You don’t have to look hard to find evidence of foundering eco-friendly technologies or failed green policies, but focusing on those fiascoes can obscure some genuinely exciting developments and research areas that could be one big breakthrough away from helping us solve the problem of how to thrive sustainably on a more crowded planet. Take, for example, this story in the FT about recent advances in Scotland’s quest to harness the power of its tides:
Equitix, the infrastructure investor, plans to put more than £100m into Scottish tidal power over the next two years in partnership with Atlantis, a leading developer. The deal “secures access to a pipeline of primary investment opportunities and has tremendous growth potential in the UK,” Nick Parker, Equitix COO and founding director, said.
Enthusiasts say tidal power can be an important part of electricity generation in the UK and other countries with strong coastal currents. Generation output varies sharply with the tides, but unlike wind power it is highly predictable and variation can more easily be smoothed out by developing a variety of locations.
Tidal power is one of the least-discussed renewable energy options, but unlike its wind or solar cousins, its intermittency can be predicted. Like any new energy source, the big hurdle it has to overcome lies with its ability to provide cost-effective power at a commercial scale, and by that metric it’s not there yet—but this new investment could yield some massive dividends in the future.
Waste-to-energy plants are another power source with some impressive potential, and have the added benefit of managing great quantities of trash. The EIA reports:
At the end of 2015, the United States had 71 waste-to-energy (WTE) plants that generated electricity in 20 U.S. states, with a total generating capacity of 2.3 gigawatts. Florida contains more than one-fifth of the nation’s WTE electricity generation capacity, and in 2015, Florida’s Palm Beach Renewable Energy Facility Number 2 became the first new WTE plant to come online since 1995 and the largest single WTE electricity generator in the United States.
As the EIA notes, these plants are waste managers first and power producers second, but they also represent a creative solution to two distinct problems, namely what we do with our trash and how we power our cities. Moreover, when combined with district heating they can greatly boost their efficiency.
Finally, a Cornell professor of plant and soil ecology makes the case for responsible soil management being an important tool in the climate change toolbox. He writes for the Hill:
[We can] manage soils so that a maximum amount of the carbon dioxide plants pull out of the air via photosynthesis remains on the farm as carbon-rich soil organic matter. “Carbon farming,” as it is sometimes called, is Mother Nature’s own geoengineering, relying on fundamental biological processes to capture carbon and sequester it in the soil, carbon that would otherwise be in the air as the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.
One way to do this is to use carbon- and nutrient-rich organic sources of fertilizers such as manure or compost rather than synthetic chemical fertilizers. Another is to include carbon- and nutrient-rich crops like legumes (e.g., peas, beans) in rotations, and plant winter cover crops that contribute additional organic matter in the off-season. We’ve also discovered that reducing the amount of plowing and tilling of the soil (“conservation tillage”) slows the microbial breakdown of organic matter that leads to carbon dioxide emissions from soils.
It’s unlikely that any of these options will be the panacea we need, but taken together they represent something missing from the modern environmental movement: hopeful potential. Too often greens will browbeat the public with sermons about how humanity’s sins have doomed it to an apocalyptic near future, but that approach completely ignores one of our greatest skills, namely the ability to solve problems. As the pace of technological change continues to accelerate, so too will our ability to rise to the environmental challenges ahead.