The extremely low cost of wind and solar power is a transformative opportunity. But wind and solar won’t reach their full potential until we develop technologies to dispatch them on demand. One of the most promising ways to do this is to vastly improve energy storage.
Lithium ion batteries—the storage medium for electric cars—may soon be able to store energy cheaply enough to meet the demand for extra energy at peak times. But converting intermittent wind and solar to base load power (the power that’s always needed) will require fundamentally new approaches to storage.
We want to invest in projects exploring incredibly cheap grid-scale storage with a very long calendar life. The approaches we’re considering include storing the energy as heat, through compression, and in next-generation batteries that use abundant material.
By 2050 there may be as many as 3 billion cars on the road. To reduce climate change, we have to find a way to power them that doesn’t fill the air with carbon dioxide. Electric cars hold great promise, but the challenges of deployment at scale mean that internal combustion vehicles will be with us for decades. It is incredibly difficult to electrify air travel and long-haul shipping across oceans. The future of transportation will almost certainly require liquid fuel.
We can create zero-carbon liquid fuel by capturing carbon from the air and using energy from the sun to convert it into fuel. One approach is photosynthesis: using plants to remove carbon from the atmosphere. While the United States is capable of producing sufficient biomass to displace all liquid fuels, we don’t yet have cost-effective ways to convert it.
Another approach to zero-carbon liquid fuel is to use chemical or physical means to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere and use renewable electricity to convert that inorganic carbon into fuel. The past several years have seen tremendous advances in so-called air capture of CO2 and the availability of wind and solar power. Together, these developments may create opportunities to make rapid progress on creating liquid fuels that don’t contribute to climate change.
Today, 1 billion people on earth lack access to electric power, and another 2 billion have only limited access. For more than a quarter of the world, the challenge is not just access to clean energy, but access to any energy at all.
One way to meet this need would be to build clean versions of systems that exist in richer countries: large, centralized power-production units along with extensive transmission grids to move that power to users. But this model requires an infrastructure that many poorer countries don’t have and can’t afford to build. More importantly, given the current technology, centralized grids may no longer be the best way to produce and deliver power.
An alternative solution might use a decentralized system of small grids, similar to those that power many universities and large companies in developed countries. During city-wide blackouts, some universities keep their power because it’s generated and distributed on a separate grid. If small groups of people in developing countries—even as small as 100 people—could share centrally stored solar power via micro-grids, it would eliminate the challenges involved in building and running a larger grid. Furthermore, a disruption in power wouldn’t take out an entire country, or even an entire city, because unconnected mini-grids would be unaffected. Such grids could initially be based on readily available resources such as solar energy but be capable of adding other sources of power over time.
Alternative building materials
The massive trend toward urbanization means that as many as 75 percent of the buildings we’ll need in 2050 don’t exist today. Traditional building materials such as concrete and steel produce enormous quantities of greenhouse gases. We need to find new ways to build the cities of the future.
Researchers are exploring low- or zero-carbon ways of producing concrete and steel, but we also need to develop new, carbon-neutral building materials for our homes and offices. One promising material, surprisingly, is wood. Not the kind of wood you see on a job site, but engineered wood and mass timber—incredibly thin strips of wood glued or nailed together. This creates a material as strong as steel that not only doesn’t emit carbon during manufacture but actually stores carbon, as long as the forests it comes from are properly managed. Other novel building materials, such as fiber-reinforced composites, offer the possibility of a built environment that meets people’s needs without contributing to climate change.
Solar and wind energy aren’t the only carbon-neutral natural resources available. Geothermal energy is also carbon-neutral and has the added advantage of being created continuously under all conditions. The earth is a constant source of heat. If we can convert that heat to electricity, we can use it to power our lives very cheaply without interruption.
To create geothermal energy, we need both heat relatively close to the surface and water to carry it there. The earth is hot underground everywhere, but the water only comes to the surface in a few places, notably Iceland. In most geographies it’s very difficult to access geothermal energy.
Recent advances in drilling technology, however, present interesting opportunities. Techniques like horizontal drilling, multilateral drilling, extended reach drilling, complex path drilling, and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, all developed to extract fossil resources, offer interesting possibilities for geothermal energy.