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I was lucky this year to persuade world-renowned 100% renewable energy expert Mark Jacobson to join me on one of my May webinars as a guest presenter (a series for urban planners and city government people). Mark is an expert from Stanford, an advisor to the White House, has addressed Congress four times (and David Letterman once) and so on. The full list of his achievements is even more impressive.
Our topic was disinformation spread by the fossil fuels and nuclear industries and, likely because of Mark’s stature, a few trolls attacked me on social media before and after the webinar. As I always do, I looked into the background of the individuals involved and found they were all on big oil’s or big nuclear’s payroll.
Throughout history, status quo industries and powerful entities often fought fiercely against technological disruptions, especially when they have big economic ramifications, such as the current energy transition.
In a huge gamble that does not seem to be paying off, Vladimir Putin initiated an actual war, partly to protect Russia’s gas business. The war is driving countries all over the world more quickly toward clean energy independence, especially in Europe. In America, the Ukraine conflict — along with wildfires and drought in the Southwest, gas plant breakdowns in Texas, and floods and storms everywhere else — are having the same effect.
It makes me think about the nature of change. Sometimes the mainstream is fearful and hesitant to adopt new technologies until we face cataclysmic events. However, it’s not true for everyone. Early adopters are often visionaries, years ahead of the majority. These are the people whose projects I visit each year.
This year, one such visit was the Hillside Center for Sustainable Living in Newburyport, Mass. It’s a 48-home community that manages water carefully and creates almost no fossil-fuel emissions. It employs many of the technologies I usually write about, such as heat pumps and energy recovery ventilators, which some readers consider as still quite new for the mechanical trade. Hillside also is demonstrating some next-level decarbonization approaches.
Designed and built by local developers Hall & Moskow, the project’s buildings are constructed using prefabricated concrete Passive House wall sections the company manufactures on-site in a big construction tent.
“We tried to bring in green concrete from Canada, but there were cross-border partnership difficulties,” says David Hall, president of Hall & Moskow. “So we make the wall sections ourselves, with concrete belowgrade and fibercrete in the abovegrade section. I think this is a new frontier because modern construction materials have the potential to stash away a lot of carbon.”
The company employed other innovations, but the concrete is a good example of the leading-edge of change in the construction field and the coming transformation of heavy industry.
Conventional concrete is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, creating 8% to 9%. Similarly, steel is a big problem that is finally receiving more attention from progressive engineers around the world.
Along with other industrial processes such as long-haul shipping, rail and air travel, cement and steel are true laggards in the world of decarbonization. In a way, it’s misleading to be a huge cheerleader for innovations in these two categories. I’m glad they are advancing, but it’s a slow process.
The consensus has long been that solutions involving hydrogen would eventually emerge for all these sectors. Sadly, the hype is about what has materialized over several decades.
At one time, I was also biased toward electrification and too cynical about hydrogen. However, the more I learn about the technology, the politics and the underhanded dealing of the fossil-fuel industry, the more I think my cynicism is justified. Nevertheless, there appears to be some recent progress.
On the west coast of France, Hoffman Green Cement Technologies in Rives de l’Yon appears to be well on the way to commercializing carbon-free concrete by departing significantly from traditional production processes. It involves three main inputs: blast furnace slag from the metallurgical and steel industry, flash clay that is a co-product of clay sludge, and gypsum/desulfogypsum produced from construction site excavated material. Apparently, the three are abundant and easily sourced.
These substances are mixed with activators and superactivators (sounds like a chemical process I’d like to know more about) to create three cement products that seem to work for most of the traditional applications in the construction industry. They are supplied as precast concrete, ready-mix concrete transported in mixer trucks, and cement bags for use by tradespeople and DIYers.
The company touts the fact that there is no clinker production involved, which creates most of the current emissions, so nothing is burned, and no quarrying of raw materials, another source of negative environmental impacts.
I’m reporting on this as a promising technology, but it is early days. My knowledge is not thorough enough for this to be anything similar to an endorsement. However, I’ve read about numerous other efforts to make so-called green cement, and this one sounds better than the rest.
Hoffman seems to have good financial backing, a partnership with building materials firm CEMEX, sound manufacturing plans and developing distribution arrangements. It should succeed, albeit in Europe before North America. Many other companies on both sides of the Atlantic continue to work on green cement solutions, which is a hopeful sign for the future.
Meanwhile, back at Hillside in Newburyport and at many other North American housing developments, enthusiasts are proving the effectiveness of fibercrete, cellulose and hempcrete.
“I don’t like the name hempcrete,” Hall notes. “And I think companies using a cannabis blossom as a logo are making a mistake. This is a construction material that performs well, insulates well and solves embedded carbon problems. To me, the association with marijuana is bad for credibility.”
Exploring different materials for resilience and insulation is very hot right now. In January, I visited a small house under construction in Austin, Texas, fitted throughout with a few inches of cork insulation. The designer-builder was excited to show how perfect cork is for a low-energy home in Texas. I took some photos and will write more extensively about this project in a future column.
Two companies in Sweden claim to be at the forefront of the effort to create “green” steel. One of the two, SSAB, actually made steel it calls green. It has been used by Volvo, the vehicle manufacturer, in a large prototype vehicle to carry ore during mining operations.
The process involves hydrogen as a replacement for fossil fuels in the iron pellet and iron manufacturing process, and an electric arc furnace to transform the iron into steel. The energy to create the hydrogen via fuel cells will come from renewables, presumably wind and solar.
Hydrogen also will accommodate large-scale energy storage, an obsession for traditional engineers who perpetually maintain that wind and solar are more intermittent than conventional power sources.
This is untrue, according to Jacobson during the aforementioned webinar on misinformation. He provided global statistics on how coal, nuclear and gas plants were all offline and unavailable for baseload power for much more time during an average year than renewable power operations. He, thus, debunked a favorite media myth that conventional energy sources are somehow immune from instability.
Jacobson showed that both traditional and modern electricity systems require backup and redundant systems if the goal is 24/7 reliable service 365 days of the year. And evidence is emerging that storage, modern software, V2G, micro-grids, virtual power plants, HVDC infrastructure, demand response and conservation will all help smooth the renewable electricity transition. Renewables already have a history of greater reliability than conventional modes of generation.
As usual with hydrogen projects, the available technical information on green steel-making is limited and murky, the timelines to commercialization are mysteriously long, but the political research partnerships are all magically in place, and even some customers and public money is already flowing to the evangelists.
The second Swedish company is called H2 Green Steel. Its claim to fame is that it thinks it can be in production by 2024, whereas SSAB last year mentioned a five-year journey. Still, the H2 Green Steel press release photo shows a green field where the factory is to be built.
Other Green Advances for Industry
The world’s biggest environmental problems are carbon dioxide, methane, water pollution and biodiversity loss, but carbon emissions are the key imperative right now. The global end-use activity driving these emissions is roughly evenly split: one quarter for transportation, one quarter for buildings, one quarter for power generation and one quarter for industry and agriculture.
Solutions for the first three are well-understood and progressing, but industry/agriculture has the most latitude for making excuses for delay. This is beginning to change. Younger, better-educated people are pushing baby boomers into retirement and demanding new planet-friendly approaches.
• Electricity storage. As I’ve often written, there are probably more engineers working on batteries and other kinds of storage than anything else on earth right now.
Rondo Energy in Fremont, Calif., secured $22 million in financing to ramp up production of its celebrated heat battery that offers a zero-emissions source of industrial heat, storing solar and wind energy at temperatures more than 1,200 C (2,192 F). The company says it plans to begin manufacturing and delivering systems to customers in late 2022. This might be a better route than the aforementioned hydrogen journey.
Investors in the company note that the cost of renewable energy has steadily fallen, but it hasn’t been an option for industries requiring high-temperature process heat because it is a challenge to efficiently convert renewable electricity to high-temperature thermal energy.
The Rondo system is designed to pull energy from solar, wind and the energy grid, intermittently charging special battery brick materials while delivering continuous heat. Rondo says it will enable companies in industries such as cement, fuels, food and water desalination to reduce their emissions while also leveraging the falling costs of
Another group, Viking Cold Solutions in Houston, had its thermal energy storage technology validated after a two-year study by environmental consulting firm D+R International on behalf of Southern California Edison.
The technology uses phase-change materials and intelligent controls to significantly improve cold-storage facilities’ energy efficiency and demand-management capabilities. Refrigeration is the third-largest category of energy use in California.
During two years of testing, the company’s products increased energy efficiency by 25% within a refrigeration system and substantially reduced peak load demand while better maintaining required product temperatures. Viking is hoping the validation will kickstart the adoption of its technology by food manufacturers, distributors and food retailers across the country.
• Motors. One technology offering promise for greater electrification and efficiency in industrial processes is the unsung electric motor. Millions of them undertake a huge amount of the work each day, contributing to our collective wealth.
Ben Schuler of Infinitum Electric in Round Rock, Texas, says motors consume 53% of all electricity; his company’s products can save about half of this because they are so efficient. Its design eliminates a lot of iron and copper and operates via etchings on circuit boards.
“For example, it’s 18 lb. vs. 8 lb.,” Schuler says. “Smaller, quieter, lighter, less raw material but same output. Higher current density, 67% less copper and greater ability to cool the stator. We own 25 patents and another 25 pending patents.”
At the 2019 AHR Expo, Schuler was alone with a small table and minimal customer interest. Then the company began winning awards and in 2022, it is producing thousands of motors, had a large, well-staffed AHR booth and nonstop customer inquiries.
It is already producing or planning to manufacture motors for numerous applications for industrial processes, HVAC equipment and the transportation sector. The marketing manager says the product roadmap will result in models for each market in sizes ranging from 1/2 horsepower to 30 horsepower by 2024.
When I think about motor technology taking great leaps similar to this within a few short years, my mind imagines a future in which micro-circuitry and prefabricated buildings generating their own power will enable self-contained, off-grid industry and living almost anywhere — a completely reinvented, highly energy-efficient, greener world.
And as Mark Jacobson is happy to explain, we already possess viable solutions to create it. We need to control the misinformation and deploy, deploy, deploy.