EarthxEnergy joined leading technology developers and policy experts in a series of online panels during EarthX2020. The conference, held in partnership with the National Geographic Society, commemorated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It also coincided with the global COVID-19 pandemic, which meant transforming the annual event into a virtual experience held around the world.
The coronavirus was top of mind in this year’s EarthxEnergy: Renewables conference. Panelists compared the ongoing health crisis to the much broader climate crisis. They said the urgent, international cooperation countries are showing today is exactly what’s required to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit Earth’s temperature rise. The pandemic has also underscored the need to create more just and equitable societies, including by developing clean, affordable energy.
“We’re seeing the communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and that lack access to electricity are also the communities that are most vulnerable to the pandemic,” said Sandra Kwak, founder and CEO of 10Power, which invests in renewable energy projects in Haiti.
Dozens of technologies and practices are already available to address climate change. But to reach “drawdown” — the point where greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere peak, then begin to drop year-by-year — the world must adopt and scale them quickly and simultaneously, said Chad Frischmann, vice president of the nonprofit Project Drawdown. “We need all solutions working as a system of solutions to achieve this goal,” he said.
Henk Rogers, founder of the Blue Planet Foundation, called on the United States and the wider world to commit to using 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. The former video game designer helped advance that mandate in his home state of Hawaii, where utilities are replacing costly oil-fired power plants with wind and solar farms and energy storage systems. “We want to empower the people in all countries to be able to take climate action,” Rogers said. “And we want consumers to be able to choose goods and services that are sustainable.”
Beyond curbing emissions, installing renewable energy will also boost adoption of carbon-capturing technologies. Such systems remove CO2 from smokestacks or directly from the air, then bury the gas underground or turn it into valuable products. If these facilities are powered by renewables, they are effectively “carbon negative” projects.
Global Thermostat uses a process called Direct Air Capture to soak up CO2 from the atmosphere and transform it into biofertilizers, plastics, soft drink bubbles, and other materials. The startup recently partnered with ExxonMobil, a collaboration that co-founders Graciela Chichilnisky and Peter Eisenberger said will help scale the technology and advance their goal of removing a gigaton of CO2 every year.
“Our partnership with Exxon is so critical,” said Chichilnisky, CEO of Global Thermostat, noting that current global CO2 emissions are about 40 gigatons a year. “But one company cannot do it. This has to happen worldwide.”
Carbon Engineering is rising to the challenge by building giant fans that suck carbon from the air; the company then buries the CO2 or uses it to make synthetic transportation fuels. While vehicle engines would emit carbon by burning the fuels, the fans could recapture it, creating a continuous loop. Carbon Engineering is building its first megaton-scale facility in Texas, which it plans to open in 2023, said CEO Steve Oldham. The plant will do the work of some 40 million trees, he said.
Another startup, Blue Planet Ltd., is capturing carbon and trapping it permanently in building materials. Production of cement, a key ingredient in concrete, is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. By replacing cement, Blue Planet aims to not only reduce industrial emissions but also sequester carbon in rocks for billions of years, said CEO Brent Constantz.
Newlight Technologies has developed technology that converts CO2 and methane into a bioplastic material called AirCarbon. The startup is one of ten finalists in the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE, a $20 million global competition to develop breakthrough technologies for converting waste gas into marketable materials. Finalists had planned to begin demonstration projects this year at facilities in Wyoming and Alberta, Canada. But testing has been delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19, said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE.
Mark Heremma, Newlight’s CEO, said the pandemic has made clear how swiftly the world can respond to a global challenge. “It shows that with collective action, we can in fact move really big mountains,” he said. “It puts into focus that we need to fix (climate change), and we need to fix it now.”
Written by: Maria Gallucci