December 2022 Cleantech Roundup: Fusion | Breakthrough Innovation | Billionaires | Tariffs
This was originally posted on the Evergreen Climate Innovations blog: https://evergreeninno.org/explore/article/december-2022-cleantech-roundup
This month, we’re talking about fusion, the breakthrough climate innovations needed to address climate change, the role of billionaires in moving the needle on climate, and solar tariffs.
I’ll have one fusion, please
There was big news out of Lawrence Livermore National Lab last month on achieving ignition — getting more energy out of a fusion process than they put into it. My impression aligns with this analysis — that the announcement was a real scientific breakthrough, but that commercial applications are a long way off. Unfortunately, we’re primarily going to have to address our climate challenges over the next several decades (before commercial fusion will be available), although it could provide another great tool in the second half of the century.
I heard this described as a ‘kitty hawk’ moment for fusion (calling back to the first instance of powered flight), which seems apt actually — the Wright Brothers showed it could be done, but it was decades before there were planes actually carrying passengers around regularly.
Innovation, Deployment, and the State of Climate Tech
Axios has a nice mini-explainer on the state of climate solutions today and why we still need breakthrough innovations for addressing climate change (as opposed to just deploying the solutions we have).
“The common thread, however, is that technologies under development today could soon become a linchpin of our strategy to hold global warming below potentially catastrophic levels.”
It also quotes this International Energy Agency analysis:
“Roughly 80% of the emissions cuts needed through 2030 would come from technologies already on the market, but stronger policies and investment are needed to speed up adoption, the analysis finds.
But nearly half (46%) of the cuts that would be needed in 2050 are from technologies that are at the demonstration or prototype phase.”
If anyone asks you whether we should focus on deployment or innovation to address climate change, you can send them the Axios post. And you can confidently tell them, “yes, and more of both!”
Essentially, all of the significant progress we need to take make on climate over the next decade will be leveraging existing solutions, but in the following decades, a big chunk of emissions reductions will need to come from solutions that are not deployed at commercial scale today.
Have Billionaires, Will Create Climate Policy
The Washington Post had a thought-provoking article last month titled, “For better or worse, billionaires now guide climate policy.” It is absolutely the case that there are mega-wealthy individuals who are funding work on climate change at significant levels (across policy, research, commercialization, and scale up), and I think are having a meaningful impact. Here’s a blurb from the article:
“This kind of hobbyist approach has become a big factor in the way we are addressing climate change,” said David Victor, co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative at the University of California at San Diego. “Is this the ideal way to do it? No. The ideal way would be large publicly oriented programs. But that is not happening anywhere in the world.”
“In some cases the billionaires are making real progress,” Victor said.
I completely agree — it’s not how we would ideally make climate policy, but there are real things happening.
Bill Gates, in particular, has been a large and consistent funder of climate tech innovation, especially on large, difficult problems. Some of this has a return expectation or profit opportunity, but a lot of it is just throwing money at problems we desperately need to solve. His organization, Breakthrough Energy, is one of the most important entities in the climate tech ecosystem overall.
Solar Tariffs Return
Last year, one of the biggest stories was the uncertainty in the solar industry caused by the tariff investigation the Commerce Department was undertaking. While there was a temporary reprieve in the form of a 24 month waiver, it appears that these tariffs are likely to re-emerge in a ruling expected later this spring. Per the E&E news article on the topic:
“If Commerce upholds its preliminary ruling, solar manufacturers in Southeast Asia that buy parts from Chinese companies would face the same level of tariffs as their Chinese sources. Rates can range up to 200 percent in some cases, although they typically are less than 35 percent, according to the department.”
These tariffs could impact as much as 80% of the solar panels supplied to the United States (after the waiver period, that is). One more impetus for companies to re-examine their global supply chains coming out of the pandemic, although it may be hard for companies to stand up new domestic manufacturing in time to avoid these tariffs kicking in.
The postal service has reversed course and is now on track to electrify its fleet by 2026. Link
An analysis by NRDC suggested that EV deployments are driving down utility rates. In short, they buy a bunch of electricity from the grid, but mostly at off-peak times, so essentially the utility collects more revenue for the same grid, which puts downward pressure on rates. Link
Climate Tech investors offer predictions for 2023. I agree with #7: There will be a carbon credits scandal in 2023. Link
If you haven’t already, I encourage you to check out OpenAI’s new chat tool — the latest in natural language processing. For me, playing around with this tool was revealing — it made me appreciate the potential for advancements in this space that will have a really significant influence across a great many sectors and applications. Link
Evergreen is happy to be a member of the Open Hydrogen Initiative, an industry-led initiative to measure and map the emissions footprint of hydrogen production approaches. Link
General Motors launches GM Energy, their new electric grid division. Link