Can Renewable Energy Be More Reliable Than Conventional Power Grids?

Imagine you are sitting in the dark and while you are reading your battery is running low. As I’m writing this, millions of Californians are affected by a power outage. The overland power lines used to transport power are prone to storm damage and can spark wildfires. Stormy weather has been forecasted and utility companies shut off power as a preventive measure to avoid wildfires.

Why do we still use overland power lines? What happened to the energy transformation? What happened to the idea of flexible microgrids?

Microgrids are a set of different renewable energy sources such as wind or solar, combined with energy storage and load management tools. They generate, store and distribute energy. Microgrids can run independently from the traditional power grid and are much more flexible in emergency situations.

Transitioning our electricity from fossil fuels to renewables is an important way to address climate change. According to project drawdown 40 percent of annual greenhouse gas emission come from the power sector. Shifting to renewable power sources will have a big impact on lowering greenhouse gas emissions. So, where are we in the transition to renewable and flexible electricity and what’s this week’s good news?

This week’s story brings us to a warm and sunny place. Picture white sandy beaches and crystal clear water. This story is about the Abaco Islands in the northern Bahamas. Battered from recent hurricane Dorian, most of the power grid has been destroyed. In collaboration with the non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute, the challenge is turned into an opportunity. They plan to install solar powered microgrids to transition the islands to renewable energy sources.

High electricity costs in the Caribbean, volatile global oil prices, and a reliance on imported diesel create a clear business case for clean energy.

https://rmi.org/our-work/global-energy-transitions/islands-energy-program/

Another benefit is the flexibility of microgrids. They are able to bounce back quickly after natural disasters.

What I like most about the planned project is that the Bahamas are becoming a worldwide showcase for solar micro grids. What can California learn from the Bahamas? By replacing fossil fuels with renewables, they are reducing greenhouse gas emissions substantially. Let’s hope they inspire many other countries to follow!

How Seaweed Tackles Climate Change

Just your nightly bedtime story? This week’s UN climate change report assesses the state of the oceans. It’s a dire forecast of melting ice sheets, sea level water rise, and acidification of the oceans. The acidification happens as the water takes in more and more human caused carbon dioxide. The report says that we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030. Besides reducing emissions we need to work on restoring the oceans. Is there anything hopeful I can write about this week? Yes!

Imagine small scale farms for seaweed and shellfish such as oysters. These plants and animals have the superpower to clean the water, filter out pollutants, and capture carbon dioxide. By working their magic, they put underwater ecosystems back into balance. This week’s story is about a seaweed farm called Ocean Rainforest.

Picture a windy, cloudy and cold place. This story brings us far north to the Faroe Islands. They are situated in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, halfway between Norway and Iceland.

This is where the company Ocean Rainforest seeds, grows, harvests, and processes seaweed. They sell four types of seaweed on their website that can be used for food, cosmetics, and packaging. Seaweed farming is extremely sustainable because it doesn’t need fertilizer or water to grow, and doesn’t require deforestation.

By cultivating the seaweed instead of taking from wild stocks, we are sustaining the natural balance of our fjords.

http://www.oceanrainforest.com/

What I love most about Ocean Rainforest is how their farm takes in more carbon dioxide than they use.

As seaweed grows it takes in carbon dioxide and produces oxygen. Pieces of seaweed get washed out to sea and sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they permanently sequester carbon.

Coastal ecosystems sequester away surprisingly large amounts of carbon – they can sequester up to 20 times more carbon per acre than land forests

http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/how-kelp-naturally-combats-global-climate-change/

Ocean Rainforest is one of the largest seaweed cultivators in Europe. Let’s hope their success inspires other seaweed farmers to start similar companies all around the world!

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How Electric Cars Help Tackle Climate Change

While I was visiting Germany this summer I talked to friends and family about electric vehicles. Several friends told me they read or heard electric cars were not cleaner than conventional cars. Mostly because of the battery. This made me curious, and I did some digging. I found vastly varying numbers and quite some drama. Here it goes…

In a nutshell, over a 15 year timeframe electric cars emit half the emissions of conventional cars. Here is how project drawdown puts it: Transport emissions account for 23 % of all carbon dioxide emissions. Electric vehicles have half the emissions and if they are charged with renewable energy, they can have 5% of the emissions of a conventional car.

If 16% of total passenger miles was done with electric cars by 2050, 10 gigatons a of carbon dioxide could be avoided.

https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/transport/electric-vehicles

On average, electric vehicles emit half of the emissions of conventional cars over a lifecycle of 15 years. That includes manufacture, fuel and charge cycles, and tailpipe emissions. Let’s take a look at how the numbers break down.

The picture compares the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. The top row shows a conventional car, the bottom row an electric one. The numbers assume the cars are driven 150.00 kilometers.

Batteries for electric vehicles are a challenge. They produce a lot of emissions and use rare earth minerals such as cobalt. Their mining is dangerous, often exploits miners, and destroys habitat for already endangered animals (yes, I dressed up as Okapi last Halloween).

The hope is to advance battery technologies so they need no or less rare earth minerals and to extract and recycle the ones already on the market.

Now we get to the drama part. The numbers vary vastly depending on what cars you compare, where the electric battery is produced, and what energy you use to recharge your car.

A recent report from researchers in Munich claimed electric vehicles were worse for the environment than diesel cars. What? I nearly fell off my chair when I read that. The article was debunked immediately from media outlets and bloggers such as Wirtschaftswoche (german), CarbonBrief or electrek. But articles like that don’t help public perception or electric vehicles. What a drama…

So, next time I talk to people about electric vehicles I have my numbers straight. Electric cars are at least half as clean as conventional cars. And let’s hope all these amazing teams working on sustainable batteries succeed soon!

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How Sustainable Air Conditioners Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions

I just returned from visiting family in Egypt. We stayed in the desert, and it was hot! One day we were talking about air conditioners and they showed me their new desert cooler. What a fantastic and sustainable way to cool the air!

Traditional air conditioners produce tons of greenhouse gases, mostly during production and disposal of the chemical refrigerants. According to project drawdown, air conditioners, fridges and freezers are the number one solution to address global warming. If 87% of chemical refrigerants can be contained instead of released over the next 30 years, nearly 90 gigatons of emissions can be avoided. Designing sustainable cooling solutions seems not only brilliant but also necessary.

So what is a desert cooler? Also called evaporative cooler or swamp cooler, they cool down air by using fans and water. This is how it works:

Hot air gets blown through an evaporative pad and comes out as cool, moisturized air. Traditionally, materials such a as wood slivers, as shown in the photo above, were used in the evaporative pad. Now companies are experimenting with new materials and structures to get even better water evaporation.

Unlike air conditioners, desert coolers don’t require chemical refrigerants, they don’t heat up the outside air, and they need very little electricity. They cool the air by humidifying it, so they work best in dry areas, such as the south west US or the desert in Egypt.

And as always, I’ll highlight a startup or research team. This week’s team is Quilo, a group of engineers and product designers based in Hong Kong, China and USA. They successfully launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2017 and are now selling two different evaporative coolers. Having worked for big brands, they started their own company to focus on good design and user friendly product.

Our products are expertly designed to look great while providing energy-efficient performance.

https://quilohome.com/faqs/

While big home appliance companies seem to dominate the air cooler market, I’m excited to see how this startup develops and continues to innovate climate solutions for our homes.

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Can Our Streets Absorb Greenhouse Gases?

I wrote about driving to work before, wondering if we could cut emissions with sustainable fuels. Now I’m wondering – what about the roads we drive on?

From streets to buildings, concrete is the most widely used material in the world. Concrete is made from sand, crushed rocks, and water and is glued together with cement. Unfortunately, cement factories are some of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. The emissions come from decarbonizing limestone and the very high temperatures needed to manufacture cement.

Manufacturing a single ton of cement requires the equivalent energy of burning four hundred pounds of coal

Paul Hawken https://www.drawdown.org/solutions/materials/alternative-cement

So, how can we design a more sustainable version of concrete? Imagine a high-tech skyline with remarkable towers and shopping centers. And heat, a lot of heat. This week we are covering an invention from Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Kemal Celik, an assistant professor at NYU Abu Dhabi, researches how to make sustainable cement. He explores using by-products from other industries. Basically, making cement from recycled materials.

There are a lot of desalination plants in the United Arab Emirates to produce drinking water from seawater. A by-product of the desalination process is residual brine. Kemal figured out a way to make cement with the leftover brine. This is how it works:

His invention, reactive magnesium oxide cement, is produced at much lower temperatures than traditional cement. And the best thing? It actually absorbs carbon dioxide during the hardening process and long after it has been mixed into the concrete, making it carbon negative.

Roads and buildings made with it could actually absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over the years and help combat climate change

Kemal Celik, https://nyuad.nyu.edu/en/research/impact/our-research/2018/just-add-salt.html

Another inspiring innovation. Let’s hope we can all drive on roads made from sustainable concrete sometime soon.

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