After 20 years of fits and starts, the historic, ambitious climate change agreement signed by 196 countries in Paris this past December has created newfound optimism for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But that optimism comes with high expectations. As the celebrations wind down, the question on everyone’s mind is: now what?
We know that to meet the targets set out in Paris, every nation will need to use cleaner sources of energy. Even ten years ago, that might have been a daunting proposition. However, a lot has changed in the last decade. For example:
- In 2015, clean energy attracted $329 billion in global investment, nearly six times the amount invested in 2004.
- Since 2009, the price of U.S. solar power has dropped 70 percent, while the price of wind has dropped 66 percent. Prices for both now beat prices for coal or natural gas in a growing number of U.S. and international markets.
- The number of Internet users globally has tripled from 1 billion in 2005 to 3 billion in 2015. And, new access to knowledge and information has led to the rise of energy innovators from unexpected places.
Because of trends like these, many technologies to help address climate change are already commercially available. But there is also a pipeline of emerging innovations that are poised to take off a big way, transforming not only how energy is generated and distributed, but also how individuals will use it. Among these, here are five in particular we are watching:
- Solar + storage: Many people say solar is terrific…except that the sun doesn’t shine at night. Companies are beginning to address this problem by offering rooftop solar PV that also includes battery energy storage. Driven by falling prices for lithium-ion batteries, these hybrid systems have the potential to cheaply turn intermittent solar into a 24/7/365 power source. And while “solar +storage” is well positioned to bring economic and environmental benefits to the U.S. electric grid, it’s in the developing world that it may enable an energy revolution.
- Carbon conversion: Despite decades of investment in carbon capture and storage (CCS), high costs continue to stymie its wide deployment. Yet even while countries shift to more zero emission energy sources, existing and new fossil generation plants (particularly in China and India) will continue to be part of the global energy mix. The possibility that CO2 from industrial sources can be converted into valuable products (as being explored in the Carbon XPRIZE) holds promise both as an economic driver and as a technology for emissions reduction. In fact, companies around the globe are already reimagining carbon emissions as low-carbon transportation fuels, building materials like cement and concrete, and even innovative materials like graphene.
- Demand response: When demand for electricity is higher than anticipated, it’s usually up to the utility to bring on additional power generation. However, a wide array of technologies, systems, hardware, and software are emerging that allow electricity customers to lower their energy consumption during times of peak demand—thereby reducing the need for extra power generation, and in turn, reducing emissions. Reigniting investor interest is the recent Supreme Court decision affirming that customers who participate in demand response programs must be compensated. One analysis has predicted the decision will boost the U.S. market for demand response technologies by $200 million this year alone.
- Energy cloud: Although it may sound like a noxious symptom of El Niño, the “energy cloud” is actually an umbrella term for the myriad technologies and systems that are beginning to enable a paradigm shift in how utilities and customers interact. From an alphabet soup of new hardware—distributed energy resources (DER); building energy management systems (BEMS); and virtual power plants (VPPs)—to the systems and apps that manage smart meters, thermostats, and appliances, the energy cloud is enabling a future grid that can be more dynamic, responsive, transparent, and democratized. And importantly, optimized to reduce emissions.
- Self-driving cars: While it’s still early days for completely autonomous cars, self-driving technologies are already popping up in a wide variety of new vehicles. In addition to improving convenience and safety, studies are showing that self-driving cars have significant potential for addressing climate change. A recent study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that the greenhouse gas emissions of a self-driving electric taxi would be 90 percent lower than emissions from a privately owned gasoline-powered car today. Even regulators are beginning to act, a sure sign that very soon we’ll be seeing a lot more self-driving technology on the roads.
We all know there’s no silver bullet to solve climate change. That means we’re going to need all the solutions we can find. Over the longer term, the next generation of innovation could bring to scale even more revolutionary solutions like air capture of CO2; wave and tidal energy; smaller, safer advanced nuclear reactors; and of course, what some consider the Holy Grail for energy, fusion.
With creative thinking and investment in technologies, we’re optimistic that we will have the tools to not only meet the Paris climate targets, but also prove to the world that economic development and sustainable energy do not have to be at odds. You should be optimistic too.
Alisa Ferguson is a consultant who designs energy and environment prizes for XPRIZE. She has over a dozen years experience working on programs to accelerate clean energy deployment.