In October 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report stating that Earth has about a dozen years before average global temperatures exceed 1.5 Celsius, if significant reductions in carbon emissions aren’t made. Some businesses are heeding the warnings and focusing on sustainable development in technology that improves energy efficiency or reduces emissions. From better ways to store renewable energy to improving methods of capturing carbon from the atmosphere, environmental tech is outpacing policy in the race to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2). Here are three already out of the gate.
Pumped Hydroelectric Storage
When people think of batteries, they may think of the lithium-ion ones in mobile phones or the lead-acid batteries in cars. Pumped hydroelectric storage is also a battery but on a much larger scale. It requires a hill, pumps and two reservoirs of water — one at the top of the hill and another at the bottom. It’s often paired with renewable energy, such as hydroelectric, solar and wind, as a way to store energy on a huge scale for the utility grid.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the United States has 42 pumped hydro facilities. But there are opportunities for many more. A 2019 study from researchers with the Australian National University found 530,000 sites worldwide that have the potential to site pumped hydro energy storage. Altogether they’d cache upwards of 22 million gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electricity, hundreds of times more than the amount needed to power the entire world with 100 percent renewable energy.
In Germany, the wind power manufacturer, Max Bögl Wind, recently won an award from the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum for a pilot project near Stuttgart that will pair some of the world’s tallest onshore wind turbines with a pumped hydro storage facility. For the project, four monstrous wind turbines, one of which will tower 810 feet, are being built on top of a hill. Each turbine will be planted in a small reservoir of water. These four pools connect to a pump facility and larger reservoir at the bottom of the hill. When the wind blows and energy costs are low, water is pumped up the hill to fill the small pools. When the wind stops blowing, the water is allowed to run back downhill, where it passes through turbines that generate electricity. The power plant is expected to generate about 10 GWh of electricity annually.
In the U.N.’s IPCC report, the panel members published an assessment of a new technology that could reduce CO2 already in the atmosphere. It’s called carbon capture. It involves removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and either sequestering it or turning it into a useful product, such as concrete or carbon nanotubes. According to IPCC experts, carbon capture tech could “trap up to 85 to 90 percent of the CO2 emissions produced from the use of fossil fuels in industrial processes and electricity generation, effectively preventing that CO2 from entering the atmosphere.” In 2019, the DOE announced it would provide up to $20 million in federal funds to accelerate the sustainable development of this environmental tech, which can be set up near natural gas or coal plants to nab emissions as they’re spewed.
To date, the world’s largest carbon capture project at a coal plant is NRG’s Petra Nova, according to Forbes. Based outside Houston, Texas, the plant captures more than 1.4 million tons of carbon dioxide gas each year, enough to remove 350,000 cars from the road, the company says. The CO2 is sucked from flue gas and piped 80 miles southwest to an oil field called West Ranch, and then a mile into the ground beneath it, reports the University of Texas. There, the CO2 is injected into spaces between rocks that used to hold oil. Although most of the oil has been extracted, remnants remain. The presence of the CO2 gas forces the remaining oil out, making older wells profitable again. Before using carbon capture technology, West Ranch produced about 300 barrels of oil daily. Now, NRG is recovering 4,000 barrels per day.
Although carbon capture technology promises to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, environmental groups have criticized it for prolonging the world’s dependence on fossil fuels and delaying sustainable development of renewable energy. A recent New York Times article said that Chevron, Occidental Petroleum and BHP have all invested tens of millions of dollars in the technology. But a 2019 study from the Center for International Environmental Law warned that carbon capture, utilization and storage technologies, could slow the transition to renewables and “undermine broader efforts to mitigate climate change.”
Cooling Data Centers
In the United States alone, 3 million data centers bring the internet to the masses. Running day and night, these massive computer servers require a lot of electricity. The heat generated could melt critical electronics. To keep them cool, data centers use additional electricity to run air conditioners, server fans and other equipment. The carbon footprint is enormous. By 2025, data centers around the world are predicted to consume at least 1,200 terawatt-hours of electricity, or 3.2 percent of the planet’s total electricity, and produce 1.9 gigatonnes of carbon emissions, reports the Guardian.
Forced Physics, a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona, has invented a passive, low-power technology that they say could reduce a data center’s electricity by 90 percent. The device also eliminates the need for the billions of gallons of water or other coolants that data centers rely on annually to cool these systems. The device is called a JouleForce conductor. It’s a long, narrow and mostly hollow box made of aluminum. Computer circuit boards are attached to the outside.
Inside, there are 3,000 very thin fins. Giant fans suck air through the middle of the conductor and over the fins. As they do, air molecules contact the fins, which, because of their thinness and special alignment, orient the molecules in the same way and accelerate them into a fast-moving “beam.” The beam quickly moves heat from the attached electronics out the backside of the conductor. By using the technology, the company says, a data center could reduce their carbon footprint significantly and save $45 million a year by reducing costs on infrastructure, operations and energy.
As the world grapples with the consequences of global climate change, including warmer, more acidic oceans, rising sea levels, more intense storms and droughts, some companies are working on mitigation. Pumped hydroelectric storage, carbon capture and data centers cooling technology are just three innovations that could have sweeping impacts.