What Do Solar Panels and TVs Have in Common?

Remember the scene in “Back to the Future” about TVs? Marty, traveling back in time from the 1980is to the 1950is, tells Stella they have two TVs at home. Stella answers: “Oh honey, he is teasing you. Nobody in the world has two television sets”.

This is how I felt after seeing a slide about solar adoption at the California Germany Bilateral Energy Conference. David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, gave an optimistic and inspiring keynote on clean energy in California.

He covered a range of clean energy highlights: Tesla’s Gigafactory developing the world’s largest factory for energy storage. Apple’s new solar roof, which is one of the biggest in the world and helps Apple being powered entirely by renewable energy. Another highlight is the Geysers, the world’s largest geothermal field with 22 geothermal power plants. It’s encouraging to hear about all these clean energy projects in California. What inspired me most from David’s talk was this slide:

Source: EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2004-2017, EIA Electric Power Monthly July 25, 2017

The plot shows a prediction for solar adoption from the US Energy Information Administration. The dotted line shows their estimation for US Solar photovoltaics generation and the solid line shows what actually happened.

What does solar adoption have to do with climate change? The power sector accounts for 40% of annual greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. By using energy from renewable sources such as solar we can cut emissions drastically.

Isn’t that amazing? Prediction of solar adoption is incredibly low in comparison to what actually happened over the last decade. What I like most about this graph is that it gives me hope we might be underrating other climate solutions as well. As we are getting cheaper and more efficient clean energy options every month, what’s next?

How Hydrogen Cars Help with Climate Change

Imagine a zero emissions car that only takes a few minutes to fuel up. That’s what fueling hydrogen cars is like. What are hydrogen cars? They are electric cars, and they generate the electricity they need to drive by mixing hydrogen fuel with oxygen. This is how it works:

Why are no emission cars important to fight climate change? Transportation produces 14% of all greenhouse gas emissions. According to project drawdown, if electric vehicle ownership rises to 16% by 2050, over 10 gigatons of carbon dioxide could be avoided.

Can you picture beautiful white and pink cherry tree blossoms? Today’s story brings us to Japan and its automotive manufacturer Toyota. They pioneered hybrid cars with the Prius model. Now the company is betting on hydrogen cars. Toyota’s 2015 Mirai model was one of the first ones sold commercially. Now they are releasing a new version:

The latest Mirai has a revamped fuel cell stack that can store more hydrogen.

https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/11/business/toyota-mirai-hydrogen-fuel-cell-car/index.html

That will bring up the car’s range from 312 miles (405 km) to over 400 miles (650km). Fueling hydrogen cars works like fueling conventional cars and takes about 3-5 minutes. Hydrogen fuel stations are still rare but they are expanding. Greentech Media writes how countries all over the world move towards a green hydrogen future.

How green is hydrogen fuel? The big plus is that it can be generated locally, without pipelines and transportation emissions. It can be made from natural gas and coal, but more importantly it can be made from renewable energy, industrial waste and even sewage. As with electric cars, we need to make sure the electricity or hydrogen fuels are coming from renewable sources.

Finally, a question you probably have in mind: Is it safe? Fuel cell makers and car makers are designing safe fueling stations and cars that are as safe as gasoline.

What I like most about hydrogen fuel cell technology is that it’s another innovative technology for low emission energy. Rather than competing, we need to bring all innovations and technologies together to address climate change. Toyota’s new Mirai will launch late 2020 in Japan, North America and Europe. Let’s hope it takes off!

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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