The latest technological advances that could play a fundamental role in protecting the environment.
The agreement reached at the 21st Conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris was a pat on the back for all of humanity. The world’s nations finally managed to agree on setting a shared goal to reduce atmospheric emissions. But our honeymoon with the environment will be very short-lived if we do not implement the necessary measures to reach the goal we have set ourselves: keeping global temperature increases below 2°C and making efforts to limit this increase to 1.5°C above preindustrial temperatures.
There is only one way we will achieve this: through new technologies and innovative solutions that will allow the global economy to grow sustainably. Some of these technologies are already bringing positive results, while other more controversial ones are still in the research and development stage. But they are all part of a recipe—not a magic spell—to fight climate change.
A Strategy for Sustainable Growth
According to data from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), 1.2 billion people in the world still have no access to electricity. In Latin America, this figure stands at 30 million people in countries including Haiti, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, and Guatemala.
The energy challenge for Latin American the Caribbean is threefold: providing citizens with affordable energy that will drive development but is generated using environmentally sustainable sources. Although 60% of the region’s electricity is based on renewables (the highest share in the world), 87 million people in Latin America still cook using highly polluting fuels such as wood and coal. In 2012, over 6.5 million air pollution-related deaths were recorded, nearly 95% of which were in low- and middle-income countries.
To fight climate change, we need to focus on solutions that help us to decarbonize energy production and create more efficient use patterns. As Bill Gates says (Pontin, 2016), we can’t sit around waiting for an energy miracle to happen. Instead, we need to focus on creating innovations to solve our more urgent challenges.
Economic development and well-being in Latin America and the Caribbean are directly related to the impact of this, as the Paris Agreement revealed. Now more than ever, we need greater investment in R&D and cooperation agreements that allow smooth technology transfers from more developed countries to those with fewer advantages. Will technology be able to reduce CO2 emissions? From incremental improvements to existing technologies to radical new breakthroughs, this article looks at some of the ideas that are on the table today.
Technology to Improve Clean Energy Production
“It is much cheaper to prevent emissions than to attempt to remove them later,” says Howard Herzog, a researcher at MIT’s Energy Initiative. Based on this premise, countries, companies, universities, and researchers from all over the world are in a race against the clock to think up more innovative, viable, and efficient technologies that will make it possible to generate energy with zero pollutant gas emissions. The following sections look at some of the technologies that are attempting to solve these problems.
Supersmart Solar and Wind Power
Solar and wind power have become key sources of clean energy but the two face similar challenges. The first of these is intermittency. As the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, these energy sources are not a constant source of supply to the electricity system. Another problem is scalability, as large amounts of capital are required to develop the initial infrastructure. The third problem is storage. Developing complementary technologies such as next-generation batteries could be part of the solution to this.
To mitigate the intermittency problem, the US company Xcel Energy, in partnership with a research laboratory, has developed software that uses artificial intelligence to process data from the country’s satellites, weather stations, and wind farms. This provides them with extremely precise wind and sun forecasts which in turn enables higher proportions of energy from these renewable sources to be used more efficiently and at lower costs.
These forecasts, which are the outcome of using artificial intelligence and big data, can help mitigate the intermittency challenge. Until now, gaps in renewable energy supply were bridged using fossil fuels, which are both expensive and highly polluting. However, this sort of software would allow firms to better predict usage peaks and intermittency periods so as to make better use of electricity while covering demand without interruptions by using new types of batteries (which, as we will see, are already coming onto the market).
Bryan Hannegan, director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, says that “mining these detailed forecasts to develop a more flexible and efficient electricity system could make it much cheaper to hit ambitious international goals for reducing carbon emissions” (Bullis, 2014).
What is interesting about this progress is the relative ease and low cost of introducing software that allows solar and wind power plants to produce electricity more efficiently while depending less on other energy sources.
Wind turbines can get bigger or taller, but this doesn’t solve the problem of intermittency or bring costs down. So say the innovators behind Makani, a Californian company that has created a novel technology that is attempting to harness wind power at an altitude where the wind blows stronger and more steadily throughout the year.
Makani, which was acquired some time ago by Google X, has created a kite-like airborne wind turbine that can capture wind power at high altitudes. The kite has small turbines or rotors rather like those of a helicopter that help it to leave the ground. These turbines are then driven by air currents that keep the kite in orbit while producing electrical energy, which is transmitted back to earth via the very cable that tethers it. This cable is connected to a small tower that is operated by software that guides the kite and transmits energy and information.
The technology is still in the testing phase and has not yet come onto the market. In addition to being able to capture more and better-quality wind energy, its main advantage is its low investment and maintenance costs, which could make it a potentially useful solution for countries that have ample wind resources but that lack the capital to set up wind farms. The Makani system would also improve the distribution of energy generation, which is another challenge that wind power is currently facing.
Solar Space Odyssey
Our planet is getting too small for us and we don’t need to develop all our solutions within its limits. So says the National Space Society, an independent organization based in the United States that suggests space-based solar energy production could solve emissions problems and provide the ultimate solution to climate change. The organization stresses that this would not just help the problem, but solve it altogether.
Photovoltaic panels on satellites in geostationary earth orbits could capture the sun’s energy and transmit it wirelessly to the earth. Technology could thus help overcome solar energy’s main shortcoming, which is intermittency, caused by cloud formation in the atmosphere or night time.
Advocates of this technology argue that space-based solar power is literally billions of times more powerful than the solar power that we use on earth and is undoubtedly the largest form of available energy. However, there are various obstacles that are holding this technology back or preventing it from being implemented, most of which are to do with its extremely high cost, the difficulty in manufacturing photovoltaic panels that can withstand the intensity of solar radiation in space, and efficient wireless transmission of the energy back to earth.
Batteries—the Perfect Partner
Although batteries are not a technology for generating carbon-free energy, they are a vital part of the struggle against climate change. Including them in electricity grids adds a degree of flexibility that allows the operator to better control the storage and delivery of electrical energy. The major advantages they bring include the possibility of increasing the coverage of intermittent renewable sources such as photovoltaic and wind power; postponing investment in the costly infrastructure necessary to cover peaks in demand during times of the year when supply is limited; and favoring the consumption of clean energy in electrical vehicles.
The technology entrepreneur Elon Musk surprised the world when he unveiled his rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for use in homes and small industries. These are relatively easy to install, affordable, and attractively designed and thus will allow homes and small industries to use energy more efficiently, using renewable sources and sidestepping the intermittency problem.
Harvard University School of Engineering and Applied Sciences has developed another interesting technology as part of the US Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). Their organic redox flow battery would be able to store electric energy at a low cost and for longer periods of time than other technologies. If this type of solution was developed on a realistic scale for actual electricity grids, it would be a significant step toward batteries making a serious impact on electricity supply.
Technological innovation in batteries has accelerated in recent years as they are an excellent way of supporting increased development of renewable energies and solving other problems, such as the development of the electrical transportation industry.
Green batteries to store renewable energy. Credit: Harvard University
But What Can We Do about the CO2 That Is Already in the Atmosphere?
The objective of achieving a form of industry and consumption with zero emissions is unlikely in the short term. Although the trail the Paris Agreement has blazed seems irreversible, the challenges ahead include ratification, which some countries have not yet completed, and enforcing compliance.
In the meantime, we can look to technologies that are being developed or tested in laboratories and that seek to mitigate the effects of greenhouse gases by capturing them or preventing them from causing global warming. Some of these techniques are well-known and already being put into practice. Others are more controversial and sound like something out of a sci-fi novel. Geoengineering or climate engineering is being looked at in laboratories as a radical solution to the effects of climate change. However, these options are extremely polemical as they entail possible side-effects that could affect our planet on a vast scale.
CO2 Capture and Storage: Burying the Problem or Recycling It?
Some scientists believe that mass reforestation could counteract climate change. However, we can capture the carbon dioxide that is already in the atmosphere without having to plant trees (which are natural carbon sinks) on every square foot of the planet. So says the Argentine scientist Gabriela Chichilnisky, one of the founders of the company Global Thermostat and a well-known climate change expert.
Dr. Chichilnisky believes that planting trees and creating energy from renewable sources is a long-term solution. In the short term, however, she argues that we need to use disruptive technologies that will help to reverse the damage that has already been caused. As a consequence, she designed Global Thermostat’s technology to use heat to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) that is then reused for industrial purposes. The advantage of these factories is that they can be designed and built anywhere in the world to meet whatever needs the client has.
Dr. Chichilnisky insists that large-scale use of this type of technology could build a carbon-negative industry.
Bio-energy with Carbon Storage and Capture (BECCS)
This technology has gained traction after the Paris Conference due to the aforementioned need to increase clean energy production while simultaneously capturing and storing carbon. This is precisely what BECCS does by growing trees or other types of biomass, burning them to generate electricity, and then burying the CO2 captured during the burning process.
This technology is being developed in parallel with bio-energy electrical plants. However, BECCS is also polemical: it is both the most promising and most politicized technology due to its impact on its surroundings and the need to grow edible crops such as sugarcane or maize to make it work.
Geoengineering and Controversial Technology
Each year brings new technologies that promise to solve the problem of climate change in the near future. However, some of these are so controversial that they could endanger the very existence of our planet. These zero-sum games spark heated discussions but their development speaks of how important it is for us to have alternatives available to us, radical as they may be, if carbon concentrations reach levels that are critical to human life. If this happens, geoengineering may turn out to be our only way out.
Some of the best-known technologies are:
Controlled volcanic eruptions: The aim of this technology is to cover the stratosphere with sulfur particles that would block part of the radiation that reaches the earth, thus boosting its cooling properties. There are numerous ways of sending these particles into the stratosphere, such as by using rockets, jets, or even balloons. However, the use of such techniques without clear evidence of their effects is potentially extremely dangerous: one of the theories that explains the extinction of the dinosaurs argues that it could have been caused by the eruption of a volcano that released enormous quantities of sulfur particles which led to the earth cooling so much as to make it intolerable for some life forms.
Diamond dust: According to experts at Harvard University, we could fight climate change by spraying thousands of tons of diamond dust and aluminum oxide into the stratosphere. These particles would reflect the sun’s rays and prevent them from reaching the earth, thus cooling the planet. Although the idea of using diamonds sounds like madness, advocates of this technology insist that diamond dust would not be especially costly as it costs just US$100 per kilo (considerably less than cut diamonds).
Increasing ocean alkalinity: This approach aims to increase the acidification of the ocean so as to increase its carbon storage capacity. This could be achieved by dissolving different types of rock such as limestone or calcium hydroxide in the sea.
A giant parasol: Everyone from European Union researchers to NASA has been looking at the idea of installing a giant space sunshield that would provide shade for certain regions of the earth and thus prevent the warming caused by climate change.
All these technologies are currently being tested, even though they may be costly and hard to implement. All the same, they reveal the perceived need for radical solutions that we can fall back on if we are unable to contain the effects of climate change that we are already experiencing.
Climate Change in Latin America and the Caribbean
The region has ample supplies of resources that would allow it to progressively develop renewable energy sources, namely hydroelectric, wind, and solar power and biomass. According to the UNDP, although Latin America is responsible for just 5% of greenhouse gas emissions it is one of the regions that is most suffering the impacts of climate change. Early snowfall, flooding in the Peruvian jungle, droughts in the Amazon, melting glaciers, and the erosion of arable land are just some examples of these. The region’s vulnerability in the face of climate change is not just geographical but also social and economic.
In signing the Paris Agreement, the countries of Latin America have emphasized the importance of international cooperation in mitigating the damage caused by climate change and also the potentially positive effects of increased technology transfer, which will allow them to develop their own capacities to sustainably generate enough energy to supply the region’s needs.
Governments and large firms are working toward these ends, as are entrepreneurs, universities, and centers for research and development. In recent years, young people in the region have come up with a variety of new ideas for generating clean energy, mitigating damage, or changing our consumption patterns.
For example, Marcela Cataño from Colombia has suggested floating houses built with recycled materials such as plastic bottles so that they can adapt to flooding. The first floating schools have recently been opened in parts of Colombia where flood risk levels are high.
The young Mexican Ramón Bacre has started a company that produces biochar, a form of carbon that is made from biomass via pyrolysis. The resulting material is enriched with micro-organisms to improve its qualities as a fertilizer, which means it could compete with conventional fertilizers. His aim is to make a product that promotes CO2 capture and which also absorbs this gas during its production process commercially available.
Another example on the energy supply side is Semtive, a company created by young Argentine entrepreneurs which develops small-scale wind turbines that can adapt to urban environments and local wind conditions.
On the demand side, there is also a need for policies that promote the consumption of goods and services that are carbon free or at least less polluting. Incentives to buy electrical cars, the use of bicycles as an alternative form of transportation, or recycling waste are all examples.
This year, 20 multimillionaires led by Bill Gates (Microsoft), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Jack Ma (Alibaba) started the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The founders argue that government efforts are not enough to develop emissions-free energy sources that can stop climate change and reverse the impact that this is having on poor countries. They are challenging companies, investors, entrepreneurs, and experts to commit to finding shared solutions that they believe lie in the fields of technology and innovation.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are thousands of committed entrepreneurs developing innovative technologies with the help of multilateral organizations that are implementing programs to fight climate change, supported by government policies to mitigate the impact of these. However, we are still falling short of achieving this goal. We need more companies, universities, and research centers to get involved, and we need greater regional coordination because, as we have seen, no one technology will be the silver bullet for climate change. Technology may be our main ally, but we need to be willing to use it effectively.
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[V1]Alejandra, solo para consultar. Toda esta sección es citado verbatim de una nota de IC41 (la nota sobre tecnologías disruptivas). ¿No habría que citarlo debidamente?
[V2]Alejandra, esta sección también está en la misma nota en IC41.
[V3]Esto también es de IC41.