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!

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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Can Sustainable Air Conditioners Stop Global Warming?

A recent report from the Australian think tank Breakthrough evaluates global warming as existential threat to human civilization. The report says it is essential to build a zero emissions system. Global mobilization is needed quickly to reduce the risk. While reading this I got very scared. But then I asked myself if there was good news as well?

I think the good news is that we know how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming. In his fantastic book Drawdown, Paul Hawken and a team of over 70 researchers from all over the world list 100 solutions to address global warming.

On place number 1 is refrigeration management, so your air conditioner, fridge, and freezer. The chemicals used to cool the air are greenhouse gases that do harm during production, servicing, when they leak, and especially during disposal. Out of all 100 solutions, refrigeration management can avoid or remove the most amount of greenhouse gases. So let’s look into this. How can we design air conditioners without harmful chemicals?

This week we are highlighting a team from Singapore. Ernest Chua teamed up with three other researchers from the National University of Singapore. Together they are developing an air conditioner that works without harmful chemicals, in fact, it uses water to cool down the air. Here is how it works:

The first step is to dehumidify the air by directing it though a membrane. A nice side effect is that they are able to capture the water, which is almost as pure as bottled drinking water. After that, the dry hot air goes through a water-based evaporative cooler. The cold air is then released to the room.

I’m happy to report that a totally green air conditioner that is chemical free and does not emit heat to the environment is a possibility.

Ernest Chua at his talk at the World Economic Forum 2019

The sustainable air conditioner consumes 40% less electricity and can cool a space as low as 18 °C (64 °F). Ernest and his coworkers are now working on iterating their working prototype. There is huge market for air conditioners worldwide. Unfortunately, with raising temperatures, more and more air conditioners are needed.

What I like most about this project is that is helps in two ways. First, they don’t heat up the environment and second, they don’t use chemical refrigerants. I’m excited about their next steps and hope they are ready to cool down the world soon!

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Can Taking a Shower Curb Emissions?

As I’m learning more about carbon capture techniques, a Wired article about carbon capture for wastewater treatment caught my eye. While it’s best to safe water when you shower, what can we do with the wastewater we do have? An interesting idea is to use microbes to treat the water as well as capture carbon dioxide.

Some microbes, like bacteria and microalgae, feed on CO2 itself. So one potential fix would be to replace the typical microbes used in wastewater treatment with these CO2-guzzlers.

https://www.wired.com/story/the-water-in-your-toilet-could-fight-climate-change-one-day/

The article is based on a Nature publication. So I checked it out, and now we are getting into more chemistry than I hoped for. Here we go. The authors are looking at different carbon capture approaches while also looking at environmental and economic benefits:

Outcomes of carbon capture and utilization are clean water and fuels and chemicals, biomass, biochar, or carbonates.
Capturing carbon with waste water

Integrating carbon capture and utilization with wastewater treatment may transform energy-intensive, carbon-emitting wastewater treatment plants into integrated water resource recovery facilities that recover energy, nutrients, water and other valuable carbon products with economic, environmental and social benefits.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329656760_Wastewater_treatment_for_carbon_capture_and_utilization

Here are the five approaches they discuss:

  1. Use microbial electrolysis to enable wastewater treatment, generate hydrogen and mineralize carbon dioxide to carbonates (Microbial electrolytic carbon capture)
  2. Recover electrons from wastewater and reduce carbon dioxide to organic chemicals (Microbial electrosynthesis)
  3. Enrich naturally occurring microalgal communities to take up nitrogen and phosphorus while turning carbon dioxide in biomass (Microalgae cultivation)
  4. Integrate vegetation, soils, and microbial ecosystems to treat wastewater and capture carbon dioxide to plant biomass (Constructed wetlands)
  5. Produce carbon rich charcoal from sludge and other biomass feedstock to provide long term carbon reservoirs and increase fertility in soil (Biochar production)

In the conclusion they point out all these approaches are early stages, a lot more research and development are needed. But they also highlight the potential:

Carbon capture and utilization can bring tremendous value to the wastewater industry, CO2-generating industries, and to society as a whole.

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329656760_Wastewater_treatment_for_carbon_capture_and_utilization

What I like most about the article is how it looks at a specific industry and rethinks how that industry can operate carbon neutral or even carbon negative. And while this is early R&D work, they are keeping it real by addressing how these approaches could have environmental as well as economic benefits.