Amasia and the Climate Crisis 2/3: A Sector Map
In an earlier essay we laid out the facts around the climate crisis. In this second installment, we provide a sector map to better understand innovations under way now to counteract the crisis.
Some sectors are self-evident. Others such as remote work and remote learning technologies are not — but these have giant (positive) effects on the climate, especially at scale.
This ontology, this map, was created for our own use. We are putting it in the public domain for two reasons:
It might offer a starting point for anyone to begin thinking about how the crisis is being fought against, and:
It is inevitably incomplete — it is a sector map, not the sector map. We’d be delighted to hear from you with comments, objections, additions or anything else (or would like a PDF of this essay).
In the third and final essay, I will describe how my VC firm, Amasia, thinks about investing in the area.
Once again Alina Goh has done virtually all of the hard work pulling this together, for which I am very grateful (once again).
The graphic below lays out our current view of the innovation landscape. What follows is a sector-by-sector description with examples.
In 2017, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation made up 28.9% of total emissions in the United States -- the largest share out of all contributing industries. A chunk of those emissions arise from various forms of corporate travel, be it the daily work commute or an overseas business conference.
While changing consumer behavior to reduce frequent leisure travel is a partial (and difficult) mitigation strategy, developments in remote work and teleconferencing tools have made business-related travel much less essential than before. Choosing telepresence instead of business travel presents a simpler and faster mode of communication for workers -- and could potentially result in 2.0-17.2 GtCO2-eq mitigated by 2050.
Since the mainstream takeoff of messaging and email platforms such as Microsoft Outlook and AOL in the mid-1990s coupled with rapidly proliferating internet usage, communication has shifted online for many and continues to grow in popularity and reach. I have written elsewhere about the more fundamental effects that these have had on human society. Remote workspace companies provide digital services that recreate the physical co-working experience online. This is achieved through a variety of methods including communication platforms, collaborative work suites and cloud storage systems.
Slack and companies like it are a logical evolution of the electronic communication forms that started with email, and have continued through dedicated messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram. However there is an emerging category of virtual workspace companies that are addressing the needs of a 21st century distributed workforce in entirely new ways. A good example is Focusmate (disclosure: this is an Amasia portfolio company), a web-based productivity service that provides a remote environment for users seeking the focus and accountability associated with a co-working space without having to travel to one.
As companies continue to effectively recreate the functionality and atmosphere of a physical working environment online, the possibility of a fully immersive virtual reality workspace may arise, although it is quite possible that these workspaces will be offered by existing incumbents.
Teleconferencing software aims to provide stable, effective and functional audio and video communication channels that replace the physical meeting experience. What currently exists is a huge evolution from initial teleconferencing technology in the 1960s, which saw devices such as the PicturePhone requiring several phone lines and clunky devices to transmit very brief audiovisual communications. Teleconferencing has since advanced into the realm of crisp audiovisual quality, seamlessly integrated file and screen sharing and calls with numerous users in any location (given reasonably stable internet access).
Since the founding of Skype, a video, audio and text chat software company, in 2003, companies have moved to provide elevated versions of Skype’s original product. Zoom, now a successful public company, provides a cloud-based enterprise video communications platform that enables a variety of online meeting types, from webinars to collaborative conferences. Dialpad (disclosure: this is an Amasia portfolio company), on the other hand, focuses specifically on providing a cloud-based AI-powered business communications system. Teleconferencing will continue to improve, with additional functions being incorporated into current software packages for a more versatile product.
In 2017, more than half of total transportation emissions came from automobiles such as passenger cars, pickup trucks and minivans. In a world with increasingly congested urban areas, cities are turning to solutions that make those forms of transportation cleaner, more convenient and more efficient. Companies in the mobility category work towards redesigning transportation to achieve those three goals, albeit with varying priority.
Ride-sharing services aim to reduce reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, resulting in less traffic congestion and, ultimately, lower vehicular greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer cars on the road. Since the emergence of app-based ride-hailing leaders like Uber and Lyft that caused major disruption to traditional taxi systems over the past several years, the pool of options for consumers seeking a ride has widened, ranging from luxury private ride services like Uber Black to lower end carpool-esque services like Lyft Share.
Ride-sharing is not just a US-based phenomenon: Didi Chuxing in China, Grab in Southeast Asia and Yandex in Russia all forced Uber out of their local markets in a series of high-profile exits that cemented such services as a mainstay of the global urban experience. Aside from carpool services provided by these companies, however, it is not certain whether the ride-sharing industry is truly as green as it intuitively seems. Private rides have become so affordable and convenient that more people are opting out of public transportation for them. Additionally, the monetary incentive of driving for these services could encourage drivers to be on the road more.
While it is clear that ride-sharing is here to stay, industry leaders could take steps to minimize emissions either by promoting pooled services more or purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize the effect (as Lyft has done).
Micromobility, which has been dubbed the “future of urban transportation” by Deloitte, represents a fast-expanding service sector that shrinks the physical footprint needed for short-distance personal travel. Included in this sector are vehicles such as electric scooters and shared bicycles whose availability and usage are managed through smartphone apps, providing users with the efficiency of such transit options without the pains of ownership.
Interest in this area began to grow significantly in the mid-2000s, motivated by increasingly congested urban spaces and an industry gap in “last-mile” transport options. Vélib', which launched in 2007, quickly turned Paris into the poster city for the 21st century bike-sharing movement through its 23,600 strong fleet of electric bicycles, docked at over 1,800 automated rental stations across the city. More recent entrants into the space include China’s Mobike, which operates 8 million bikes for 200 million users across 200 cities.
Bike-sharing has since become an institutionalised mode of transport in numerous cities, but the past two years have seen companies pivoting away from the bicycle and towards a new vehicle type: the e-scooter. Pioneered by Lime (previously LimeBike) and Bird in the United States to rapid success -- they became the fastest ever US companies to reach billion dollar valuations partially due to strong product-market fit -- and replicated across the continents, e-scooters have generated great buzz in the micromobility space.
Despite this, concerns about the intrusive nature of dockless systems have caused pushback from cities unprepared for the proliferation of these vehicles in the public space, indicating a need for private-public cooperation to ensure e-scooters’ smooth integration into urban transportation systems.
With a plethora of companies providing similar micromobility solutions, the logical next step is to streamline these services for ultimate consumer convenience. Apps like Transit do just that, making micromobility options more accessible by centralising the search and booking service for a range of last-mile transport options. The jury is still out on whether micromobility can sustainably remain a standalone sector or if companies will be absorbed into larger mobility services (see Uber’s acquisition of JUMP), but the benefits of these services are clear and it is likely that they will continue to integrate into urban transport systems.
As autonomous vehicles grow closer to technological and commercial feasibility, it is becoming evident that their implementation has the potential to disrupt a whole range of transport-related sectors. The breadth of potential for autonomous vehicles extends far beyond passenger rides, as it includes large portions of the logistics transport chain. Autonomous vehicles could potentially be used in all versions of goods transport, but the most feasible option is currently last-mile delivery, where companies like Nuro could remove the need for local delivery services.
Automation is classified in levels from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation). Level 1 encompasses cars with basic cruise control, while level 2 (partial automation) includes those that can perform more than one driving task simultaneously (e.g. steering and accelerating) but require drivers to remain alert and in control. Tesla’s Autopilot software is at this level. Level 3 (conditional automation) is led by Audi’s A8 Traffic Jam Pilot, which enables the car to self-drive on highways at up to 37 mph and -- most importantly -- allow the driver to become a passenger during those periods, albeit one responsive enough to regain control when prompted to. Waymo leads the pack at level 4 (high automation) with its on-demand autonomous ride service (with human backup) in Phoenix, Arizona, with plans to mass-produce more level 4 vehicles for commercial use.
It is still too early to tell what the impact of autonomous vehicles will be; technological and policy choices could drive anything from a 90% emissions reduction to a 200% increase. On one hand, the technology could drastically increase the number of miles traveled in cars by removing the physical limitations of human drivers (e.g. fatigue). On the other hand, automated vehicles could lighten vehicle loads and reduce production-related emissions by removing human safety equipment from vehicle design. Additionally, autonomous vehicles could be programmed to prioritize fuel efficiency. Policy decisions will also play a part in incentivizing greener behavior for consumers and automakers alike.
In 1900, a third of cars in the US were electric. The operational superiority of gasoline cars in the 1920s brought an end to that trend and established the gasoline-reliant norm that dominates roads today. With increasing emphasis on the egregious state of vehicular greenhouse gas emissions, companies and consumers alike have rapidly warmed up to the idea of electric vehicles (EVs). EV technology has rapidly improved, altering the market landscape and forcing established automotive manufacturers to match up to new challengers like Tesla. Now, a whole array of companies including Audi, Nissan, Porsche, Mercedes and others are manufacturing their own EVs, although Tesla’s unwavering dedication to EVs pegs it as a current market leader; the Tesla Model 3 alone took 7% of the global EV market in 2018.
EVs currently take up a miniscule share of total global car usage, but analysts predict a paradigm shift away from gas-powered vehicles in the coming years as electrification becomes more of a business reality. The attractiveness of EVs will vary across domestic markets, affected by political, economic and technological factors such as charging infrastructure, fuel prices and the availability of government subsidies, but a projected CAGR of 22.3% across the next 6 years can only mean that EVs will continue to rise up as a viable challenger to gas-powered vehicles.
Logistics-related transport has a large and obvious connection to greenhouse gas emissions. It may occur over longer distances via air, sea or rail freight services; first and last-mile delivery services are typically road-based. For our purposes here, the category can be split into three distinct sectors: delivery process optimization, autonomous delivery and shared delivery. In each of these sectors, innovative companies seek to (i) reduce the overall number of vehicles being used or (ii) streamline the delivery process to save fuel.
Delivery Process Optimization
Delivery process optimization can be achieved in a number of ways, from more energy-efficient vehicles to automated or optimized supply chain processes that remove wasteful human error. Many of the companies in this space run on SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) models, offering logistics management solutions that streamline operations to lower costs and emissions.
LogiNext provides examples of what this means when applied. LogiNext Haul, designed for larger delivery fleets, uses self-learning algorithms to optimize routes, automate shipment assignments and provide real-time transport analytics. This contributes to efficient operations, reduced fuel usage and, ultimately, lower emissions. The company also provides similarly structured last-mile and on-demand delivery services. Competitors include dedicated route-optimization services such as Vancouver-based Routific and predictive optimization solutions like Transmetrics, which offers “data cleansing and enrichment, demand forecasting and predictive optimization.”
While general optimization solutions have the secondary effect of less fuel used, it is worth highlighting a vector that directly tackles emissions: fuel efficiency systems. Especially for the maritime shipping industry, tech-driven fuel efficiency solutions are poised to take on a bigger role as climate change becomes increasingly salient. Companies like Nautilus Labs and We4Sea exemplify this, using artificial intelligence and big data analytics to optimise fuel consumption for maritime fleets. These tech-enabled solutions are not only beneficial from a climate change standpoint, but crucial for the shipping industry as a cap on sulfuric fuels in 2020 is set to spike the industry’s fuel costs by an estimated USD 24 billion.
Surges in e-commerce sales and consequent delivery demands have opened up cracks in the space for last-mile delivery startups to sprout. Some champion tech-enabled last-mile delivery optimization, while others turn to Uber-esque shared economy models to crowdsource delivery fleets. An example of the former is Singaporean company Ninja Van, which provides tech-enabled last-mile e-commerce logistics services and has proved popular amongst small and large e-commerce businesses alike. Similar services have popped up around the world, including companies such as SiCepat in Indonesia and Deliveree in Thailand.
Like other delivery optimisation software, the biggest benefit of these companies in a climate change context is their ability to reduce the number of miles traveled per delivery without compromising on speed and efficiency. The balancing act, which we cannot quantify, is that the rapid growth in e-commerce may completely overwhelm any emissions-related benefits from route optimization.
On-demand peer-to-peer delivery has also taken off as a last-mile delivery solution, with companies like Roadie and Grabr turning already-travelling users into delivery agents for others. Larger companies have also turned to crowdsourced delivery solutions to counter rising demands for same-day delivery. E-commerce giant Amazon began rolling out Amazon Flex services across the U.S. in 2015, and has become dependent on it for its rapid delivery services. Overall, crowdsourcing is a popular tactic to meet consumer demand for rapid delivery, although it faces similar challenges to the ride-sharing sector in preventing an influx of vehicles onto the roads due to the monetary incentive of a delivery side-gig.
A marriage of the last-mile delivery and autonomous vehicles sectors, autonomous delivery employs self-driving technology to replace manned delivery vans with self-driving vehicles. The leader in this space is Nuro, a self-driving delivery car with delivery programs in Arizona and Texas. Founded by two Waymo veterans, the company recently received USD 940 million from Softbank and is now valued at USD 2.7 billion. The car, which measures about half the width of a Toyota Highlander, contains only goods compartments. Its top speed is 25 mph, and its compact design makes maneuvering around it easy for pedestrians and vehicles alike. So far, the car is accident-free, and its delivery programs are operating smoothly in both states. Other notable companies include California-based Udelv, which just launched an autonomous grocery delivery program in Texas, and Estonian robotics company Starship Technologies, which has deployed mini food-delivery robots in some college campuses.
Autonomous delivery is promising, but there are some considerations for its implementation in different contexts. Primarily, the same usage concerns surrounding autonomous vehicles will also apply to their delivery counterparts. Additionally, the lightweight nature of these vehicles could prove a liability in extreme weather, and drivers may be frustrated by their slow speeds on high-traffic roads. That said, successful pilot programs have proven that there is a space for autonomous delivery, and technology advancements will likely see more robust and efficient models in the future.
As the name suggests, EdTech encompasses any form of education that involves technological tools or services. This may enhance existing learning experiences or create new learning opportunities. While EdTech expenditure comprises a mere 2.6% of the USD 5.9 trillion global education market, this sector is expected to grow steadily at 17.0% per annum, with mobile and cloud-based services leading the charge.
While the sector may not seem intuitively climate-oriented, apps and services within it reduce the necessity of face-to-face contact while maintaining the standards of quality education. Ultimately, this enhances the educational experience while reducing the necessity of travel, thus contributing to emissions reductions.
EdTech is a very complex space, but two areas stand out in a climate context: remote learning and immersive learning.
Remote learning is not so much a stand-alone subsector as it is a common theme threading through much of the EdTech space. In recent years, however, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and online learning communities have transformed the remote learning concept, making high quality educational courses digitally available. Coursera and EdX are popular for their comprehensive offerings of online courses and degree programs from acclaimed institutions like Harvard and Penn, while Skillshare (disclosure: this is an Amasia portfolio company) provides online courses designed by industry experts under a monthly subscription model.
As virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) technologies become increasingly accessible to consumers, their potential in the EdTech space has led to the emergence of the immersive learning subsector. While AR is currently more of a tool to enhance learning, VR is poised to enable completely virtual out-of-classroom educational experiences that would otherwise be inaccessible. Regardless of which is used, by presenting learning in a gamified and often collaborative way, students are likely to be more engaged and absorb information more effectively.
Companies in the space fall into two main groups: content developers and development platform providers. Curiscope and Interplay Learning exemplify the former, providing virtual reality solutions for education and workforce training respectively. In the latter lies companies like WakingApp and Zappar that provide user-friendly AR/VR content creation platforms, accessible to non-specialists.
Financial technology -- FinTech for short -- has dramatically disrupted global finance, offering digitized versions of financial services typically carried out by brick-and-mortar companies such as banks. Cloud, AI and the increased penetration of APIs have enabled a host of financial services to be replicated online, often with significantly lower operational costs and faster response times.
FinTech and climate change have very strong second order linkages, similar to the EdTech logic laid out above. Digital financial services remove the need for physical interaction and, consequently, travel associated with it. Not only does this negate travel-related emissions, but it greatly simplifies and streamlines the process for consumers as well -- a win-win. This is a theme that threads through FinTech sectors where digital services have replaced physical ones (as opposed to emergent sectors such as cryptocurrency), elaborated below.
Broadly encompassing four separate but highly related sub-sectors -- namely, personal finance, retail investing, retail banking and peer-to-peer lending -- the consumer finance vertical includes companies that are building platforms which enable consumers to educate themselves about, connect with advisors, and directly manage a suite of personal financial management disciplines.
Personal finance companies help individual consumers to monitor their credit, protect against identity theft, manage and track their spending, and educate themselves about budgeting and personal financial management. Notable companies include Credit Karma and NerdWallet, as well as Mint.com, a pioneer that remains a leader in the space today.
In the past 5 years, automated investment advisories or “robo-advisors” have gained significant traction, applying algorithms to the portfolios of individual investors. This replaces traditional financial advisors, who typically operate on an in-person basis. Again, robo-advisors are exempt from the costs associated with hired personnel and brick-and-mortar offices, enabling more transparent pricing and more efficient cost structures. This ultimately makes them climate friendly and consumer friendly. Notable companies include Wealthfront in the US, and Wealthify and Nutmeg in the UK.
Retail banking remains the least disrupted finance market, with several big banking institutions retaining the lion’s share of the market. In the past few years, however, online-only and mobile-first banks have sprung up in greater numbers, offering a centralized suite of banking functions as well as lower costs. The next 5 years could see these innovations penetrate the retail banking ecosystem as services improve and consumers warm up to the concept. Successful online banks include N26 in Europe and Ally in the US.
In simple terms, FinTech peer-to-peer lenders connect borrowers and lenders without the involvement of a traditional financial intermediary such as a bank. Besides personal loans to individuals, lending has expanded to include other asset classes such as student loans, real estate loans, auto financing and small business loans. Companies like these enjoy drastically lower operating costs due to a lack of physical branches, which typically take up 60% of retail banks’ operating costs. Simultaneously, they provide consumers with rapid, smooth service driven by automated online processing, advanced credit profiling techniques and transparency for buyers and sellers.
The materials category encompasses a range of innovations that tackle polluting aspects of existing materials, be it production, usage or disposal. The three key materials here -- cement, plastic and glass -- each add unnecessarily to total carbon emissions. Overall, the materials category is considered more difficult to decarbonise than software-integrated categories like logistics, and reports suggest that “easier” industries should be targeted first. However, achieving competitive pricing with legacy products is the key to widespread success for any materials solution.
If the cement industry were a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of carbon dioxide. In 2018, cement production was responsible for 8% of total emissions, yet it has received minimal press attention or political pressure compared to other industries. This is usually attributed to our dependence on cement and a lack of commercially scalable alternatives.
More than half of cement carbon dioxide emissions comes from the production of Portland clinker, a binding ingredient that releases waste carbon dioxide when created. Aside from using renewable fuel and increasing energy efficiency, emissions can be reduced through 3 alternative methods:
Carbon capture and storage (CCS)
Carbon capture technologies (elaborated in the CarbonTech category) have yet to be adopted in the cement industry due to uncertainty over CCS’ potential to rapidly scale-up as well as high costs. However, the IEA’s roadmap to a low-carbon transition in the cement industry projects that CCS technologies will reach commercial-scale deployment by 2030.
Geopolymer cement is made by substituting clinker with industrial by-products, cutting emissions 80-90%. As coal and steel industries diminish, however, as does the availability of these products. Countries like Brazil have turned to a locally abundant raw material, pozzolan, but European nations are less equipped to scale up production.
Novel cement refers to new materials that mimic the structural properties of cement, minus the carbon emissions. For instance, BioMASON employs bacteria to “grow” cement bricks that match the properties of traditional cement and are carbon-sequestering. Technologies like these are still nascent, and the big challenge is making prices competitive with traditional cement given that consumers have been “very price sensitive” in the space.
Cement is arguably one of the toughest industries to decarbonise, which may explain why fervent decarbonisation efforts are directed at “easier” industries. Global urbanisation will see cement demand continue to rise despite anti-emissions pressure, and the oligopolistic nature of the industry adds barriers to ambitious change. If innovations are able to become price-competitive with traditional cement, widespread adoption will become far more feasible.
The bioplastics industry roughly includes any plastic products containing at least 20% renewable biological materials. The space is extremely heterogeneous, possibly referring to “old economy” bioplastics like linoleum, recyclable “drop-ins” like bio-PET or novel chemicals like PHA. “Old economy” bioplastics dominate the industry today, but newer innovations are almost wholly dedicated to drop-ins and novel materials.
Bioplastics are often promoted as a climate-friendly alternative to petroleum-based plastics, which emit around 400 million tons of carbon dioxide per year through manufacturing alone. The simplified climate argument for bioplastics is that they produce a smaller cradle-to-grave carbon footprint compared to petro-plastics. This rings true across the board: companies like NatureWorks convert greenhouse gases into PLA, producing 80% less greenhouse gas than traditional plastics in the process.
Despite innovation on the production front, bioplastics face serious challenges with end-of-life disposal and processing. According to EcoEnclose, “the vast majority of bioplastic packaging today is (1) recyclable but not biodegradable or compostable, (2) compostable but not recyclable, (3) neither compostable nor recyclable.” A majority of recycling and composting companies do not yet have the means to sort and process these materials, with many bioplastics piling up in landfills. However, companies like Danimer Scientific are working to resolve this issue. This year, the company released the world’s first fully biodegradable PHA straw that “effectively biodegrades in environments ranging from waste treatment facilities to landfills and oceans.”
While the sector is promising, bioplastics are not a “silver bullet” sustainability solution. For bioplastics to truly become sustainable, end-of-life processes need to catch up with the pace of product development. Otherwise, innovative products may cause more harm than good.
Extreme weather in 2018 caused a 2.9% surge in energy consumption and a consequent 2% increase in carbon emissions -- the fastest since 2011. With worsening weather projections, innovations that minimise the amount of energy needed to regulate indoor temperatures will only grow more important. Windows are currently responsible for 25-30% of energy used for residential heating and cooling. Smart glass companies want to drastically reduce this figure, promoting up to 20% energy savings in this area and potentially offsetting 2.19 GtCO2-eq by 2050.
Smart glass refers to a group of innovations that allow users to control light and/or thermal transmittance through glass surfaces for a variety of purposes. There are several glass variants, such as low-E, thermochromic, liquid crystal and electrochromic. Electrochromic glass is the most versatile and has the highest energy-saving potential, so it is unsurprisingly the leading innovation in the space. An example is Halio, a smart glass produced by Kinestral Technologies Inc. that provides a dynamic “natural light management system” with minimal color offset. The glass automatically adjusts to current weather conditions, cutting out heat and glare through smart-tint technology. A cloud-based control app allows users to fully customise tint levels, which can block up to 99.9% of visible light if needed. Halio Cloud Control, which recently became the first globally deployed smart window control system, additionally enables “thoughtful collaboration” with smart home devices such as Amazon’s Alexa. Competitors to Kinestral include View and SPD-SmartGlass.
The main downside to this energy-saving innovation is the USD 50-100 cost of each square foot of glass, compared to regular glass prices of USD 15-20 per square foot. If the cost of smart glass can become competitive with regular glass, this innovation could become widely adopted and offset existing space heating energy needs.
Cities take up 2% of the Earth’s landmass -- and are responsible for over 70% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The world’s urban population is set to grow from 55% currently to 68% by 2050, bringing carbon emissions to even greater levels in the absence of climate-focused urban planning. 2/3 of the world’s largest cities are at least partially in low-elevation areas, and are particularly exposed to impending climate threats from heightened disaster risks such as storm surges and coastal hurricanes.
In order to mitigate the disastrous effects of climate change, cities need to plan for future urban structures that are inclusive, safe, resilient and reliable. This requires extensive public-private cooperation, and requires solutions that are not only energy-efficient but also climate-resilient and socio-economically accessible. The solutions in this category revolve around technologies that reduce emissions while improving quality of life and safety.
Initially, smart buildings were defined by automated systems that regulated internal conditions such as temperature and lighting. The smart buildings of today have evolved beyond using siloed pieces of technology, and are becoming a dynamic ecosystem of data-sharing devices constantly responding to stimuli.
Their contributions to functional efficiency have a huge effect from a climate standpoint. Peak-efficiency buildings drastically reduce wasted energy and, consequently, emissions, all while improving quality of life for building users. While utilities analytics platforms have previously existed, a new generation of companies is bringing streamlined, accessible and scalable products to the table.
KETOS, an actionable water analytics platform, does just that. The company offers unmanned and modular IoT-connected hardware that shares continuous real-time data with its intelligent SmartFabric platform, which then processes and contextualises data to provide “predictive and actionable insights.” This enables predictive maintenance, resource optimization and risk mitigation for customers, all managed through remote web-based and mobile apps. The company’s ultimate mission is to holistically tackle global water problems by “[leveraging] technology to address multiple, interconnected issues”, while keeping their products accessible and affordable for a cleaner, safer future.
Enertiv, a scalable energy monitoring system for commercial real estate portfolios, and Spaceti, an integrated and interactive building management system, are parallel products that enhance infrastructural efficiency through responsive, real-time analytics. Their modularity will allow them to continually adapt to technological change, keeping them from becoming obsolete in a rapidly advancing industry.
Power grids -- complex webs that produce, store and transmit energy for consumption -- currently supply 85% of the world with energy. While they are resilient and functional, they are built for constant, centralized power production. The recent introduction of variable renewable energy has therefore proven increasingly problematic.
Companies in the “smart grid” sector aims to enable “two-way communication between suppliers and consumers to predict, adjust, and sync power supply and demand.” What is now managed by utilities operations centers could become automated by intelligent technology to streamline energy flow. Achieving grid flexibility will only grow more crucial as renewable energy prepares to take center stage -- these innovations will become a catalyst for the global energy transition to occur.
Innovations in the sector can be divided into 3 primary areas: energy storage, management and distribution.
Increasing energy storage efficiency, capacity and accessibility all facilitate widespread use of variable energy sources such as solar. Companies like Stem tick these boxes, offering behind-the-meter storage systems packaged with powerful analytics and fleet management solutions. Their AI system Athena delivers 24/7 optimization and responsive adaptation to energy fluctuations while providing data-driven insights for grid operators to respond to customer needs. Competitors include ENGIE Storage and Tesla’s Powerpack.
The massive growth of IoT connectivity has generated a wealth of energy-related data. This has vastly expanded opportunities for analytics companies to utilise AI-driven software to generate predictive and prescriptive analytics and optimization. Stem’s analytics branch overlaps with this market, with similar AI-powered analytics systems from Grid4C and Tendril.
While there are many companies working on energy distribution infrastructure, an up-and-coming distribution subsector is the energy “marketplace.” Companies like Drift provide a marketplace that connects clean energy generators with enterprises and residential units, empowering independent suppliers to extend their reach and enabling energy consumers to accessibly reduce their carbon footprint. Competitors include Arcadia Power, which connects users to wind and community solar energy sources.
Making the grid “smarter” is a massive undertaking that cannot be solved by a single innovation. Instead, it is the cumulative global effort of developers that will move the world towards a safe and flexible grid that eventually facilitates the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
Natural Disaster Management
In 2018, the world saw 315 natural disasters and USD 131.7 billion in disaster-related economic losses -- the fourth costliest year on record. The frequency and intensity of natural disasters has steadily increased and will continue to do so in coming years. While this inevitably means further losses are to come, it has provided an opening for various solutions in the disaster prediction, relief and recovery sectors. AI is an increasingly prominent feature across the category, in part due to the data-heavy analysis component of these solutions. Ultimately, solutions aim to visualize the impact of climate change for informed adaptation, real-time management and effective recovery.
With the huge and constant influx of climate data from a plethora of global monitoring devices, climate modeling is very much a big-data problem. Due to this, artificial intelligence and machine learning have become increasingly important tools to understand our current climate and predict potential future scenarios.
Companies in this space typically provide AI-enabled climate change models containing risk evaluation services. Standouts like Jupiter Intelligence provide an AI-enhanced, cloud-based “dynamic modeling network” that predicts specific disasters and their impacts up to 50 years in the future. Their user-friendly software visually contextualizes projected data and allows customers to assess risk and take necessary adaptation measures. This could benefit private and public sector decision-makers, guiding businesses’ asset allocation and cities’ infrastructural design plans alike.
At surface level, climate risk companies seem to provide similar offerings to weather forecasting giants like AccuWeather, save for ramped-up AI utilisation and more customer-focused solutions. The big differentiator, according to Jupiter founder-CEO Rich Sorkin, is that while “IBM and AccuWeather predict the weather … we predict the impact of that weather.” Competitors include Geospiza, a Denver-based data analysis startup that provides governments with actionable insights into disaster-prone areas.
In 2018, natural disasters affected over 68 million people globally, and up to 1 billion people live in areas with high climate exposure. With increasingly extreme weather events, it is safe to assume that more people will be affected in coming years. It is paramount, then, for governments to ensure that evacuation and relief procedures are streamlined and effective, minimising casualties.
Startups like One Concern offer AI-driven emergency management services that map the impact of disasters to allow efficient resource and aid allocation. By providing unprecedented situational awareness in near real-time as well as damage insights on a block-by-block basis, the company enables civic leaders to actively respond to vulnerable communities. With repeated use of the platform, machine learning will ensure that it becomes increasingly effective at predicting hazards and providing effective mitigation measures. Geospiza offers a similar service, merging predictive and real-time analysis to optimize emergency response strategies.
In addition to great economic and personal loss, natural disasters generate a host of unseen environmental impacts that also need to be mitigated. Extreme events like Hurricane Harvey, which dropped 51 inches of rain on the continental US, significantly disrupt the natural ecosystem and destroy countless species’ natural habitats. While AI-driven solutions like those used for prediction and relief can guide infrastructural recovery and resilience planning, other technological avenues have been utilized to aid natural ecosystem recovery.
Of all the natural disasters, restoration solutions for wildfires have been the most extensively explored. For instance, Land Life Company offers a biodegradable tree planting product designed to promote growth in ravaged, degraded soil. Alternatively, DroneSeed provides drone-based precision forestry as well as protection and monitoring services for post-fire environments. UK-based BioCarbon Engineering provides a similar service, employing data-driven analytics and drone carriers to effectively target wetland restoration. As the sector continues to grow, solutions will extend to cover the impacts of storms, tsunamis and earthquakes.
CarbonTech involves technologies that remove, store and recycle atmospheric carbon into valuable products. The industry is still nascent, but the rate of technological advancement could see it become a leading climate change solution in coming years. The environmental potential in this space is widely recognised -- in the IPCC’s latest report, all scenarios limiting global warming to 1.5C projected the use of carbon dioxide removal (CDR). McKinsey estimated the CarbonTech industry’s global TAM to be USD 5.91 trillion per year, underscoring the added economic potential as well.
There are several approaches being explored in this sector, but the two most prominent are Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Capture (DAC). Both are promising avenues of innovation, but have caveats that could hinder deployability or scalability.
BECCS is the process of growing crops to be harvested for energy production, then capturing waste carbon emitted during combustion and storing it deep underground. It has been championed as a “saviour” technology as it produces energy while simultaneously sequestering carbon, but poses several implications. The most pressing one is that this technology may not attain negative emissions once “carbon debts” from processes like land-use changes and resource transportation are factored in.
Another problem for BECCS is finding land to grow bioenergy crops on without impinging on scarce natural resources. To meet a 2C temperature target, BECCS would require land between 1-2 times the size of India, ultimately increasing strain on land, biomass and water. Biodiversity is also set to take a hit with intensified land use. Other feasibility constraints include BECCS’ economic cost: the IPCC estimated BECCS to cost USD 60-250 per tonne of carbon dioxide eliminated. Additionally, scalability remains an issue due to vast land and resource needs.
DAC is a less controversial technology than BECCS, but is still a fledgling subsector despite rapid growth in the space. Technologies in this space directly remove carbon from the air through a variety of methods, including fans and filters. Two companies stand out: Switzerland-based Climeworks and Canada-based Carbon Engineering. Climeworks draws in air and binds carbon dioxide using a filter, allowing it to be recycled for uses such as greenhouse agriculture. On the other hand, Carbon Engineering transforms atmospheric carbon dioxide into clean fuel, displacing crude oil reliance in the process.
DAC superficially looks like a silver bullet solution, being both space-efficient and carbon-negative. However, it suffers from two looming caveats: energy and cost. Sequestering 1% of anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could use up 7% of US energy produced in 2050, although renewable energy sources are a possible pathway to keeping DAC carbon-negative. Additionally, it costs about USD 600 per ton of carbon dioxide at Climeworks, although company officials project costs to be less than USD 100 in 5-10 years when the product is scaled. Carbon Engineering shares a similar position, projecting costs of USD 94-232 per ton at large-scale deployment. Thus, DAC is technically feasible and has the potential to dominate the CarbonTech space, but economic and scaling hurdles must first be overcome.
Following the sequestration of carbon, it can be buried underground or turned into valuable goods and commodities. Carbon Engineering leads the carbon-to-fuel market segment, while companies like Newlight convert greenhouse gases into bioplastics. Other innovations include C2CNT’s carbon nanotubes, which are derived from carbon dioxide.
Evidently, there are numerous applications of sequestered carbon spanning many markets. However, the economic viability of carbon commodities is highly dependent on the scalability of sequestration technology, thus carrying over the same barriers to large-scale adoption. With the growing promise of affordable sequestered carbon within the next several years, recycled carbon products are sure to follow suit in industry growth and development.
There are two main strands of innovation in this industry that link closely to climate change: innovative foods, which primarily focuses on alternative meat and protein sources, and food waste management, which aims to maximize efficiency and cut down on waste. Both have significant potential to reduce emissions: a plant-based diet is often considered the best individual method to cut emissions, while tightening up supply chain efficiency could transform both the food and agricultural industries.
Experts attribute approximately 14.5-18% of global greenhouse gas emissions to the livestock industry, although some estimates are as high as 51%. Regardless of the exact number, animal agriculture is a problem fueled by meat-centric diets and strong cultural resistance against reducing meat consumption. Plant-based options have picked up some traction in recent years, but will need to be available, enticing and price-competitive with traditional meat products in order to succeed.
Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have held much of the media attention surrounding plant-based options; their ground beef replacement product has been fascinating not only for a taste similar to beef but for its ability to “bleed” like red meat. This is due to Beyond Meat’s use of beets and Impossible Foods’ use of plant-based heme. Although they have brought convincing mock meats to market at increasingly affordable prices, concerns remain over how highly processed the products are in order to achieve the taste and texture of meat.
Another up-and-coming innovation is cultured or lab-grown meat, which is produced using stem-cell technology on animal cells. Costs have plummeted from an initial USD 1.2 million per pound of meat in 2013 to USD 100 per pound in 2019, and it is estimated that the first cultured meat burger will sell for around USD 50. Mosa Meat aims to bring lab meat to market by 2021, competing with Memphis Meats and Aleph Farms to scale production and bring costs down for consumers. Lab-grown meat’s biggest problem will not be cost or technology, but negative customer perception over the synthetic nature of the process. If the industry succeeds in achieving mass acceptance alongside competitive pricing, it will revolutionize food and agriculture for the future.
Lastly, insect protein is set to skyrocket to a USD 8 billion business by 2030, according to a Barclays report. 2 billion people around the world already eat insects, and the practice is far more sustainable than meat protein, taking up fewer resources and providing a higher protein percentage per organism. The act of eating insects has yet to go mainstream in developed Western nations and is often overlooked compared to mock meats, but normalizing it could diversify commercially available protein sources, reducing reliance on meat-based protein. Companies like Chirps, Nimavert and Chapul utilize insect protein to create a range of edibles, from protein powders to snacks and pasta.
Food Waste Management
Every year, roughly one third of food produced globally for human consumption -- approximately 1.3 billion tons -- is lost or wasted. This is the result of inefficiencies across the food supply chain, from agricultural overproduction to waste management. This sector focuses on innovations targeting the latter in several ways. The sector can be categorised into three main approaches to food waste:
Smart Waste Collection
The proliferation of IoT technology has catalysed development in the smart waste space. A key player is Enevo, which provides patented sensors to create “smart bins” that track waste levels and collections. Data is showcased in Enevo’s software suite, which includes planning software to optimize collection operations. The company claims to boost recycling, increase transport efficiency and minimize costs for enterprises. Another company, Bin-e, fully realises the smart bin concept, offering an AI-driven IoT device for offices that automatically sorts and compresses recyclables.
Surplus Food Marketplace
Every year, 30-40% of the US food supply is wasted, with parallel trends in many developed countries. Apps and platforms connecting excess supply with consumers to minimize the wastage of perfectly edible food aim to reduce this percentage on the consumer side of the food supply chain. Companies like Too Good to Go and Karma display discounted offers on food from various cafes and restaurants that consumers can pick up for up to ⅔ less than the original price, while Olio enables individuals to give away unwanted food to other users.
This includes a variety of technologies that recycle food waste into other usable substances. For instance, WISErg transforms grocery food scraps into fertilizers and other agricultural products using proprietary technology. California Safe Soil achieves the same result using enzymatic processes. GrubTubs, on the other hand, raises insect populations on restaurant and grocery store food waste, later using them as animal feed. The company claims to reduce landfill waste by up to 75%.
Agtech encompasses a broad range of innovative technologies that aim to increase productivity at every stage of the agriculture value chain. Many of these technologies also strive to reduce the environmental and social costs of agricultural production. This particular industry has a vested interest in mitigating the effects of climate change, as crop productivity still remains largely dependent on weather conditions, which are growing more erratic.
Agtech innovations which entail significant climate benefits can be split into 3 main sectors: Ag Biotechnology, Precision Ag and Novel Farming Systems. These innovations minimize the energy and resources needed for production, ultimately leaving a smaller carbon footprint while increasing yield.
Agricultural biotechnology is the use of biological tools and products to improve agricultural outcomes. The space can be separated into two subsectors: biology-driven companies and data-driven companies. In the former are companies producing seeds and chemicals -- herbicides and pesticides, for instance -- optimized for yield and/or crop resilience. For instance, Inari supplies genetically modified seeds that are pest-resilient and adaptable for local conditions, while Provivi offers environmentally friendly pheromone-based pest control solutions.
Synthetic biology companies lead the data-driven side, harnessing advances in big data and DNA sequencing to develop microbial technologies that are solving agricultural problems such as crop efficiency. A leader in the space is Indigo Ag, which offers seed treatments that increase environmental stress resistance while boosting yield.
By increasing the resilience and yield of plants through biotechnology, innovations enable more productive agriculture without increasing energy and resource burdens.
Precision ag represents any technology that makes the practice of farming more accurate and controlled. With technological advancements in IoT, AI, big data analytics and drones, monitoring a farm has become highly automated, reducing error margins and boosting productivity.
In a hardware-heavy industry like farming, IoT innovation has been transformative in bringing the “smart farm” to life. IoT has enabled comprehensive data collection, predictive analytics, cost management, waste reduction and, ultimately, higher revenue. As the prevalence of smart IoT-connected devices increases on the farm, there will also be an increased demand for products that serve these technologies. Many companies providing IoT monitoring platforms have moved into Agtech, centralizing information for farm managers. Ayla Networks and Actility both offer such platforms.
While smart farming is a part of precision ag, another offshoot of the sector is driven by drone imagery, through which aerial views can enable farmers to solve problems with irrigation, soil variation, and pest and fungus control, among others. Infra-red fitted drones can provide further information, including showing the chlorophyll levels of plants across a farm. Agriculture-focused drone companies include PrecisionHawk and DroneDeploy, while larger drone players like DJI have pivoted their marketing towards agricultural applications in the past couple of years.
Novel Farming Systems
As land becomes an increasingly scarce resource and natural weather patterns have moved out of their normal flux, novel farming systems have grown in popularity as alternatives to soil-based agriculture. The pros of many of these systems are greater control over growing conditions as well as the significantly lower land space required due to vertical farming innovations being applied. Two systems have gained particular traction in the agriculture community for these qualities:
A soil-free method of growing terrestrial crops, hydroponics relies on mineral-packed water to deliver nutrients to plant roots. Examples include BrightFarms, which employs hydroponic techniques to grow plants on supermarket roofs and reduce the transport costs associated with fruits and vegetables. The benefit of hydroponics and other controlled growing systems is that food is not subject to seasons -- a constantly restarting growth cycle means constant productivity. They also use a twentieth of the water required for traditional farming.
In this system, plant roots are continuously or discontinuously exposed to an aerosol-saturated environment filled with nutrients. Compared to hydroponics, aeroponics presents a more delicate solution that would be suitable for plants that are prone to waterlogging. It also uses 65% less water and 75% less nutrients. Bowery and AeroFarms lead in the space, cultivating aeroponic leafy greens.
The (very large and important) caveat of these innovations is energy usage. While natural resource use is slashed, as is space, the carefully controlled conditions in these settings require constant energy inflow, potentially making this less climate friendly than other Agtech sectors. However, coupling these technologies with renewable energy sources could benefit the climate, the environment and consumers alike.
The alternative energy category is by far the most intuitively connected to climate change, as energy production is the root source of emissions in many industries. It spans a broad range of renewable and novel energy sources in varying stages of development and optimization. Each sector brings its own set of pros and cons to the table, but it is clear that renewable energy in some shape or form is going to play an integral part in keeping global temperature rise under 2C.
Photovoltaic technology has been around since the mid-1800s, but it was only in the last several years that solar panels hit key turning points in size and cost. No longer limited to bulky panels, solar technology now inhabits roof shingles and cars, and continues to increase in affordability.
The sector can be split into large-scale and small-scale solar innovations. Large-scale innovations include solar farms, whereby plots of land are dedicated to rows of PV panels operating at a utility scale like conventional power plants, only without the emissions. A critical caveat, however, is the intermittency of solar energy. Typical troughs in solar energy production coincide with peaks in energy usage, so flexible grids and improved storage batteries will be needed to combat that issue.
In addition to better storage, solar farms will need to optimize energy production throughout the day, which can be achieved through AI-powered solar optimization systems. Raptor Maps and HST Solar both offer such systems for solar farms, combining drone imagery with AI and machine learning to analyze performance and maximize production. This has the potential to reduce costs for solar providers, simultaneously increasing output for consumers.
Small-scale innovations primarily include “rooftop solar” PV panels fitted for individual households. In 2015, rooftop solar comprised 30% of total installed PV capacity globally. Not only does rooftop solar enable grid-connected households to take charge of their own energy production, but it drives clean electrification of rural communities, driving the elimination of poverty. Companies providing residential solar solutions include Circular Energy and Vivint Solar.
Solar energy has the potential to be a frontrunner in the clean energy transition, and is already cost-competitive with conventional energy sources in several countries. To achieve widespread use, it must first be able to reach peak efficiency in energy production and storage, after which scale-appropriate solutions must be implemented, providing clean energy to rural and urban communities alike.
In the span of a few decades, wind energy has steadily shifted from niche curiosity to renewables frontrunner. The industry is marked by expanding coverage, dropping costs and heightened performance. Its future lies primarily in improving existing turbines by increasing their production capacity. The limitation of land in some countries has led to the emergence of small-scale turbines as well as airborne wind power systems, both of which will not overtake large-scale turbines in the near future but remain key in making clean energy widely available.
Since their conception, wind turbines have grown increasingly large and will continue to do so in coming years, especially for offshore farms. Zero-emissions and no fuel costs peg wind power as a truly viable clean energy, and developments will continue to optimize existing turbine designs. Leading companies include Nordex, Ming Yang and General Electric.
Conventional wisdom suggests that utility-scale wind turbines are more cost-effective than smaller models. However, it remains that there are areas not suited to such large turbines. Micro wind -- typically a wind turbine producing less than 100kW of energy -- could enable clean energy usage for these areas. A leader in this space is Halo Energy, which offers a 6kW shrouded turbine just 12 feet in diameter. It is designed for low-cost manufacturing and is easily scalable, empowering wind energy to serve a great number of locations.
Dubbed as “energy kites”, these airborne systems aim to access wind power that conventional fixed turbines cannot. The kites fly at high speeds, harnessing aerodynamic forces to power electricity generators. Leaders in this space include Makani (an Alphabet Inc. subsidiary) and Kite Power Systems. The companies claim that they are able to power at least 300 homes using their systems, pegging the innovation as a small-scale solution that, if scaled up and made more efficient, could be effective in areas lacking land for fixed turbines.
A looming caveat of wind energy has always been its intermittency. To combat this, Google and DeepMind are applying machine learning algorithms to predict wind power output up to 36 hours in advance of actual generation. Based on the predictions, their model schedules optimal energy delivery commitments a full day in advance, thus making wind power a viable energy source for the grid. Much remains to be done, but it is clear that machine learning is a concrete step towards reliable and valuable wind power.
Hydroelectric power is one of the most mature technologies in this sector alongside wind and solar. It utilizes gravitational force and kinetic energy from running water to generate electricity, traditionally on a large scale (e.g. vast hydroelectric dams like the Three Gorges Dam). In 2018, 4,200 terawatt hours of electricity was generated from hydropower projects globally — the highest ever contribution from a renewable energy source. Hydroelectricity currently meets around 16% of the world’s energy demand, and comprises 71% of renewable energy supply. While it is one of the most efficient renewable energy sources, concerns over ecosystem disruption and flooding still remain on both large and small scales.
Innovations fall into two main buckets. The first improves on existing infrastructure through IIoT analytics and optimization, while the second explores distributed hydro, which could be implemented on a smaller scale in areas unfit for large-scale plants (akin to micro wind).
Smart sensors have become enmeshed across the hydropower industry, providing consistent streams of data for remote analytics and operations optimization. Companies in this space tend to overlap with several other sectors, most of which involve large-scale operations that traditionally require heavy manpower to monitor and operate. Dedicated hydropower optimization companies include HYDROGRID, which offers forecasting and performance monitoring technology catered to medium-sized hydropower plants.
More recently popularized than large-scale hydropower plants, distributed hydro encompasses a range of products that utlize smaller running water sources to generate energy in novel ways. A standout in the space is Turbulent, which offers a vortex-like single-turbine micro hydropower plant that can be placed in rivers with minimal elevation differences. Competitors include GreenBug Energy and Smart Hydro Power.
Kinetic energy is constantly being expended in the world today, and features in the design of several renewable energy innovations. This sector mainly focuses on harvesting kinetic energy from moving objects to be converted into electricity. Installed on high-traffic roads, the energy-harvesting bump harnesses the kinetic energy of cars passing over it, storing it for later conversion into cost-effective clean energy.
US-based Constructis and Singapore-based Transkinect both offer such products, designed to capture energy from braking vehicles. According to Constructis, a single car pass can generate more than 1 kilowatt of energy, while 100,000 could generate 80kWh a day. The bumps are weather resilient and can be installed overnight on a wide variety of roadways, making the product easily scalable. Constructis also promotes energy prices comparable with other renewable energies such as wind and solar, but with much less space occupied.
A key aspect of the product is that it can be built into existing infrastructure, adding value without piling on costs. The main area for further innovation is making these bumps more efficient at capturing energy, and incorporating more capable storage batteries.
Nuclear energy currently supplies around 11% of the world’s energy. It can be produced in two ways: the fusion of two nuclei or the fission of atoms, both of which produce large amounts of energy. The latter is more commonly utilized in energy production as its chain reaction is easier to control. There are numerous methods and materials used to achieve fission, but the task remains the same: offset nuclear’s looming risks and achieve clean, affordable and reliable energy production.
The industry encompasses a broad range of innovations, but perhaps the first step towards widely accepted nuclear energy is the micro-reactor, which faces less regulatory pushback than large-scale projects. Pioneering this innovation is NuScale Power, which aims to provide smart, safe, zero-emissions nuclear energy through small-scale reactors. The model is scalable and far easier to implement than large scale nuclear plants. It presents a feasible nuclear solution to the energy problem that could reduce the burden on fossil fuels without excessive added risk. Competitors include Westinghouse and Oklo.
Nuclear energy is commonly seen as a key part of the clean energy transition, regardless of its drawbacks. Whether it is here to stay or simply to act as a bridge solution, overcoming negative public perception will be paramount in its wider adoption. We’d also make the observation that nuclear energy tends to be a panacea in the minds of people coming late to the climate change discussion -- it has very significant issues around water usage, energy consumption in the fissile material purification process, and the consequences of a safety mishap. A summary of this can be seen here.
Geothermal energy is a renewable source of heat energy stored in the Earth’s core. Geothermal power plants harness this energy by tapping into natural hydrothermal sources and using the steam produced to power turbines, generating electricity. The extracted fluid is then injected back into the Earth. Currently, it is estimated that around 6-7% of the world’s potential geothermal energy is being tapped.
Geothermal plants emit ⅛ as much carbon dioxide as coal-powered plants, provide a more consistent energy source than weather-dependent energy sources like solar or wind and could potentially supply up to 2 terawatts of energy at maximum capacity. However, geothermal plants come with a high installation cost, USD 2.9 million for a 1 megawatt geothermal plant in the US. The invasive construction of these plants could also lead to earthquakes and surface instability. In addition, they are highly location-specific, requiring shallow hydrothermal sources with close proximity to transmission lines to be cost-competitive with conventional energy sources.
While traditional geothermal plant technology has not made rapid advances in recent years, focus has been on the enhanced geothermal system (EGS). The technology uses hydraulic stimulation to harness geothermal energy where hot rock exists with insufficient natural permeability or fluid saturation, and can be installed in a wider range of places than traditional geothermal plants. Companies like AltaRock and Fervo Energy lead the pack in developing EGS into an effective, scalable and cost-competitive operation that minimizes surface instability risks.
Geothermal energy, especially through EGS, is reliable, abundant and efficient. Minimizing physical risks and reducing upfront costs are hurdles that, if overcome, could enable greater harnessing of this renewable energy source.
An intrinsic problem with intermittent energy sources such as solar, wind and kinetic has always been efficient energy storage, spurred by incongruous peak production and peak usage periods. Improving storage technology could potentially catalyse a “clean energy revolution”, enabling cheaper, consistently available renewable energy.
A big branch of innovation in this sector is storage batteries, which are being developed from a range of materials. Tesla has received coverage for its lithium-ion batteries, both in its electric cars and for industrial-scale use. Most recently, it released Megapack, a scalable industrial battery that can store up to 3MWh of energy at a time. Strung together, the Megapacks could store enough energy to “power every home in San Francisco for six hours”. Competitors include Samsung SDI, LG Chem and eCobalt Solutions (recently merged with Jervois Mining).
Lithium, however, is a scarce and expensive mineral. Recent innovations have attempted to use alternative materials to create more cost-effective batteries with similar capacities. For instance, Aquion Energy provides sustainable and resilient saltwater batteries, made from abundant non-toxic, non-flammable and non-explosive materials. Meanwhile, H2GO Power provides scalable zero-emission hydrogen batteries that enable 100% year-round renewables utilization.
Apart from chemical batteries, several other methods of energy storage are being explored -- liquid air storage and underground hydro pump storage, for instance. Notably, Energy Vault has developed a gravity-based energy storage system using waste concrete blocks that has a longer lifespan than most chemical batteries.
Lithium-ion batteries still lead the pack in energy storage solutions and experts do not expect a disruption from alternatives in the near future. However, the finite nature of lithium warrants further exploration into alternative renewable and recycled battery materials that could ease the burden on a single element.