain trust need to make sure we avoid?

  • Assuming they can “choose the winners”
  • Funding something that only benefits the already wealthy and doesn’t create jobs (Paulson bailout, anyone?) or improve the country and its opportunities structurally
  • A set of incentives that are too localized

Al’s and my proposals, I think, address all of these concerns:

  • My vetting process allows the market to choose the winners
  • The project will be of benefit to all of us – we need a new grid, and it will enable new kinds of business opportunities for both large and small entrepreneurs. And the projects demand a huge range of skills, from the electrical engineers who design the grid, to the mechanical engineers and technicians who design the transmission lines, to the blue collar workers who manufacture the equipment and build the grid itself
  • The nature of the transmission grid, and in particular the types of problems this grid needs to solve, are inherently non-local – the electricity has to get from rural areas like Arizona and Wyoming to urban centers like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago

I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea, and also your ideas for the initiatives Obama could pursue to address the financial crisis and the energy independence crisis at the same time.

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A Note From The Fuel Cell Research Front

Methanol fuel cell.
Methanol fuel cell. Image via Wikipedia

I plan to do an in-depth post or series on fuel cells soon, because there is so much breakthrough work going on in this research area. Fuel cells are interesting on so many fronts – for example, they’re probably the best way to use the hydrogen generated by Daniel Nocera’s new hydrogen splitting method, announced in mid-August. And just since August, researchers have announced big improvements or cost reductions in every component of the fuel cell – membrane, catalyst, and electrodes.

This latest story from Technology Review covers a new membrane improvement for methanol fuel cells. As the article points out, methanol fuel cells have some key benefits compared to hydrogen cells, in particular that methanol is a liquid at normal temperatures, but they also have technical challenges. Paula Hammond and her team are addressing one of these:

In her lab at MIT, chemical-engineering professor Paula Hammond pinches a sliver of what looks like thick Saran wrap between tweezers. Though it appears un­remarkable, this polymer membrane can significantly increase the power output of a methanol fuel cell, which could make that technology suitable as a lighter, longer-­lasting, and more environmentally friendly alternative to batteries in consumer electronics such as cell phones and laptops.

Do you have questions about fuel cells that you’d like me to find answers to as I research my upcoming series? Let me know in the comments.

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Sahara Forest Project: An Awesome Example of Mega-Integrative Design

The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture
The Sahara Forest project will use seawater and solar power to grow food in greenhouses across the desert. Photograph: Exploration Architecture

The Sahara Forest project represents integrative design at a huge scale. (Integrative design combines multiple design improvements to get an overall improvement that’s bigger than the sum of its components.) As it says on the the Sahara Forest project home page:

The project combines two proven technologies in a new way to create multiple benefits: producing large amounts of renewable energy, food and water as well as reversing desertification.

The two technologies are the Seawater Greenhouse, invented by Charlie Paton, and a concentrating solar energy generation capability. The synergies arise in several ways – the energy generation provides the power to run fans to work the greenhouse, while the greenhouse creates excess fresh water for cleaning the mirrors of the generator, for example. The team that’s come together to create the project also represents some interesting synergies:

An inventor – Charlie Paton, creator of the Seawater Greenhouse; an architect – Michael Pawlyn of Exploration Architecture, previously of Grimshaw and the lead architect on the iconic Eden Project; an engineer – Bill Watts of Max Fordham & Partners, an engineering firm that focuses on energy efficient systems for the built environment.

The Sahara Forest post at Treehugger features a long interesting response in the comments by Pawlyn in response to questions raised by other commenters.

This is one of several projects I’ve read about recently that combine energy generation via visible light with use of the excess heat to achieve much higher solar energy conversion efficiencies. For example, this report in Science Daily last year about a prototype PV/Thermal system that was projected to capture 80% of the energy. While it complicates the mechanicals of the system, it certainly seems to make sense to take advantage of the heat created as a side effect of PV energy collection, especially since the PV cells work better – are more efficient – at lower temperatures. The heat needs to be removed anyway!

So far neither the project’s website or news reports about the project have many details about its progress or funding, but it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

Expanding Options In Solar Energy and Electric Cars

Mission Peak (L), Mount Allison (C) and Monume...
Mission Peak in Fremont, CA. Image via Wikipedia

A roundup of a few stories that came out this week that I found particularly interesting.

  • Solyndra, a startup in Fremont, CA (just down the street from my office), is using a new form factor for thin film solar cells:

    Unlike conventional solar panels, which are made of flat solar cells, the new panels comprise rows of cylindrical solar cells made of a thin film of semiconductor material. The material is made of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium. To make the cells, the company deposits the semiconductor material on a glass tube. That’s then encapsulated within another glass tube with electrical connections that resemble those on fluorescent lightbulbs. The new shape allows the system to absorb more light over the course of a day than conventional solar panels do, and therefore generate more power.

    Not only do they not need trackers, but because they are mounted with space between each tube, they aren’t susceptible to wind and they can collect light reflected off the building’s roof and ambient light coming in obliquely.

    What I like about this story is that it shows that there’s still a lot more innovation to be done in all areas of alternative energy design – yesterday I saw another report about a new fuel cell membrane made of a cheap material instead of platinum, and there’s practically a new wind energy device every week. They’re not all going to be winners, but it’s the kind of design ferment that’s going to lead to big cost and practicality improvements in every area.

  • The EPA provides an interactive analysis (using Google Earth) of marginal and contaminated land that could be used for renewable energy farms – wind and/or solar:

    According to the EPA, many lands tracked by the agency, such as large Superfund sites, and mining sites offer thousands of acres of land, and may be situated in areas where the presence of wind and solar structures are less likely to be met with aesthetic, and therefore political, opposition.

    One stumbling block for a massive transition to solar power in the U.S. has been the land use question. I’m not saying we want to build our power on contaminated lands, but it’s interesting to see this as an option.

    Via CleanTechnica.com

  • Renault commits to electric vehicles. Saying that:

    “EVs are a necessity because hybrids cannot deliver the level of gasoline use and emissions reductions that governments and customers are demanding of automakers”

    Renault unveiled two zero-emission concept cars at the Paris autoshow Mondiale de l’Automobile, both of which are pure electric. The cars have a range of 160-200 kilometers (95-120 miles) and are designed for day-to-day use and short weekend trips, “not vacations” as Renault admits.

    Renault is committing to EVs because they believe that’s the only they’ll be able to deliver the gasoline economy and emissions reductions being demanded by both the market and governments.

These stories caught my eye as not just “more of the same” this week. What green energy stories got your interest up recently?

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