Climate tech is moving fast. But fossil fuels are cheap and entrenched, so we need more breakthroughs, faster. Here’s ten I’d love to see this year.

Gigawatt-scale virtual power plants.

Virtual power plants (VPPs) are crowdsourced networks of distributed resources like solar panels and batteries that can act together to provide power to the grid as needed. They can ramp up or down quickly, choreographed by software. VPPs operate today at a small scale (hundreds of megawatts), with early-adopter homes and businesses participating. But as distributed solar and battery installations climb, the potential of VPPs is much bigger – gigawatt scale – and could help put fossil fuel plants out of business. What’s needed are breakthroughs in the software and business models for marshaling and orchestrating VPPs, and integrating them into the grid.

Centralized power plants… so 20th century.

More powerful solar panels.

Solar is fast becoming the lowest cost source of power globally. And important improvements continue to happen – from bifacial panels to better tracker mounts. But the biggest factor limiting solar’s expansion is lack of space. Large-scale solar projects continue to get blocked for all kinds of space-related reasons (land use, transmission requirements, politics, etc). And in cities – where 80% of the world’s energy is consumed – rooftop space for solar is simply too limited. A big breakthrough in solar panel efficiency (today’s best are only 22% efficient) would dramatically change this equation, allowing both rooftop and utility-scale solar to produce way more energy from the same amount of space.

Out of space, need more powerful panels.

Grid-forming inverter networks.

Fossil fuel plants provide the dial tone of today’s electric grid. They ‘form’ the grid (manage its frequency) by making sure supply and demand stay perfectly balanced. Without these fossil plants (gas and coal), today’s public grid would crash. New networks of ‘grid-forming’ inverters could take over this management role however, enabling the grid to run entirely on renewables. The latest rooftop solar micro-inverters can already form a grid and keep your house running even when the public grid’s down. The next step is for these distributed inverters plus utility-scale inverters (e.g. at big solar and battery installations) to be networked so they can collectively provide the same grid management functions fossil plants currently do (base load, frequency regulation, black start etc).

Today, fossil fuel plants are needed to stabilize the grid.

Cheaper, better electrolyzers.

Cheap green hydrogen is needed to decarbonize industrial processes like steel and cement production which require very high heat (and make up 25% of global emissions). Today that heat is produced by burning coal or gas, with huge GHG emissions. Burning hydrogen can also produce this heat, with none of the emissions. Unfortunately the cheapest way to make hydrogen today is by burning fossil fuels. But electrolyzers – machines that make hydrogen out of water, using electricity – are improving quickly. Once electrolyzers get cheap enough, they can convert excess renewable energy (mid-day solar or nighttime wind) into cheap green hydrogen, to decarbonize industrial processes faster.

Electrolyzer acronyms: PEM (acidic), AEL (alkaline), and SOEC (solid oxide)

Denser and more portable battery storage.

Lithium ion battery storage has made electric cars, trucks, e-bikes and e-garden tools possible. And the improvements keep coming, with advances like LFP (lithium iron phosphate) chemistry and new cell architectures. But breakthroughs in battery energy density would dramatically accelerate electrification. With limited exceptions like e-scooter battery swapping in Asia, today’s batteries are too big and heavy to be used to move energy around as a commodity. But a big improvement in energy density could make batteries into multi-purpose power supplies (like propane tanks on steroids) enabling much wider distribution of cheap renewable energy. Vehicles, homes, backup generators… all could be run on cheap excess solar power generated locally.

Battery swapping is happening – for electric scooters in Taiwan.

Microgrids that scale.

Monopoly utilities control today’s electric grid, and they’re slow-walking the transition to cheap renewables, even as the gap grows between high utility rates and the low costs of distributed self-generation. You can’t connect your house or business to any other grid, because the monopoly utilities own the wires! Microgrids – or energy islands – are key to breaking this bottleneck. Small-scale microgrids are getting built today (around businesses, new residential developments etc), using solar, storage and fuel cells to create their own self-reliant energy islands. But scaling up microgrids – building more faster and ultimately interconnecting them – will require lots of technology, regulatory and legal innovation, plus plenty of anti-monopoly pressure.

Power to microgrids and distributed generation! (poster by Creative Action Network)

Cheap-to-install heat pumps.

Heat pump systems offer much cleaner and more efficient electric heating and cooling than any other technology (fossil fuel or resistance-electric). Problem is, they’re too expensive to retrofit into existing buildings (installation can be 3X the cost of the hardware). What’s needed is faster innovation in making heat pump systems much cheaper to add to existing buildings, either as whole-house heating and cooling or just for the most-used rooms. This means innovation on form factors and siting condensers, conduits, ease of installation, etc. It would also help if heat pump hardware components were smarter and more connected, so they could be used more intelligently to maximize comfort while minimizing cost and emissions.

Heating doesn’t need to be so emissions intensive.

Systematized repowering (of transmission etc).

Because building new stuff is so hard and slow, ‘repowering’ existing infrastructure is one of the fastest paths to decarbonization. Repowering means upgrading – for example, improving the throughput of existing transmission lines or converting coal plants into solar plus storage plants. What’s needed to accelerate repowering is productization and programs, vs waiting for one-off bespoke projects to happen. This is already happening with wind farms (upgrading to bigger turbines). But what’s the product (and program) for upgrading decades-old solar installations to double or triple their power output? What’s the no-brainer product (and financing) for upgrading existing AC transmission capacity? As repowering becomes like adding more RAM to your PC, it will have a much bigger impact.

‘Repowering’ is the new upgrading.

Cheap, smart, behind-the-meter infrastructure.

Electrifying your home (or business) today simply costs too much in expensive electrician time and infrastructure hardware upgrades. That’s because we’re forced to choose between A) traditional low tech from the twentieth century like circuit breakers and sub panels; or B) high tech, overpriced and proprietary smart boxes and software from various manufacturers that don’t play well together (or at all). Few people can afford to pay an electrician $10,000 to re-wire their whole house for electrification with the old technology, or bet $10,000 on proprietary smart boxes that may quickly become obsolete. What’s needed are cheap, commoditized and standardized products to enable fully electrified buildings with integrated solar, storage, EVs, and all-electric appliances. With much less custom electrical work, and much more compatibility among manufacturers and their systems.

What if your home electric infrastructure was this cheap and well integrated?

Cheap, smart, induction cooking.

Gas stoves are one of the biggest obstacles to decarbonization, not to mention how unhealthy they are for the people who own them. But induction ranges need to be much cheaper to buy and install, not thousands more than a comparable gas set-up. Lots of work is happening on making induction appliances cheaper, including making them ‘smarter’ (e.g. with an internal battery to avoid the need for expensive circuit upgrades to pull high wattage). Driving down this cost curve far enough will be a game changer, making induction the default cooking upgrade globally and removing one of the last psychological and physical barriers to full residential electrification.

Induction cooking: more aspirational, but still way too expensive.

P.S.: It’s all about scaling, quickly.

The clock is ticking, and fossil fuels are still winning. We need technology breakthroughs that can scale globally, and reverse the entrenched advantages of fossil fuels quickly. If you can support these climate tech innovations – or any others – by working on them, funding them, being an early adopter of them, or advocating for them in some way, please do so.

Thanks for reading… and good luck in 2023!