Big Idea of 2017: More Climate Problems and More Climate Solutions

While 2017 was defined by climate disasters, technological breakthroughs suggest several ways to curb carbon emissions.

After a relatively quiet beginning, 2017 quickly became a year defined by climate disasters.

The tide turned when Hurricane Harvey struck the Gulf Coast, delivering tremendous amounts of rain that overwhelmed Houston’s stormwater management system. The storm lingered for days, deluging the country’s fourth most populous city and many others along the coast.

Then, just weeks later, Hurricanes Irma and Maria battered many vulnerable Caribbean islands, struck Florida, and decimated Puerto Rico. Now, more than three months after Irma, some 30% of Puerto Ricans still lack electricity and 5% are without freshwater.

Offshore wind turbines off Walney Island in the Irish Sea

Around the same time, South Asia was also experiencing massive flooding due to a severe monsoon season. While flooding isn’t unusual during that time of year, 2017 was worse than normal, with high waters affecting more than 40 million people and killing more than 1,200.

In October, California began what would become one of the state’s worst fire seasons in recent history. Firefighters battled 250 new wildfires that month alone. One particularly large fire, fueled by hot, dry winds, ripped through the Northern California city of Santa Rosa, destroying nearly 6,000 buildings and killing more than 40 people.

That was just the beginning, though, because in December, fierce Santa Ana winds kicked up several more fires, including the Thomas fire, which has burned more than 270,000 acres between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and is now the largest fire in California history.

A Swiss insurance company estimates that natural disasters have cost $136 billion in losses this year, more than double the 10-year average of $58 billion. While some of that includes damage from earthquakes, including the magnitude 7.1 quake that hit central Mexico, much of it is from climate-related disasters.

These trends portend a grim future, where massive disasters are the norm rather than the exception. And while some amount of global warming is likely locked in due to past and current carbon pollution, there are some signs that we may reign in emissions before too long.

On May 1, 2017, the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. connected to the grid near Block Island, a small part of Rhode Island that has typically relied on pricey and unreliable diesel generation for its electricity. Though it’s expensive today, offshore wind has the potential to be a massive source of renewable power. A study published this year found that an offshore wind farm in the North Atlantic could produce three-times more power than a similarly sized one in Kansas.

Part of offshore wind’s advantage comes from the fact that ocean winds blow 70% stronger than over land. That allows engineers to build larger, more powerful turbines to harvest those stronger currents. Today, land-based wind turbines produce about 2 MW on average, and offshore turbines make an average of 4.1 MW. By 2030, advances in manufacturing and transportation of the massive blades are expected to boost onshore turbine power by about 160%, but the average offshore wind turbine will soar to 11 MW, an increase of 275%.

All that additional power may be needed if electric vehicles continue to advance at their current pace. Prices for lithium ion batteries dropped 24% in the last year alone, down to an average of $209/kWh. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research organization, electric vehicles will become cost competitive with gasoline models when battery costs reach $100/kWh, which they forecast will happen in the mid-2020s.

Cost hasn’t been the only barrier to EV adoption, though. Charging times have been on psychological barrier that many car owners haven’t overcome. That may change, though, as faster chargers roll out in the coming years—Volkswagen, for one, is investigating 350 kW charging stations that could add about 250 miles of range in just 15 minutes.

Advances in battery chemistry could speed things further. In January, NOVA covered the work of engineer Mike Zimmerman, who has invented a super-safe solid-state battery. In addition to being entirely stable when damaged—“Search for the Super Battery” host David Pogue cut one to pieces—it also has a higher energy density, meaning that fewer of them will be required to power EVs over long distances.

David Pogue slices through Mike Zimmerman’s super-safe lithium-ion battery.

Solid-state also can be charged faster. John Goodenough, the 94-year-old co-inventor of the Li-ion battery, believes that he and his collaborator Maria Helena Braga have developed a new solid-state battery chemistry that can be charged in minutes, not hours. In today’s Li-ion batteries, rapid charging risks the formation of dendrites on the anode. If these dendrites stretch across the electrolyte and touch the cathode, the battery can short-circuit. But Goodenough’s new battery uses a solid glass electrolyte, which prevents the formation of those dendrites.

While Zimmerman and Goodenough have been focusing on the electrolyte, other groups have spent time improving other parts of the battery. A team based at KAIST, a South Korean research university, used silicon as an anode material to boost energy density by three- to five-fold. Normally, lithium-silicon batteries can’t withstand many recharging cycles—the silicon expands and fractures during charging—so the researchers created a clever molecular pulley system that draws the pieces of silicon back together, allowing the new battery to maintain more of its capacity over a longer period of time.

New battery chemistries require years of development before we can mass produce them at a reasonable cost. But their timelines may be compressed in coming years as automakers and battery manufacturers pour money into R&D. Toyota, for example, is pushing hard to commercialize a new solid-state battery chemistry by 2022.

While these advances in wind power or battery technologies won’t be enough to limit global warming to 3.6˚ F, together, they could make a significant dent in our carbon emissions and put us on the path to achieving that goal.