Climate + Energy

Why the Next Wave of Energy Innovation Must Go Beyond Energy

The biggest opportunities for transformation are not necessarily within technology verticals, but across them.

By Alisa Ferguson.

The 22nd Session of the Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP22) has been dubbed the “COP of Action.” That’s because to meet the Paris commitments, we will undoubtedly need to see a multitude of actions from governments and the private sector alike. But at the core of a long-term strategy for action must also be a continued to commitment to innovation.

Many of the technologies we need to address climate change—solar and wind, smart grid devices, and energy-efficient lighting and appliances—have improved exponentially over the last decade because of robust investment in research, development, manufacturing, and project finance. Between 2008 and 2013, the cost of solar panels dropped 80 percent. Between 2010 and 2014, LED light bulbs doubled in efficiency and dropped from nearly $70 to less than $10. The result? These and other technologies are already transforming power and transportation sectors around the globe.

So where should we look next?

Increasingly, I believe the biggest opportunities for transformation are not necessarily within technology verticals, but across them. One critical area that has remained under the radar for too long is the energy-water nexus.

Why are energy and water together so critical now? A recent World Bank report highlights several key reasons.

Climate change is rapidly increasing water vulnerability, as rising temperatures accelerate evaporation, increase the prevalence and severity of drought, and shift patterns of precipitation. According to the United Nations (UN), by 2025 two out of three people across the globe will face water stress. As this vulnerability increases, competition over water for energy production (which represents 15 percent of all water withdrawals)—and in turn, competition over energy for water extraction, treatment, and transport—will also grow. Both trends will be exacerbated by rapid population growth and urbanization. The global population is growing by 80 million people each year, and 1.5 million people move to cities each week. Both of these trends mean higher energy and water demand to meet basic needs and economic development.

Leaders at COP22 took an important step to connect the dots between climate change and water by holding a Day of Water Action on November 9. But what if we could go even further to tackle both energy and water challenges at once?

New ideas are already emerging to do so. Researchers and start-ups companies are developing solutions like this solar panel to extract moisture from the air and condenses it into clean drinking water; this buoy to harness wave power from the ocean for desalination; and these “living bricks” that leverage advances in biotechnology to convert sunlight, wastewater, and air into energy-generating building materials.

Ideas like these represent potentially revolutionary ways to address climate change and ensure universal access to both energy and water. So in the remaining days of the COP, what actions can we take to unleash and inspire even more of them? Here are a few ideas for stakeholders across sectors:

  • “Big Data” geeks: We need more data and better analytics to enable integrated approaches to energy and water planning. This year’s World Energy Outlook will identify updated vulnerabilities for freshwater requirements and energy production. The World Bank Thirsty Energy project helps countries model and plan for energy and water investments. More tools like these should be developed and disseminated to stakeholders and already- or soon-to-be-affected populations.
  • Government and business: Both sectors should embrace innovative mechanisms such as prizes, crowdsourcing platforms, and hackathons that challenge innovators to solve problems at the intersection of energy and water. These types of approaches are well-positioned to attract unconventional innovators, incentivize collaboration across disciplines, and target solutions across traditional research and development (R&D) stovepipes.
  • Domain experts: Leaders in energy and water should reach out to friends and colleagues in different domains and forge new collaborations on research, policy frameworks, and thought leadership to bring attention to opportunities at the energy-water nexus.

Robust investment in clean energy solutions has put the world in a strong position to take action on climate change. Let’s build on that success by recognizing the next set of innovation challenges we will face at the intersection of energy and water.

Alisa Ferguson is a consultant working to accelerate clean energy deployment. She recently led a team at the XPRIZE Visioneers Summit to design a prize for sustainable, cost-effective desalination.

Image: Women carrying water collected from taps installed by international aid agencies in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs). They fled their homes after being attacked by Janjaweed militias. DHR Communications/Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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