On October 25, Google announced that it had nearly completed the development of Dragonscale—its shiny, cutting-edge solar ‘skin’ or roof made up of 90,000 solar panels.
The announcement, made on Google’s official blog, The Keyword, outlined how it took the tech giant years to develop the product, during which it collaborated with several partners and examined a range of prototypes from manufacturers across Europe. The result is a “highly textured prismatic glass shingle with a unique coating technology.”
What makes Dragonscale special is that unlike traditional solar panels, which are rectangular, it is not flat, enabling it to catch light from all angles. The prismatic glass further enhances its photovoltaic capabilities by trapping more light while reducing glare that may blind drivers or pilots.
Dragonscale will adorn Google’s Bay View and Charleston East bases. And since the glass catches light from all angles, it will enable the two bases to generate peak clean power for longer times during the day. As the blog states, to “hit our goal to operate on entirely carbon-free energy by 2030, we need to prioritize alternate sources of energy, like solar, and maximize the amount of solar energy our buildings can capture.”
Google published its blog at an interesting time, just a week before 200 countries gathered in Glasgow, UK, for the 26th Conference of the Parties (COP26). Every year, the Conference is attended by not just world leaders in politics, but also finance and technology. The goal is to discuss the challenges posed by (accelerating) climate change and identify collective solutions to overcome or prevent them.
While solutions in full detail are rare, governments and organizations make long-term pledges. One of the most popular pledges is becoming carbon-neutral by a specific year. One of the highlights of COP26 was India’s pledge to become a net-zero emitter by 2070.
However, as Google’s statement shows, some organizations and governments have pledged instead to become carbon-free. Microsoft, too, has pledged to become carbon-free by 2030. So has New York, by 2035. Is there a difference? Absolutely.
The difference between carbon-neutral and carbon-free
To become 100% carbon-neutral is to completely neutralize or offset the carbon produced by fossil fuels.
There are many ways to achieve carbon neutrality. Organizations and governments may plant trees, for example. Another way is to purchase or produce renewable energy to offset emissions in the future. Essentially, the aim is to consume carbon-based energy and generate an equal amount of carbon-free energy and call it even.
On the other hand, to become 100% carbon-free is to consume carbon-free energy every hour, every day, all year—or 24/7. The aim is not to emit carbon in the first place.
In a nutshell, the ultimate climate action is to minimize our carbon footprint. In that regard, producing and consuming 100%, 24/7 carbon-free energy takes priority over producing and consuming 100%, 24/7 carbon-neutral energy. The former represents a fully decarbonized energy system, relying only and entirely on solar, wind, hydro, geothermal, nuclear, and other carbon-free energy.
So, why is most climate action geared toward becoming carbon-neutral and not carbon-free?
The challenge to 100% carbon-free energy
Well, because becoming carbon-free is hard.
Let us first address the political constraints. India and China are two of the world’s biggest emitters of carbon dioxide. However, the two remain reluctant to quit on carbon because the industry employs millions and contributes immensely to their GDP. Yes, India got a generous amount of praise for committing to produce net-zero emissions by 2070. However, it also received a generous amount of criticism for intervening at the last moment to insist that the climate deal say phase “down” instead of “out” carbon.
But even though we eliminate the economic penalty associated with producing 100% carbon-free energy, we will still be unable to produce it at scale. At least, today, when the technology is virtually non-existent, or if it exists, it would be spectacularly expensive.
What is the problem?
Let us assume that you run a company with offices that span the globe. A conscious, firm believer in sustainability, you wish to ensure that all operations run on 100% carbon-free energy every hour, every day, everywhere. The office in the US, for example, operates on clean energy sourced from a local wind farm. Meanwhile, the office in Sydney runs on clean energy sourced from a local solar farm.
Here is the problem. Wind energy output will decline in late summer when wind speeds decline. Similarly, solar energy output will decrease in winter when solar energy is no longer at its peak. At such times, the mismatch between supply and demand will cause prices to fluctuate. At a certain point, it would make more sense, financially, to rely on fossil fuels than renewables. Even if you are willing to pay a premium, what happens when the farms suffer an outage or are forced to close for some other reason? Availability. On-demand energy. That is the biggest challenge to 100%, 24/7 carbon-free energy.
Of course, you can make up for unavailability by making sure there is more available. If your supplier runs out of solar, you can turn to wind energy. If you run out of wind energy, you can then turn to hydro, and so forth. But the challenge remains: what if nothing is available?
Becoming 100% carbon-free
Carbon must go. Not compensated but eliminated. Eliminated, not on average, year-over-year, but eliminated hour-over-hour, day-by-day, all year.
The goal is ambitious. And hence, it demands equally ambitious breakthroughs. And for the goal to be achieved at scale, such that carbon-free energy is available and affordable everywhere, it demands an equally ambitious investment.
That is why in September this year, a group of 40 energy suppliers, buyers, investors, researchers, and other private and public organizations came together to form the 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact. The UN believes the Compact stands for the “ambitious global effort” needed to “accelerate the decarbonization of the world’s electricity systems to mitigate climate change and ensure access to clean and affordable electricity for all.”
According to the Compact, overall, there are currently three solutions to overcome availability.
- Load Shifting: Optimizing demand is the cheapest solution to maximizing carbon-free energy. One way is to compute more efficiently: Energy consumption being equal, Google’s data centers today compute nearly four times the data they computed in 2013. Another way is to shift loads by taking on resource-heavy tasks during clean energy peaks, say, the day. Or by shifting the load to another location altogether.
- Energy Storage: Solutions in energy storage are more expensive than load shifting. Yes, excess clean energy can be stored in lithium-ion batteries. But can it be stored for weeks, months, or perhaps even years? Even though used lithium-ion batteries have been found to be equally useful, which is great for sustainability, we are desperate for breakthroughs in material science that could lead to batteries that can store energy for much longer. Hopefully, with time, the batteries would also be smaller and cheaper.
- Energy Generation: On-demand energy generation is the costliest solution of the three. A nuclear fusion power plant, for example, could provide 100% carbon-free energy at the scale of cities—and for years. But building a nuclear fusion power plant is expensive. Expensive, too, is dealing with nuclear waste.
Eventually, 100% carbon-free energy will become a reality. Perhaps it will happen sooner than we expect. But it will. Investment will pour. Innovation will multiply. Technologies will scale.
However, the ultimate goal is to maximize accountability. If we wish to minimize our carbon footprint, we must know precisely where, how, and by what means clean energy is generated, moved, and consumed. That demands an equally ambitious global effort.
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