New catalyst rearranges carbon dioxide and water into ethanol fuel

Researchers at the US Dept of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, working with Northern Illinois University, have discovered a new catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with “very high energy efficiency, high selectivity for the desired final product and low cost.”

The catalyst is made of atomically dispersed copper on a carbon-powder support, and acts as an electrocatalyst, sitting in a low voltage electric field as water and carbon dioxide are passed over it. The reaction breaks down these molecules, then selectively rearranges them into ethanol with an electrocatalytic selectivity, or “Faradaic efficiency” higher than 90%. The team says this is “much higher than any other reported process.”

Once the ethanol is created, it can be used as a fuel additive, or as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Using it as a fuel would be an example of a “circular carbon economy,” in which CO2 recaptured from the atmosphere is effectively put back in as it’s burned.

If the process is powered by renewable energy, which the researchers say it can be due to its low-temperature, low-pressure operation and easy responsiveness to intermittent power, then great; all you’re losing is fresh water, which is its own issue.

Realistically, you’re still a lot better off running an EV than a car fueled with gasoline using this ethanol as an additive. While its Faradaic efficiency might be excellent, its overall electrical efficiency won’t be; putting the same amount of energy into a battery will get more power to the wheels at the end of the day, because combustion engines are horribly inefficient in comparison to electric powertrains, and there will be additional significant power losses at this catalysis stage, as well as the industrial carbon capture and transport stages.

There’s no way of telling at this stage what the costs might be, either. There are already a number of synthetic fuels using catalytically captured carbon dioxide; Carbon Engineering is one firm that pulls CO2 from the air to create a synthetic crude that can be refined into high-purity aviation fuel, for example.

Such synthetic fuels need to compete with regular fossil gasoline on price, so without knowing how the Argonne team’s carbon-capture ethanol competes with bioethanol and other sources there, it’s hard to place this on the spectrum between “neat result that won’t see wide scale use” and “environmentally significant discovery.”

The paper is published in Nature Energy.

Source: Argonne National Laboratory

Green hydrogen will become increasingly competitive as renewables costs fall

The world is increasingly banking on green hydrogen fuel to fill some of the critical missing pieces in the clean-energy puzzle.

US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for a research program to produce a clean form of the gas that’s cheap enough to fuel power plants within a decade. Likewise, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have all published hydrogen roadmaps that rely on it to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions in the power, transportation, or industrial sectors. Meanwhile, a growing number of companies around the world are building ever larger green hydrogen plants, or exploring its potential to produce steel, create carbon-neutral aviation fuel, or provide a backup power source for server farms.

The attraction is obvious: hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, could fuel our vehicles, power our electricity plants, and provide a way to store renewable energy without pumping out the carbon dioxide driving climate change or other pollutants (its only byproduct from cars and trucks is water). But while researchers have trumpeted the promise of a “hydrogen economy” for decades, it’s barely made a dent in fossil fuel demand, and nearly all of it is still produced through a carbon polluting process involving natural gas.

The grand vision of the hydrogen economy has been held back by the high costs of creating a clean version, the massive investments into vehicles, machines and pipes that could be required to put it to use, and progress in competing energy storage alternatives like batteries.

So what’s driving the renewed interest?

For one thing, the economics are rapidly changing. We can produce hydrogen directly by simply splitting water, in a process known as electrolysis, but it’s been prohibitively expensive in large part because it requires a lot of electricity. As the price of solar and wind power continues to rapidly decline, however, it will begin to look far more feasible.

At the same time, as more nations do the hard math on how to achieve their aggressive emissions targets in the coming decades, a green form of hydrogen increasingly seems crucial, says Joan Ogden, director of the sustainable transportation energy pathway program at the University of California, Davis. It’s a flexible tool that could help to clean up an array of sectors where we still don’t have affordable and ready solutions, like aviation, shipping, fertilizer production, and long-duration energy storage for the electricity grid.

Falling renewables costs

For now, however, clean hydrogen is far too expensive in most situations. A recent paper found that relying on solar power to run the electrolyzers that split water can run six times higher than the natural gas process, known as steam methane reforming. 

There are plenty of energy experts who maintain that the added costs and complexities of producing, storing and using a clean version means it will never really take off beyond marginal use cases.

But the good news is that electricity itself makes up a huge share of the cost—upwards of 60% or more—and, again, the costs of renewables are falling fast. Meanwhile, the costs of electrolyzers themselves are projected to decline steeply as manufacturers scale up production, and various research groups develop advanced versions of the technology.

A Nature Energy paper early last year found that if market trends continue, green hydrogen could be economically competitive on an industrial scale within a decade. Similarly, the International Energy Agency projects that the cost of clean hydrogen will fall 30% by 2030.

Voestalpine's H2H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.Voestalpine’s H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.


Green hydrogen may already be nearly affordable in some places where periods of excess renewable generation drive down the costs of electricity to nearly zero. In a research note last month, Morgan Stanley analysts wrote that locating green hydrogen facilities next to major wind farms in the US Midwest and Texas could make the fuel cost competitive within two years.

A June study from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory found it may be closer to the middle of the century before hydrogen is the most affordable technology for long duration storage on the grid. But as fluctuating renewables like solar and wind become the dominant source of electricity, utilities will need to store up enough energy to keep the grid reliably working not just for a few hours, but for days and even weeks during certain months when those resources flag.

Hydrogen shines in that scenario compared to other storage technologies, because adding capacity is relatively cheap, says Joshua Eichman, a senior research engineer at the lab and co-author of the study. To increase the length of time that batteries can reliably provide electricity, you need to stack up more and more of them, multiplying the cost of every pricey component within them. With hydrogen, you just need to build a bigger tank, or use a deeper underground cavern, he says.

Putting hydrogen to use

For hydrogen to fully replace carbon-emitting fuels, we’d need to overhaul our infrastructure to distribute, store, and use it. We’d have to produce vehicles and ships with fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, as well as fueling stations along ports and roads. And we’d need to stack up fuel cells or build or retrofit power plants to use the fuel to power the grid directly.

All of which will take a lot of time and money.

But there’s another scenario that sidesteps, or delays, much of this infrastructure overhaul. Once you have hydrogen, it’s relatively simple to combine it with carbon monoxide to produce synthetic versions of the fuels that already power our cars, trucks, ships, and planes. The industrial process to do so is a century old and has been used at various times by petroleum-strapped nations to make fuels from coal or natural gas.

Direct Air Capture pilot plantCarbon Engineering’s pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia.


Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, British Columbia, is developing facilities that capture carbon dioxide from the air. The company plans to combine it with carbon-free hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. The idea is that the fuel will be carbon neutral, emitting no more carbon dioxide than was removed or produced in the process.

In a presentation at a Codex conference late last year, Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith said that falling solar prices should enable them to bring “air-to-fuels” to market for about $1 a liter (around $4 per gallon) in the mid-2020s–and that the price will continue to fall from there.

“The big news here is that this could be done with commodity hardware starting soon,” he said. “You could get to something like a million barrels a day of air-to-fuels synthetic hydrocarbon capacity, I think, soon after 2030, and after that there’s no obvious scaling limit.”

In effect, the process provides a way to convert fleeting, fluctuating solar power into permanently storable fuels that can fill the tanks of any of our machines. “This is about an energy pathway to … deal with the intermittency problem and deal with it in a way that allows you to power high-energy density needs around the world; allows you to fly airplanes across the North Atlantic,” Keith said.

Nikola Tesla Proved It Was Possible. Now Wireless Electricity Is a Reality.

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  • In New Zealand, the government is sponsoring a wireless electricity startup‘s work and testing.
  • The system involves shaped microwave beams that pass through relays, like repeaters.
  • Nikola Tesla did the first air-power experiments 12o years ago, but copper wire superseded everything else.

An energy startup named Emrod says it’s bringing wireless electricity to New Zealand, more than a century after Nikola Tesla first demonstrated it was possible. Like the best-performing satellite internet connections, Emrod’s link only needs a clear line of sight.

In a statement, Emrod founder Greg Kushnir says he was motivated by New Zealand’s particular set of skills, à la Liam Neeson in Taken.

“We have an abundance of clean hydro, solar, and wind energy available around the world but there are costly challenges that come with delivering that energy using traditional methods, for example, offshore wind farms or the Cook Strait here in New Zealand requiring underwater cables which are expensive to install and maintain.”

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By eliminating the need for long stretches of traditional copper wiring, Emrod says it can bring power to more difficult terrain and places that just can’t afford a certain level of physical infrastructure. There could be environmental ramifications as well, since many places that are off the grid end up using diesel generators, for example.

Right now, Emrod is testing over a “tiny” long distance—sending “a few watts” back and forth about 130 feet, Kushnir tells New Atlas. Line of sight is important because the technology relies on a clear, contained beam from one point to the next.

“Energy is transmitted through electromagnetic waves over long distances using Emrod’s proprietary beam shaping, metamaterials and rectenna technology,” Emrod explains.

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The “rectenna” turns magnetic waves into electricity. A square element mounted on a pole acts as the pass-through point that keeps electricity beaming along, and a broader surface area catches the entire wave, so to speak. The beam is surrounded by a low-power laser fence so it won’t zap passing birds or passenger vehicles. If there’s ever an outage, Emrod says it can drive out a truck-mounted rectenna to make up for any missing relay legs.

Typically, technology like this would seem implausible because of issues like the loss of signal fidelity over the transmission through the air then through a series of mediating technologies. But Emrod’s relay technology, which it says “refocuses the beam,” doesn’t use any power, and loses almost none.

Kushnir tells New Atlas:

“The efficiency of all the components we’ve developed are pretty good, close to 100 percent. Most of the loss is on the transmitting side. We’re using solid state for the transmitting side, and that’s essentially the same electronic elements you can find in any radar system, or even your microwave at home. Those are at the moment limited to around 70-percent efficiency. But there’s a lot of development going into it, mainly driven by communications, 5G and so on.”

The project is helped by New Zealand’s electric utilities and the government.

“The prototype received some government funding and was designed and built in Auckland in cooperation with Callaghan Innovation,” Emrod says on its site, referring to the New Zealand government’s “innovation agency.” “It has received a Royal Society Award nomination, and New Zealand’s second largest electricity distribution company, Powerco, will be the first to test Emrod technology. “

Kushnir says the distance and power load will, at first, be fairly low—sending a few kilowatts over shorter distances within New Zealand. But, he says, the hypothetical limit for distance and power load will scale up to almost unfathomable amounts. All Emrod has to do is make bigger rectennas.

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House Democrats Have a Climate Plan, And It's Pretty Damn Good

This article was originally published by Grist and is republished here as part of an ongoing collaboration.

On Tuesday, the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released a report that it has been working on since January 2019. With Republicans in control of the Senate and President Trump in the Oval Office, the policy proposals in the report have no chance of getting enough votes to become law, but that’s not really the point. The 538-page plan is a message in a bottle to Democratic voters: Hang tight, the left has a climate plan.

Let’s hit the rewind button and go back to 2018 — a couple hundred eons ago in coronavirus years, which makes it hard to remember the conditions that started the ball rolling on the Select Committee’s report.

On June 26, 2018, a relatively unknown progressive candidate from the Bronx managed to unseat incumbent Democrat Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. That progressive, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, campaigned on the Green New Deal, an economy-wide proposal to achieve emissions reductions and economic equity simultaneously.

At the same time, a group of young climate activists and Bernie Sanders stans called the Sunrise Movement — buoyed by progressive wins in the midterms — were ramping up a grassroots campaign in support of that very plan. The Green New Deal, an idea that had existed in relative obscurity for years before the midterms, burst onto the national stage a week after the November election, when the Sunrise Movement set up camp in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and Ocasio-Cortez, who was attending her freshman orientation on Capitol Hill on that very day, joined them.

The activists had a list of demands, chief among them a request that the new Speaker of the House create a committee on the climate crisis. Pelosi, a first-wave climate hawk herself, had established a similar panel when she was House Speaker from 2007 to 2011, which was disbanded by Republicans when they regained the majority in 2011. She was quick to do it again, and appointed Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat and longtime climate advocate, as committee chair. Including Castor, the committee has nine Democrats and six Republicans.

Establishment Democrats would have likely pursued climate policy in the 116th Congress on their own. But added pressure from the progressive wing of their party and a cadre of unyieldingly vocal climate activists, plus some pretty visceral climate change impacts in 2018 and growing concern about rising temperatures among Democratic voters, handed Democrats a mandate to address the crisis.

On Tuesday, the committee unveiled a plan to do just that. The preface notes the inopportune timing of the report, considering the nation is in the midst of both a pandemic and a mass uprising against racial inequity. “Both underscore that there are no foregone conclusions. What we choose to do now shapes the future,” the report says. “What happens next — for racial equality, for public health, for the climate crisis — depends on us.”

The policy targets laid out in the report are a testament to how much the left has moved the Overton window on climate in recent years. The report recommends eliminating emissions from the electricity sector by 2040 and achieving net-zero emissions across the board a decade after that. It suggests that all new vehicles sold in the United States should be electric by the year 2035. It recommends putting a price on carbon and then funneling that money to low- and mid-income households, an emissions reduction tactic that also has some traction on the right.

Most importantly, especially now, the report connects the dots between racial inequity and rising temperatures. Climate change is already impacting low-income communities and people of color. The report includes a long list of policy proposals to alleviate that burden. The list includes allocating funds to decarbonize and retrofit all public housing in the U.S., boosting federal funding for residential solar projects that would help poor communities pay for clean energy, and increasing tax credits and efficiency incentives for developers building affordable housing. Many of the recommendations put forth by the report echo legislation that has already been introduced in Congress. The recommendation to decarbonize public housing, for example, mirrors Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’ Green New Deal for Public Housing Act, which was introduced in 2019.

The report has garnered praise from climate advocates across the political spectrum. In a statement to Grist, the Sunrise Movement’s legislative manager, Lauren Maunus, said the report is a good start. “We are happy to see the Select Committee’s Action Plan reflect much of the vision for a Green New Deal,” she wrote. “This plan is more ambitious than anything we have seen from Democratic leadership so far, but it still needs to go further to match the full scale of the crisis.”

An effective climate plan hinges on three major pillars, Sam Ricketts, formerly climate director of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign and now a senior policy adviser for Evergreen Action, an organization that provides policymakers with an open-source climate policy platform, told Grist: Create performance standards for each sector of the economy; funnel federal investments into green jobs; and confront environmental racism by addressing climate impacts in frontline and low-income communities. “These pillars are foundational in this House Select Committee climate crisis report,” Ricketts, who was consulted by the committee on policy items multiple times over the past several months, said. “Ultimately, this is a great foundation upon which Congress can begin to act in a comprehensive and ambitious way to confront this climate challenge.” He noted that some of the timelines outlined in the report could be sped up.

The American Conservation Coalition (ACC), a Republican-leaning group that advocates for conservative solutions to climate change, is also supportive of aspects of the report. “There’s elements of it that we agree with and that I think many Republicans could agree on, too,” Quillan Robinson, vice president of government affairs at ACC, told Grist, naming carbon capture and investments in new energy technologies as examples of proposals that could garner bipartisan support. But he noted that the committee’s report was introduced without input from the Republican minority on the committee. “The whole purpose of the committee was to bring Republicans and Democrats together and develop some common ground policies to charter a path forward,” he said. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and nine other Republican members of the House recently backed a climate plan put out by ACC that also calls for net-zero emissions by 2050, a surprising step that indicates Republicans may be amenable to climate proposals that come from their own side.

Ricketts isn’t so sure that the reason why the Republican minority is absent from the report is because it was snubbed by committee Democrats. “The leader of the Republican Party doesn’t just believe that climate change doesn’t exist, he called this pandemic that has killed 120,000-plus Americans a hoax,” Ricketts said. “It’s unfortunate but it is a reality that only one party believes in not only confronting this crisis but that it exists at all.”

Regardless of how the report came together, one thing is clear: Democrats will have a hard time getting its wide-ranging and ambitious policy proposals passed even if they regain a majority in the Senate and put Joe Biden in the White House. Biden’s climate plan as it stands proposes investing a modest $1.7 trillion in clean energy spending. The House climate committee’s report doesn’t put a price tag on its recommendations, but in terms of scope it looks similar to Sanders’ climate plan, which would cost $16 trillion.

Still, some groups think it could go even further. “With less than 10 years to keep warming at below 1.5 degrees C, the plan’s targets for phasing out emissions need to be stronger,”’s associate director of U.S. policy, Natalie Mebane, said in a statement. “Specifically, these plans need to go further on regulating and phasing out fossil fuel production with clear target dates for the elimination of all fossil fuel expansion and subsidies.”

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are already sharpening their knives. “Democrats’ My Way or the Highway bill is nothing more than a liberal wish list,” Representative Don Young of Alaska tweeted on Tuesday afternoon.

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New Jersey is the first state to add climate change to its K-12 education standards

The State Board of Education adopted the new guidelines on Wednesday —which outline what will be taught to New Jersey’s 1.4 million students.
Greta Thunberg: 'Our actions can be the difference between life and death for many others'

Greta Thunberg: 'Our actions can be the difference between life and death for many others'

It’s the first state to include climate change education in it’s K-12 learning standards, officials said in a statement.
New Jersey’s first lady Tammy Murphy pushed for the new standards and met with 130 educators statewide.
She said New Jersey is already dealing with problems caused by climate change, including disappearing shorelines, algae blooms, super storms and hot summers.
“This generation of students will feel the effects of climate change more than any other, and it is critical that every student is provided an opportunity to study and understand the climate crisis through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary lens,” she said in a statement.
Young people, including teen activist Greta Thunberg, have been at the forefront of recent climate change protests and students in more than 100 countries staged walkouts last year.
The new standards, which will go into effect in 2021 and 2022, cover seven subject areas — 21st Century Life and Careers, Comprehensive Health and Physical Education, Science, Social Studies, Technology, Visual and Performing Arts, and World Languages.
The Mathematics and Language Arts guidelines aren’t up for review until 2022, but the board added climate change standards as an appendix to those subjects.
Former Vice President Al Gore praised the move.
“I am incredibly proud that New Jersey is the first state in the nation to fully integrate climate education in their K-12 curricula,” Gore said in a statement. “This initiative is vitally important to our students as they are the leaders of tomorrow, and we will depend on their leadership and knowledge to combat this crisis.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has made fighting climate change a key part of his agenda and has called for the state to use 100% clean energy by 2050.

Party Like It's 1880: Renewable Energy Consumption Surpasses Coal | The Motley Fool

The world was a radically different place in 1880. The United States was only 15 years removed from the Civil War. The professional baseball organization known as the National League, which survives to this day as half of Major League Baseball, had existed for only four years. Light bulbs were used outside for the first time. The first patent was issued for a cash register.

It was also the last time energy consumption from renewable energy topped coal, according to historical data compiled by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). Well, that was until 2019, when the United States accomplished the feat again. Due to various market factors, the country will never again consume more energy from coal than renewables.

Here’s how the United States achieved the energy milestone, why there’s no turning back, and what it means for individual investors.

A group of people holding up cutouts of various renewable energy symbols.

Image source: Getty Images.

A milestone 139 years in the making

The last time the United States consumed more energy from renewable energy than coal was around 1880. To that point, biomass (primarily wood) was the primary energy source for the nation. But that changed as the first coal-fired power plants began producing electricity in the 1880s. While the first hydroelectric dams also entered operations that decade, coal proved much more scalable and distributable. By 1885, coal generated more total energy than renewable energy (still comprising only wood in that year) and held onto the edge for roughly 139 years. 

That all changed in 2019, although a healthy dose of nuance is needed. Energy consumption from renewable energy topped coal last year, but only when all energy sources are counted. In other words, the math only works when electricity production, transportation, and consumption from industrial, residential, and commercial markets are combined. Similarly, renewable energy is a broad category that includes wind, solar, hydro, biofuels, other biomass, and several smaller contributors.

In 2019, energy consumption from renewable energy totaled 11.5 quadrillion British thermal units, or quads, according to the EIA. Coal was used to generate only 11.3 quads of energy last year. But the acceleration of the energy transition in the electric power sector means there’s no going back. 

A combination of mild winter weather, natural gas prices that are at the lowest levels since 1995, the addition of nearly 33,000 megawatts of utility-scale wind and solar power, and the consumption-sapping effects of the coronavirus pandemic will combine to deliver a record blow to coal and a record bump to renewables in 2020.

In 2019, the United States generated 966 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal-fired power plants and 720 terawatt-hours from all utility-scale renewable energy power sources. That was the lowest output from the nation’s coal fleet since the 1970s and the highest ever for renewables.

In 2020, the United States might only generate 627 terawatt-hours to 724 terawatt-hours of electricity from coal (a 25% to 35% decline from the previous year), compared to 792 terawatt-hours from renewable energy sources (a 10% increase from the previous year). Adding small-scale solar bumps up the latter number to a projected output of 832 terawatt-hours, which would surpass the annual output from nuclear power for the first time since the 1980s. 

A man drawing charts on a transparent wall.

Image source: Getty Images.

What does the feat mean for investors?

The rapid growth of renewable energy is quite the feat. It was made possible by significant government policies, better wind turbine and photovoltaic panel technologies, and bountiful geographic advantages across the Lower 48. The value extended to renewable energy sources from the combination of those factors will likely compound in the next decade, which suggests natural gas-fired power plants could be the next assets to feel economic pressure from renewables starting in the 2030s. 

But individual investors don’t have to sit out the next decade to benefit from the trend. Here are some investment ideas that contributed to renewable energy’s toppling of coal in 2019.

Coal: Investors should absolutely stay away from coal stocks. Coal-fired power plants are unlikely to regain much, if any, market share lost in 2020 due to factors described above. Investors can expect a wave of accelerated retirements in the coming years as power generators chase the enhanced economics from cleaner power sources. If your portfolio is exposed to companies such as coal-heavy PPL Corp that are moving more slowly than the energy transition, then that could be putting your capital at risk.

Biofuels: Aside from the electric power sector, renewable transportation fuels are the second-largest source of renewable energy in the United States. The country mandates 10% ethanol blends in the gasoline supply and relies heavily on biodiesel and renewable diesel each year.

Unlike electric power, biofuels have generally been a poor investment for individual investors. For instance, Green Plains (NASDAQ:GPRE) can produce 1.1 billion gallons of ethanol each year, but has struggled to overcome the weak margin environment of the industry. Ethanol prices in 2020 could be the lowest of the century. Green Plains has ambitious plans to increase operating efficiency and sell high-value, high-protein animal feed products. If the strategy works, then the small-cap stock could lift off multiyear lows for good. But it’s still too early to gauge progress.

Meanwhile, Renewable Energy Group (NASDAQ:REGI) has been a rare biofuels stock with above-average returns in recent years. But it, too, faces headwinds. It’s not profitable without generous government subsidies, although those are now in place through the end of 2022 for biomass-based diesel fuels. If the business can invest its cash hoard into high-value renewable diesel and retail sales, then it might be on sustainable footing in a few years. 

Wind turbines in a field of tall grasses.

Image source: Getty Images.

Wind: The EIA estimates the United States could add up to 20,400 megawatts of onshore wind power capacity in 2020. That could be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, but as of early May many power generators reported being on track with projects slated for completion this year.

Xcel Energy (NYSE:XEL) is leading the way. The company, which owns four electric utilities in the American wind corridor, is bringing 1,692 megawatts of new wind power projects into service in 2020. It recently placed the 200-megawatt Blazing Star 1 project into operation, has another 300 megawatts slated for completion in 2021, and expects to have over 4,300 megawatts of owned wind capacity in service when the dust settles.

Solar: The EIA estimates the United States could add up to 12,700 megawatts of utility-scale solar power capacity in 2020. NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE) is one of the companies leading the way. Through its Florida Power & Light subsidiary, the company plans to build 10,000 megawatts of solar power by 2030. That includes 1,200 megawatts that have or will enter service in 2020. The low operation costs of solar farms are expected to allow the electric utility to keep customer bills low and shareholder value trekking higher.

Renewable energy is just getting started

The United States consumed more total energy from renewable energy than coal in 2019 for the first time in about 139 years. That’s an impressive feat, but the trend is still getting started.

Renewable energy accounted for only 11% of the nation’s total energy consumption last year. There are major growth opportunities in stealing the rest of coal’s market share (which would double total renewable energy consumption) in the 2020s, beginning to pressure natural gas in the 2030s, and powering cars and trucks as the transportation sector moves toward electric mobility. That suggests individual investors have many more opportunities to pounce on the energy transition — and certainly won’t have to wait another 139 years for the next big milestone.

Will the World's Biggest Carbon Capture Facility Work?

minnkota power cooperative

Minnkota Power Cooperative

  • A record-setting carbon recapture facility is planned for a North Dakota coal-burning plant.
  • Carbon recapture is a huge and growing interest, with two existing large facilities at other coal plants.
  • Advocates say carbon recapture is a way to help neutralize coal while we continue to use it.

A coal power plant in North Dakota wants to build the largest ever carbon recapture facility as a way to try to keep its plant viable. Could the plan really work?

Minnkota Power Cooperative in Grand Forks, North Dakota owns both the plant, the Milton R. Young Station, and the new facility, Project Tundra. Minnkota says its efforts to sequester and recapture waste carbon are motivated both by keeping its plant running and the amount of carbon it can save from reentering the environment.

“To sequester CO₂ from the Young station, Project Tundra will make use of technology similar to that employed at the only two other existing carbon capture and storage (CCS) facilities operating at power plants in the world—Petra Nova in Texas and Boundary Dam in Saskatchewan, Canada,” IEEE Spectrum explains.

How does it work? First, waste CO₂ goes through a “scrubber,” in this case a cooling scrubber that leads into an absorber for amine gas treating. Special chemicals called amines readily bond with CO₂ so it can be filtered out of the rest of the through-flowing gases. Then, the carrying amines are separated from the CO₂. The amines can be reused, and the CO₂ is compressed into a liquid that can be pumped underground for inert storage. What’s left is mostly nitrogen, which already makes up more than three-quarters of our atmosphere.

Reporting on the predecessor Petra Nova plant, the Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) says this process can recover up to 90 percent of CO₂. There are two similar technologies that can work better in different scenarios, and a working version installed in a coal plant can combine elements from each.

Oxy-combustion is when fossil fuels are burned in almost completely pure oxygen instead of regular air or other gas mixes, which produces purer CO₂ that’s simpler to recapture. Pre-combustion is a system of fossil fuel burning that produces a controlled, pure hydrogen and CO₂ gas.

Without reinventing the wheel, Project Tundra will save a lot of time and money, and Minnkota plans to begin construction in 2022 if it can raise $1 billion in funding by then. Sometimes, especially in the world of renewable energy, the compromise solution is the only one people will accept. World Resources Institute’s James Mulligan says he believes even this costly compromise is a politically smart idea that will still do some good.

“Are we looking for perfect or are we looking for good?” Mulligan told IEEE Spectrum. At Petra Nova, the recovered CO₂ is even repurposed to improve efficiency of a nearby oil well. For now, Project Tundra and the Petra Nova plant represent a way to mitigate coal’s damage to the atmosphere. The cost is high, but proponents say it’s worth it.

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Built by oil’s riches, Houston goes 100% green years earlier

A refinery stands next to Charles H. Milby Park in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Houston has been purposefully going green for more than a decade. The municipal government gets 92% of all the power it uses in the buildings it owns from wind and solar and has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of the largest renewable power users since 2016. Photographer: Sharon Steinmann/Bloomberg

A refinery stands next to Charles H. Milby Park in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Sunday, March 8, 2020. Houston has been purposefully going green for more than a decade. The municipal government gets 92% of all the power it uses in the buildings it owns from wind and solar and has been on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the largest renewable power users since 2016. Photographer: Sharon Steinmann/Bloomberg

MIT moves toward greener, more sustainable artificial intelligence

While current artificial intelligence (AI) technology holds strategic and transformative potential, it isn’t always environmentally-friendly due to high energy consumption. To the rescue are researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who have devised a solution that not only lowers costs but, more importantly, reduces the AI model training’s carbon footprint.

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Back in June 2019, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst revealed that the amount of energy utilized in AI model training equaled 626,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. How so? Contemporary AI isn’t just run on a personal laptop or simple server. Rather, deep neural networks are deployed on diverse arrays of specialized hardware platforms. The level of energy consumption required to power such AI technologies is approximately five times the lifetime carbon emissions from an average American car, including its manufacturing. 

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Moreover, both Analytics Insight and Kepler Lounge warned that Google’s AlphaGo Zero — the AI that plays the game of Go against itself to self-learn — generated a massive 96 tons of carbon dioxide over 40 days of research training. That amount of carbon dioxide equals 1,000 hours of air travel as well as the annual carbon footprint of 23 American homes! The takeaway then? Numbers like these would make AI model deployment both unfeasible and unsustainable over time.

MIT’s research team has devised a groundbreaking automated AI system, termed a once-for-all (OFA) network, described in their paper here. This AI system — the OFA network — minimizes energy consumption by “decoupling training and search, to reduce the cost.” The OFA network was constructed based on automatic machine learning (AutoML) advancements. 

Essentially, the OFA network functions as a ‘mother’ network to numerous subnetworks. As the ‘mother’ network, it feeds its knowledge and past experiences to all the subnetworks, training them to operate independently without the need for further retraining. This is unlike previous AI technology that had to “repeat the network design process and retrain the designed network from scratch for each case. Their total cost gr[ew] linearly … as the number of deployment scenarios increase[d], which … result[ed] in excessive energy consumption and CO2 emission.”

closeup of a green piece of technology

In other words, with the OFA network in use, there is little need for additional retraining of subnetworks. This efficiency decreases costs, curtails carbon emissions and improves sustainability.

Assistant Professor Song Han, of MIT’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, was the project’s lead researcher. He shared that, “Searching efficient neural network architectures has until now had a huge carbon footprint. But we reduced that footprint by orders of magnitude with these new methods.”

Also of particular interest was Chuang Gan, co-author of the MIT research paper, who added, “The model is really compact. I am very excited to see OFA can keep pushing the boundary of efficient deep learning on edge devices.”

Being compact means AI can progress towards miniaturization. That could spell next-generation advantages in green operations that improve environmental impact.

+ MIT News