Sept. 15, 2021

This Week In Climate | September 16th, 2021

This Week In Climate | September 16th, 2021

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Wind Power Comeback

Wind power capacity is predicted to explode globally after a lull during the first year of the pandemic, according to a report by the Global Wind Energy Council. The international group foresees more than 12 gigawatts (GW) coming online in 2021, doubling the 6.1GW added to global supply last year in the midst of the pandemic. That number would easily beat the record for annual wind installation set in 2019, but still represents a drop in the bucket compared to the 2,000 GW that the International Energy Agency estimates we need by 2050 to keep warming in check. Acting on the trend, this week the state of California passed a bill. It directs state regulators to chart a course for meeting the Biden Administration’s stated goal of 30 gigawatts of offshore wind nationally by 2030, and to establish goals for 2045. The bill’s language is still light on specifics, but represents a response to one of the report’s key conclusions: that governments must cut the red tape currently tying up new turbines.

Nuclear Breakthrough

Scientists are one step closer to recreating the sun’s power on Earth, according to an announcement made by MIT this week. Unlike fission nuclear reactions, which power nuclear reactors today, fusion power generates electricity by combining two atomic nuclei and capturing the resulting energy in a reactor. Such a reactor would be virtually carbon-free, and as MIT’s vice president for research Maria Zuber put it, “in a lot of ways it’s the ultimate clean energy source.” Researchers measured a field strength of 20 teslas from their prototype high-temperature electromagnet, long seen as a crucial goal for the viability of fusion reactions as an energy source. With a working magnet in hand, the researchers will now move their experiment into a lab where they believe they can capture the power of the sun, unlike the many similarly-minded projects that have failed before.

AI for the Climate

If the robots don’t conquer us, they may just help us solve the climate crisis. That is the conclusion of a study published by the World Economic Forumthis week, which outlines recommendations for how artificial intelligence can contribute to making the renewable energy sector drastically more efficient, between now and 2050. It’s a comprehensive breakdown that recommends employing AI along the lines of nine principles, organized by three categories: designing, enabling and governing. The end result of these changes would be more than a trillion dollars of added value for every 1% of additional efficiency in the energy sector alone. But for all the savings, the report states clearly that these systems will be complex and that above all, the “future power system looks highly decentralized.” 

Gravity for Sale

California-based Energy Vault became the world’s first gravity storage startup to go public this week, after it was acquired through a merger with the special purpose acquisition company (better known as a SPAC) Novus Capital Corporation. The company offers a long-sought after alternative to the lithium-ion batteries that have so far dominated the large-scale energy storage market. Gravity storage takes a variety of forms, but each approach uses excess renewable energy to lift heavy objects, either uphill or in the air, that produce electricity on their way down with the help of gravity. Energy Vault’s first installation in Switzerland is a six-armed tower that directs a delicate choreography of specialized bricks that can store 10-35MWh of electricity, with an output of roughly 5MWh when they’re brought back to earth. The company has yet to build its biggest model, but if successful it could give the world an option for energy storage that takes energy off the ground rather than from it. 

Circle of Battery Life

Sometimes energy storage solutions aren’t all big business and breakthrough innovations, as one California startup has set out to prove in the Mojave Desert. This week, Canary Media produced a video tour of B2U Energy Solutions’ pilot facility, where the company has connected stacks of used Nissan Leaf batteries to a modest one mega-watt solar plant. The company hopes to contribute a solution to the infamous duck curve by storing solar power when the sun is out, and releasing it at night when users go home and energy demand spikes. At the same time, the project offers an answer to the thorny issue of where electric vehicle batteries end up when they have to be replaced. Up to as much as 95% of all electric vehicle car batteries go unrecycled at the end of their life powering cars, throwing a wrench into the sustainability goals of fully electric vehicles - when their batteries end up in landfills. The company is currently bidding to enter California’s power market, and believes it will only become more profitable as the supply of used batteries increases.