With war in Ukraine putting pressure on energy supply, and energy prices going up across Europe, putting pressure on businesses and individuals, never has there been a better time to harness the power of new technologies to find new ways of generating, transporting and storing energy.
So, what technologies are out there? And how can they help us protect the environment and keep the lights on?
By cutting down forests for fuel and agriculture, the industrial revolution and subsequent societies removed much of the carbon sink that would helps absorb the CO2 we emit. Carbon capture looks at ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, replicating the function that a more forested world would have performed.
CO2 can either be captured at source where it’s emitted or by ‘sucking’ the excess CO2 out of the atmosphere. Removal at source is the simpler problem to tackle, yet emissions of CO2 have risen from 0.33 billion tonnes in 1860 to 34.81 billion tonnes in 2020.
Currently leading research and implementation of the capture of historic carbon from the atmosphere is Climeworks. Their pilot project aims to scale up the removal and storage of carbon from the atmosphere by learning more about the problem and refining the solution.
Using blockchain to boost carbon offsetting
While we wait for carbon capture to reach scale, offsetting CO2 emissions has become a popular means for businesses and individuals to reduce their environmental impact. These schemes are typically funded by the emitter purchasing carbon credits. Popular schemes include planting forests and renewable energy for rural communities. While good in intention, these schemes have been dogged by problems around, for example properly calculating CO2 and recording commitments made.
Technology can help here however. As these schemes mature, blockchain technologies are already being trialled as a secure way to pay for credits and plans are now moving forwards to use distributed ledger systems (blockchains) to record data.
Data is inputted into the blockchain at both ends of the process by IoT sensors, linked by 5G systems. This will bring a new level of efficacy and reliability to carbon offset schemes, and have a real impact on efforts to balance economic activity with environmental safeguarding.
Innovative energy storage
Renewable energy technologies have come a long way over recent decades, but storage of that energy remains a challenge. For renewables to truly replace carbon energy technologies, efficient energy storage will be essential.
Hydropower systems have long stored potential energy as water at height in a lake. Once released, gravity is used to drop the stored water through turbines that convert the potential energy into electricity via generators. The water ends up in a lower lake and the turbines and generators are reversed to use cheaper, off-peak electricity to pump the water back up to the top. Rolling this technology out is restricted however, to places with suitable geography.
Swiss company Energy Vault has fine-tuned this idea by replacing the water with blocks of concrete that are hoisted aloft on cranes to descend when the power is needed, driving generators. Different sized blocks represent different energy volumes. These can be built almost anywhere.
Green Gravity is using the same idea but, instead of building tall cranes, they site the equipment at ground level, over disused mine shafts and using the pre-dug hole in the ground for the drop.
Can tech save our planet?
Decarbonising the economy is one of the great challenges of our time and no single solution is going to fix everything. Technology however, deployed issue by issue, learning and improving as we go, is having a real impact here and making things possible that would have seemed impossible until recently. The more tech start-ups, x-prizes and investment we have that focus on individual issues, the sooner they’ll begin to combine into a holistic solution for the planet as a whole.