It’s an increasingly common story: Climate turmoil causes millions to lose power.
Many states in the west, such as California, know it well. During wildfire season, many communities are cut from the main electricity grid to prevent more fires from sparking; others suffer as fires destroy transmission lines.
Texas knows the story well now, too. More than 4.5 million people lost power after February’s winter storm devastated the state and caused at least 58 deaths. Power grids froze and failed.
The southern United States is familiar from worsening hurricane seasons and high-wind storms.
Energy innovations are becoming more necessary as disasters caused by climate change become more frequent — and those innovations are proliferating, from solar storage to solutions that would harness insurers to help solve a problem they eventually often pay for.
Jacqueline Amable, the managing director of venture for Rochester, New York-based For ClimateTech, an incubator and accelerator, says something like 80% of the technology needed to provide more sustainable and reliable energy already exists.
“Now that it feels like there’s a lot more momentum around solving the climate crisis, we’re hoping that leads to more innovation, but I actually think the innovation is already there,” Amable said. “Anything that has to do with energy infrastructure is a national security issue.”
But one of the key roadblocks, according to experts, is that there’s no incentive for regulated utility departments to work with innovators and improve efficiency — and those utilities, in turn, sometimes have outside power in local and state regulator environments. The big companies and regulators have a vested interest in the status quo.
This is the story in Texas, where electric companies failed to implement 2011 recommendations by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Electric Reliability Corp. to winterfy their grids, which came after a nearly identical situation to this year’s disaster cut power in much of the state. And as Times of E and others have reported, Democrat and Republican administrations flip-flop on how and how much to support a U.S. solar industry — and how to balance innovation with the need to protect the infrastructure from foreign attack.
Like many other kinds of Deep Tech innovation, energy innovations with a long development time also face a Valley of Death, where they have trouble finding capital after the seed stage.
For now, many climate technology innovators have taken matters into their own hands, selling their products directly to consumers. The country is on pace to install 13.7 gigawatts of solar energy in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
The Solutions in Storage
Without a major move by utilities to embrace innovation and overhaul power grid systems, there are some innovations and partnerships that could make access to power more available when disaster strikes. But communities and individuals need to embrace those, rather than relying on broad adoption.
Many hinge on the question of how to store solar power.
Take Oakland, California-based East Bay Community Energy, a power agency that works with Pacific Gas & Electric Company to deliver around 1.5 million people in the state solar energy, which powers their homes at the same time as the main grid. Some residents are also equipped with solar storage — which, when used sparingly, can provide power for multiple days off of the grid, said JP Ross, who leads the company’s innovation and economic development projects. EBCE is working on storage for necessary buildings at a larger scale, too.
Though, storage technology still has a long way to go before it becomes standard. Ross describes the solar and storage technology combination as “immature.”
“As greenhouse gas and climate targets and renewables portfolio standards continue to expand, I would expect that solar and storage will continue to accelerate into new states where it hasn’t been a big player before,” he said. “The fact that climate change is causing so many new types of catastrophes is only going to drive more people in this direction.”
Nathaniel Harding, founder and managing partner of Oklahoma City-based Cortado Ventures and the founder of Antioch Energy, points to Sydney, Australia-based Enosi, which has created community-powered batteries. Similar to solar communities, these batteries would provide reliable power in disasters and also be a dispersed community cost, which is cheaper than personal storage systems.
“The more smart people you have working on it, that are well funded, the quicker that you’ll be able to innovate,” he said. “I do think that there is just more and more of an emphasis from institutional investors to invest in these areas.”
Or, take San Francisco-based Blokable, which manufactures cost-effective, energy efficient building materials. Its structures function on electrical power and have energy recovery ventilation, which in turn lowers utility costs, according to its website.
The development could be a useful option of decarbonized energy for affordable housing, said Kate Moore, the strategic partnerships manager at The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which is working with Blokable to help further the energy efficiency of its materials. This is important, as people with low incomes are typically most affected by natural disasters.
Another innovation that could be the future of energy storage is electric batteries in cars. These “moving batteries” could be an easy way to access power when typical power grids are overloaded, said Alex Rozenfeld, the founder of Houston-based Climate Impact Capital, who says he’s bullish on the area. For example, Burlingame, California-based Proterra is working on electric powered buses, which could potentially offer a power source to schools, which had to shut down during the Texas disaster, Rozenfeld said. If school buses move to electric power, they can charge overnight and be a source of energy.
“We’re never going to have enough batteries to manage energy storage for what we need for Texas,” he said. “But I think as electric vehicles become more inexpensive, and there’s more models, and both the car companies and the utilities allow them to be connected to the grid, there’s a huge opportunity for us to now figure out how to make the grid more reliable using electric vehicles.”
Also on Rozenfeld’s wishlist: widespread use of heaters that can be powered without electricity. Many people lost heat in Texas because their systems were generated by fans (which need electricity to function). Widespread use of heat sources that are powered without needing to be connected to the grid would have solved that issue.
There are companies innovating solar energy further. Take Ubiqd, a Los Alamos, New Mexico-based company that’s developed windows with quantum dots that can store solar energy, Moore said.
The Solutions Exist, So What Gives?
There are some ideas that would create broader solutions. But some have been stymied by political interests. An investigation by the Atlantic and InvestigateWest found that the U.S. government shut down an energy study that could have been “an elegant solution to a complicated problem,” as reporter Peter Fairley put it.
In 2018, Joshua Novacheck, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, presented a study at a Lawrence, Kansas conference, outlining evidence that stronger connections between the U.S.’s eastern and western grids would allow more growth for solar and wind energy, reducing the country’s reliance on coal and saving consumers money.
When the Department of Energy and other officials under former president Donald Trump, who have a history of protecting coal companies, caught word of the study, Novacheck was barred from speaking about the study again and its progress was halted, the investigation found.
The problem that Novacheck and colleagues at NREL were looking into is no simple one. A major barrier to renewable solutions is the physical architecture that makes up the centralized, fossil-fuel-powered grid. The world’s “love affair” with these systems is preventing proper innovation, said Bill Lenihan, the CEO of Zola Electric, a company that installs distributed power in places that don’t have reliable sources — such as in Africa and Latin America.
“More than half of new energy production in the world is through renewables, but people are trying to force feed renewable architecture into an archaic centralized architecture,” he said. “It’s a bandaid approach.”
The systems were stable for years, Lenihan said. But as climate change continues to show itself in winter storms like Texas just saw, or the fires in California and other western states, the grid systems are no longer cutting it.
“Energy is local, and so there isn’t a one size fits all approach,” Moore said. “Part of the challenge is understanding the unique resources and conditions that exist and trying to understand what’s possible.”
Valley of Death
Another roadblock to encouraging climate and energy innovation is many ventures don’t fit into classic funding models. Climate technology doesn’t usually do well in front of venture capitalists, for instance, because companies innovating in the energy space can’t pinpoint a return in five or ten years, Amable said.
The dilemma is a “chicken or egg” one, Moore describes. In order to progress an idea, you need funding to create a prototype and test it. But in order to get capital, you need a tangible product to present. “So there is a valley of death,” she said, “We need more capital at this early stage, in order to unlock and unleash ideas that need resources in order to become real.
Alternative funding models, such as patient capital, allows innovators to create more solutions. For Climate Tech, the organization that Amable manages, tries to take this approach in funding innovators, understanding the job creation and social benefits companies have, she said.
Another barrier is finding a customer to trust the innovation at an early stage. NREL helps in this role, Moore said, because often its credibility as a neutral third party validates the technology and helps more people trust its value.
Climate-related disasters have cost the world $650 billion from 2016 to 2019, according to a February 2019 report from Morgan Stanley, CNBC reports. About $415 billion of that was from North America alone, the bank wrote. The toll is only predicted to get worse– it could cost the world $54 trillion by 2040, the United Nations estimates.
“As these seemingly once in a generation events are going to become very common events, who’s going to continue to bail these things out?” Amable said. “Who’s going to bail out the government when these become broader issues?”
Insurance has not seen enough innovation, Amable said. As they stand, most insurance companies are not prepared to handle widespread disasters on a consistent basis, she said.
For instance, power failures can in turn affect water systems in homes. Technology exists to notify homeowners of water heater issues and leaks in pipes, yet most insurance companies have not tapped into these products as a way to prevent home damage, Rozenfeld said. Providers could offer these existing technologies to homeowners so they have the tools to know, for instance, when to shut off their water, before major flooding occurs. He compares this to health insurance companies that offer reimbursements for gym memberships, such as Aetna and Cigna.
“I’m not sure why the insurance companies are just so behind on this, because they’re the ones who are paying out,” Rozenfeld said.
Companies themselves have started to tap into possible models, such as North Olmstead, Ohio-based Moen, which guarantees on its website that it will pay up to $5,000 of insurance deductibles if its water leak technology fails.
In the meantime, Rozenfeld expects real estate agents and apartment managers to use these technologies to their advantage, showcasing preventive technology as a reason renters or buyers should choose locations.
States are preparing for future events– California recently hired 1,400 more firefighters to prepare for next summer’s wildfire season–but power grids remain one of the great, intractable knots in the middle of the problem. Innovations that happen outside the power infrastructure will be increasingly essential. In Texas’s winter storm, an estimated 58 people froze to death, some of them because of power failures. Heat in the summer can likewise kill.
“I hope it doesn’t take more tragedies, because these lessons have been learned,” Amable said. “I hope that we can actually start to put action behind them.”
This story has been updated to reflect For ClimateTech is an incubator and accelerator, rather than a fund, and Jacqueline Amable’s full title as its managing director.