Innovation vs. Climate Change: The Race Is On

Despite inexorable growth in global energy demand, ingenious inventions give cause for hope that renewable sources will come to the rescue, just in time.

In the justifiably fraught conversation around climate change, cooler heads may actually have a chance to prevail. Across the world in 2015, initiatives from far-sighted inventors, entrepreneurs, and policymakers offer hope that the most calamitous scenarios from climate science may just be avoidable.

The question is no longer about whether renewable energy has a practical role in our energy future: It’s how big that role will be, and how soon. Renewable energy is now responsible for about 23 percent of global energy use. The hope is that the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference in Paris can help move that closer to 50 percent by 2050—a goal that puts the spotlight on wind and solar, the renewable sources of energy that seem to have the greatest potential for growth at the lowest cost.

For developed countries such as the United States, the main benefit from a transition to renewables would be a drastic cut in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But for developing countries that suffer from energy poverty, it could mean leapfrogging energy from fossil fuels entirely. More than a billion people—roughly 20 percent of the world’s population—have no light to read by at night, no way to keep food fresh, no access to the energy resources that are critical to economic, social and personal development.

Global population is projected to increase from more than seven billion today to 10.5 billion in 2110, and much of that growth will come in the energy-poor, developing world. Absent the kind of fresh thinking that drives world-changing innovation, that growth will drive increased demand for all sources of energy, including coal, oil and natural gas. The good news is that some of this new thinking is already bearing fruit.

Windows and the Future of Solar Power

For a glimpse of what a brighter energy future might look like, consider a new, all-glass building in London called The Shard. In the not-so-distant future, using a new solar-panel material called perovskite, solar technology invisibly embedded within the windows would provide London with “a one megawatt vertical power plant,” says Chris Case, chief technology officer of solar cell company Oxford Photovoltaics. “Over the course of the year it would offset 500 tons of carbon dioxide.”

While solar panels have traditionally been made with silicon, Oxford’s perovskite cells are 1/500th the thickness of traditional solar cells, allowing them to be incorporated into the glazing of glass windows. Emerging research on the new solar cell material suggests an additional advantage: Perovskite solar cells have quadrupled their efficiency from five percent in 2009 to more than 20 percent, making them even more efficient than most silicon cells. That means the windows in our homes could eventually become an important power source.

Oxford Photovoltaics is just one player in what amounts to a solar energy revolution. There are already almost 400 startups in the space, according to Angel List, a startup tracking site. Though solar power currently accounts for only 0.5 percent of U.S. energy deployment, these new companies have helped solar energy increase twenty-fold since 2008 to become the country’s fastest growing source of renewable energy.

Energy Goes Where The Wind Blows

Though solar gets more attention and is expected to play the biggest role in powering the future, wind still produces 11 times more energy that solar does. And it’s another area that’s experiencing tremendous growth, with estimates suggesting six-fold growth in the next 35 years.

Driving that growth are two approaches shaping the future of wind energy that are headed in two very different directions: Longer, stronger turbine blades and turbines with no blades at all.

Bladeless turbines are being developed by a Spanish company called Vortex Bladeless. Rather than using the pinwheel design of traditional turbines, capturing wind with a propeller, they capture wind energy using a concept known as vorticity. Built as empty, thin, upside-down cones—“It looks like asparagus,” its founders told Wired—Vortex turbines capture whirlpools of wind and transform them into energy. Though each bladeless turbine captures 30 percent less energy than a traditional turbine, double the number of turbines can fit in a given space without the long, moving blades.

“We can’t say anything bad about conventional wind turbines—they’re great machines,” says David Suriol, a co-founder of Vortex. “We’re just proposing a new way, a different way.”

Meanwhile, makers of the traditional, bladed machines are doubling down. To capture ever more energy, companies such as Siemens are investing in wind turbines with individual blades the size of commercial airplanes. They’re making the blades lighter and building them higher to capture stronger winds.

Innovations like these have helped wind generation grow by a factor of 18 since 2000.

Political Winds Power a Sustainable Future

All this progress is arriving at the right time. Climate change is no longer the distant, theoretical threat it was 15 years ago. Mega-droughts in California, extreme winters dipping to -40º in the Midwest, smog hanging over major Chinese metropolitan areas, and the loss of ice in Greenland have all affected the daily lives of millions of people. And each new climate disaster inspires more fatalism in the general public.

“The drama has taken on an air of inevitability, of a tragedy at the outset of its final scene,” writes Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine about the planet’s impending doom at the hands of climate change. But, as he goes on to say, there is legitimate, evidence-based hope to be found.  

The UN Climate Change Conference is aimed at achieving specific commitments by the member nations to deal with climate change, and unlike similar meetings in the past, this one has an air of optimism about it—in part because it comes in the wake of a major announcement by China. The world’s leading coal-burning nation—one that was not long ago highly defensive about its GHG emissions—agreed to enact a cap-and-trade system that would limit emissions by requiring companies to purchase pollution permits.

There is more good news: According to a recent report in the journal Energy & Environmental Science, tilting the balance from fossil fuels to renewables over the next several decades is “technically and economically feasible with little downside.” Already, China has vowed to more than double its renewable energy production from nine percent today to 20 percent by 2030—and the EU has set a binding requirement to produce 40 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

In the U.S., 30 states have signed on to similar goals, led by California’s ambitious plan to achieve 33 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

The current reality is that traditional sources will continue providing the bulk of the world’s energy demand for the foreseeable future, creating a window in time for advances in technology to drive the costs of solar and wind power down (and their efficiency up) to levels that can compete with fossil fuels.

During that time, it will be up to innovations like Oxford Photovoltaic’s perovskite solar panels, Vortex Bladeless’s asparagus-shaped turbines and inventions yet to be devised to stop the progress of climate change and give us the clean energy on which our common future depends.