A perfect storm of climate-related weather catastrophes, pandemic-related fossil fuel production bottlenecks, and an under-investment in infrastructure and renewable power has created the world’s latest global energy crisis.
Severe flooding in the heart of China’s coal country following drought conditions that hampered hydropower generation are adding to the nation’s energy woes, increasing existing supply shortages that stemmed from policy shifts and an industrywide slowdown.
Those coal constraints and a push to switch to natural gas, which is creating higher demand in the nation, is causing prices to spike around the world.
In Europe, those natural gas price spikes are compounded by the decommissioning of nuclear and coal power plants — and the depletion of existing natural gas stores following a particularly long winter across the region.
Add weaker than expected power generation from offshore wind farms in the region (and chicanery from Russia — Europe’s biggest natural gas supplier) and the world has created the perfect conditions for a modern-day energy crisis.
This fossil-fueled power crisis is coinciding with a profound need to accelerate the transition to zero-emission sources of power to avoid future destabilizations of the world’s power supply and mitigate the climate emergency that threatens pretty much everything (so far this year, the US has been hit by 18 climate-related weather events that cost the nation over $18 billion).
And while critics blame low wind speeds for the UK’s energy problems, there are several renewable-powered and zero-emission technologies that are coming to market now whose development could prevent the kind of energy drought the world is now experiencing.
These days, potential solutions to the energy crisis abound, if nations would allocate the necessary resources to accelerate their development.
Energy Vault’s first generation long duration storage system using potential energy to store renewable power generation. Image Credit: Energy Vault
Long duration energy storage
From funding mega-batteries, to compressed air energy storage, to hauling big bricks or trains, there’s been a flood of money that’s gone in to finding ways to store renewable energy so it can be tapped when the wind ain’t blowing and the sun ain’t shining.
Through the dog days of summer and into the fall investors were at work pouring nearly $500 million into various long duration energy storage technologies.
One company, Energy Vault, is using renewable energy to move massive concrete blocks, storing electrical energy as potential energy that can be released when the blocks are moved. Set to list on the New York Stock Exchange later this year, Energy Vault has already completed one pilot project in Ticino, Switzerland with more on the way.
Meanwhile, big battery developers like EnerVenue — which is using the same energy storage technology that powers the International Space Station and Hubble Space Telescope — and Form Energy (launched by slew of battery industry veterans) are using novel chemistries to build storage devices that can hold hundreds of hours of energy.
In Form’s case, that involves converting iron to rust, then rust back into iron, discharging and charging the battery in the process. The company claims its battery can store electricity at a cost of roughly $6 per-kilowatt-hour, which is far less expensive than other metals.
Two other approaches are using molten salt and compressed air to store energy for long periods. At Malta, a company whose technology was spun out of Google’s moonshot factory, X, electrical energy is converted to thermal energy, which is stored in molten salt and a chilled liquid. A heat engine, powered by the temperature differential between the hot and cold substances, turns the thermal energy back into electricity.
Hydrostor, a developer of advanced compressed air technologies, also relies on a clever use of thermal energy as part of its storage solution. The company uses renewable energy to compress air in underground wells, but captures and separates the thermal energy that builds up when the air is compressed. A pool stores water next to the cavern that’s used to store the compressed air. When air is released water flows into the cavern, and when air is pumped into the cavern the water is pushed into the pool — maintaining the pressure on the air. The captured heat is combined with the air when it’s released providing more power for turbines.
And heat’s at the heart of the technology for both Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Antora Energy and Electrified Thermal Solutions out of Boston. Both are using superheated blocks to store energy at temperatures over 1,500°C, and then turn it back to electricity for the grid when needed.
Taken together, these are the kinds of technologies that the world needs to “fully retire thermal assets like coal and natural gas,” as Form Energy’s chief executive Mateo Jaramillo, the developer of Tesla’s Powerwall battery and veteran powertrain developer told The Wall Street Journal.
Utilities and independent power producers in the US are already preparing for the transition.
Vistra Corp. owns 36 natural-gas power plants, one of America’s largest fleets. It doesn’t plan to buy or build any more.
Instead, Vistra intends to invest more than $1 billion in solar farms and battery storage units in Texas and California as it tries to transform its business to survive in an electricity industry being reshaped by new technology.
“I’m hellbent on not becoming the next Blockbuster Video, ” Curt Morgan, the chief executive officer of natural gas power plant owner Vistra, told the Journal. “I’m not going to sit back and watch this legacy business dwindle and not participate.”
There are currently 18 operating geothermal power plants on BLM Nevada lands, with a total generating capacity of 500 megawatts of power. McGinness Hills is the largest geothermal plant in Nevada and currently produces 100 megawatts of power (currently BLM is reviewing a proposed expansion to 150 MW). Geothermal is heat extracted from deep in the Earth, it’s a baseload (24 x 7 x 365, rain or shine) renewable energy resource that has enormous potential for continued development in Nevada.
Next generation geothermal
Harnessing the heat that radiates from the center of the Earth is critical (or supercritical) for a clutch of startup companies that are offering a new way to generate power directly.
Their goal is to tap into the abundant resources of “the sun beneath our feet” using technologies borrowed — in many cases — from the oil and gas industry.
The potential for geothermal energy development is massive. The US government estimates that new technologies could generate “at least 5,157 gigawatts-electric for power generation purposes — nearly five times the total installed utility-scale electricity generation capacity in the US,” according to a report from the Department of Energy.
If the US just wanted to use these new technologies for heating and cooling, it could tap roughly 15 million terawatt-hours-thermal for controlling the climate of homes and businesses. Using geothermal district heating, the resources provide potentially enough heat to supply every home and commercial building in the US for the next 8,500 years.
The technological advances are coming to make this a reality. In September the Seattle-based company AltaRock Energy released the results of a new study showing that it could produce power for as little as 5 cents per kilowatt hour (that’s the levelized cost). Conventional geothermal would cost around 10 cents.
AltaRock’s SuperHot Rock geothermal could be one of the most significant developments in the energy business — if its pilot project, slated to come online in 2025 proves successful.
“Once proven in the field, SuperHot Rock geothermal resources will ultimately provide competitively priced, carbon-free power to far greater markets than can currently be reached by affordable geothermal power,” said Geoff Garrison, vice president of research and development at AltaRock, in a statement. “SuperHot Rock geothermal has the smallest environmental footprint of any renewable energy resource, sharply reduces the need for transmission infrastructure, and we believe it has the potential to meet a significant portion of global energy demand by 2050.”
If the AltaRock project is successful (and the company does still need to flip the switch on that first project), the implications for providing renewable power to the world are enormous. Nearly half of the world’s population could see their power come from SuperHot Rock geothermal using the tech AltaRock is developing. As drilling techniques improve, another 95% of the population could access the tech if companies can hit depths less than 20 kilometers below the Earth’s surface.
As the Clean Air Task Force wrote in a paper earlier this month, “SHR could provide competitive, zero-carbon, dispatchable power and could support zero-carbon hydrogen fuel production. It is one of the very few high-energy-density, zero-carbon resources that could replace fossil energy around the globe.”
Other companies are taking lessons from the oil and gas industry to create novel geothermal systems that don’t need to operate under the kind of high temperature and pressure that SuperHot Rock requires.
These are businesses like Sage Geosystems, Eavor, Fervo Energy, which are borrowing directional drilling techniques from the oil and gas industry to create new kinds of geothermal power assets. These closed loop systems can be developed in more places to expand the footprint for lower power geothermal production assets. Combining a few of these systems together could reach several megawatts — or even gigawatts — of power, according to the companies.
Tim Lattimer, the chief executive officer of Fervo, told TechCrunch earlier this year that his company intends to bring on “hundreds of megawatts of power in the next few years.”
Workers dropping a CalWave pilot wave energy converter unit into position to be carried off to sea from the Port of San Diego. Image Credit: CalWave
Oceans, rivers, and tides One of the newest ways to generate renewable power is a callback to one of the world’s oldest — finding ways to capture the energy from all of the water sloshing around the globe.
The International Renewable Energy Agency estimates that there’s hypothetically as much as 20,000 to 80,000 Terawatt hours of potential electricity generation in the silent seas waiting to be tapped from established technologies like offshore wind and newer tech including tidal stream and wave energy converters. Further on the horizon are ocean thermal energy conversion tech and companies generating power from the salinity gradient in the sea.
In all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set up by the United Nations believes that ocean-based mitigation options could reduce nearly 4 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year by 2030 and 11 billion tons by 2050. That’s more than all of the emissions from coal-fired power plants worldwide or the total emissions from China (back in 2014).
The IPCC estimates that ocean power could slash the emissions gap by 21% between now and 2050.
The figure to the left provides emissions projections of various electricity supply technologies, with ocean energy resulting in the least lifecycle emissions.
Solving the problem of capturing ocean power requires rugged systems that can handle one of the most harsh environments on earth. For many investors it’s been too difficult to see their way clear to financing new technology focused on the ocean.
“Stay away from wave power,” one investor said. “Too expensive, and too corrosive an environment.”
CalWave is one company that’s diving headfirst into solving the problem. With a novel device that already has backing from the Department of Energy, the company has launched a pilot of its first device off the coast of California in the waters near San Diego.
“Wave energy devices are no different than wind turbines or other hydro turbines. It’s a kinetic device that captures a renewable resource to produce electricity. At the highest systems engineering level, the functions to make a technology viable are the same,” said Marcus Lehmann, the chief executive of CalWave in a statement announcing the company’s pilot. “For us, capital efficiency means that any system must be able to reduce primary loads from storm waves just like pitch and yaw control, a critical feature of our modern wind turbines.”
Beyond its San Diego project, CalWave has been tapped as one of several companies to participate in the Oregon wave power demonstration facility called PacWave.
That 25 megawatt test facility is the first of its kind in the US and a significant step forward for an industry that has been adrift, because of technical challenges and a lack of support. It’s in stark contrast to Europe and the UK, where marine power test facilities at Orkney in Scotland have been operating since 2003 and have yielded startups like Mocean Energy and Orbital Marine Power.
“We need time and reliable long-term federal financial support to get more devices in the water,” Oregon State University’s Bryson Robertson told CNBC.
“The lack of ability for marine energy systems to quickly, repeatedly and cost effectively test is holding the industry back,” he said. That means sites like PacWave are “incredibly important.”
Marine energy resources around the US is around 2,300 Terawatt hours per year, or about 57% of the total power generated in the US in 2019, according to the DOE. With the addition of Pacific and Caribbean island nations that number rises to 6,400 Terawatt hours of power. That’s part of the opportunity that CalWave, and other businesses including Columbia Power Technologies, and Oscilla Power
There’s more power waiting to be tapped in the rivers that traverse North America and Natel Energy is looking to spin up its technology to capture it.
The company, which recently raised $20 million from investors, is working with the hydropower project developer, Nelson Energy, to install its new hydropower generators on sites along the Red River in Louisiana that’s controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers.
For this project, Natel is planning to install between 60 and 90 hydro turbines to retrofit three existing dams and add 80 megawatts of renewable power to the grid.
The company estimates that’s enough energy to power roughly 35,960 average US homes.
The Homogeneous Reactor Experiment (HRE) goes critical on April 15. It is a small reactor that operates at a maximum 1.6 megawatts and drives a small steam turbine generator. HRE ceases operations in 1954 and is followed by the second-generation Homogeneous Reactor Test (HRT) that operates up to 5 megawatts from December 1957 until April 1961. Image Credit: Flickr/Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Let’s go nuclear
Talking about nuclear power is inarguably a great way to start an argument in climate circles.
But, if the goal is reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, consider this: last year the US power sector emitted about 1 pound of CO2 for every kilowatt hour of energy produced, meanwhile, emissions from power in France were around one-tenth of a pound. The reason? Nuclear power.
He committed that the country will invest the equivalent of $1.2 billion in nuclear power by the end of the decade.
“The number one objective is to have innovative small-scale nuclear reactors in France by 2030 along with better waste management,” Macron said. “We will continue to need this technology.”
France isn’t the only nation looking to exploit the nuclear option. Korea, Russia, and the UAE are all on board for massive nuclear projects. In the UAE the Barakah reactor will provide up to 25% of the nation’s power once all the switches get flipped on the four reactors which will provide upwards of 5 gigawatts of energy.
“The Russians have been going crazy,” one energy insider familiar with the nuclear industry said.
“There are factories where they’re building out reactor vessels.” These are floating 32 megawatt power plants on barges that they can bring to port towns in places like Siberia and provide power.*
Despite setbacks, the US is also forging ahead with a new nuclear program thanks to companies like the Bill Gates-backed TerraPower, X-Energy, and earlier-stage startups like Oklo, which is hoping to build a very small test reactor at the Idaho national laboratory.
Both TerraPower and X-Energy have received awards from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Reactor Demonstration Program, which will see the government split the cost with utilities to build new nuclear power plants.
By directly splitting the cost with companies, government hopes to avoid the obstacles that have snarled plans for the first construction of a new reactor in the US. Eight of the 36 utilities that were intended to support the construction of a reactor from NuScale Power backed out of the deal.
NuScale is still moving ahead with plans to sell its reactors — in Poland.
With their new reactor designs NuScale, TerraPower and X-Energy are all trying to do the same thing —make the process of building nuclear reactors repeatable, safe, and economical.
These new reactor designs are inherently more efficient and safer than earlier reactor models, said the industry expert.
“The idea behind this… when you build the first ones, you’re setting up the infrastructure to build hundreds more behind the first ones,” he said. Companies expect their first reactors to come online and be generating power in the next five to seven years.
Unlike the massive reactors built in the 60s and 70s, the new models can be mass produced where businesses just set up a production line and begin making them. Companies get production licenses for the plant to make the reactors and that plant can supply multiple power plants, according to the expert.
With enough political will, the US could decarbonize its entire electricity sector using nuclear power — just like the French (who were able to basically remove carbon from their energy sector in 15 years).
Looking further into the future, there’s an even brighter vision for a nuclear future that’s waste free. Private investors are pouring hundreds of millions dollars into companies developing fusion reactors. These technologies hold promise, the first reactors won’t be online until the end of the decade (at the earliest).
All of the above
None of these technologies alone will provide a smooth transition to a fully emission-free economy, but some combination of all of them have to be part of the solution.
Investors may quibble over specifics around the viability of some of these solutions (one investor, referencing Energy Vault, told me you’d “need a shit tonne of blocks and space to actually store energy”), but they’re in agreement that all of them are vital.
Some of these, like wave and ocean energy, have long been seen as uneconomic and may only work in niche applications. Others, like Form, Antora, and the energy storage applications broadly require renewable energy inputs to be successful (and clean).
The critical factor is providing the funding to see these technologies piloted and de-risked as quickly as possible. Which, for all of the disappointments that may come from the watered down infrastructure legislation that may finally make its way out of Congress, is a lever that government and private industry can still pull.
“Technologies are great ,” the investor said, “but then a lot of this will be subject to public perception, location, and utility funding which can only really justify investments in de-risked tech that lowers total electricity cost.”
*An earlier version of this piece quoted an industry insider who said that the Russian floating reactors were 200 to 300 MW. Those reactors are land-based and are under development. They have yet to be deployed.