The breakthrough energy priorities

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition is gearing up to support clean energy innovation in five priority areas.
Published: Wed 20 Dec 2017

Two years ago, Microsoft’s Bill Gates led the founding of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition as a multibillion dollar initiative to support clean energy innovation towards meeting the COP 21 Paris Agreement.

Last year the Coalition launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures as an over $1bn investor-led fund to build new, cutting-edge energy companies to deliver that innovation.

Now, in the next step an expanded Coalition has set out its initial focus areas, based on an analysis of global trends and its own analysis of meeting key global challenges.

The Coalition’s analysis is based on the need to provide everyone in the world with access to reliable and affordable energy, food, goods, and services without emitting greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn identified challenges in the five sectors electricity, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing and building.

“Energy transitions take a long time, but there’s more urgency than ever to prevent the worst impacts of climate change,” says Gates in a statement.

“We need new models of investment and new partnerships between governments and a broad network of investors, companies and energy customers. Breakthrough Energy is designed to help facilitate those partnerships and bring more energy products from the lab to the market more quickly”

Global energy priorities

The five focus areas are grid scale storage, liquid fuels, microgrids/mini-grids for Africa and India, alternative building materials and geothermal.

With growing levels of wind and solar, storage is essential to harnessing and optimising their full output. While lithium-ion storage is fast dropping in price for peak demand management, enabling dispatch on demand and in particular converting wind and solar to baseload power requires new approaches to storage.

The intention is to invest in projects exploring cheap grid-scale storage with a very long calendar life. Potential approaches being considered include storing energy as heat through compression and in next-generation batteries that use abundant materials such as sulphur or iron.

Liquid fuels for transportation

The future of transportation is considered to almost certainly require liquid fuel. While electric vehicles are growing in number it is considered unlikely they will completely replace fuel powered vehicles. In addition, it is difficult to electrify air travel and trans-ocean shipping.

Zero-carbon liquid fuel can be created by capturing carbon from the air and using energy from the sun to convert it into fuel. One approach is photosynthesis. Another is to use chemical or physical means to extract CO2 directly from the atmosphere and use renewable electricity to convert that inorganic carbon into fuel. Further advances are needed for these processes to become cost effective and viable.

Microgrids and buildings

Micro- and mini-grids are widely considered as the best option for rapidly bringing electrification to a substantial proportion of those without access. However, the main challenge is funding these.

Indeed, earlier this year Microsoft partnered with Facebook to establish the Microgrid Investment Accelerator (MIA) to put around $50m into microgrid and mini-grid development by 2020.

With the trend towards urbanisation, perhaps as many as 75% of the buildings needed in 2050 don’t exist today. Researchers are exploring low or zero-carbon ways of producing concrete and steel, but new, carbon-neutral building materials are also needed.

Promising materials include engineered wood and mass timber. i.e. thin strips of wood glued or nailed together, and fibre-reinforced composites.

Geothermal opportunity

Interest is growing in the potential for geothermal energy development and in September governments committed to achieving a 500% increase in the global installed capacity for power generation along with a 200% increase in geothermal heating by 2030.

In most geographies it’s very difficult to access geothermal energy. Recent advances in drilling technology, however, present interesting opportunities. Techniques like horizontal drilling, multilateral drilling, extended reach drilling, complex path drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking), all developed to extract fossil resources, offer potential for geothermal energy.

Energy companies join Coalition

A notable feature of the expanded Coalition is the presence of several energy companies, including Engie and National Grid and from the wider industry General Electric, Reliance Industries and Total.

“Engie and the Breakthrough Energy Coalition share a common purpose: fuel the world with clean, affordable, reliable energy, and we share the conviction that breakthrough innovation will help us attain this goal,” says CEO Isabelle Kocher.

“Combining the expertise and financial means of Engie New Ventures and Breakthrough Energy Ventures will enable better scouting of disruptive technologies and the acceleration of time to market of cutting-edge innovation.”

“The energy world is going through an exciting period of innovation, but if we are to solve climate change we need to work together to ensure that these exciting opportunities are developed as quickly as possible to bring the greatest benefit to the most people,” says Badar Khan, President of National Grid Ventures.

“We are looking forward to working alongside others who share our passion for using the power of invention to help tackle one of the greatest challenges facing society today.”

The next step will be to get the funding process under way, with the Coalition promising to leverage innovation as broadly as possible without limit to early or late-stage companies, to small, medium, or large enterprises, or to particular geographies or technologies.

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