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5 technologies that should give us some hope for the planet’s future

From offshore wind power to e-bikes, there are at least a few reasons for (cautious) optimism.

5 technologies that should give us some hope for the planet’s future
[Source Images: Getty]

Looking for good news about the planet’s future on Earth Day—an occasion often marked mainly by greenwashing corporate PR—can feel as doomed as fishing in the filthy, sometimes flammable rivers that spurred the first Earth Day in 1970.

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But if you may please pause your doomscrolling for a moment, cause for cautious optimism shouldn’t be far below the surface.

American-made offshore wind power

U.S. renewable energy adoption has lagged most visibly in offshore wind power, which benefits from stronger and more consistent wind. Where the European Union had 5,000-plus wind turbines offshore as of last summer, the U.S. has (ahem) 7, 5 off Rhode Island and 2 off Virginia.

But things finally look to be changing. That pair of windmills off Virginia Beach are precursors to a 176-turbine project planned by Dominion Power that when operational in 2026 should generate 2.6 gigawatts of electricity at peak, good for more than a sixth of the housing units in the state.

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There’s also an onshore counterpart to this project: a Siemens Gamesa factory at the Portsmouth Marine Terminal to produce the giant blades these turbines and others require, and which today are imported (one reason for the Dominion project’s high startup costs). That represents a large vote of confidence by one of the world’s leading turbine manufacturers in the upside of wind power off the coasts of the U.S.

Cheaper solar everywhere, your roof included

The plunging cost of solar power has made it not just the top source of new renewable electricity generation but the top source of new electricity, period: In January, the government’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimated that solar would account for 46% of added generation capacity in 2022 (followed by natural gas at 21%, wind at 17%, and batteries at 11%).

On-site solar hasn’t seen the same decrease in cost, thanks to installation expenses, but the EIA projects that it will still generate 8% of our electricity by 2050. That estimate, however, may need revision if recent advances in rooftop solar help drive down those “soft” costs. For example, at CES this January I saw roof shingles with integrated solar panels from one of the biggest names in roofing—GAF Energy’s Timberline Solar—designed to be installed by any roofing crew with standard tools.

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Electric cars (and bikes) as the default

Battery-electric vehicles can seem like an indulgence for the climate-guilt-obsessed rich when coverage of them focuses on high-end rides like GM’s upcoming $100,000 Hummer electric truck. But mass-market vehicles like Chevy’s Bolt and VW’s ID.4 will make much more of a difference—not least since their vastly lower “fueling” and maintenance costs already make them cheaper to own than comparable gas-powered cars.

Last June, BloombergNEF estimated that electric vehicles would have a cheaper sticker price than internal-combustion cars—without any subsidies—by 2026 in the U.S. and EU. The recent explosion in the price of gas may only accelerate these trends.

Don’t overlook the potential of electric propulsion to improve transportation at a much shorter range. Electric-assist bicycles make getting around short distances in cities vastly easier, especially when hills are involved. And when they’re available at a cheap per-ride rate in bike-sharing systems—at the Lyft-operated Capital Bikeshare around Washington, D.C., a 10-minute ride costs $2.50 for nonmembers—their high up-front cost becomes a much smaller issue.

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Direct air capture

What about all the CO2 already trapping heat? Direct air capture (which involves extracting carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at an industrial scale) is the technology to watch. It’s also the technology in which companies like Stripe, Microsoft, and United Airlines are now making nontrivial investments.

The obstacles here remain steep, and economically viable uses for reclaimed carbon remain a problem to be solved—although in late March, United announced a project to work toward using reclaimed CO2 to make synthetic fuel for its jets. But throwing money at the problem now (see also Elon Musk underwriting a $100 million competition to make “DAC” happen) may yield outsize benefits later on.

As Clive Thompson wrote in a lengthy feature on direct air capture for Mother Jones: “In engineering-­speak, DAC can scale. And as it does, it should get ever cheaper and more efficient.”

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Renewables keep racing past predictions

One last cause for optimism about the future should come from a look at the past—as in, all the past establishment forecasts about renewable-energy adoption that wound up lowballing human potential by enormous margins.

Twenty years ago, for example, the EIA estimated that coal would still account for 46% of U.S. energy production in 2020, with renewables barely growing over that time from 2002’s almost 9% share. The reality of 2020: Coal had crumbled to a 19% share, while renewables had jumped to 21%.

The International Energy Agency, an organization created after the 1974 oil crisis, has been even worse, with solar and wind beating its cost and deployment predictions year after year after year. For example, in 2010 it forecast that worldwide solar electric generation would hit 180 gigawatts in 2024, a threshold reached in reality in early 2015.

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There’s a lesson here in all of these lowball forecasts: While you shouldn’t discount the unpleasant side effects of human apathy and ignorance, it’s also a mistake to bet against human ingenuity—especially if there’s money to be made by showing up industry incumbents that act as if things won’t ever change that much.

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About the author

Rob Pegoraro writes about computers, gadgets, telecom, social media, apps, and other things that beep or blink. He has met most of the founders of the Internet and once received a single-word e-mail reply from Steve Jobs.

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