Has a Cleantech crash spurred the need for Bluetech innovation?

The recent CBS 60 Minutes documentary, The Cleantech Crash, was an apocryphal tale of wasted government funding and failed companies, and left one feeling sorry for a much maligned Vinod Khosla, deemed to be a prime architect behind the ‘failed cleantech revolution’. Khosla has rallied with a strong and stirring rebuttal in open letter to CBS.

Cleantech, (if narrowly defined by in terms of renewable energy technology), is indeed in the doldrums.

The figures quoted by Michael Liebrich, founder and chairman of the advisory board for Bloomberg New Energy Finance, at the Ceres 2014 Investor Summit on Climate Risk support this. Global investment in clean energy fell for the second year in a row to $254Bn last year with investment in Europe falling from $98Bn to $58Bn, a drop of 41%.

The vision for a green revolution has not materialized and this is primarily as a result of two things: shale gas and the global economic crisis.

Shale gas, and unconventional fossil fuels in general, have pushed the timeline for a cleantech transition towards low-carbon energy systems out by at least 50 years. As a result, energy security has ceased to be a political driver in North America as a result of unconventional fossil fuels.

Indeed, the global economic crisis has impacted projects in many industry sectors. The downturn halted the upward pressure on oil prices and sidelined the economic viability of renewables, which must compete with and are benchmarked against an incumbent energy system with an ever-changing and volatile canvass.

The economic viability of renewables are linked to oil prices. In fact one of the single biggest challenges to building a stable economic platform for renewable energy, is the volatility of fossil fuel energy, where the goal-posts keep moving.

Appetite to address climate change is gone, but climate change is not

Whatever appetite there may have been in the good times to address climate change and spur a move towards a low carbon economy with feed-in tariffs and production tax credits is now gone. Both of these support mechanisms are under pressure and the very notion of a carbon tax seems like a distant out of context idea from the pages of a history book.

There is no money, political will, or need (in terms of primary energy needs) to fund the transition to a low carbon green energy economy.

While climate change may have disappeared from the political agenda and the media, it continues to do its work quietly, and occasionally loudly, as we experience extreme weather events.

The ascendancy of unconventional fossil fuels and resulting demise of cleantech renewable energy are working in tandem to compound water pressures

Ironically, the ascendancy of unconventional fossil fuels and the resulting demise of cleantech renewable energy create more pressure on water resources and hence more water technology opportunity than would have been the case if we had transitioned to a low carbon economy.

From an operational perspective, solar PV and wind energy use essentially no freshwater and they help mitigate climate change.

On the other hand, both conventional and unconventional fuel energy sources require water in the extraction process and create produced water, which has to be treated.

Currently, we meet almost 80% of our primary energy needs through fossil fuels and that looks set to continue for the coming decades. It’s been reported that the world average freshwater intensity for conventional on-shore oil extraction is 21m3/TJ, while shale gas freshwater intensity ranges from 3-17m3/TJ.

The subsequent carbon emissions from combustion accelerates climate change, which again, puts more pressure on water resources and leads to intense rainfall events which have to be managed.

The cleantech energy revolution was never going to solve our water issues, but its absence exacerbates them.

Water is now more than ever inextricably linked to the future of how we provide energy for the planet and feed the people on it.

Cleantech is alive and well in areas of energy efficiency, resource recovery and water re-use

The cleantech umbrella includes more than renewable energy, and is alive and well when it comes to areas such as energy efficiency and resource recovery.

There is still a compelling business case and opportunities in saving energy and recovering resources and in general doing more with less. There are opportunities to convert waste and wastewater to energy and to recover nutrients and other valuable materials.

Based on recent analysis, we estimate there is 49 million MW hours of energy potential present in municipal wastewater each year in the USA and 1.1 million tonnes of phosphorous entering municipal wastewater plants in Europe, equivalent to 34% of total EU phosphorous imports each year.

All of this creates for opportunities for value generating innovation and re-evaluating systems efficiencies to create cleantech opportunities.

This is reflected in the fact that in 2013 27% of the water investments tracked through the BlueTech Innovation Tracker mapped to energy and resource recovery. When we look at highly disruptive technologies by theme, again there is a concentration and clustering around energy efficiency and resource recovery, with 29% of Disrupt-o-Meter™ highly disruptive companies in the energy and resource recovery area, 13% in low energy desalination.

All of these have a compelling value propositions in their own right, as does water re-use.

Interesting times ahead for water

There is a Chinese saying – may you live in interesting times – which is regarded as both a blessing and a curse. Whether we like it or not, we are living through such times, and I believe the changes we will see in the water system in the next two decades will represent a very unique period in our history in terms of how we manage water.


1 reply
  1. Cliff Claven
    Cliff Claven says:

    “the ascendancy of unconventional fossil fuels and the resulting demise of cleantech renewable energy create more pressure on water resources”

    Just a little research puts the lie to this attractive and commonly held misconception.

    Along with fossil carbon that becomes carbon dioxide in combustion, fossil fuels bring up fossil hydrogen that becomes water in combustion. High-efficiency combustion that recovers all the excess heat can recover this as condensed fresh water, adding to local supplies.

    Fracking is transitioning from a paradigm of bringing water to the drilling site, to one of using water already present at the site in deep saline aquifers. There is so much surplus energy in the first 30 days of production when the equipment is still on site, that it is proving more economical to use some of that energy to clean the extracted hydrocracking fluid and purify the water to conditions acceptable for release at the surface, rather than to pay for it to be hauled away and treated as waste. So fracking is becoming a source of freshwater as well. Fossil fuel drilling becoming a local fresh water source instead of a sink is a very real and transformational trend.

    The water footprint of natural gas to electricity is about 0.11 M3/GJ, for solar thermal it is about 0.27 M3/GJ, and for biomass it is about 70 M3/GJ (Mekonnen 2010). Biofuels consume 50 to 5,000 times more water per unit of energy delivered than fossil fuels. The most water-efficient biofuel path to date is sugar beet with a water footprint of 790 liters of water per liter of ethanol produced. The worst is jatropha biodiesel with a footprint of nearly 20,000 liters per liter. Refined gasoline from crude oil has a footprint of about 6 liters per liter. Biofuels are the worst idea ever for a world where a growing fraction of the population is already water poor and where land is being “green grabbed” for offshore food and industrial agriculture in the poorest countries of the world by the richest countries.

    The favorable numbers for water usually claimed for wind and solar only consider the operational phase of their lifecycle and ignore the energy and water-intensive mining and manufacturing and transporting and erecting and decommissioning phases of their lifecyle which are very high compared to alternatives when normalized to units of energy delivered over their hardware lifetime.

    Most of the favorable assumptions behind the push for “clean and green” energy do not survive scrutiny. We need to take the measurements and do the math to make sound decisions in the 21st century.

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