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.

 

Funding Smart Buildings to Limit Climate Change

— March 3, 2015

The inefficiencies in commercial building operations have direct implications for the country’s carbon footprint. With climate change still a political stalemate, the Obama Administration has instead taken aim at energy waste in buildings, with voluntary programs led by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that are making waves in the private sector. Energy efficiency challenges, showcases of business best practices, and now a call for private sector financial commitments to fund technology development are all targeting business transformation.

At this year’s ARPA-E Summit, the Obama Administration announced a $2 billion Clean Energy Investment Initiative as a challenge to the private sector to fuel investment in the kind of innovation needed to tackle the threat of climate change. Brian Deese, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget explained, “Further clean energy innovation to improve the cost, performance, and scalability of low-carbon energy technologies will be critical to taking action against climate change. Foundations and institutional investors have the potential to play an important role in accelerating our transition to a low-carbon economy and cutting carbon pollution.”

Anteing Up

Wells Fargo stepped up to the plate with a $10 million Innovation Incubator (IN2) program to support early-stage energy efficiency technologies for commercial buildings. A collaboration with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the program offers startups grants, mentorship, research and testing support at NREL, and field testing in Wells Fargo buildings.  The effort will not only help startups develop commercial-ready business models, but also generate proof-of-concept demonstration for innovative technologies. In conjunction with the launch of the Clean Energy Investment Initiative, Wells Fargo also announced it will expand investment partnerships with other financial institutions to bring more money to the table in support of the $2 billion target.

New building technologies remain a bright spot for clean tech investment. In fact, according to statistics from Crunch Base, venture funding for building technology innovations characterized as Internet of Things (IoT) solutions has steadily risen, even as more general clean tech investing took a dive. A recent article on TechCrunch suggests that almost 40% of all clean energy rounds in 2014 went to IoT smart building startups.

Direct Impact

Recent research from Navigant Research echoes the optimism around growth in the market for building innovations. Building energy management systems (BEMSs), for example, leverage the IoT to deliver unprecedented visibility and insight into building and significant improvements in energy consumption and resource utilization. Our recent report, Building Energy Management Systems, shows that the business impacts facilitated by BEMSs have direct and quantifiable climate change impacts. A growing pool of funding sources for companies helping to evolve this maturing marketplace is just one example of the benefits that may come from the Clean Energy Investment Initiative.

 

The Energy Efficiency Way to Emissions Reductions

— January 15, 2015

The Obama administration has few levers to pull to shift the United States’ position on climate change, besides enforcing the Clean Air Act of 1970.  That legislation authorizes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to enforce regulations on power plants and associated pollutants.  The Clean Air Act put the onus on individual states to design programs to follow the EPA’s federal guidelines.  Last June, the EPA released its Clean Power Plan (CPP), with a new ambitious target: carbon emissions reductions totaling 30% relative to 2005 emissions by 2030.  The proposed rule includes the following primary components:

  • Four building blocks that define the EPA’s Best Strategy for Emissions Reductions
  • State-by-state 2030 carbon emissions reduction targets and interim targets based on a 2012 base year
  • Numerous alternative emissions reduction strategies, including renewables, under construction nuclear generation, and energy efficiency

Cost-Effective Efficiency

Not surprisingly, some legislators are arguing that the CPP is unconstitutional, functioning as a federalization of states’ activities via the EPA.  Some utilities are also not happy with the CPP, as they are going to have to be held to real climate goals.  Utilities that burn coal or other fossil fuels inefficiently will have to pay to upgrade their facilities or face stiff penalties.

In a recent white paper, Navigant reported that energy efficiency is a cost-effective way for states, utilities, and businesses to achieve the CPP targets, with considerably less investment than upgrading or building new power plants.  Of all the building blocks, energy efficiency is the only one that is not a form of generation.  From a cost perspective, energy efficiency is a highly competitive approach to offsetting supply requirements and reducing carbon emissions.   This approach can be used for both overall total load reductions, but also for peak shaving (i.e., reducing the carbon intensity of electricity demand at the times when the grid is dirtiest – usually in the afternoons).

The Challenges

The major challenge for using energy efficiency as a way to achieve policy goals lies in how and where it is implemented.  Utility energy efficiency programs are one approach, and are forecast to grow, according to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL).

Energy Efficiency Spending by Utilities

(Source: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

Many utility programs require 5 or 6 years to mature and develop savings streams that persist.   Developing efficiency programs today will allow the savings potential to grow prior to the start of the CPP requirements.

It’s not just up to the utilities.   By focusing on the bottom line – the financial savings – the business community can help states achieve their CPP goals, whether they realize it or not.  Navigant Research’s report, Energy Efficient Buildings: Global Outlook, found that the current energy efficient building market is generating over $300 billion annually and is expected to grow, in major part, because the software and hardware works, and saves end users money.  If the EPA uses the green of a dollar to promote the CPP, it could help states reach their targets.

 

California Sets an Ambitious Energy Agenda

— January 9, 2015

Living in California, it’s easy to forget that the rest of the world doesn’t always see things in the same way.  Given the ambitious energy and climate change goals outlined in Governor Brown’s inaugural address on January 5, this divergence may only grow.

What exactly did the governor propose?  Here’s a snapshot summary of targets he set for the state by 2030:

  • Increase from one-third to one-half the portion of the state’s electricity derived from renewable sources
  • Reduce today’s petroleum use in cars and trucks by up to 50%
  • Double the efficiency of energy use in existing buildings while also making building heating fuels cleaner

The Center of Innovation

For investors in and developers of clean energy technology, Brown’s targets mean that California will continue to lead the United States in terms of R&D and commercialization of renewable energy, electric vehicles, and smart building automation products.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for skeptics of Left Coast policy aspirations is that data suggests California is likely to meet its AB 32 goal of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases to 431 million tons by 2020.  While the rest of the world continues to heat up and multilateral emissions reductions efforts by the United Nations in Lima, Peru late last year once again faltered, the only U.S. state to pass climate legislation with concrete objectives appears to be on its way to actually reaching those targets, despite a long list of hiccups and controversies.

Changing the Game

Will California meet Brown’s new goals?  That’s impossible to predict, but the real questions now lie in the details.  I, for one, was delighted to see the governor mention microgrids, since apparently he agrees that distributed renewables (such as rooftop solar PV) will be game changers.  The best way to transform such distributed energy resources from problems for the grid into solutions for climate change – including resilient communities that can keep the lights on during extreme weather events – is through the islanding capabilities of microgrids.

When I first started covering wind power in the ‘80s for the national trade press, I often dealt with skeptical East Coast editors.  “Do those wind turbines really work?” they would ask.  “Isn’t that just one of those California things?”  This was, of course, during Brown’s original tenure as governor, when he was dubbed Governor Moonbeam by the national press.  From a handful of wind farms jump-started by flawed but effective tax credits, a global industry was spawned that now generates an accumulated 321,559 MW of electrical capacity, or just under 3% of the world’s total electricity, according to Navigant Research’s most recent World Market Update report on the wind industry.  That’s up from less than 1% of California’s total electricity in 1985, 30 years ago.

Sometimes, the only way to leap forward is to go out on a limb on the policy front, and then see if entrepreneurs and capital markets are up to the task.  Only time will tell which is the wiser course – the prudent go-slow pace of national politics or the risk-taking adventure being drawn up in Sacramento.  I know where I’m placing my bets.

 

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