Factory emitting plumes of pollution

The sky is falling: why the time for automated emissions reduction is NOW

 January 14, 2019 

In the fabled European folk tale of Chicken Little, the story's eponymous central character believes the world is coming to an end, famously declaring "The sky is falling!" In the centuries since, the idiom’s pop-culture usage has expanded to include the notion that disaster is imminent, whether such fears are founded or not.

To read the news across the past two months, it’s tempting to swap Chicken Little’s “The sky is falling!” for something equally dire along the lines of “The Earth is warming, a lot, and fast! Catastrophic consequences are nearly at our front door!”

In early October, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a widely covered report sounding the loudest alarm to date: the planet’s climate could surpass the 1.5-degree C mark by as soon as 2030 if emissions continue at their current rate, with calamitous outcomes the result.

Then on Black Friday in late November, the United States federal government released its own sweeping climate assessment. Its conclusions were no less dire. It forecasts that global warming will cause hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for the U.S. economy, while inflicting great damage to human health, the environment, and infrastructure.

And on that report’s heels—as the world’s leaders prepared to meet in Poland earlier this month at COP 24—the UN’s Environment Programme released yet another cataclysmic report. In 2017, annual global greenhouse gas emissions reached their highest level ever, while the gap between countries’ emissions-reduction targets and actual emissions is wider than ever.

Feeling depressed yet?

Finding the resolve—and optimism—to act

In the face of this recent onslaught of seemingly doomsday warnings, it’s tempting to be Chicken Little. The sky is falling!

The urgency and concern of such a declaration are certainly well-placed. But apathy and inaction are not, even if the magnitude and severity of the situation feel paralyzing. We must act. We must maintain resolve—and our optimism—in the midst of this planetary crisis.

Our menu of available options has included a fairly familiar set of choices:

  • Energy efficiency: reduce our energy use, as with the switch from incandescent to LED light bulbs
  • Electrification: switch from direct burning of fossil fuels to electricity, as with the ongoing pivot from internal combustion engine automobiles to electric vehicles
  • Decarbonization: make our electricity increasingly renewable and therefore emissions free
  • Carbon capture, sequestration, and storage: pull carbon out of the atmosphere, whether through technological or biological means

The ultimate end state would be an electrified, energy-efficient, zero-carbon global energy system. And an atmosphere whose greenhouse gas concentrations would levelize, or even start to recede.

As the recent reports have so starkly outlined, there’s a yawning chasm between the reality of today, the trajectories we’re on, and where the world needs to get within the next decade or two at most. How do we cross this chasm? And are other, additional options at our disposal?

Automated Emissions Reduction: the right solution at the right time

The world’s myriad energy systems—including its electricity grids—are amidst a great transition period. We are living during a period of overlap between the legacy fossil-fueled infrastructure of last century and the growing base of installed renewable capacity that will power the future.

For as long as these two worlds coexist, there is an enormous and largely untapped opportunity to cost-effectively seize immediate and potentially large emissions reductions. Electricity grids that boast a diverse mix of both fossil-fueled and renewably generated electricity turn out to have highly variable marginal emissions rates. From one moment to the next, the marginal generator being called upon to meet the last kilowatt of electricity demand might be a coal plant, or natural gas plant, or utility-scale solar array, or wind farm (among other options).

If there were a way to know which power plants were marginal where and when—and a way to modulate electricity demand to sync with times of cleaner energy and avoid times of dirtier energy—we could instantly slash electricity-related emissions and add another major tool to our arsenal in the war against climate change.

The accelerating proliferation of smart, Internet-connected devices controlling flexible electricity demand—thermostats, batteries, refrigerators, electric vehicles, etc.—is the first part of the solution. They offer the ability to shift around large amounts of electricity demand.

The second half of the solution is a signal that tells such devices what’s happening on the grid in real time. Without such a signal, smart flexible demand is like driving blind. Sure, you can accelerate and brake, turn left and right, but you have no good way to know when and where to do so.

WattTime’s Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) technology is that signal. It gives anyone—utilities, IoT device and energy storage companies, end users—the power to choose clean energy, easily and automatically. Based on cutting-edge algorithms and machine learning, AER is the missing link that gives smart devices the signal they need in order to reduce the emissions associated with their energy use.

AER alone of course won’t solve climate change. But the opportunity is ours to seize. AER is a broadly deployable capability we are providing with urgency today as a way to help close the gap between today’s emissions rates and what the planet and humanity needs to achieve. And for as long—or, hopefully, short—we’re deep in this state of transition from the fossil-fueled energy system of old and the renewably-powered future we need, AER is a uniquely suited solution to get more emissions out of the system all the sooner.