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The Great Rewrite: Energy

The Great Rewrite: Energy

Abasic law of physics says there is a fixed amount of energy. What changes the planet is how that energy moves around. When people learned how to extract energy buried in the earth — and use it to power machines, transportation and electricity — modern civilization was created. Now the flow of energy needs to change again, and another great rewrite begins.

More than a century ago, conversion of fossil fuels and hydro power into electricity was such a massive enterprise that centralized public utilities were created to handle it. That one-to-many model is undergoing a transformation in the face of changing technologies, financial markets and human needs. With solar panels, homeowners today can make their own electricity. Often they do it without capital investment, as solar startups are eager to install rooftop panels for free and charge only for electricity that homeowners use.

At the enterprise level, energy-gulping companies are increasingly generating their own juice, too. A report last year by the California Public Utilities Commission noted the rise of electricity pro-sumers, customers that produce as well as consume energy. In the online age, more corporations require uninterrupted power to guarantee unfailing availability of their digital assets. They don’t want to rely fully on an aging public grid that may be vulnerable to routine outages, calamitous weather and even terrorism. As companies and individuals work toward a degree of energy independence, power utilities are preparing for a more distributed future that is rewriting an ages-old energy flow chart.

Meanwhile, the burning of fuels extracted from the earth has had unintended impact, dislodging long-stored carbon from the ground and sending it into the sky as greenhouse gasses. Many scientists believe this has hastened damage to the planet’s climate. Nations around the globe have promised reductions in carbon emissions, forcing us to seek different places where energy is available for human enterprise. Renewables power our needs by tapping into the constant energy stream of nature: solar, wind, hydro, atomic. They may once again rewrite the planet.

Redox Power Systems wants to sell its products to companies seeking more energy independence. The Redox Cube, currently in testing, is a futuristic-looking meter-square box that can provide 25 kilowatts of electricity, completely off the grid. Fuel cells inside the Cube convert natural gas into electricity. One or several Cubes can power a group of homes, a skyscraper, a strip mall, a grocery store. Companies that operate data centers are among likely customers. Data centers account for around 2 percent of the country’s electricity use, and their consumption is growing rapidly, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. These facilities don’t want to be 100 percent dependent on the grid. “Their whole business is availability,” said Redox CEO Bryan Blackburn.

The Cube’s fuel cells convert gas to electricity more cleanly than combustion generators, but the process isn’t carbon-free. What it’s really helping to rewrite is the energy ecosystem — fostering the kind of market diversity that’s likely to be the new status quo in a sustainable future.

“We really do think it will change the way people think about electricity,” Blackburn said.

With plans to build floating wind turbines off the California coast, Trident Winds hopes to address one shortcoming of some renewable energy: uneven delivery of power throughout the day. California has aggressively committed to generate half its electricity from renewable sources by 2030. But a rising reliance on the state’s abundant sunshine for power can create a mismatch between supply and demand over the course of a day. Solar works when the sun shines — its growing use can create an oversupply of electricity during daylight hours. Solar production drops off rapidly when people go home from work and energy needs rise.

Miles offshore, wind is powerful. “It’s the most pristine wind resource you can have,” said Trident Winds founder Alla Weinstein. “It’s like looking for gasoline with higher octane.”

It’s also relatively consistent throughout the day and night. Its promise is making the forces of nature — and earth’s renewable future — a little more predictable. Trident Winds plans to create California’s first offshore wind farm, leveraging what might be the state’s greatest untapped national resource: its coast.

An ambitious company named Global Thermostat has even bigger ideas about rewriting the planet. The company has technology that can extract CO2 from the air. Many climate scientists believe that reducing global carbon emissions can’t be the only remedy. We’ll also need to reclaim some of the long-lasting greenhouse gasses that our energy usage has already released. The dream is to go “carbon negative.” The company’s test equipment is working. Like a lot of ideas for rewriting the planet, it’s a home run swing that may or may not connect. Ultimately a mix of answers is going to be needed, short term and into the distant future.

“There is no one solution to anything,” Redox’s Blackburn said. “To think that one technology or product is going to be the solution to something as big as energy is foolish.” While this is true, we are at the starting line of deep, reformative change.