By Rubin Thomas
For many, 2018 was a wake-up call for the threat that climate change poses to human safety. Countless natural disasters hit hard, from Hurricane Michael in October to the disastrous California Camp fire in November, the deadliest wildfire ever recorded in the state. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the estimated total damage from all U.S. natural disasters came out to around $91 billion in 2018. 2017, meanwhile, was the costliest year ever for climate-related disasters around the globe, according to the United Nations; the NOAA estimate for damages in 2017 hit $306 billion.
Although perhaps not the primary cause of these disasters, climate change certainly played a significant role in exacerbating their destructiveness and increasing their likelihood. Research shows that factors which can amplify natural disasters, including rising global temperatures and rising sea levels, have worsened due to human activity. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), cumulative carbon dioxide emissions over the next 25 years will amount to three-quarters of the total emitted over the past 110 years, leading to a long-term average temperature rise of 3.5 degrees Celsius, or approximately 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Such a drastic rise in temperatures could be catastrophic in many ways: entire cities could disappear underwater, agricultural outputs could become highly uncertain, and billions of dollars worth of damage could be incurred from more frequent natural disasters.
Combating the rise of carbon dioxide and methane emissions will require a fundamental shift in our approach to producing and consuming energy. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the energy production sector was the second-largest CO2 emitter in 2016, contributing 28.4% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. This represents less than a 15% decrease from the year 2000. Approximately 68% of our electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, mainly because we do not currently have the capability to optimally utilize the power we get from renewable sources.
This fossil fuel usage is why we have not seen a wider shift towards renewable energy sources, despite the falling cost of capturing renewable energy. In California, for example, the price that energy utilities paid for solar energy fell by 77% in the last 20 years, and the price for wind energy similarly decreased 47%, according to the California Public Utilities Commission. Such technologies are even becoming so cost-effective that in some cases individual households can purchase them. Take Tesla, which introduced its solar roof, a mainstream and affordable solar energy capture device that mimics the appearance of a traditional shingle roof, in 2017.
The reduced cost of such energy capture devices can be misleading, however. We still disproportionately depend on fossil fuels for our energy supply, and our current grid is not equipped to handle a wider shift towards renewable energy. The main problem lies in our inability to store such energy in an affordable or efficient way so that energy is available throughout the year on demand. In the solar and wind case, for example, we would need to store large amounts of energy in the summer that could later be used during the rest of the year when there is less sunlight and wind. Moreover, in places where there is little sunlight, we would need to be able to transport and store large amounts of energy. Essentially, we need better batteries.
Just looking at the California case, the Clean Air Task Force estimates that generating 80% of California’s energy from renewable energy will require 9.6 million megawatt-hours of energy storage. Similarly, 100% would require 36.3 million megawatt-hours. For context, the state now maintains just 150,000 megawatt-hours of energy storage, comprised mostly of pumped hydroelectric energy storage, which is expensive and impossible to implement in flat areas or in areas without an adequate water source. The alternative energy storage medium, lithium-ion batteries like those found in cell phones or electric cars, is not sufficient on a large scale because batteries are still far too expensive and do not hold energy long enough to last across seasons. Tesla and Dynegy Inc., which have already begun connecting lithium-ion batteries to the grid, can only supply electricity for about four hours.
We need a better alternative, but no compelling option has emerged. Investors remain content with further upgrading and perfecting lithium-ion battery technology despite its fundamental limitations. Massive factories are popping up across the world, and this expansion is only bringing down the cost of lithium ion. As a result, competing technologies have struggled to keep up despite promising benefits. For example, Form Energy, a startup, has had success with a new type of battery called the aqueous sulfur flow battery, which could potentially bring costs down by around 95% compared to lithium-ion batteries because it relies on two readily available components: sulfur and air. In addition, it could hold its charge for months at a time. Although it is far from being fully developed, such a breakthrough is what will be necessary to shift towards widespread use of renewable energy.
Investing in better batteries could also impact emissions in another important sector: transportation. At 28.5%, transportation is the biggest contributor to carbon dioxide emissions around the globe, according to the EPA. Over 90% of the fuel used for transportation is currently based on petroleum, the burning of which emits carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Companies such as Tesla have been able to effectively utilize current lithium-ion battery technologies to create compelling vehicles that are in many ways comparable to gasoline-powered competitors. However, one area that has seen little progress is aviation. The New York Times estimates, based on EPA data, that a single person taking one round-trip flight between New York and Los Angeles generates about 20% of the greenhouse gasses that they emit with a car over an entire year, assuming daily use. The EPA also states that aviation accounts for 11% of all transportation emissions, or about 4% of world greenhouse gas emissions. This amount of emissions is sizeable, and it is only projected to grow in the coming years.
Why has progress in clean, electric aviation been so slow? Firstly, our batteries currently do not contain enough capacity that would make them possible energy sources for efficient air travel. An equivalent mass of jet fuel currently contains forty-three times the energy contained in an equivalent mass lithium-ion battery. Second, there is the problem of charging. Most domestic airlines aim to keep the time between consecutive flights under 60 minutes, but having to charge or swap out batteries could greatly increase this time and cost airliners millions of dollars. These are some of the issues that are being investigated by NASA’s Electric Aircraft Testbed (NEAT). NEAT currently estimates that the earliest stages of electrified aircrafts, gas-electric hybrid aircrafts, will only be available by 2035 with current levels of funding.
Innovation in the transportation sector, then, also seems highly dependent on finding an effective and efficient energy storage medium. As with the case of electricity production, the consequences of not finding a suitable method for storing large amounts of energy for long periods of time could prove devastating to both the climate and benefits given up. We need to be investing significant amounts of money into battery research because the stakes are so high—billions of dollars worth of damage will occur from natural disasters, and billions of people will be subject to climate change effects that we are only beginning to learn about.