State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Fall Events Provide Hope for Solving Climate Change

Additional reporting by Ama Francis, Romany Webb, and Tiffany Challe

powering the future panel
Experts discuss how we’ll power the future. Photo: Sarah Fecht

The Fall 2018 semester was packed with compelling energy- and climate-focused events here within Columbia’s Earth Institute. The American Geographical Society (AGS) met to imagine the future of energy. Talks hosted by the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law discussed the role climate litigation can play in the Trump era. A CleanTech Innovation Showcase highlighted environmental solutions being developed at Columbia University and beyond. And that’s only to name a few of the thought-provoking events that kept us busy and inspired in November.

Here are some of the key takeaways and words of wisdom that participants and panelists shared this fall.

On the challenges we face today

Although there are signs of progress on climate change, many speakers acknowledged that the U.S. needs to be doing a lot more.

“We are not on a path of decarbonization as we sit here today,” John Hofmeister, founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy, said during a talk on powering the future, moderated by Bob Chen from the Earth Institute’s Center for International Earth Science Information Network. “We haven’t begun, and time is running out.”

Hofmeister pointed to carbon pricing—charging companies for the fossil fuels they burn—as a potential solution, but lamented that efforts to cap and/or tax carbon emissions have died painful deaths in Congress to date.

In the same panel discussion, sustainability scientist Gary Dirks from Arizona State University emphasized the immensity of the challenges the nation faces in transitioning to renewable energy. “The existing energy system has to be torn down pretty much in its entirety” in order to rebuild it with fuel that is free of carbon emissions, he said. “And that has to be done in complete lockstep so that you don’t create big gaps in the energy system along the way.”

On the positive momentum that’s building

While the challenges that humanity faces are intimidating and need to be taken seriously, many panelists found reasons to be optimistic:

  • During a talk on energy adaptation strategies, Marilyn Brown from Georgia Institute of Technology underscored the incredible impact that energy efficiency measures have had to date. “If we were using electricity as inefficiently today as we did in the 1970s,” she said, “we would have 100 percent more electricity being generated.”
  • Others praised the growth of renewables. “Just within last 6 to 7 years, the kind of declines in cost that we have seen—in solar particularly, and wind of course, and battery technologies—have been absolutely dramatic,” said Jatin Nathwani from the University of Waterloo during the Powering the Future panel. In a separate talk hosted by AGS, Susan Sloan from the American Wind Energy Association showed that wind energy is growing rapidly, and will continue to become cheaper thanks to economies of scale.
  • Similarly, increasing numbers of electric vehicles signal a future where our cars can take advantage of that growth in renewables instead of relying on fossil fuels.

Although the federal government has been doing its best to chip away at climate regulations, many panelists were optimistic about the ability of businesses and lawsuits to keep the U.S. moving forward.

  • “I believe the climate wars are over in the United States,” said Dirks. “And the reason that I say that is because I think increasingly corporate entities are coming to the realization that there is greater risk from climate than there is in government involvement in their business.”
  • “The notion of disclosure, of telling the companies to spell out very clearly what is your risk if you’re going to continue in this carbon business, is beginning to provide a signal to investors,” said Nathwani. That signal is telling investors that companies depending on fossil fuels will not be sustainable over the long-term.
  • In a talk hosted by the Sabin Center, David Vogel from the University of California, Berkeley, claimed that the reason why California has “led the U.S. in its battle against the Trump administration has been business backing, such as clean tech investments.”
  • In a September panel about fighting back against attacks on climate science, Lisa Garcia from Earthjustice said that because Trump’s EPA and other agencies “are not making decisions based on sound science,” her organization is winning lawsuits that help protect the environment.

On potential solutions

Climate change is a complex problem with many facets. As such, the solutions proposed during this fall’s presentations ranged from social and political to technological.

  • Law professor Lisa Heinzerling suggested recognizing access to a clean environment as a human right. “A stable climate system is a keystone right,” she said during her talk for the Sabin Center. “It is a right upon which many others depend.” This idea is currently up for debate with the Juliana v. U.S. lawsuit, wherein 21 young people are attempting to sue the federal government for not taking sufficient action to prevent climate change.
  • Hofmeister said that between the 13 cabinet agencies, 26 congressional committees, and 800 federal judges that govern energy issues at the federal level, as well as thousands more at the state, city, and county level, “what you have is so much governance that none of it really works.” He suggested creating one independent agency dedicated to regulating climate change and other environmental issues, similar to how the Federal Reserve regulates our financial system. In addition to creating a centralized strategy on climate change issues, such an agency would protect long-term environmental decision-making from the “politics of the day.”

The CleanTech conference in particular showcased a variety of exciting innovations, at varying stages of development, that could eventually help to save the planet:

  • smart meters
    Smarter meters can help people reduce electricity use in the home. Image: Patricia Culligan

    Patricia Culligan and her team from Columbia Engineering are researching ways to reduce electricity use in multi-family buildings. Her experiments have found that giving residents information about their electricity consumption, and incentives to cut back, motivates them to reduce their energy demand. They learned that how this information is communicated is important, too; for example, giving energy consumption in terms of the number of trees that would be needed to offset those carbon emissions was more effective than just giving the data in kilowatt-hours. Finally, they found that users actually want more information about which appliances are hogging the most energy, and they use that information to make smart decisions. Culligan and her colleagues are developing a home energy management system that incorporates these findings and also sends personalized messages to encourage and motivate users in ways that work best for each individual.

  • Columbia’s Yuan Yang also presented a way to lower electricity use in the home—through high-tech cooling paints. Cooling consumes about 20 percent of the electricity that we use in buildings, he explained, but the material his team uses in its paint reflects 100 percent of sunlight, and can even pull heat out of the building and reflect it into the sky. They’ve tested it in Bangladesh and Phoenix, Arizona, and found that it maintains a temperature 10-20 degrees Celsius cooler than other paints. It has the potential to cool homes, cars, and cargo containers using no electricity at all.
  • Alissa Park from Columbia Engineering and the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy sees carbon as an opportunity—she talked about pulling carbon out of the air for use in concrete, polymers, carbonated beverages, and more. Currently she’s using sequestration technology to help clean up iron and steel slag. A processing facility in China is installing these reactors now.
  • Mechanical engineering professor Vijay Modi pointed to the potential of offshore wind power: “We see an amazing resource 20 miles from the shore.” He said that winds over the ocean can have speeds around 50 percent faster than on land, and that this translates into three times more power generated. As more offshore wind projects come under development, this new flavor of renewable energy is finally becoming cost effective in the U.S., Modi added.

As renewables grow, so does the importance of creating top-notch batteries that can store energy for times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Batteries were a major focus during the CleanTech and AGS talks, with several researchers and startups presenting inventive ideas.

  • Marilyn Brown proposed that electric vehicles could serve as batteries for the power grid, absorbing renewable energy while it’s plentiful, and feeding it back into the grid when supplies run low. With half a million electric vehicles already on the road and more to come, they could be a valuable resource for the grid.
  • “For the grid, they want [batteries] to be dirt cheap, and to last 20 years or more,” said Alan West, co-director of the Columbia Electrochemical Energy Center. Well, it turns out that one team may have managed to fill both of those criteria: postdoctoral researcher Tom Sisto presented a battery developed at Columbia that can cycle for 20 years or more. Each kilowatt-hour costs about one-seventh the price of a lithium-ion battery, and unlike with regular batteries, “we can decrease the cost as the scale increases,” said Sisto. He says the battery is stable and safe, and that they’re looking for investors.
  • But what if we didn’t need a battery at all? Ozgur Sahin has been using evaporation to drive electricity. The devices his lab has created rely on paper coated with spores; the spores expand and contract as they absorb and release water vapor; this motion can be harnessed to drive motors that generate electricity on-demand. “All you need is a standing body of water,” says Sahin. He estimates that with technology like this, U.S. lakes and reservoirs could generate 325 gigawatts of power, nearly 70 percent of what the United States currently produces. The video below shows one of the lab’s devices at work.

Some of these developments, technologies, and solutions are still in the early stages and could take decades to come to fruition. And there will be many challenges along the way. But Nathwani is optimistic that progress can happen faster than we’re expecting. He described a photo of New York’s Fifth Avenue, taken in the year 1900, the street filled with horses and buggies and just one car. Just 13 years later, another photo showed the exact opposite: a street full of cars and just one horse and buggy. Don’t be surprised, he said, if change happens much faster than the current projections indicate.

To learn more about and attend upcoming Earth Institute events, check out our events calendar

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