Search Results for 'energy'

US, China [can] cooperate on green energy in rural areas

For the original click here, or navigate to China Daily:  

US, China cooperate on green energy in rural areas

By MINGMEI LI in New York | Xinhua | 
Innovation in rural area-green energy development and boosting collaboration between the United States and China in science and technology are being emphasized at a "smart village" forum. More than 50 experts, professors, local entrepreneurs, environmental and social organizations from many countries are participating in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Smart Village Forum (ISV) in Shanxi province on Sunday and Monday. Participants in the forum, titled "Green Low-Carbon and Smart Village", discussed environmental governance topics such as achieving energy transition, using advanced technology to assist poverty-stricken regions globally in accessing affordable and clean energy, improving energy efficiency, and promoting green and sustainable development. A new demonstration project in Changzhi, a city in southeast Shanxi province, was featured at the forum, showcasing the current progress and practical results achieved by ISV. The project has effectively incorporated solar photovoltaic power and clean-heating technologies and products for residents. The ISV working group has partnered with leading Chinese and international higher-education institutions to create energy models and projects suited to specific local conditions in other cities such as Chongqing, Gansu and Heilongjiang. Daniel Kammen, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and energy professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and his laboratory, have worked closely with scholars and students from Tsinghua University, Chongqing University and North China Electric Power University to research renewable energy conservation and intelligent models from an academic perspective. 1cf2cd7e6576ee0cecd9c39c6eb4a1f7 "We develop mathematical models of the grid. There's lots of interesting physics. There's lots of interesting science. My partnerships in China have been very productive," Kammen told China Daily. "Low-cost solar, better batteries and smart sensors. We build models that become real. My laboratory is very much based around not just basic science, but also the mission of decarbonizing the power grid and making our economy green. "Just like the tensions that existed between the Soviet Union and the US over politics and geopolitics in the '70s and '80s, one lesson that I think scientists learned on both sides, both in the Soviet Union and in the US, is that we need to keep the scientific channels open," he said. Kammen said that science cooperation and exchange are important at this moment. "The US and China are the G2. I like to say we are the G2 of energy, the two biggest consumers of energy and the two biggest polluters in terms of greenhouse gases," he said. "There is no climate solution unless the US and China find ways to work through their differences." "This is a technology exchange and a global need. We are working on clean energy under climate change and fulfilling the need for decarbonization," said Xiaofeng Zhang, the vice-president of ISV and president of Global Green Development Alliance. The ISV has extended its efforts not only within China but also across diverse regions, including Africa, Latin America, South Asia and North America, with the primary focus on delivering eco-friendly and cost-effective energy solutions to underprivileged communities who have limited access to environmental resources. "We are doing more than only energy transferring, but also internet, electrical machinery, telecommunications and telemedicine. We introduce all of these based on the community's needs," said Rajan Kapur, the president of ISV. "We ask the community what they want to do, and based on that, we tell them what technology might be appropriate, what technology can be locally sourced." ISV is also collaborating with Chinese local companies and organizations. "It is also a business-development cooperation, because when you take technology and introduce it into society, you cannot just drop it over there," he said. "The capacity does not exist to use the technology; the infrastructure does not exist. So we also help with the business modeling, the governance of the enterprises that get set up," he said. Kapur said that what they are trying to do is to have a long-term impact, and ISV has not only created scientific and business models in those regions but also has deployed supportive equipment for more than 20 or 30 years. He emphasized that ISV's ultimate objective is to ensure affordable and clean energy access for 1 billion people worldwide through technology and cooperation between the US and China. Additionally, ISV expects to leverage its resources to assist local communities and businesses in achieving sustainable economic growth and regionwide improvements. "What we should remember is that it is advancing technology for all of humanity," Kapur said.

Climate Change is an Energy Problem. Here’s How We Solve It.

For the California Magazine article, click here.  

Count on comedians to nail the zeitgeist.

I’m thinking of comics like Marc Maron, whose act riffs off existential pain points like mortality, antisemitism, the delaminating geopolitical situation, and, of course, that multigigaton carbon elephant in the room, climate change. “The reason we’re not more upset about the world ending environmentally, I think, is that, you know, all of us in our hearts really know that we did everything we could,” Maron deadpans. “We brought our own bags to the supermarket,” he says, then pauses a few beats. “Yeah, that’s about it.” No surprise that comedians are able to play our eco-dread for yuks. Comedy is often rooted in the fertile manure of uncomfortable truths: we laugh so we don’t sob. And that’s all fine and good; laughter’s a good antidote to the malaise that comes from doomscrolling our newsfeeds day in, day out. But are we really ready to throw in the towel and laugh ourselves into oblivion? And is Maron correct? Have we really done nothing to confront our foremost environmental crisis? Hardly. True, we haven’t yet reversed the upward trend in greenhouse gas emissions, and the challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels often seems insurmountable. Is it, though? According to Berkeley experts interviewed for this story, there’s reason for hope that we’ll make it through the bottleneck yet. The technology is already here and improving all the time. It won’t be easy, but it is doable. Now, let’s see how:


a statue of a man holding up a disco ball
If you’re looking for a peg to hang your hopes on, start with energy economics and, in particular, the price of solar panels. Costs have dropped by nearly 90 percent since 2009, driven by both improved technology and global production (particularly from China). In 1976, solar electricity cost $106 a watt; today, it costs less than 50 cents per watt. Bottom line: Solar is now competitive with fossil fuels as a means of energy production. While solar still only accounts for 3.4 percent of domestic energy consumption, production has been growing by more than 20 percent annually over the past five years, and likely would have been higher if not for shipping and supply chain difficulties stemming from the pandemic. Production isn’t everything, however. For widespread adoption, an energy source must be available on demand. And it’s here that fossil fuels have a big leg up. Natural gas or coal can be burned at any time to generate electricity as required. Solar panels produce only when the sun shines. Storing adequate energy for later use—i.e., at night or on cloudy days—has long posed a major obstacle.
Solar production has been growing by more than 20 percent annually over the past five years, and likely would have been greater but for the pandemic.
Not anymore, says Daniel Kammen, the founding director of Cal’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory and a professor in the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School of Public Policy. A coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999, he shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. “I don’t see storage as a major problem at this point,” Kammen says. “It’s not a single breakthrough that makes me think that way, but more that we’re seeing the same trend in price and performance for storage that we saw with photovoltaics. A variety of approaches are coming to market, and they’re scaling really fast. Things that used to take several years to develop now take a year, and that’s almost certain to continue.” The storage of the future will serve two different sectors, observes Kammen: transportation (think electric vehicles) and everything else (homes, office buildings, factories, etc.).


a plug cord making the shape of a car
From a climate change point of view, an electrified vehicle fleet is desirable because it dovetails nicely with a green electric grid—i.e., one fed by sustainable energy sources. Currently, cars burning gasoline or diesel spew about 3 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere each year—about 7 percent of total human-created CO² emissions. Just electrifying roughly a third of China’s vehicle fleet could slash carbon emissions by a gigaton a year by 2040. So there’s a lot at stake with electric vehicles, and everything considered, Kammen is pretty sanguine about their progress. “It’s really been picking up, particularly over the last year,” he says. “It’s probably not a coincidence that gasoline and diesel prices have been spiking at the same time, and I hate to think that the war in Ukraine is part of that, but it probably is.” EVs are now the best-selling cars in California, Kammen continues, “and it’s the same in Norway, and it’ll soon be the same in New York. Prices on EVs are coming down. The trend is strong and accelerating.” EVs generally store energy in batteries that use lithium, a relatively rare element that charges and discharges rapidly and is lightweight—an essential quality for automobiles, where excess weight is anathema. Lithium battery technology is well advanced, and some EVs can now go 400 miles between charging, alleviating earlier anxieties about limited range.
A central goal of the Biden administration is the construction of 500,000 new EV charging stations. For perspective: There are currently fewer than 150,000 gas stations in the entire United States.
The next challenge to overcome is a paucity of charging stations, a reality that still gives Tesla drivers pause before embarking on a long road trip. But that’s being remedied, Kammen says, thanks in significant part to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (see sidebar), which provides generous home and business tax credits for new and used EV purchases and fast-charging EV stations. A central goal of the Biden administration is the construction of 500,000 new EV charging stations distributed across all 50 states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico by 2030. For a little perspective on how ambitious that number is, consider: There are currently fewer than 150,000 gas stations in the entire United States. “Worries over charging station access are real, there’s no denying it,” says Kammen. “But this legislation, coupled with the fact that recharge times are now very fast, will make a huge difference. The one thing that we still have to address, though, is the social justice component,” as not all zip codes will see the same resources. Without policies to ensure otherwise, Santa Monica will likely have charging stations aplenty; South Central Los Angeles not so much. “We really need to ensure that doesn’t happen,” says Kammen. “First, it’s wrong. Second, to make a real difference, both energy production and transport must progress across a broad scale. That’s an easier case to make when everyone benefits.”


batteries behind a city skyline
In addition to transportation, urban infrastructure must transition to sustainable, carbon-free energy as well. That will require combining clean energy with adequate storage to provide “grid reliability”—that is, systems that will keep the juice flowing in all seasons, even when the sun is absent or the wind stops blowing. In short, you need really, really big batteries. But what kind of batteries? Lithium-ion batteries, already well established, are one option, says Kammen. But the qualities that make them ideal for vehicles—lightweight, fast charging capabilities—aren’t as critical when you’re trying to light a city at night. For stationary power needs, batteries can be industrial scale—heavy, with a large footprint. Another problem with lithium is its scarcity. The United States currently controls less than 4 percent of global reserves. For that reason alone, researchers are looking for alternatives: batteries that employ cheaper and more readily available elements. One of the most promising approaches, according to several sources, is iron-air batteries. And one of the leaders in the technology is Form Energy, a company headquartered in Massachusetts with satellite facilities in Berkeley. Zac Judkins ’06 is the company’s vice president of engineering. He stresses that Form was obsessed with finding a way to address the problem of multiday storage, not enamored of a particular technology.
Judkins and colleagues evaluated a wide array of candidate chemistries before settling on iron-air batteries, which work by rusting and unrusting thousands of iron pellets with every cycle.
“When we started up in 2017, we saw that the world was rapidly moving to renewables—mainly solar and wind—and setting increasingly ambitious grid reliability and decarbonization goals.” Without effective storage, however, progress was going to hit a brick wall, Judkins says. Analyzing the market, Form’s engineers arrived at a target. They needed to build a battery that could continuously discharge for 100 hours at a total cost of $20 per kilowatt-hour and had a round-trip efficiency (the amount of energy stored in a battery that can later be used) of 50 percent. Those parameters, Judkins says, would allow for very high adoption of renewables with no sacrifice to grid reliability and minimal increase in cost to consumers. “That was the benchmark we had to hit.” Judkins and colleagues evaluated a wide array of candidate chemistries before settling on iron-air batteries, which work by rusting and unrusting thousands of iron pellets with every cycle. Says Judkins, “We didn’t invent the iron-air battery. It was developed by Westinghouse and NASA in the late ’60s and ’70s. They’re not good for cars—they’re not light, and they don’t discharge rapidly. But there are advantages. For one thing, iron is abundant. It’s cheap. We don’t have to worry about supply constraints.” What you also get with iron, says Judkins, is low cost and high energy density—i.e., the amount of juice you can put into the battery. The tradeoff is lower power density—how fast you can pull the energy out relative to volume. “It’s roughly 10 times lower on power density than lithium-ion, but for our needs it’s fine,” says Judkins. “This is storage for large-scale, grid-tied projects.” Take the example of a large photovoltaic array like those on California’s Carrizo Plain. One array there has a 250-megawatt capacity, enough for about 100,000 homes, but only when the sun is shining. At night, during storms, there’s no electricity. But, says Judkins, with the addition of a Form plant with a footprint of 100 acres or so, you could store enough energy to keep the electricity flowing for a four-day period. The company is now transitioning from proof of concept to full production. Ironically, the first commercial rust/unrust battery systems will likely come out of the Rust Belt. “We’re building a factory in West Virginia on a 55-acre site—a former steel plant—that will have approximately 800,000 square feet of production space and employ 750 people at full operation.” Green jobs. Once the plant is fully on its feet, Judkins says, it will produce 50 gigawatt-hours of storage capacity every year.


In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 600 million people live without electricity. Providing them carbon-free power will require microgrids.
Large, centralized utility grids are naturally the focus for decarbonizing developed countries—but they don’t really apply to parts of the world where access to electricity is still rare. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, 600 million people live without electricity, which doesn’t mean they don’t want it. Providing carbon-free power to these communities will require microgrids: small systems that serve neighborhoods, hamlets, or even multiple villages. But while the microgrid concept has been kicking around for years, its full realization has been elusive—until recently. “What we’re seeing is a meshing of enabling technologies,” says Duncan Callaway, an associate professor of Energy and Resources at Berkeley and a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. For starters, he points to cheap solar. “With the profound price drop in panels, it’s a truly affordable resource that’s ideally suited for mid-latitude countries,” which experience less seasonality. “In general, you can serve electric demand with solar better in those latitudes than in countries [closer to either pole], where there’s just less sunlight.” Another driver is cheaper, better storage options, Callaway says. For microgrid-scale, lithium-ion batteries work well. And these, too, have grown more affordable. “The explosive growth in electric vehicles really pushed things along,” Callaway says. “Ten years ago, it cost $1,000 for one kilowatt-hour of storage. Now it costs less than $100.” Finally, says Callaway, “smart grid” technologies have been developed that make microgrids, once notoriously balky, highly efficient. “We now have ‘big bucket’ control systems that allow for the smooth coordination of energy production, storage, and demand,” Callaway says. “That makes these small grids both low-cost and really reliable. The goal is to make systems that are truly modular, so you can plug various components into larger systems. That will allow easy customization and scaling.” More than 150 microgrids already are deployed in the United States, powering everything from individual buildings in large cities to small, remote villages in Alaska. As far as widespread adoption goes, Callaway doesn’t foresee many technical difficulties. It’s social and political roadblocks that need to be overcome. “The great thing about microgrids is that they work well in remote, underserved areas and they can be managed locally. But in less developed countries, there are often corrupt governments that want their cut from any project. And if that’s the case, you’d have an inherent bias toward centralized grids with baseline power plants.” It’s a challenge that must be met, says Callaway. “Somehow, some way, small grid technology must be put on a level playing field with the old system, the large, centralized grid—or it’s unlikely to make it, even where it’s clearly the superior choice.”


Glowing electric light bulb isolated
Microgrid or macrogrid, we’ll need a lot of clean, sustainable energy flowing through the wires if we’re going to simultaneously sustain an advanced civilization and cool the planet. Kammen is convinced it will largely come from fusion. But by that he means fusion in all its forms, including, as noted, the sun: that massive reactor in the sky that continually fuses hydrogen into heavier elements, releasing 3.8 x 10²6 joules of energy every second. But there’s also that will-o’-the-wisp that’s been tantalizing futurists and physicists for decades: terrestrial fusion reactors. These would use hydrogen—the most common element in the universe—as feedstock to generate gigawatt-hours of cheap energy, producing harmless, inert helium as the primary by-product. (Radioactive tritium would also be generated, but it has a short half-life and it’s consumed by the reactor in a closed-loop process.) Fusion technology remains the Holy Grail of clean, Earth-friendly energy production, but it’s also the butt of waggish comments. The most common is that it looks promising, but it’s 20 years away. And it’s been 20 years away for 60 years. But after a breakthrough on December 5, 2022, at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s National Ignition Facility (NIF), it now seems highly possible that a commercial fusion reactor actually could be available in, uh, well, 20 years. Maybe sooner. Most fusion efforts to date have involved tokamak reactors—toroidal vacuum chambers that corral hydrogen atoms via magnetic coils, subjecting them to heat and pressure until they become plasma, a superheated (as in 150 million degrees Celsius) gas that allows the hydrogen to fuse. This releases energy that transfers as heat to the chamber walls, where it is harvested to produce steam to drive turbines for electricity production.
For the first time on this planet—other than during a thermonuclear explosion—a fusion reaction was created that produced more energy than was required to initiate the process.
Tokamaks have been able to coax hydrogen to fuse for brief periods—indeed, progress has been steady, if plodding, since the first machine was built 60 years ago. But to date, they haven’t been able to achieve “ignition”—that point at which sustained fusion occurs, and more energy is produced by the device than it consumes. NIF took a different approach. Researchers there fabricated a minute pellet from frozen deuterium and tritium (both hydrogen isotopes). They then placed the pellet in a small gold capsule known as a hohlraum, which in turn was situated on an arm in a chamber bristling with 192 lasers. The scientists then fired the lasers simultaneously at the hohlraum, causing the inner capsule to compress. The result: temperatures and pressures exerted on the deuterium/tritium admixture were extreme enough to produce ignition. For the first time on this planet—other than during a thermonuclear explosion—a fusion reaction was created that produced more energy than was required to initiate the process. True, the sustained yield was modest. The reaction lasted less than a billionth of a second and released 3.15 megajoules of energy, or slightly less than one kilowatt-hour. Not very much, in other words; the average American household uses about 900 times that every month. Still, it was 50 percent more energy than was expended by the laser bursts. Progress! But here’s another catch: While the actual laser beams represented only around two megajoules of energy, it took about 300 megajoules to power up and operate the mechanisms that fired the beams. So, there’s still a lot to be done before we’re microwaving our frozen burritos with fusion power. Nevertheless, Kammen, ever the optimist, is fairly sure we will be soon. “Given the trends, I think I’m pretty safe in predicting that we’ll derive about 70 percent of our power from fusion by 2070,” Kammen says. “Half of that will be from the sun and half from fusion power plants.” And while NIF’s laser-blasted pellet approach points to future success, don’t rule out tokamaks. Kammen says he’s “expecting some exciting announcements about tokamak reactors pretty soon.” You heard it here first. Solar fusion, too, will follow multiple avenues toward fuller implementation. “It’s not just rooftop panels in cities and solar farms out on the landscape,” he says. “There’ll also be marine solar—large arrays out in the ocean.” Also: orbital solar. Live trials are now underway at Caltech and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, says Kammen, to establish large, autonomously assembled (i.e., no live astronauts required) solar arrays in space. The energy would be beamed down as microwaves to terrestrial collectors, where it would be converted to electricity. That may raise the specter of a loose-cannon death ray immolating cities from orbit if something goes awry—but not to worry, says Kammen. “The watt-per-square-meter dose is pretty low, so there’s no danger of anyone getting fried if they’re hit by it.” He also thinks the fusion technology now under development for terrestrial reactors will have applications for space travel. “There’s a dual angle on fusion that’s really catapulting the technology,” Kammen says. “For better or worse, it’s imperative that we colonize the solar system so our fate as a species isn’t completely tied to one planet. Fusion propulsion will be an excellent means for getting us to the moon and Mars and beyond, and fusion—solar, reactor, or both—will also serve as a base-load power source when we get there.”


Fission generates a lot of energy from a small footprint. Diablo Canyon, California’s sole nuclear plant, produces almost 10 percent of the total electricity consumed in the state, and it does it within a confine of 600 acres.
With all the fuss over fusion, the other “nuclear” power source, fission, seems to have faded into the background. That’s illusory. Fission is still quite hot, so to speak, with increasing numbers of erstwhile foes in the environmental community now embracing it—or, at least, tacitly supporting it. The reasons are clear. First, fission can generate a great amount of energy on a small footprint. Diablo Canyon, California’s sole operating commercial fission plant, produces almost 10 percent of the electricity consumed in the state and does it within a confine of 600 acres. And from a climate change perspective, nukes are peerless: they emit zero CO². Of course, people remain worried about other kinds of emissions, such as intense radioactivity from long-lived waste isotopes. And older generation plants—that is, most of the ones operating today—are susceptible to core damage to varying degrees, with catastrophic results à la Chernobyl and Fukushima. Those concerns are entrenched, especially in the United States, where environmental issues, regulatory red tape, and simple cost often conspire to scotch large infrastructure projects in the proposal phase. “We’re pretty bad at megaprojects in this country,” says Rachel Slaybaugh, formerly an associate professor in nuclear engineering at Berkeley and now a partner at venture capital firm DCVC. “For one thing, it’s incredibly easy for them to go over budget. Just look at the new Bay Bridge, which ran triple the original estimates.” That problem is compounded for nuclear plants, given heightened safety concerns and the regulations and litigation they engender. But there has been an upside to the impediments imposed on traditional nuclear power, Slaybaugh says: Out of necessity, more efficient—and perhaps more socially acceptable—technology has been developed. The newer reactors are smaller—some much smaller—than the behemoths of yore, and pilot projects are underway. “A good many of these designs originated from basic concepts developed in the 1950s or 1960s, but their refinement and commercial deployment is being driven in large part by our inability to construct large projects,” Slaybaugh says. Different reactors have been designed for different situations, Slaybaugh observes, employing various fuels, coolants, and configurations. Some “breeder” reactors could even burn their own byproducts, greatly reducing radioactive waste. “What’s the priority?” Slaybaugh asks rhetorically. “Economics? Providing high-temperature heat, or balancing renewables on the grid? Minimizing nuclear waste? A combination of different goals? These new designs can be standardized or customized and scaled for the site and requirements, and all involve considerable engineering to ensure safety.” Some of the reactors will be large enough to power a city, or several cities. “And others will be teeny,” Slaybaugh says. “Those will be perfect for remote military bases or research facilities, say Antarctica or the Arctic. You’d eliminate several major problems with one of these very small reactors. Think of the logistical difficulties involved in getting diesel fuel to an arctic base, not to mention the heavy pollution it produces and, of course, the CO² that’s emitted.” Fission technology also has some profound advantages over renewables, she says. “There are real limits to how many solar farms and wind turbines we should or even can build,” she observes. “A lot of materials are required for their production, and a lot of mining is needed to get the necessary elements. And these facilities tend to have very large footprints. I’m actually worried that we’re going to see a strong solar and wind backlash as people really start to understand all the impacts.” Every energy source has strengths and weaknesses, continues Slaybaugh, “and we need to have sophisticated conversations on what they are and where each can best apply. Ultimately, my view of fission is that it’s a necessary tool that we must use in conjunction with other available tools to get the job done as well and as quickly as possible. No single solution is going to work for all scenarios.”


At this point, we know what we must do to turn things around. Even better, we have the technologies and techniques to do it. But we need to deploy them.
Reducing carbon emissions is not the complete solution to global warming, say scientists. To really get a handle on the problem, we’ll also need to remove existing CO² from the atmosphere and sequester it permanently in the ground. One option, direct air capture (DAC), is the basis for a small but growing industry: Currently, there are about 20 DAC pilot plants operating, in total capturing and sequestering around .01 megaton of atmospheric CO² annually. According to the International Energy Agency, that storage could grow to 60 megatons a year by 2030, assuming large-scale demonstration plants proceed apace, current techniques are refined, and costs drop as the technology scales. But those are a lot of assumptions for minimal benefit. Granted, a 60-megaton mass of anything is impressive. But from a climate-change perspective, 60 Mt is negligible, given energy-related carbon emissions hit an all-time high of over 36.8 billion tons in 2022. Many researchers think there are better options, and we don’t have to do anything to develop them because they already exist. They point to natural carbon sinks: forests, wetlands, grasslands, and, most significantly, the oceans. These natural systems are part of the Earth’s carbon cycle, which absorbs and releases about 100 gigatons of carbon a year. A planetary mechanism of that scale might seem more than adequate to handle carbon emissions, and it would, if atmospheric CO² only originated from natural emission points such as volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. As noted recently by MIT professor of geophysics Daniel Rothman, natural sources contribute ten times more carbon to the atmosphere than human activities, but it’s the anthropogenic carbon that is pushing the cycle over the edge. The planet can’t process the extra atmospheric carbon back into a stable earthbound state fast enough. This deficit is exacerbated by the fact that we’re degrading our carbon sinks even as we’re pumping more CO2 into the sky. “The ecological services carbon sinks provide are really priceless,” says John Harte, a professor of the Graduate School in Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group. Harte, who conducted pioneering work on the “feedback” effect a warming climate exerts on natural carbon cycles in high-altitude meadows, observes that carbon sinks were poorly understood 35 years ago. “But we now know they absorb 18 billion tons of CO2 a year. Realistically, we should be putting more of the money we’re devoting to the development of carbon sequestration technology into enhancing natural carbon sinks. At the very least, we need to stop their degradation.” Harte’s work in the Colorado Rockies entailed artificially heating plots of land and tracking changes in vegetation types and carbon sequestration rates. In plots that weren’t heated and experienced climate change in real time, he found that wildflowers dominated, cycling large volumes of carbon into the soil during the short alpine growing season; when the plants died back each fall, the rate of carbon storage dropped off dramatically. But as Harte warmed specific plots over a period of years, woody shrubs replaced the flowering annual plants earlier than on nonheated land. These slower-growing plants sequestered carbon at a much slower rate than the wildflowers. “The ‘money,’ the carbon, in the bank account shrinks,” says Harte. But after about 100 years, you begin to see dividends. “The carbon coming into the soil from woody plants is stored longer, so you eventually still have carbon in the soil.” The goods news: This suggests natural sinks could be managed for optimal storage. But if emissions remain high, they’ll strain and ultimately overwhelm the sequestration capacity of the sinks, negating their value. “If climate change continues, if we don’t cut back on emissions,” says Harte, “there’ll be no way to buffer the effects.” And really, that’s the crux of the whole issue. At this point in the climate change crisis, we know what we must do to turn things around. Even better, we have the technologies and techniques to do it. But we need to deploy them. That means everything: solar in all its forms, from rooftop panels to orbital microwave arrays; wind turbine farms, both on land and at sea; fusion reactors; fission reactors; microgrids; massively distributed storage systems. And we must enhance, not debase, the natural systems that sequester carbon. We need to plant many more trees and manage working forests more sustainably, calculating carbon storage as a product equal to or exceeding board feet of lumber. And we need to protect the greatest carbon sink of them all: the ocean. “I’m terribly worried about the trend toward seabed mining,” says Kammen. “It’s the least regulated of all the new frontiers, some very large companies are pushing it, and it’d be absolutely devastating. If we don’t stop activities like that and if we don’t use all the sustainable energy options that are available, we are risking extinction.” That may not be a very optimistic note to end on, but then, optimism only gets us so far, doesn’t it? What we need now is grit and determination.

Enabling and centering equity and justice in clean energy transition research

Energy researchers have historically studied how power systems can provide cheap, clean, and reliable energy. While these three attributes are critical for clean energy transitions, the energy justice movement supports an equally necessary focus on equity and justice. In recent years, research has sought to understand how decision-making and infrastructure design can enable fair socio-technical changes in energy systems, from production to consumption to retirement.

Stemming from the environmental justice and fuel poverty scholarship and advocacy that emerged in the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom, the energy justice research space has consolidated and evolved since the 2010s. Over the past decade, the energy justice literature has highlighted how the design and operation of energy systems can have unequal socio-spatial impacts and has illuminated opportunities toward more inclusive energy services.

A critical review is required to map out the obstacles and opportunities in this field at a time when a confluence of economic, social, and political trends have brought issues of equity and justice to the fore (e.g., US Executive Order 14008). In this article, we explore three challenges the energy justice field faces as it engages with research on clean energy transitions in the US: setting boundaries for its research agenda; developing generalizable metrics to assess energy justice claims; and implementing those metrics to inform policy. We identify promising developments in these areas and make suggestions for future work.

Productive uses of electricity at the energy-​​health nexus: Financial, technical and social insights from a containerized power system in Rwanda

 We present a case study of successful uptake of a productive use of electricity (PUE) co-located at an off-grid clinic powered by OffGridBox in Rwanda. We develop a techno-economic analysis of the standardized, modular, and redeployable power supply technology, characterizing cost components, revenue considerations, and key challenges. We present a technical characterization of system utilization based on remote monitoring of electricity consumption, power reliability, and power quality at a PUE intervention site, estimating system reliability at 81% over the study period. Lastly, we characterize socio-economic costs and benefits from the productive user’s perspective drawing on mixed-method interviews. We find that relatively low amounts of electricity consumption (10–30 kWh per month) command a high revealed willingness to pay (~$3 per kWh) for the solar-powered displacement of diesel-based welding, significantly improving the unit economics of the deployed system. This analysis and data provides a resource model for the standardization of mini-grid hardware, performance and cost frameworks, and metrics to assess off-grid, under-grid and ultimately grid interactive distributed generation systems. These models are urgently needed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7 commitment to achieve universal energy access by 2030. 

Balancing renewable energy and river resources by moving from individual assessments of hydropower projects to energy system planning

As governments and non-state actors strive to minimize global warming, a primary strategy is the decarbonization of power systems which will require a massive increase in renewable electricity generation. Leading energy agencies forecast a doubling of global hydropower capacity as part of that necessary expansion of renewables. While hydropower provides generally low-carbon generation and can integrate variable renewables, such as wind and solar, into electrical grids, hydropower dams are one of the primary reasons that only one-third of the world’s major rivers remain free-flowing. This loss of free-flowing rivers has contributed to dramatic declines of migratory fish and sediment delivery to agriculturally productive deltas. Further, the reservoirs behind dams have displaced tens of millions of people. Thus, hydropower challenges the world’s efforts to meet climate targets while simultaneously achieving other Sustainable Development Goals. In this paper, we explore strategies to achieve the needed renewable energy expansion while sustaining the diverse social and environmental benefits of rivers. These strategies can be implemented at scales ranging from the individual project (environmental flows, fish passage and other site-level mitigation) to hydropower cascades to river basins and regional electrical power systems. While we review evidence that project-level management and mitigation can reduce environmental and social costs, we posit that the most effective scale for finding balanced solutions occurs at the scale of power systems. We further hypothesize that the pursuit of solutions at the system scale can also provide benefits for investors, developers and governments; evidence of benefits to these actors will be necessary for achieving broad uptake of the approaches described in this paper. We test this hypothesis through cases from Chile and Uganda that demonstrate the potential for system-scale power planning to allow countries to meet low-carbon energy targets with power systems that avoid damming high priority rivers (e.g., those that would cause conflicts with other social and environmental benefits) for a similar system cost as status quo approaches. We also show that, through reduction of risk and potential conflict, strategic planning of hydropower site selection can improve financial performance for investors and developers, with a case study from Colombia.

How data-​​driven research partnerships deepen energy access across supply chains

For the GreenBiz article, click here.

Offgrid Box in the field

An unpacked “Box” in the field, providing power for water filtration and clinic electrification. Photo by Sam Miles

Access to reliable, affordable and clean energy is increasingly recognized as the "golden thread" tying together and enabling many other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite progress over the last decade in making solutions to energy poverty more accessible to the more than 800 million people currently without electricity (and the many more with intermittent or unaffordable energy) many gaps remain. In particular, the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted supply and demand for energy, both of which are necessary to meet SDG 7. At the same time, transitioning to more renewable energy-based electricity systems requiring battery storage, whether in emerging markets or developed ones, will require massive amounts of mineral resources with significant human and environmental footprints. A paper published by USAID in late 2021underscores the urgency of addressing mining in the context of the green energy transition: Recent global studies predict demand increases of up to ten times current production levels for minerals like cobalt, graphite, and lithium. No matter the mix of alternate energy sources the world turns to, the mining sector will be a key player in the years ahead. To meet the ambitious goal of universal modern energy by 2030 — while grappling with the consequences of critical minerals demand growth — harmonized policies, coordinated investment and innovative research are urgently needed. Equally or even more important, however, are the understudied and undersupported partnerships that can catalyze and scale these efforts to make SDG7 both a lifeline and a means of economic empowerment and equity. The Congo Power alliance represents one such innovative coalition approach. Initially launched by Google's Supplier Responsibility team in 2017 to reinforce responsible minerals trade and expand economic opportunity through clean energy, the initiative supports communities committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals that are ubiquitous in electronics and historically tied to conflict and human rights abuses. This mineral trade focuses on tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold and cobalt, making this issue particularly critical in the African Great Lakes Region, where much of the world’s supply of these minerals’ stock lies underground.
A graphic of the Africa Great Lakes region

The African Great Lakes region includes Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Republic of South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia. Image courtesy of Google, USAID

As part of its overarching sustainability strategy, Google committed to maximizing our use of finite resources, which includes supporting in-region programs that reinforce responsible supply chains, and increasing the use of recycled materials. These program commitments are also part of meeting the expectations of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which mandate that all publicly traded companies complete due diligence on their supply chains, and report on those measures. In line with these commitments, the Congo Power team has invested in 14 community projects since 2017 and has brought a broad group of stakeholders along. On a Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) delegation with the U.S. State Department in late 2019, for example, Google, Nokia, Intel, Apple, Global Advanced Metals, USAID, U.S. Department of State, GiZ, the Responsible Business Alliance and RESOLVE visited the Idjwi Island minigrid and spent time with the Panzi Foundation’s Denis Mukwege discussing the intersection of human rights and responsible sourcing in the region. As a result of that trip, the Congo Power team focused on building a deeper relationship with the Panzi Foundation and put community health clinics at the center of addressing power, gender, energy equity along with reinforcing responsible supply chains. The team also continues to expand collaborations with conservation areas such as Garamba National Park, which is deploying clean power systems to support local economic activities (both mining and non-mining) in ways that reduce threats to the park's conservation and biodiversity goals.
Four artisanal gold miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at a site visited by the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade delegation in 2019.

Four artisanal gold miners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo at a site visited by the Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade delegation in 2019. Photo Credit: Alyssa Newman

The program’s launch highlighted the importance of deep relationships between development partners, consumer brands and NGOs with deep in-country operating expertise, such as GivePower and Resolve. This multi-sector approach is critical for drawing in further "downstream" conglomerates whose customers increasingly demand end products made with responsibly sourced materials. This strategy has successfully brought on some of the world’s largest manufacturers to the alliance’s commitment to responsible sourcing. Intel has funded two additional phases, and other partners are in the process of making funding commitments. The alliance collaborates with platforms such as Cobalt for Development (BMW, Samsung, BASF, GIZ, Volkswagen, Good Shepherd International Foundation and others) and the Fair Cobalt Alliance(Tesla, Fairfone, The Impact Facility and others) to reinforce mutual objectives in responsible sourcing, and support organizations that are working on the ground. Beyond public and private partners, academia plays an important role within this consortium. Through a collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley, the Congo Power initiative explores how innovative energy solutions can improve livelihoods and resilience across communities in East and Central Africa. Previously funded research has explored the intersection between energy poverty and conflict, the evolution of real-time monitoring of decentralized energy systems, operating models for mini-grids in urban informal settlements, the impact of solar-home-systems on energy, gender and social justice, and frameworks for understanding community participation’s role in mini-grid projects. This is just the beginning, however. Many questions remain for the RAEL/Congo Power collaboration to uncover in improving the delivery of sustainable and appropriate energy solutions across the various supply chains that constitute the lifeblood of vulnerable communities around the world. Chief among the initiative’s research ambitions is developing a deeper sense of how to make $1 of investment in renewable energy "go further." Benchmark impact metrics for innovative energy projects are lacking in the empirical literature, particularly for mini-grid technologies, increasingly recognized as the least-cost way to electrify hundreds of millions of those without power. Developing and documenting enabling partnerships also offers a key resource for nations, businesses, multinational aid / development organizations and civil society to interrogate potential solutions and scale up winning concepts that can help meet goals set in the Paris Climate Agreements and other SDGs. Fundamentally, such a private-public-academic partnership boils down to exploring what kinds of impact — described both quantitatively and qualitatively — different energy delivery models can achieve across institutional and geographical scales. And beyond the evaluation of impact: Which narratives can most effectively communicate these insights into actionable support for promising solutions and their developers? Guided by such academic research questions, these partnerships are able to fund implementation partners as well. Nuru, Equatorial Power and OffGridBox are three such partners in East and Central Africa, whose operations are providing critical insights into key techno-economic and operational challenges to scaling energy access. These organizations have a wide and diverse footprint. Nuru builds and operates mini-grids across remote, rural, and urban areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Their principal installation is one of the largest mini-grids in Africa, supplying more than 1,800 customers through a 1.3 megawatt solar-hybrid installation in peri-urban neighborhoods in Goma, DRC. Congo Power supported Equatorial Power’s very first installation mini-grid, a 20 kilowatt-peak (kWp) installation on Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu (separating the DRC and Rwanda) supplying over 300 connections, including several small-to-medium enterprises. OffGridBox has deployed one of its 3.4 kWp containerized power and water installations in Walikale (a mining center in eastern DRC), with more than 80 identical such deployments around the world.
OffGridBoxes (“Boxes”) ready for deployment at the Rwandan headquarters.

OffGridBoxes (“Boxes”) ready for deployment at the Rwandan headquarters. Photo by Sam Miles

To gain deep yet broad insights into the challenge of strengthening the "golden thread," RAEL researchers within the Congo Power alliance aim to be both methodical yet practical in developing research themes from these initial project foci — particularly important given the challenges of doing in-person research through a pandemic. One theme that consistently emerges through and across such projects is the importance of "productive" uses of electricity — most simply defined as the ability of electricity users to generate additional income on the basis of improved energy access. When, where and how are informal artisans, entrepreneurs and laborers able to convert renewable electricity into improved economic outcomes for themselves, their homesteads and their communities? These questions have proven particularly challenging to answer, despite over two decades of scholarship describing productive uses of electricity as a cornerstone underpinning the financial sustainability, and thus scalability, of energy access solutions with high upfront investment costs and low margins. RAEL researchers have brought novel evaluation approaches to tackle this problem, including live-monitoring of electricity consumption of productive use pilots across the region, geospatial and remote sensing techniques leveraging satellite imagery and machine learning, as well as piloting new power quality and reliability measurement methodologies for evaluating the state of electricity for health services, including cold storage, through collaborations with infrastructure-monitoring startup nLine. Many important questions beyond how to catalyze income generating uses of electricity remain, however. Does street lighting reduce crime in remote villages or rapidly urbanizing environments? Can decentralized energy solutions bridge the gaps in Africa’s vaccine cold chains? How can project funders best collaborate with private sector implementers, NGOs, and policymakers to optimize the impacts of a given energy project, targeting outcomes as disparate as supply chain traceability, productive end uses, conservation or women’s empowerment?
Public street lighting provided by Nuru in a community near Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Public street lighting provided by Nuru in a community near Garamba National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo by Esther Nsapu 
These and many other research questions will guide RAEL researchers as the Congo Power initiative continues to gain momentum and partners. A much wider consortium of partners, however, is still needed to confront the magnitude of the challenges ahead, and data-driven research is critical to harness the disparate perspectives, resources and objectives such a big tent approach entails. For corporate sustainability professionals, joining coalitions such as Congo Power is one way to connect many distinct pieces of the challenges that lie ahead: confronting climate change by supporting cleaner energy production in communities at the very start of their supply chains, tackling the human rights implications of exponential demand growth for minerals required for electronics infrastructure including renewable energy equipment and battery storage technologies, and ensuring the equitable distribution of potential benefits from the global energy transition are distributed equitably. No one company or organization can move the needle on their own, but it is increasingly clear that shareholders, consumers, employees and regulators are placing greater responsibility on global brands to step up to the challenge. Partnerships such as Congo Power provide a clear pathway for private-public partnerships to explore and support cutting-edge projects, technologies and infrastructures, guided by the most recent empirical evidence of impact. With rigorous, intersectional and actionable research guiding such a powerful coalition of committed partners, a truly just energy transition is possible. Editor's note: Serena Patel (MIT), Hilary Yu, Joyceline Marealle (both UC Berkeley) and Alyssa Newman (Google and UC Berkeley) also contributed to this article.
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One way to combat Russia? Move faster on clean energy

Sammy Roth - February 26, 2022 - Los Angeles Times image

The sun sets behind an offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea off the coast of England.
(Paul Ellis / AFP/Getty Images)
Direct link:   When a geopolitical crisis sent gasoline prices skyrocketing four decades ago, President Carter called on Americans to achieve “energy independence” from Middle Eastern oil exporters. He installed solar panels on the White House, donned a cardigan sweater to stay warm and took steps to boost domestic oil production. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has again upended global energy supplies, threatening to raise gas prices that are already higher than ever in California. The U.S. oil industry wants President Biden to ease restrictions on drilling, and Europe has already started importing more fossil fuel from the United States to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies. But doubling down on oil and natural gas isn’t the answer, some security experts say — and neither is energy independence. The war in Europe adds to the urgency of transitioning to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power that are harder for bad actors such as Russia to disrupt, those experts say. The conflict also highlights the importance of the U.S., the European Union and other allies working together to confront the climate crisis while taking global security into account. “There’s been a lot of concern about dependence on Russian [natural] gas, and whether that inhibits countries’ ability to stand up to Russia,” said Erin Sikorsky, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security. “The more that countries can wean themselves off oil and gas and move toward renewables, the more independence they have in terms of action.” It’s also important to remember that climate change poses a major national security threat, with the Defense Department and other federal officials warning last year that worsening climate-fueled hazards are likely to drive a surge in global migration, stoking political instability. That helps explain why the U.S. Army released its first-ever climate strategy this month, setting a goal of slashing its planet-warming emissions in half and powering all bases with climate-friendly electricity by 2030. Sikorsky pointed out that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has called China the “pacing threat” for the U.S., meaning it poses greater systemic challenges than any other nation. The climate emergency, Sikorsky said, is America’s “shaping threat.”
“It is shaping everything in the background now that the United States is dealing with,” she said. Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine this week, European nations were making plans to cut their reliance on energy exports from Russia. The country supplies more than one-quarter of Europe’s oil and nearly 40% of its natural gas, a different planet-warming fuel used for heating and electricity generation. But Russian aggression has sped up the E.U.’s plans. European officials are expected to release a strategy next week for reducing the continent’s use of fossil fuels by 40% over eight years, and ramping up non-polluting energy sources. It’s a plan designed to slow the climate crisis, which is wreaking havoc around the world by exacerbating wildfires, floods, droughts and heat waves. But cutting back on fossil fuels would also help to limit Russia’s geopolitical influence.image
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December. (Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press)
UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen — who previously served as science envoy for then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry — lamented that Europe “has clearly needed higher motivations than climate change to cut the Gordian gas knot with Russia.” But if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushes the E.U. to act, he said, it could be a silver lining to an otherwise tragic situation. “For all we talk about how inexpensive renewables are, and how quickly energy storage is coming down in price, that hasn’t been enough when it appears that ‘just’ the climate is at stake,” Kammen said. “Now European sovereignty is at stake.” Still, there’s no guarantee Europe will follow through on its latest climate commitments. Even if the geopolitical crisis underscores the benefits of shifting to renewable energy, it could also distract global leaders from the longer-term climate crisis. And in the meantime, one of Europe’s strategies for dealing with constrained Russian gas supplies and rising prices during the last few months has been importing more liquefied natural gas from the United States. It’s an option made possible by fracking, which opened up “shale plays” in regions such as west Texas and made America the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer. “Putin hates U.S. shale because of the influence it gives the U.S. and the world, and the flexibility it gives us,” said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning oil historian and vice chair of research and consulting firm IHS Markit.
The American Petroleum Institute — a fossil fuel industry trade group known as API — has urged Biden to respond to the Ukraine crisis by allowing more oil and gas drilling on federal lands and approving new facilities to export liquefied natural gas.
Twenty-seven Republican senators made a similar demand in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week, calling U.S gas exports “a dependable source of energy and a reliable alternative to strategic competitors like Russia.” But those steps would carry long-term climate consequences,spewing more heat-trapping pollution into that atmosphere. They’re also unlikely to result in new energy supplies coming online quickly enough to make a meaningful difference in Europe. “API’s answer for all of the world’s problems is to remove constraints on domestic oil and gas production,” said David Victor, an international relations professor at UC San Diego. “It’s just a very well-rehearsed argument.”
Rendering of the proposed liquefied natural gas expansion at the Energia Costa Azul facility near Ensenada, Mexico. The plant is operated by IEnova, a Mexico-based energy company and a subsidiary of San Diego's Sempra Energy.
And if Europe follows through on commitments to ratchet down fossil fuel combustion — perhaps by investing in green hydrogen or long-duration batteries — the U.S. could also reap the benefits, Victor said. That’s because California and other states, like Europe, have a growing need for clean power sources that can keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. European investments to scale up those early-stage technologies could help drive down costs for everyone. “The technologies that are going to be used — whether it’s electrolyzers for hydrogen or fuel cells that use hydrogen for heavy trucks — these are all global,” Victor said. “Those economies [of scale] are just massive. That’s how solar got cheap.”
Westlands Solar Park in California's San Joaquin Valley.
Westlands Solar Park in California’s San Joaquin Valley.(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)
Calls for energy independence, Victor added, “often end up backfiring, because we benefit from a global technology marketplace.” At the same time, bulking up domestic supply chains could help the U.S. shield itself against price swings and geopolitical conflict — particularly when it comes to lithium and other minerals needed for clean energy technologies such as batteries. Just this week, Biden joined with Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce a $35-million contract with a Las Vegas company that operates the nation’s only rare-earth mine in the California desert. Biden and Newsom also discussed federal support for lithium production at the Salton Sea, in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been described as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.” Boosting domestic production of critical minerals could help combat Russian influence, since Russia is a leading producer of metals including copper and nickel — a reminder that even the clean-energy economy isn’t immune from bad actors. At the same time, the idea of energy independence is “somewhat dangerous, because it offers you a false sense of security,” said Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at the think tank RMI. The reality, she said, is that the U.S. will need to find ways to work with Russia and other nations to slash climate pollution, even as it strives to diversify its own clean energy supplies. “You have to be sensitive to your energy vulnerabilities and have contingency plans in place,” said Ladislaw, who previously led the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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