Per Capita Davis: Billionaires invest in radical solutions
The last two columns were about money and the climate crisis. One was about how shareholders are pressuring the world’s largest companies to be leaders in sustainability. The other was about how some companies are doing just that. Frankly, I get tired of reading about the failure of policymakers to take meaningful action, or about how they (notably the United States) are retreating from the promises made in the Paris Accord.
This column, and the next one, will be more about money. First, what some billionaires are doing that’s hopeful, and, second, how an entire industry has been invented and grown up to offer people and companies the option of going ahead with actions that create greenhouse gas emissions but to “offset” those emissions by spending money on something that matches those emissions with reductions.
Let’s start with the really rich. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has gathered together a bunch of bazillionaires under the umbrella of Breakthrough Energy Ventures. This organization has a strategy, and a plan to implement that strategy, that rests on finding and supporting what they refer to as “radical startups.”
A few names you might recognize participating in BEV include Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson and Jack Ma. These folks joined together with other billionaires from around the globe to invest $1 billion in innovative technologies with the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Not to quibble, since $1 billion is a lot of money and it seems kind of ungracious and ungrateful to even bring this up, but the climate crisis is a huge problem and it seems like this group could spring for a lot more.
So, what are they investing in? One of their first investments went to a company working on “subsurface geochemical pumped storage” which translates into when the grid has plenty of electricity, they pump water into old oil and gas wells at pressure to compress rock, effectively storing energy in that compression. When the grid needs electricity, the pressure is relaxed and water pushes back to the surface, passing through a turbine to produce electricity.
The company claims the technology is built on “conventional reservoir technology” and uses “off-the-shelf water turbine-generator equipment” with closed-loop water systems that use the same water over and over again. So, they argue, it’s cost-effective and can be scaled to any location anywhere in the world, unlike hydropower, which requires mountains, lakes and dams.
BEV also invested in a startup that develops new battery technologies that don’t rely on lithium or zinc chemistry. The group leading this approach includes the guy who built Tesla’s energy-storage program.
This so-called “long-duration storage” is gaining traction as renewables like wind and solar are producing more and more electricity. The rise of renewables is great, but it can cause problems for the grid since solar and wind come with built-in intermittency: winds sometimes don’t blow and the sun does not always shine. Lithium batteries can store electricity for a short time, but grid stability is enhanced by long-term storage that can hold onto electrons for weeks or months.
Battery storage seems to be a solid focus for BEV, so it’s not surprising that they also invested in a start-up that is pursuing what some consider the Holy Grail for the future of electric cars — a solid-state battery. Interestingly, in addition to BEV, Volkswagen has invested more than $100 million, even though “many generations of battery scientists have tried and failed to create a commercially viable lithium metal battery that is rechargeable.”
According to Wikipedia, a solid-state battery uses solid electrodes and a solid electrolyte, whereas lithium batteries use a liquid gel or polymer electrolyte. I leave it to the chemists to explain this further. Suffice it to say, CleanTechnica states that solid-state batteries “offer the promise of greater energy density, lower cost, and no risk of fire if the battery overheats or becomes damaged,” while Volkswagen estimates it would more than double the current range of its E-Golf vehicle to 466 miles on a single charge.
Another investment takes aim at the role of nitrogen fertilizer in the climate crisis. According to its website, “Half the world’s food supply is dependent on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, yet it has serious environmental impacts. Fertilizer contributes to about 5,000 ocean dead zones around the globe, decomposes into nitrous oxide, which is responsible for about five percent of global warming,” and has adverse effects on soil microbes.
Some plants, notably legumes, have nodules that can capture nitrogen from the air; it’s called nitrogen fixation. This firm is trying to “reawaken microbes’ natural ability” to fix nitrogen and apply this to cereal crops essential to the human diet, thereby reducing the damaging effects of synthetic fertilizers.
Regrettably, there’s not enough space here to explain other investments in depth, though they are also very interesting. Here are just a couple of brief summaries: One focuses on cutting the cost of geothermal energy in half. And one (my favorite) wants to use specialized solar panels to pull water out of the air to “reduce the amount of energy needed to access clean drinking water without geographical limitations” (like a rabbit out of a hat).
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on September 4, 2019 | Printed in the September 4, 2019 edition on page A7
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