Dispatches from the Front Lines of Energy Innovation
It has been a busy couple of weeks for the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE. We’ve enjoyed all of the opportunities to connect in person, whether that means speaking on stage at conferences, engaging crowds in the exhibit halls, or sitting down one-on-one for focused conversations. It sharpens our thinking, broadens our perspective, and helps us find ways to make the XPRIZE impactful for the entire community. And of course, we always love meeting with all our prospective teams!
On two warm and wet days in Newark, NJ, a few dozen of the leading thinkers and doers in the CO2 utilization space gathered to discuss the current state and the path forward. Paul Bunje, Principle and Senior Scientist at XPRIZE, participated in a panel on catalyzing growth in the CO2 utilization space. The discussion ranged from spurring technology development, to policy instruments, to market dynamics of the existing CO2 marketplace.
Technological Approaches to CO2 Conversion
During other sessions of the meeting, participants discussed the challenges inherent in various engineering approaches to CO2 conversion, including:
- mineralization of CO2 for use in aggregates and building materials;
- direct chemical or electrochemical conversion of CO2 into higher-energy molecules, including fuels, polymers, and other chemicals;
- bio-based CO2 conversion pathways, including bacterial, algal, and plant-based processes;
- large-scale capture of CO2 from point sources, including power plants, for sequestration and/or resale into existing CO2 markets; and
- direct capture of atmospheric CO2 from air, for ultimate sequestration, conversion into high-value products, or other applications that can ultimately result in net negative CO2
Decarbonizing for Profit?
Another important topic raised at the meeting was the intersection of traditional chemical business, CO2 conversion, and climate change. There was a robust discussion of the potential tension between profit-making from high-value chemicals, and battling climate change by fixing vast quantities of carbon. At XPRIZE, our view has always been that the most promising way forward in this space is a path that unleashes market forces to accelerate the development and deployment of technologies, policy regimes, and governance structures that ultimately can move the needle on global CO2 emissions. Ultimately that’s what the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE is all about. More on that to come…
The following week we joined three thousand of our closest friends just outside of Washington, DC for the ARPA-E Energy Innovation Summit. This meeting is one of the deepest and richest displays of energy technology innovation anywhere.
Paul Bunje contributed to a panel on the the opportunities for competitions and prizes to drive energy technology development, and was joined by Spencer Reeder, Climate & Energy, Vulcan, Inc., Dr. Phil Larochelle, Google Access & Energy and Dale Dougherty, Maker Media, Inc. . The panel, moderated by Matt Rivett, Local Motors, had a great conversation about the dynamics of the prize model, including the potential for prize competitions to attract outside the box thinking, as well as the ability to generate solutions that wildly exceed expectations. Other discussion focused on the need for careful prize design to avoid creating perverse incentives, and the opportunity cost of not investing in areas outside of the prize scope.
Broad Range of Energy Innovation is Fuel for Collaboration
We also connected with incredible engineers and scientists working on technologies that can radically impact the energy space in myriad of ways. We talked with groups working on air capture, CO2-to-fuels, methane and CO2 co-production, biological metabolism of coal and carbon dioxide, carbon-rich soils for reforestation, mineralization of CO2, and scrubbing CO and CO2 from industrial point sources.
XPRIZE recognizes that some groups have complete CO2 conversion systems, but many more have partial solutions, innovative sub-systems, and enabling technologies that could support a great XPRIZE team. The range of technologies was so exciting because we could almost see the collaborations and joint-venture teams forming in front of our eyes.
Shifting Investment Focus and Catalyzing Markets
A fireside chat with the Honorable Al Gore was a highlight of the Summit. He was able to frame the urgency of energy and climate solutions in the context of investment decision and global markets in a way that really resonated with the audience. For XPRIZE, it was a perfect articulation of the type of activity we think can be catalyzed through an XPRIZE – changing the conversation about smart energy investing, opening new markets for CO2 conversion technologies, and changing the conversation about the power of market forces in reducing CO2 emissions.
The opportunities for business to be a positive force in reducing CO2 emissions was a major theme of the 2016 GLOBE meeting that closed last week in Vancouver, British Columbia. This international meeting of business and technology leaders was a great place for the XPRIZE Energy & Environment team to connect with others who share our vision of the potential for radical breakthroughs in this space. GLOBE was big news in Canada, with Prime Minister Trudeau’s remarks at the meeting coming just hours before he sat down with provincial First Ministers to hammer out a plan for a national carbon strategy in Canada. But as a global business and sustainability meeting, it was also great a venue for XPRIZE to build the types of partnerships that help us showcase the innovators at the heart of every XPRIZE – the teams! We never stop working to tell their stories to a global audience, to provide them opportunities for attracting investment, market opportunities, and be sure they get the recognition they deserve.