Wednesday, March 14, 2018

SXSW 2018:  Energy and Tech Executives Envision the Carbon-Free Future

How do you get to a net-carbon-free global energy system by 2070?

Hydrogen based, carbon-free data center (Photo Credit: Daimler AG) Click to Enlarge.
One flight “would blow your energy budget for the year,” says Maarten Wetselaar, Director of Integrated Gas & New Energies at Shell International Exploration and Production.  “No more electricity” use.  “No more heating in the winter.  No more air conditioning in the summer.”

Wetselaar was part of a panel on the future of energy at the 2018 South by Southwest Interactive conference.  The group’s far-ranging discussion considered such sweeping industry trends as tech collaborations between large companies and small startups, the rapid spread of distributed and renewable power generation, and surprising new combinations of technologies that are starting to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
Some large tech companies are getting the message and looking for ways to reduce their [carbon] footprints, says another panelist, senior technologist John Frey of Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE).  A few years ago, the company, which offers servers, networks, and storage, performed an analysis and discovered that “our own operational footprint was only 10 percent of our impact on the globe.”  The rest came from the greenhouse-gas emissions of companies in its supply chain and other factors.

After some soul searching, company officials concluded that “If we’re going to power technology using renewable energy, we can’t do it ourselves.”  One initiative, launched two years ago, is a four-way collaboration among HPE, the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Daimler AG, and Power Innovations International located in American Fork, Utah.  The goal is a hydrogen based, carbon-free data center, powered by solar cells and wind turbines.

Data centers consume huge amounts of power and have high reliability requirements, because outages can mean significant financial losses.  So, powering them with intermittent sources, such as solar and wind, hasn’t been tried before.  According to Frey, an important shift occurred last November, when the collaborative project began powering the NREL data center with Daimler fuel cells originally developed for Mercedes trucks and SUVs.  Power Innovations did the systems integration for the project.

At the moment, the fuel cells are using hydrogen reformed from natural gas.  But the near-future goal, Frey explains, is to use hydrogen generated from solar and wind.  During times of high power output, the system will produce and store excess hydrogen in tanks for use when the photovoltaics or wind turbines cannot meet demand.

The partnership is an example of the kind of alliances that are becoming increasingly common in the energy industry.  “One of the surprising things we’ve seen in the last few years is energy, info-tech, and mobility companies coming together,” says Jules Kortenhorst, CEO of the Rocky Mountain Institute, and the panel’s moderator.

Wetselaar verified the trend:
Historically, the approach to innovation was quite closed.  Quite well-paid technologists and researchers worked behind closed doors trying to create the intellectual property that we could use.  But now it’s much more open.  We’re looking to work with others, collaboratively.  Even startups.
Wetselaar reports that Shell is investing in startups mainly through a venture-capital arm the company runs.

He envisions a grid based mainly on renewable power sources.  He concedes that the intermittent nature of these sources will be a problem, but believes it will be solved in the foreseeable future.  Intermittency, he declares, is “one of the questions that will be solved in the next 10 years.”

Read more at SXSW 2018:  Energy and Tech Executives Envision the Carbon-Free Future

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