The Top 5 Technologies That Will Save Us from Climate Change
Dear Pablo: What do you believe are the top technologies that will help us overcome climate change?First of all, the number one solution to climate change is not a technology at all; it is political will. As Thomas Friedman, the author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded said in a speech last week "change your leaders, not your light bulbs."
He wasn't denouncing curly light bulbs, but rather pointing out that the relatively small--yet critical--impact of one individual's actions are overshadowed by the policies enacted by an elected leader. The election of a US president that is not a member of the Flat Earth Society is an important step, but it does not mean that the problem is solved. We need new community leaders, state leaders, and even business leaders in order to tackle climate change on all fronts. Luckily, climate change presents perhaps the biggest business opportunity for doing well while doing good.
But since you asked specifically about technologies that could help save us from climate change, here are my top five, in no particular order.
Algae, that green scum that grows in your pool when you forget to chlorinate it, can contain more than 50 percent lipids (fat). By feeding algae with nutrient-rich water (wastewater treatment plant effluent, for example) and carbon dioxide (the climate change-causing emissions from power plants) and exposing them to warmth and sunlight, they multiply rapidly (see image above). The lipids can then be extracted easily and used to create biodiesel fuel, which can replace or be mixed with regular diesel. The remaining material can be used as cattle feed, burned as a biomass fuel, or processed into methane by small organisms.
What could be better than a plant-based solution that uses waste materials (dirty water and CO2) and renewable resources (sunlight) to create both a transportation fuel and a heating fuel? Not much, which is why algae holds so much promise. Several companies, such as PetroSun and GreenFuel Technologies, are currently working on commercializing this technology. The Torres winery in Villafranca del Penedes, Spain is even operating an experimental facility that captures the emissions from wine fermentation to grow algae for making biofuels.
2. Power-Tower SolarPhotovoltaic solar panels on every roof may be as eco-chic as driving your single-occupant Prius in the carpool lane, but the reality is that the technology is still very expensive and not that efficient. Sure, there are advantages to distributing renewable electricity generation. and I wouldn't discourage anyone from getting their own set of solar panels, especially if Suze Orman gives the go-ahead. But in terms of providing green power to the masses, few technologies are as promising as the solar power-tower concept. Here's how it works: Thousands of mirrors on sun-tracking motors aim the sun's energy on a centrally located tower and, as anyone that ever tortured ants with a magnifying glass on a sunny day can attest to, concentrate a great amount of heat on it. This heat generates steam, which turns a turbine. Companies like BrightSource Energy are currently planning massive facilities in Southwestern US deserts to generate massive amounts of clean, fossil fuel-free electricity for cities like Los Angeles.
3. Biochar, or Biomass Pyrolis
Image via Financial Times
Burning plant waste (mostly from agricultural or forestry industries) releases carbon dioxide that was sequestered during the life of a plant or tree. So does composting. But what if there were a way to keep that CO2 from returning to the atmosphere? Well, there is. Using a process called pyrolysis, plant waste is heated in an oxygen-free environment. This releases volatile biogases and a thick, tarry substance that has roughly half the heat content as heating oil and can be used to make fuel or plastics. The plant waste is turned into a substance called biochar, which can be used to enrich soil. Not only does biochar increase the soil's carbon content, but it also helps retain soil moisture. Since evidence shows that biochar does not decay into CO2, as plant waste does, CO2 is essentially locked away permanently. Therefore, not only does it keep carbon from returning to the atmosphere, it also provides a fossil fuel substitute, and the process provides enough biogas to power itself. Companies working on this technology include Dynamotive and Eprida.
4. Dispatchable Wind Power
The problem with many renewable energy sources is that their supply is intermittent and electricity generated can't be stored. To solve that problem, General Compression is developing a technology that replaces the generators in wind turbines with compressors. The compressed air can be stored in pipes, tanks, or underground caverns for use when it is needed. Unlike traditional wind farms, which have a generator in every wind turbine, this technology centralizes the electricity generation and decreases the cost of building the wind farm (since the amount of copper used in each generators gets expensive). A technology that makes wind power "dispatchable," or able to be harnessed at any time allows us to use it when we need it, not just when the wind blows.
Smart grid technology, which has been getting so much attention lately, will do for our electricity supply what the Internet did for the free flow of information. Currently the nation's electric grid is controlled by people, decades-old switching equipment, and computers that are still running Windows NT. Smart-grid technologies will enable the efficient dispatching of renewable energy, prevent large-scale power outages, and enable end-users to more effectively reduce their energy use.
Many technologies hold promise for reducing the threat of climate change. But there's one "technology" that holds no promise whatsoever: clean coal. Nothing speaks louder on this subject than the new Coen Brothers commercial for the Reality Campaign. "Clean" coal represents the doublespeak of reformed climate change deniers and reminds me of the deceptive "more doctors smoke Camels" advertising campaigns. Perhaps some day these climate criminals will get their day in court as well.
Ask Pablo is a weekly column that aims to answer your pressing eco-quandries. Want to ask Pablo a question? Simply email Pablo(at)treehugger(dot)com. Wondering why Pablo's qualified to answer? As the VP of Greenhouse Gas Management atClimateCHECK, he helps major corporations measure and manage their greenhouse gas emissions.
More on Renewable Energy Technologies and Carbon-Cutting Techniques
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The Next Big Oil: Big Smart Grid?
TreeHugger Forums: Biochar
TreeHugger Forums: Dispatchable Wind Power
Further Reading on Renewable Energy and other Related Technologies
15 Algae Startups Bringing Pond Scum to Fuel Tanks
Biochar: Black is the New Green