It seems like only yesterday that the mere mention of direct air carbon capture would elicit gales of laughter from energy analysts. The same could also be said for sustainable aircraft fuel and hydrogen. Nevertheless, these three pie-in-the-sky areas of clean technology are beginning to creep from the impossible to the possible, and a new EU investment fund of up to $1 billion has just been set up to push all them into the realm of, well, at least probable.
The New $1 Billion Clean Technology Fund
The new EU clean technology fund is also targeting long-duration energy storage as well as carbon capture, aircraft fuel, and hydrogen. If that combo doesn’t seem to make much sense in the context of the powerful electrification trend, it doesn’t. After all, the quickest road to global decarbonization would appear to be improving solar cell, wind turbine, and battery technology while cutting fossil fuels out of the energy picture.
The picture comes into sharper focus when you take a closer look at the backers of the $1 billion (about €820 million) venture. A billion or so doesn’t seem too impressive, but each euro is expected to leverage three additional euros in private investment.
The so-named EU-Catalyst fund was set up last week through a Memorandum of Understanding between the European Commission, the European Investment Bank and the Bill Gates-backed firm Breakthrough Energy Catalyst, which is part of the also Gates-backed Breakthrough Energy Ventures. The Gates fingers are all over each of the four EU-Catalyst areas of focus.
Breakthrough Energy has been bouncing around the CleanTechnica radar since the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, partly on account of its involvement in next-generation flow batteries and other aspects of the long-duration energy storage area.
Under the MOU, Breakthrough is tasked with rounding up partners to purchase the new clean technology, which is kind of important considering that investing in new clean technology is one thing, and successfully pitching it to the market is quite another thing.
Pie-In-The-Sky Clean Technology Comes Down To Earth
Not all of the items in the EU-Catalyst portfolio have been targeted by skeptics. Long-duration energy storage is the one that seems immune, mainly because at least such system has been in use for generations, that being pumped hydro energy storage.
New clean technology in the area of long-duration energy storage area is represented in the Breakthrough portfolio by the US firm ESS, which recently introduced its version of the flow battery into production.
Direct air carbon capture is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. For those of you new to the topic, direct air carbon capture is like tree farming, only without the trees. Instead of growing trees to capture carbon for fuel and other products, you can cut out the middleman and harvest carbon yourself, from the air.
There being no such thing as a free lunch, engineering the systems to get the job done has been quite a journey. One of the sticking points is cost, of course, but new global forest conservation pledges could help provide the leverage needed to subsidize policies that support new clean technology that saves trees.
Gates comes into the direct carbon capture picture partly through the Gates Foundation, which is one of the backers of the Canadian firm Carbon Engineering, which is part of a consortium that just started preliminary design work on a new air-to-fuels facility in British Columbia.
The plan is to deliver up to 100 million liters of fuel annually by combining carbon extracted from the air with green hydrogen (more on that angle in a second). Hydropower would provide the juice to run the system.
Capturing The Sustainable Aircraft Fuel Unicorn
The vision of large-scale, zero emission, battery-powered electric aircraft plying the skies is a long way off, which explains why aviation stakeholders have been leaning on biofuel to wean air travel off fossil fuels.
As an alternative to fossil energy, biofuel sounds good on paper. However, it is rapidly becoming the wrong solution at the wrong time. Land use issues and food supply conflicts were always a problem, and now climate change and habitat loss are squeezing into the picture.
Third-generation biofuel crops like algae and seaweed can avoid most of those issues, but they have yet to scale up. That provides direct air carbon capture with room to grab a foothold in the sustainable aviation fuel area. Capturing and converting industrial waste gas is another promising angle.
A third pathway runs through zero emission fuel cells, and Breakthrough has that angle in hand through its investment in the aircraft startup ZeroAvia.
As with their battery-powered cousins, fuel cell electric aircraft are still hitting the small end of the scale. However, interest in the sector is growing and it is possible that fuel cells could give battery-powered flight a run for the money in the area of smaller aircraft for regional trips, and it appears that’s where EU-Catalyst is aiming.
ZeroAvia recently announced that it is on track for London-to-Rotterdam hops as early as 2024, so stay tuned for more on that.
New Clean Technology For Hydrogen-Nuclear Mashup
That brings us to clean hydrogen, the fourth leg of the EU-Catalyst stool.
For those of you new to the topic, almost the entire global supply of hydrogen is sourced from fossil energy, and that impacts the carbon footprint of leading economic sectors, from fuel cells to food production, pharmaceuticals, and toiletries.
CleanTechnica has been spilling plenty of ink on new clean technology in the hydrogen space, particularly as it related to producing renewable hydrogen by deploying electrolysis, in which electricity is applied to water.
In terms of decarbonization, electrolysis makes no sense if fossil energy provides the electricity. The advent of low cost wind and solar have changed the game, and Breakthrough Energy Ventures is already on the job with backing for the new European Green Hydrogen Accelerator Center and the Israeli startup H2Pro, among others.
Gates also brings a nuclear angle to the table, which could account for why the EU-Catalyst announcement uses the more general term “clean hydrogen.”
Clean hydrogen could mean just about anything. In the context of Gates’s interest in the nuclear energy firm TerraPower, that could mean using electricity from nuclear power plants to run electrolysis systems to produce hydrogen.
That’s an interesting twist in terms of getting more use out of existing power plants. As for peppering the globe with new nuclear power plants, that’s a whole ‘nother can of worms.
When Gates launched TerraPower in 2006, the US market for new nukes was a tough nut to crack. It appears that the company was aiming elsewhere, with China being one area of focus. That idea seems to have withered on the vine, and TerraPower is currently looking into setting up a demonstration plant in Wyoming.
Clean Hydrogen Vs. Green Hydrogen
Critics are already pounding on the Wyoming project, partly because of the expense. That bottom line angle gives wind and solar stakeholders the edge. As costs continue to drop for renewable energy, the market for green hydrogen in the US is already organizing into a hub-type configuration.
Interestingly, the emerging hubs know no political boundaries. Utah, for example, has its sights set on hydrogenizing the economy of the US west, by leveraging its wind and solar resources along with privately owned salt caverns for green hydrogen storage.
Texas is also looking into leveraging its burgeoning wind and solar assets to form a green hydrogen hub, partly with an assist from its extensive oil and gas infrastructure.
Then there’s Mississippi, which has been less than active in the renewable energy field but which nevertheless could become the green hydrogen hub of the Southeast — if it can beat Louisiana to the punch. The Pelican State has been dipping its toe into the related field of green ammonia, and it is pushing forward with plans to exploit its offshore wind assets.
Considering that the bipartisan infrastructure bill finally squeaked through Congress, other states could begin crowding into the green hydrogen hub action. West Virginia, for example, is in a good position due to its proximity to leading markets, along with an ample supply of water and a growing number of derelict fossil energy sites that could be repurposed for renewable energy, although the state’s Democratic US Senator, Joe Manchin, appears to be more focused on preserving the natural gas industry in his state.
Part of the challenge, though, is a shortfall in civic investments and social programs needed to grow the workforce in the state, which is one of only three US states to lose population since the 2010 Census.
The worker shortage issue is being felt throughout the West Virginia economy, exacerbated by an ongoing opioid abuse crisis and an aging population. That could also impact the natural gas industry, of which Senator Manchin is a friend, and the coal industry, in which he is an investor.
Senator Manchin could do something about that by supporting the Build Back Better “social infrastructure” bill. That remains to be seen. The bill is supposed to come up for a vote before Thanksgiving.
Either way, policymakers in West Virginia better act fast or the state will continue to run behind the curve, dragging its fossil energy tail while other states hop on the clean technology bandwagon.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Clean technology takes flight (fuel cell aircraft courtesy of ZeroAvia via prnewswire.com).