Emergent Futures Report 002: The Energy Paradox

Europe seen at night, captured by a passing Satellite. ( PHOTO NASA/ESA )

Europe seen at night, captured by a passing Satellite. (PHOTO NASA/ESA)

The Energy Paradox: Powering a Growing World

The Emergent Futures Report identifies global signals of transformation, shaped by research and conversations with innovators in academia, industry, and the arts.

The aspirations of a growing planet have a cost: at current rates of growth, global energy consumption will increase by 28% by 2040, with a 60% increase in demand from China and India alone. How might energy suppliers, producers, and consumers respond to the paradox of powering a growing planet while reducing energy emissions? 

The price paid globally for the dream of energy-on-demand is the existential crisis of climate change, environmental threats posed by carbon emissions. Today, a third of the world’s energy is provided by coal, oil, and gas; nuclear fuels are a distant fourth. To meet the criteria set by the environmental pledges of the 2016 Paris accords, this mix of energy will need to be drastically reconsidered. 

Current models from the UN project global temperatures could rise 3-5°C by the end of this century, with US Space Agency NASA linking this increase to higher sea levels, longer droughts, and increased tropical storms. Even nuclear energy, once considered green, has been re-imagined amongst the public. Disasters in Japan, questions on the storage of radioactive waste, and criticisms that the plants are costly to build and operate, have transformed the nuclear reactor into a symbol of catastrophic, not utopian, possibilities.  

Fear of environmental threats is driving global demand for cleaner sources of power for global ambitions, and for technologies that can efficiently integrate and distribute this energy into the grid. BP has projected that the energy mix of 2040 will be the most diverse that the world has ever seen — with a 40% surge in use of renewable energy, particularly in the area of wind, hydro, and solar. How will those technologies transform our use of energy? What new technologies could contribute to this new energy mix? 

New Technologies: From Producing to Capturing Emissions

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Fear of climate change is boosting interest in green energy, but new technology could reduce the harm of today’s most-used sources of fuel. So-called “Negative Emission Technologies” (NETs) can pull carbon dioxide (CO2) from the environment and/or reduce how much is released into the atmosphere — reducing emissions and increasing fuel efficiency. 

CO2, captured from the air and mineralized by a Climeworks facility in Iceland. Top photo by Sandra O Snaebjornsdottir, bottom Zev Starr-Tambor, via Climeworks.

CO2, captured from the air and mineralized by a Climeworks facility in Iceland. Top photo by Sandra O Snaebjornsdottir, bottom Zev Starr-Tambor, via Climeworks.

A geothermal site in Iceland is today able to capture the emissions equal to one household, creating the energy source to contribute to climate cleanliness. The Icelandic plant is the first test of Swiss startup Climeworks. The Carbon-Capture Device can stand apart from power plants or just adjacent; its effect could capture 900 tons of CO2 per year, transforming pollutants into fertilizer for vegetables. At that pace, capturing 1% of current CO2 emissions would require 250,000 plants, which the company has set as a target. 

Climeworks produces fertilizer, but other NETs are focused on turning captured carbon into a reusable fuel supply. At Stanford University in California, the startup Global Thermostat is preparing to capture CO2 and sell it as carbon bricks. Opus12, also in California, looks to turn CO2 into useful chemical products such as jet fuel. Japanese researchers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology have made progress toward “artificial photosynthesis,” which can transform CO2 into organic matter that can be re-used as a fuel supply, creating additional energy while reducing emissions by 57%. 

The most promising technology for carbon removal may have been here for thousands of years. Researchers at ETH Zurich have proposed a solution that could be grown from the ground up: trees. Planting a surface area equal to the size of the United States (though distributed across the globe) could store 205 billion tons of carbon, about two thirds of the carbon produced by humankind so far.

While promising, NETs alone cannot be the sole cure for averting a climate catastrophe. Without policies to increase adoption and research, an unlikely growth rate of 26% per year for thirty years would be required to reach UN climate goals by 2050. Cleaner energy sources will remain an essential part of the mix. 

Nuclear: From Fission to Fusion

“Nuclear” is not often associated with clean energy, owing to the possibility of meltdowns, the production of radioactive waste, and its linkage to human catastrophes. Investments into nuclear plants had declined by 45% in 2017, though some analysts see a surge in nuclear by 2040, mostly as China brings more plants online. As nuclear plants are phased out around the rest of the globe, researchers (and investors) are eyeing a radical new source of nuclear power: capturing the energy “fusing” two hydrogen particles, rather than splitting atoms (fission). 

Fusion energy would be remarkably clean. In theory, just 11 pounds of hydrogen in a fusion reactor could create the same energy output as 56,000 barrels of oil, but without the corresponding carbon emissions. Fusion reactors rely on helium or nitrogen, rather than uranium, so they don’t produce radioactive waste. They also don’t have meltdowns, improving their safety over nuclear fission plants.

Photo: Inside the MIT-based SPARC reactor. Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center,    MIT.

Photo: Inside the MIT-based SPARC reactor. Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center, MIT.

New superconductive materials at the US-based Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Plasma Science and Fusion Center are what’s behind the SPARC plant, an experimental fusion reactor. It uses electromagnets made from yttrium barium copper oxide (YBCO) — a compound that withstands higher temperatures than past fusion reactors, and can be cooled with liquid nitrogen, which is cheaper than liquid helium used in previous theoretical reactors. MIT is betting that these high-temperature reactors will result in pulling more power from smaller, cheaper reactors that are easier to build. SPARC would produce 50-100mw (enough for roughly 3,600 homes) in short bursts, and is on track to launch in 2026. 

MIT researchers themselves suggest that fusion power may contribute to the energy grid until 2035, but investors such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos are betting on fusion’s commercial future. Breakthrough Energy Ventures is a who’s-who of billionaire investors supporting potentially climate-saving technologies, and has raised almost $1 billion earmarked for these investments since the Paris Climate Accords were signed in 2016. In Canada, General Fusion promises to commercialize fusion technology on an accelerated timeline, bringing its fusion power to the grid by 2025. This project is drawing on research from McGill (CAN) and Princeton (US) universities, backed by investments from Microsoft. 

One speculative technology that seems to be limited to science fiction stories: Cold Fusion, the idea that energy could be created through fusion without excessive heat. In a surprise announcement, Google announced that it had spent four years revisiting research reported in 1989 that turned out to be irreproducible by any other lab. In May 2019 it published its research, confirming that its own experiments had also failed. 

Energy Distribution: The Rise of the Smart Grid 

New forms of energy are being coupled with a new capacity for distributing energy in more efficient ways. The challenge of collecting, distributing, and regulating energy transmission is being shaped by smart grids, a combination of artificial intelligence (AI) for grid planning and energy-use prediction; and the internet of things (IoT) for communicating needs between devices, homes, and/or vehicles. 

Chinese electronics giant Huawei predicts that 75 billion electrical devices will be connected and sharing data worldwide by 2025. If these devices can communicate with one another and with the grid where they get their power, it unlocks a vast potential for conservation and convenience. Energy could be redirected from places where demand is low to the locations it is needed most. These pieces would come together with an AI, its algorithms playing a managerial role, creating a “smart grid” system for energy distribution. 

Huawei is exploring the digital transformation of China’s energy grid, predicting that: “Smart metering, alongside electric vehicles, fuel cells, and smart appliances and devices where users can flexibly configure power use, will generate more energy than is consumed, [and] will allow users to potentially sell excess electricity to power companies. Increasingly managed by software, grids will start to manage themselves, for example, by self-adjusting to reduce losses, respond to voltage variations, and self-optimize to avoid electricity disturbances.” 

Research at MIT has shown that smart grids would adapt quickly to changing energy needs within a network, preventing blackouts, increasing transmission capacity, and improving system transmissions — reducing operating costs in the United States while delivering additional services to ratepayers.

Smart grids and the digitalization of energy would open up a market for decentralized peer-to-peer (p2p) trading between smaller, self-organized networks, such as rural farmers with a mix of solar, wind, and biogas, advancing the so-called “prosumer” market. A pilot program to study the economics and infrastructural needs of this kind of energy sharing has started in the United Kingdom, in which a city block in London will trade energy on a distributed ledger. In California, experiments at the University of California Irvine campus measuring energy use to create a better understanding of how these grids can more effectively co-operate.

Distributed ledgers, in the form of blockchain, are being eyed for a similar pilot in Australia, as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) introduced a small blockchain pilot — along with energy company AGL and IBM — to test this prosumer model. In another pilot, ARENA worked with energy tech startup GreenSync to create deX, an energy exchange marketplace that pays rewards into a digital wallet. A UK-based blockchain startup, Electron, is also exploring an “eBay for energy” model, with early backing from Japanese utility TEPCO. 

Decentralization would also increase energy efficiency. 15% of the energy we produce is lost in the transmission process, diminishing as it travels. Moving energy from smaller sources to closer users reduces that loss. This is driving some novel approaches to small-scale, highly localized capture and storage, such as Switzerland’s Energy Vault, which uses concrete towers and kinetic energy to store kinetic energy. Towers with wind-capturing mechanisms can be installed anywhere; as the wind blows, it elevates a platform of bricks; when more energy is needed, the bricks collapse onto a lower platform, which “collects” the energy of the impact. 

Energy Distribution: From Stations to Storage

Steady supplies of green energy may seem like a utopian vision. But today, a challenge for the clean energy ecosystem is how to capture and preserve an irregular supply: the wind doesn’t always blow on turbines, the sun isn’t always up for solar. Climate change is starting to affect hydropower flows, such the extreme glacial melts in Switzerland. These are creating short-term boosts in energy supply that go to waste if they aren’t immediately used. This raises the problem of managing temporary energy surplus: this is why the future for clean energy requires batteries and storage. 

The Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia is the largest lithium-battery storage site on Earth in 2019, and was constructed in less than 100 days.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia is the largest lithium-battery storage site on Earth in 2019, and was constructed in less than 100 days.

Australia, China, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and the US are today embracing centralized storage. These sites can collect and store up to 10 GW of power — enough energy to power 3 million homes for a day. The Hornsdale Power Reserve in South Australia was completed by Tesla in 2017 in under three months, and is the largest lithium-battery site in the world.

Another strategy is decentralized storage: installing smaller, ”behind-the-meter” batteries at a point of use, such as a consumer’s home. Rather than large, centralized power storage, these batteries allow individual consumers to store smaller amounts of energy on site. Germany, Italy, UK, Australia, Japan, the Netherlands, and China are using some blend of these models. Germany leads the way with 100,000 batteries installed in homes. 

About 90% of the batteries used today are lithium-ion, a material that can store, dispel, and refresh its energy supply, creating “rechargeable” batteries. Lithium-ion batteries have their limits — one of which is the growing global demand for the cobalt, which is used to build them. As battery demand has risen, so has the cost of cobalt, tripling in price since 2016. Two-thirds of the global supply of cobalt today are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, while the majority of batteries — 65% by 2021 — are, and will be, manufactured in China, which is investing heavily to diversify the mix of battery materials. 

Today’s lithium-ion batteries use wet electrolytes in the process of storing energy. Liquid batteries are risky: if a battery component breaks, leaks, or short-circuits, that liquid is extremely flammable. This makes them dangerous in the use of mobile vehicles, where they could be damaged by accidents. They also have a diminishing capacity for storage, losing their charge in the short term and losing maximum storage capacity over time. 

One alternative to the current lithium-ion battery is the solid-state battery, which still relies on lithium-ion, but makes use of dry energy storage rather than wet electrolytes. Solid-state batteries would be lighter, cheaper, and less flammable than “wet” counterparts. They would also hold their charge longer and withstand higher temperatures (150C/302F), making them more useful in a variety of settings, including electric vehicles.

The Swiss Fraunhoffer Institute for Silicate Research has announced a three-year partnership with the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (Empa) in 2019, a strategic move to create a European battery technology to rival the dominance of Asia in the market. The research centers on identifying the best materials for energy storage density and is explicitly focused on bringing these batteries to market. 

There is already heavy investment from the private sector. Caterpillar, the world’s largest construction and mining company with product lines including diesel and natural gas engines, industrial gas turbines, and diesel-electric locomotives, recently launched a strategic investment with solid-state battery company Fisker. Ford Motors has also invested in the US-battery manufacturer Solid Power in a play to bring its solid-state battery technology to a next generation of electric vehicles, and its Japanese rival, Toyota, announced it was ahead of schedule and would bring a fleet of solid-state EVs to market by 2020.

Research also points to the sea, building batteries from sodium and chloride, both of which are found in the world’s oceans. The oceans are also a key to the future of molten salt batteries, developed in 1985 but not widely used today. Built of nickel and salt, these batteries can hold charges longer than lithium ion, and operate in a wider variety of temperatures. Swiss company FZSoNick SA has been working with Empa to create versions of these batteries with longer lifespans, creating a cobalt-free competitor to lithium ion batteries for stationary uses.  

Another tantalizing future scenario revolves around engineering viruses that can organize energy, essentially creating biological batteries. Angie Belcher’s work at MIT has shown that a living organism — the M13 bacteriophage, which is harmless to humans — can be mutated to bind with metals such as gold, cobalt oxide or iron phosphate. Belcher’s lab has created a library of these materials, each capable of using these materials to collect, store, and dispel energy, and purposefully encloses them within existing battery casings to make them directly usable. This approach is crucial the next goal of the lab, which is to build larger power-storage equipment that can be built into elements of a car — for example, creating a steering wheel that is also its battery. Outside of batteries, the lab has also created a company, Siluria, that uses the M13 bacteriophage to transform natural gas into gasoline. 

On a science-fiction horizon, research is starting to examine the viability of quantum batteries. These batteries rely on changes in the way particles behave on very small “nanoscales.” One such behavior is entanglement: strange linkages between particles that are isolated from one another. This means charging a single particle could charge all of the particles linked to it — charging an entire battery, and even multiple devices, much more quickly. As the number of batteries being charged increases, the faster they charge. Physicists at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) aim to move this research from theory to physical applications within three years.  

What’s Next? 

The rise of populations and temperatures around the globe creates an energy paradox, in which the need to curtail fossil fuel use is mixed with a rapidly expanding demand for energy. The crisis demands a united effort among stakeholders — in this case, the entire planet — to find solutions. Opportunities exist for expanding cooperation between scientists in academia and the private sector, between social enterprise, industry, NGOs, and government agencies. This article has examined just some of the promising potentials for addressing climate through innovation in technology, but left alone broader developments in policy and social mobilization that could amplify — or constrain — progress toward this collective goal.


Written by: Eryk Salvaggio

Foresight research: Birgit Coleman, Laura Erickson, Perrine Huber, Eryk Salvaggio

The Emergent Futures Report is a contribution by swissnex San Francisco to a larger foresight report created by Armasuisse Science & Technology.