When it comes to climate change, many people have moved quickly from denial to despair. This isn’t a new observation, by any means, but I’m struck by how, even as opposition fades to the idea that humanity is warming the globe, the opponents of taking action are falling back on the argument that the technology simply doesn’t exist to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. One recent example is what Newsweek columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in a recent column: “But the overriding reality seems almost un-American: we simply don’t have a solution for this problem.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/20226462/site/newsweek/page/0/
Samuelson clearly isn’t watching the same flowering of innovation that I am seeing.
I tend to be a pessimist and cynic by nature. But one of the remarkable things about America is its entrepreneurial inventiveness—and its ability to turn smart ideas into new technologies and industries. One prime example is the rebirth of a Big Solar industry. In contrast to the more common solar panels, Big Solar uses mirrors in the desert to heat water to make steam—and potentially, thousands of megawatts of power. The surprising twist is that these power plants will soon be as cheap as a new coal plant, and cheaper than a nuclear plant. http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/07_42/b4054053.htm
But that’s only part of the larger story. I had a visit recently from Gregory Kats, managing director at Good Energies Inc, which invests in cleaner, more efficient energy. Kats points out that there are “enormous untapped opportunities” to use less energy and cut global warming causing emissions. Take buildings. Buildings now use 75-80% of all U.S. electricity—and 35-40% of the total energy in the country. Kats sees a host of technologies that could cut that electricity use by up to 70%. One example: electro-chromatic glass that can switch from letting heat in to keeping it out. http://www.sage-ec.com/
Another technology is the ice-storage air conditioner. Think about air conditioning and electricity demand for a moment. People crank up their air conditioners on hot afternoons, creating a huge spike in demand. To meet that demand, utilities have to fire up gas or even diesel-fired power plants. That power is really expensive, and can create a lot of emissions. If Big Solar takes off, acres and acres of mirrors could supply that demand. But until then, renewable power can’t help much. That’s because the wind typically dies during the hot afternoons.
So the idea is to shift some of the demand to times when people now use little electricity—at night. An ice-storage air conditioner uses cheap nighttime electricity to make ice, then uses the ice to cool the air during the hot afternoons. There is a small (about 5%) loss of efficiency in adding ice to the cycle. But that’s more than offset by the efficiency gain from running the air conditioner during the night, which is cooler. Plus, nighttime electricity is generated more efficiently than peaking power. “Put it together and there’s a 35% reduction in carbon dioxide from this,” explains Kats. See more details at: www.ice-energy.com.
These are just a few of the hundreds of ideas. A smarter electricity grid saves millions of dollars and thousands of megawatts of power. Technological advances are coming fast in the solar panels that convert sunlight directly to electricity, making it possible to envision houses and office buildings festooned with rooftop panels making their own power – and feeding into the grid. Plug-in hybrid cars can charge up with cheaper, more efficient nighttime electricity—and also feed back power into the grid during the day to meet demand, reducing the need for expensive peaking power.
Even without mandatory carbon emissions limits or other incentives to use less carbon, American ingenuity is blooming. The pessimists who say that there are no solutions to climate change or U.S. energy dependence are just wrong.