Navigant Research Blog

(Geo)Engineering a Climate Change Solution

— March 5, 2015

Climate engineering, or geoengineering, refers to the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climatic systems with the goal of reducing the effects of global warming. While I would argue that mitigation and fossil-fuel emissions reductions should be the primary course of action on climate change, it is also undeniable that achieving concerted and coordinated political action has been monumentally difficult. As outlandish as some geoengineering proposals may sound, changing the behavior of billions of people and overcoming the basic political and industrial challenges of drastically reducing fossil fuel consumption may prove to be even more difficult.

Although significant progress has certainly been made globally in the areas of renewable energy generation, energy efficiency, and improving transportation efficiencies, the international community as a whole has thus far failed to design and agree upon policies that will drastically reduce the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere in any climate-impactful way.

More Research Needed

This lack of progress on climate change through emissions reductions leads to the conclusion that other approaches should at least be considered and adequately studied to determine efficacy. In early February, a panel of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences released a report arguing that more research on geoengineering needs to be conducted in order to better understand the associated risks and potential benefits. President Obama’s science advisor also publicly backed the initiative in 2010.

There are at least seven geoengineering proposals that are currently being hypothesized as potential climate intervention strategies:

  • Spraying sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere: While risky due to possible ozone layer deterioration, the idea is to reduce the Earth’s absorption of sunlight (much like ash from volcano eruptions).
  • Trapping CO2 in carbon scrubbers: Researchers at Columbia University are working on a carbon scrubber that would remove 1 ton of CO2 from the atmosphere per day. Projected to be available in 2 years, such scrubbers would cost $200,000 apiece, according to the Columbia scientists.
  • Fertilizing trees with nitrogen: This would theoretically increase the trees’ ability to absorb CO2.
  • Aerial Reforestation: Battling rampant deforestation, and the resultant loss of CO2 absorption capacity, airplanes would drop tree seedlings encased in biodegradable containers over large areas of land.
  • Adding powered limestone to the oceans: Such schemes would attempt to reduce ocean acidity and increase carbon sequestration.
  • Ocean iron fertilization: This process would increase the rate of photosynthesis in phyto-plankton in order to absorb more CO2.
  • Enriching soils with biochar: Biochar, a fine-grated charcoal that is highly resistant to decomposition, would hypothetically enrich soils and soak up excess CO2.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of proposals; reflecting sunlight back into space and many other ideas exist. However, it should be noted that there are also many legitimate controversies around geoengineering proposals. Spraying sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere, for example, could degrade the ozone layer. Many of the proposals are too expensive, and most offer an imperfect fix–even if the global average temperature of the earth is reduced, nothing would be done to stop the other consequences of fossil fuel burning such as ocean acidification and air pollution.

While no one knows for sure which  geoengineering proposals offer the most promise, I would argue that they should at least be more openly debated and further researched as a possible climate solution (particularly for a crisis situation where the reduction in CO2 needs to be immediate). Unfortunately, the international community has thus far made very little progress in addressing one of the world’s most serious problems, and in the case of climate change, we are in no position to reject promising ideas out of hand.


Indoor Farms Glow With LEDs

— March 4, 2015

Have you noticed that old factory on the edge of town glowing with new life? Perhaps there isn’t one near you yet, but early results from the new science of light-emitting diode (LED) farming are so promising that you may see one soon. Unlike traditional lights used for indoor agriculture (usually high-pressure sodium), LEDs emit very little heat. This allows the lights to be placed much closer to the plants, multiplying the capacity of an indoor facility. The lights also use less energy, and perhaps more importantly, they can be tuned to provide just the right wavelengths of light to maximize growth for individual plant species and further reduce electrical waste. The overall increase in efficiency and production is helping fuel what some believe will be a new boom in indoor agriculture.

The whole concept is quite appealing. In a world with rising water shortages, indoor agriculture can be much more water efficient. In a polluted world, this type of farming creates no runoff of fertilizers and pesticides into our rivers and oceans. And in a world with an ever-thickening greenhouse blanket, indoor farming (although it uses artificial light, rather than the free light provided by the sun) also eliminates thousands of miles of refrigerated transportation.

Pot to Plate

Thanks to the efficiency of the LEDs providing that artificial light, the overall energy consumption from pot to plate can be reduced. Navigant Research will be researching and publishing a report on the growing use of LEDs for this type of farming in second quarter of this year.

It is, at this point, commonly known that LEDs are a more efficient light source. Examples like this, however, show that efficiency isn’t the only difference. Low heat emission and the ability to tune wavelengths are enabling this boom in indoor agriculture. That same color tuning ability is also starting to be used for the light we shine on ourselves in offices and other buildings, providing the right qualities for the right times of day and improving productivity and health. The long lifespan of LEDs is doing away with the concept of separate lamps and luminaires. The ability to arrange LEDs into thin and flexible panels is allowing for fixture designs that were never before possible, and just might revolutionize the way we supply light to our built environment. All this from a still newly affordable light source. What other changes might LEDs bring as bright minds take advantage of all the unique properties of a light source that requires neither a filament nor a tube of gas?


Energy Efficiency: Overcoming Financing Hurdles

— March 4, 2015

With little hope for meaningful near-term legislative action to drive national shifts in energy and resource consumption to tackle climate change, energy efficiency offers an impactful avenue for climate mitigation. But the enabling technologies often require capital investment that are hard to justify in constrained corporate budgets. As a result, a growing number of major banking institutions are making new commitments to financing projects with direct climate impacts, including those that deliver results via energy efficiency.

A recent GreenBiz article highlighted Citi’s updated climate and sustainability commitment of $100 billion to “lending, investing and facilitating” conservation and efficiency projects. Expanding on its 2007 $50 billion commitment focused on alternative and clean energy technologies, Citi has recognized the need for transparency and guidelines alongside the funding to ensure that the investments result in the kind of sustainable and climate change benefits intended. Citi, Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Crédit Agricole Corporate and Investment Banking, and JPMorgan Chase made up the drafting committee for the Green Bond Principals, which were released in January 2013.

Quality Control

Anne Paugam, CEO of the French Development Agency (AFD) recently published an article discussing the importance of transparency and accountability in Green Bond issuance as a model for success. “These instruments have all the characteristics of conventional bonds, but they are backed by investments that contribute to sustainable development or the fight against climate change … In September, the AFD issued €1 billion ($1.2 billion) in climate bonds, with one goal being to contribute to the development of concrete quality standards.”

The World Bank is also on board, and looking to shape investments that fuel sustainability, tackle climate change, and generate strong financial returns. According to a recent article in Barrons, the World Bank has sold more than $7 billion green bonds since 2008, and now officials hope to create a market for green growth bonds, starting with clients in Hong Kong and Singapore.  The World Bank says it is aiming for $225 million in bond sales in the next 6 months.

Green bonds, if offered with transparency and accountability, represent an important source of financing to expand energy efficiency investments and generate large-scale improvements that will have direct and quantifiable climate change and sustainability impacts.


To Spread, Energy Storage Needs Hybrid Solutions

— March 4, 2015

Imagine a single energy storage system capable of serving all potential needs, from a short burst of high power to keeping the lights on for many hours. Such a system could greatly improve the overall economics of energy storage by removing limitations on the amount of revenue a single system can generate.

This is the focus of several leading companies that are looking to develop hybrid energy storage solutions, combining multiple different technologies in a single system. Energy storage technologies all have their ideal applications; some, such as flywheels, ultracapacitors, and certain lithium-ion chemistries are best at delivering high power over shorter periods of time. Others, such as compressed air and flow batteries, are ideally suited for applications that require a lower level of power to be delivered over a longer period of time. Combining technologies into a single system with the flexibility to perform multiple tasks, could greatly improve not only the economic returns on investment, but also the overall lifetime of storage systems.

Life Extension

Many hybrid energy storage systems are currently available or have already been deployed. Power grid giant ABB has been actively developing its flywheel business and is looking to hybrid systems to fully realize the benefits that flywheels can provide. The company has installed a hybrid flywheel/battery system on remote Kodiak Island, in Alaska. In this installation, two 1 MW flywheels handle the grid’s frequency regulation and high power needs, while the batteries provide the energy density required to fill in the gaps of local wind power generation. As short duration/high power needs are more frequent, this hybrid system reduces the number of times the batteries must be discharged, greatly extending the overall life of the system.

Hybrid systems involving ultracapacitors are also finding promising applications. A leading company in this space is the Spanish firm Win Inertia, which has partnered with ultracapacitor manufacturer Maxwell Technologies to offer an integrated hybrid storage system. The ultracapacitors handle the frequent, intense power requirements, allowing the batteries to be discharged less often. This allows the optimal use of high energy density storage technologies, as well as a rapid response to short term issues. Win Inertia is primarily focusing on the software, controls, and system-integration challenges to make this technology as effective as possible.

Beyond Single Applications

Integration with existing electrical grids presents a major software challenge for energy storage system integrators. When multiple types of storage technologies are integrated into a single system, these challenges become even more complex. The overarching goal of energy storage system integration is to ensure the longevity of a system and its constant availability in the market, thus maximizing the return on investment for system owners.

If these challenges can be overcome, the potential for hybrid storage systems is enormous. Standard storage systems are often designed for only one application, for example frequency regulation, which limits the potential revenue they can generate. Hybrid systems with the ability to meet multiple grid needs and capture multiple revenue streams can be much more economical. While advanced hybrid storage systems are only beginning to emerge, they could one day lead the energy storage market.


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