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Alligators have a cold weather trick; despite pandemic, solar and wind soared in 2020


STUDY FINDS 23% OF FRESHWATER FISH SPECIES AT RISK OF EXTINCTION

Thousands of the 18,000 species of fish living in the world’s rivers are at risk, according to “Human impacts on global freshwater fish biodiversity” published Friday in the journal Science. Summarizing, the authors stated, “We are increasingly aware of human impacts on biodiversity across our planet, especially in terrestrial and marine systems. We know less about fresh waters, including large rivers. Su et al. looked across such systems globally, focusing on several key measures of fish biodiversity. They found that half of all river systems have been heavily affected by human activities, with only very large tropical river basins receiving the lowest levels of change. Fragmentation and non-native species have also led to the homogenization of rivers, with many now containing similar species and fewer specialized lineages.” The French and Chinese scientists who conducted the study put together a “biodiversity index score” that they described as a “holistic measure of multiple measures of biodiversity change.” The results: Industrialization—including overfishing, redirected rivers, dams, soil and water pollution, and reckless land use have moderately or severely affected more than 86% of 2,456 river basins worldwide. The remainder are mostly concentrated in tropical Africa and Australia. Julian Olden, an ecology professor at the University of Washington, who was not involved in the study, told Eric Roston at Bloomberg, “This study provides support to the growing realization that the world is facing a freshwater biodiversity crisis, and humans are the primary cause.”

WIND, SOLAR DEFY U.S. ECONOMIC CONTRACTION FROM PANDEMIC AND HAVE STELLAR YEAR

While the U.S. economy plunged into recession last year, with at least 25 million Americans now unemployed, furloughed, or working for less pay than before the coronavirus struck in February 2020, there were record-breaking new installations of renewable energy sources. Installations already operating generated 20% of all electricity produced in the U.S. in 2020, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance and the Business Council for Sustainable Energy. “It was a year of records but also resilience,” said Ethan Zindler, head of Americas research at BloombergNEF at an event highlighting the report. “I’ll be candid in saying [that] about halfway through the year, things looked pretty dire.” And, in fact, the renewables industry lost 67,000 jobs between February and December, according to Environmental Entrepreneurs. Nonetheless, new U.S. solar installations hit 16.5 gigawatts, breaking the previous record of 14.4 gigawatts set in 2016. Using a different metric to measure timing of projects’ completion, Wood Mackenzie, an energy consultancy, put the gain at more than 19 gigawatts of solar. The wind industry added more than 17 gigawatts, according to BloombergNEF. Together these renewable additions grew 11% over 2019.

Native American candidate Deb Haaland who is running for Congress in New Mexico's 1st congressional district seat for the upcoming mid-term elections, speaks in Albuquerque, New Mexico on October 1, 2018. - If Haaland is successful she will be the first Native American woman to hold a seat in the United States House of Representatives. The seat is currently held by Michelle Lujan Grisham who will now run for Governor of the state. (Photo by Mark RALSTON / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Rep. Deb Haaland

WITH MANY REPUBLICANS expressing OPPOSition, DEB HAALAND FACES CONFIRMATION HEARING ON TUESDAY

As we have reported previously here and here, Deb Haaland, the Indigenous congresswoman who President Joe Biden has picked to be the next Secretary of the Interior, has plenty of Republican foes who consider her too radical for the post. Her nomination would seem certain to clear the Energy and Natural Resources Committee after she testifies at her confirmation hearing Tuesday. But the vote of Sen. Joe Manchin III, the committee’s Democratic chairman, says he hasn’t decided how he will vote, although he told The Washington Post last month that he has “always been deferential to whoever the president” wants in a cabinet official. Haaland has some vigorous Native and other support behind her nomination.

Darryl Fears reports that the Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council put up two billboards Thursday with Haaland’s picture in Billings and Great Falls, Mont., the state where Natives make up about 7% of the population and her toughest critic is Republican Sen. Steve Daines. He calls her “radical.” But it’s his own ideas about public land use that are extreme and destructive. Of him, Holly Cook Macarro, chairwoman of the American Indian Graduate Center, said, “Even though he’s a senator from the state of Montana, his statements did not reflect the views of the tribes at all.” Interior oversees about 75% of public lands under federal jurisdiction. This encompasses the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Services, the Bureau of Land Management, and hundreds of wildlife refuges. For 172 years, it has also handled many Indigenous matters, including governing trust lands and supervising the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Indian Education. Numerous tribes and individual Natives have strongly endorsed Haaland, who is an enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo. 

Alligator "icing"
Alligator “icing.”

ALLIGATORS, LIKE TURTLES, STRUGGLe TO DEAL WITH THE COLD

In the deep freeze that hit much of the central and southern United States this week, humans weren’t the only species that suffered. Tweeted photos went viral of cold-stunned turtles, one with a dozen or so or the reptiles stacked into the rear of a hatchback. In Oklahoma, alligators can be seen surviving by means of “icing” or “snorkeling.” David Arbour of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation posted photos on Facebook Tuesday to show the beasts with their snouts sticking out of the ice. “They keep [their] nose up through the ice to maintain a[n] air hole so they can breathe,” he explained. The photos were taken in the Red Slough Wildlife Management Area, a 5,814-acre wetland in the southeastern part of the state that a large variety of species call home. When the temperatures head toward freezing, alligators sense this and stick their noses out at just the right time. They engage in a kind of semi-hibernation called brumation. This allows them to slow their heart rate and metabolism to await warmer weather. 
 

OTHER ECO-STORIES
 





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US Solar Companies Rely On Materials From Xinjiang, Where Forced Labor Is Rampant



Stringer China / Reuters

A man walks through solar panels at a solar power plant under construction in Aksu, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, April 5, 2012.

This project was supported by the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism, the Pulitzer Center, and the Open Technology Fund.

Solar power has built a reputation as a virtuous industry, saving the planet by providing clean energy. But the industry has a dirty underbelly: It relies heavily on Xinjiang — a region in China that has become synonymous with forced labor for Muslim minorities — for key components.

Over the past four years, China has detained more than a million people in a network of detention facilities throughout its Xinjiang region. Many of these camps contain factories where Muslim minorities are forced to work. The solar industry is overwhelmingly reliant on parts and materials imported from this region, where heavy government surveillance makes it nearly impossible for outside observers to assess if people are working of their own free will. However, there are few alternative suppliers for the components the solar industry in the US needs.

It’s a particular problem for polysilicon, the metallic gray crystal form of the element integral to making solar cells, which convert light into energy. In 2016, only 9% of the world’s solar-grade polysilicon came from Xinjiang. But by 2020 it provided about 45% of the world’s supply, according to industry analyst Johannes Bernreuter.

At least one major Chinese polysilicon manufacturer has close ties with a state-controlled paramilitary organization, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC). Last year, the US government slapped sanctions on the XPCC for helping Beijing carry out its mass internment of Muslims, and the US banned its cotton, citing evidence it was produced using forced labor.

The American solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete against more polluting forms of energy production.

Another major Chinese polysilicon producer said it works with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang, a red flag because the Chinese government has long used that term as a euphemism for internment camps.

The Solar Energies Industry Association, which represents solar companies in the United States, opposes the “reprehensible” human rights violations in Xinjiang and is “encouraging” companies to move their supply chains out of the region, said John Smirnow, the group’s general counsel.

“We have no indication that solar is being directly implicated, he said, “but given reports, we want to ensure forced labor is never a part of the solar supply chain.”

But as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, after promising to improve clean energy infrastructure in the US, the American solar industry faces a choice: ignore the risk of human rights abuses or develop costly new alternatives for an industry struggling to compete against more polluting forms of energy production.


Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A worker produces polysilicon quartz rods in Donghai County, Jiangsu Province, China, on June 30, 2020.

China came to dominate the global polysilicon industry after it put tariffs on polysilicon imports from the US, South Korea, and the EU and ramped up domestic production, in apparent retaliation against US-imposed tariffs, in 2014. China is also one of the world’s biggest consumers of polysilicon, which meant it became less desirable for many companies outside China to compete because it was no longer cost-effective to export it there. In the years since, China’s polysilicon industry has thrived, not just in Xinjiang but in other regions such as the southwestern province of Sichuan.

“Most of the supply chain is concentrated in China, and most of the rest in southeast Asia is in plants owned by Chinese companies,” said Bernreuter. “There is no large alternative for the supply chain.”

But imports from Xinjiang have drawn the ire of lawmakers in the United States in recent months.

In the last Congress, representatives considered a bill that would have banned all goods from the region, a piece of legislation likely to be revived in the upcoming session. The House bill specifically targeted “poverty alleviation” programs that move Xinjiang’s Muslims to work in factories and on farms away from their hometowns.

“It’s almost impossible to confidently assess the labor conditions in Xinjiang.”

Since late 2016, the Chinese government has imposed a campaign that has included mass detention, digital surveillance, indoctrination, and forced labor on a population of about 13 million Muslim minorities in the far west region of Xinjiang, including ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs, and others. Non-Chinese people visiting Xinjiang are often heavily monitored or escorted by police officers, so it is very difficult for companies to audit their supply chains for forced labor, experts say.

“It’s almost impossible to confidently assess the labor conditions in Xinjiang just because it’s almost impossible to get a competent assessor into the region. And then their ability to interview workers, especially Uighur workers, is limited because of the surveillance,” Amy Lehr, director of the human rights program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and the lead author of a report on forced labor in the region, told BuzzFeed News.

But US Customs and Border Protection already has the legal authority to ban imports from the region if it suspects forced labor has been used. The agency stopped a shipment of human hair from Xinjiang in July based on reports that the extensions were made using prison labor. In December, CBP seized shipments of cotton and computer parts from Xinjiang. This week, it banned imports of tomato and cotton products from the region over what it called “slave labor.”

“It’s quite possible solar companies could be scrutinized by CBP regarding Xinjiang-related forced labor risks in their supply chains even if there is no regional ban because this issue is getting more attention,” said Lehr.

The research group Horizon Advisory said in a report that polysilicon from Xinjiang frequently lands in the US.

“Those goods enter the United States from China both directly and via indirect trans-shipment and processing in several other countries, including Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam,” the report says, concluding that “exposure to forced labor is pervasive” in the industry, including in “solar panels imported and installed in the United States.”

Forced labor is typically used for manufacturing jobs that don’t require specialized skills. Some of these types of tasks, like breaking apart tubes of the material, are used in the production of polysilicon.

If the US did ban polysilicon imports from China, industry experts say US-based companies would have enough capacity to make up for the shortfall, but would face higher costs and other problems in the supply chain.

For one thing, other parts used in solar panels are dominated by Chinese manufacturing as well. Once polysilicon is made, it’s sliced up into tiny nuggets called “wafers.” The overwhelming majority of wafer makers are located in China. And compared to other parts of China, it’s cheaper to manufacture polysilicon in Xinjiang, where companies can receive large subsidies from the government and the cost of electricity, provided by coal plants, and wages are typically lower than in wealthier parts of China.

REC Silicon, a Norwegian polysilicon maker whose manufacturing facilities are based in the US, invested more than a billion dollars in building a polysilicon factory in Washington state. After the Chinese tariffs on US goods hit, the company had to first slow production and then completely shut it down in 2019.

And the industry could face more domestic difficulties ahead. An executive with Hemlock Semiconductor Group, a US-based polysilicon maker, told investors on Oct. 22 that he was “fairly convinced” a US government investigation into the solar supply chain is coming.


BuzzFeed News; Google Earth

Satellite photos showing the construction sequence of Daqo’s polysilicon plant

Most of Xinjiang’s polysilicon is made by four Chinese companies, which are among the six biggest suppliers of the material in the world. One, the Daqo New Energy Corp, is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. With that comes transparency requirements that allow a better understanding of how it operates.

According to Chinese state media reports and the company’s website, it has close ties with a Chinese state-controlled paramilitary organization called the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) — an organization so powerful that it administers cities in the region. Known best in Chinese simply as “the corps,” its activities have included helping Han Chinese migrants settle in Xinjiang and administering farms. The XPCC issued a policy document in 2013 setting solar energy as one of its “development goals.”

In July, the US government put the XPCC under sanctions, saying it had helped implement Beijing’s mass internment policy targeting Muslims. On Dec. 2, the US banned cotton imports produced by the XPCC, citing evidence it uses forced labor.

The XPCC could not be reached for comment.

In public filings made in October with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, Daqo disclosed that it gained “additional advantages” in electricity costs because the XPCC operates the regional power grid. The local state newspaper reported that XPCC paid Daqo subsidies amounting to more than 489,447 yuan (approximately $75,000). The companies received millions more in subsidies from the government of Shihezi, a city in Xinjiang administered by the XPCC. In a Chinese language press release, Daqo’s Xinjiang subsidiary has also noted that it’s considered an “innovative enterprise pilot unit” of the XPCC.

Daqo’s polysilicon plant is located just over 7 miles north of Shihezi City. Construction started in spring 2011, when an area of farmland the size of 110 football fields was cleared to make way for the plant. By 2013, it was complete, with large industrial buildings covering the site, linked together by a network of elevated pipes. In 2014, the compound was extended by a further 3 million square feet, and over the following two years, new buildings continued to be added. The latest growth of the plant took place over the summer of 2019. Another 3 million square feet were added at the southwest end of the compound, and parts of the site that had previously sat unused were filled in with buildings. The plant now covers 12.2 million square feet, the equivalent of 215 football fields.

Daqo could not be reached for comment, but has previously said it does not use forced labor “under any circumstances whether in its own facilities or throughout its entire supply chain.”

In Xinjiang, programs euphemistically described as “poverty alleviation” have been linked to forced labor, according to research by CSIS and other organizations.

“It would be unsustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor.”

One of the other big polysilicon makers in Xinjiang, GCL-Poly Energy, said it works with “vocational schools” in Xinjiang in an annual report. The government has long referred to the internment camps in the region as vocational schools. Chinese language news articles also say GCL-Poly takes part in poverty alleviation programs.

GCL-Poly could not be reached for comment.

The industry has to make a choice, said Francine Sullivan, vice president for business development at REC Silicon, the Norwegian polysilicon maker.

“It would be unsustainable to have an industry built on coal and slave labor,” she said. “Most people in solar think it’ll be greenwashed away from us. We don’t have to deal with it because we’re solar.” ●



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Solar Farms Can Be Compatible With Farming : NPR


This solar power installation near Vineland, New Jersey, was among the first to replace power mowing with grazing sheep.

Dan Charles/NPR


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Dan Charles/NPR

Clean, abundant, solar power comes with a price. It requires lots of land, and in some places that’s provoking opposition from people who want to preserve farmland.

In southern New Jersey, for instance, a company called Dakota Power Partners wants to build an 800-acre solar power station, and the Pilesgrove Township planning board is hearing from local citizens who don’t like it one bit.

“The carpetbaggers have come south to take our property, our land, our farms!” protested Jim Davis at a meeting in August. Davis lives next to the proposed solar array. “I’m going to look out of my house, my living room windows, I’m going to see sixteen feet of solar panels.”

Many opponents are upset at the idea of solar panels replacing fertile, productive, farm fields.

“We’re a farming community,” said Cheryl Reardon at the same meeting. She’s a former member of the planning board. “You were the first town to adopt a right to farm ordinance! Don’t forget your vision for this township, and what it should remain to be!”

Zaid Ashai, CEO of Nexamp, a solar company based in Boston, says this is a pretty common reaction. “I think the biggest community opposition is purely [based on] how the land looks,” he says. “When people see projects that change the way the landscape has looked for potentially a hundred years or more, there’s a reflexive reaction. That’s human.”

But Ashai believes that farming and solar can be friends. For small farms that are struggling, leasing land to solar companies can be a financial lifeline, helping them survive. Farmers can earn a thousand or more dollars per acre per year from these deals.

Ashai and others are also exploring ways to capture the sun and still farm the land–though perhaps with a different kind of farming.

I recently saw an article about how this solar farm is going to take away food for people,” Julie Bishop says. “I thought to myself, since when is lamb not food?”

Dan Charles/NPR


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Julie Bishop is one of the pioneers in this movement. She got involved more or less by accident a few years ago. She had begun raising sheep on a small farm in Newfield, New Jersey, but didn’t have a lot of pasture land for them. One day, as she was driving to visit her mother nearby, she passed a 15-acre solar installation.

“I thought, that would be a good place for my sheep,” she says. “It’s all fenced in, and I’m sure they’re paying somebody to mow the grass.” She figured sheep could do that job more easily. “They’re just born to weed-whack,” she says. “Let sheep do what they’re good at, let people do something that’s, you know, not so back-breaking.”

She got in touch with the solar company, made a deal, and now she’s getting paid to graze her sheep there.

“It really does work,” Bishop says. There’s plenty of grass and clover for the sheep. (The sheep prefer the clover.) From there perspective of the sheep, wandering around underneath the panels, it’s just a nicely shaded pasture. “All kinds of critters live in here. Mice and moles and voles,” Bishop says. “It’s food for butterflies and other pollinators.”

Several solar companies have allowed sheep to graze. Others are inviting farmers to grow vegetables under their solar panels.

Dan Charles/NPR


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Bishop renamed her farming operation Solar Sheep. She now has flocks of the animals at three solar sites around New Jersey, and her herd might soon double in size to handle the proposed solar plant in Pilesgrove township. Dakota Power Partners is designing the project with sheep in mind, and will include a barn for Bishop to use. The company is highlighting this in its efforts to get approval for their project.

Others have had the same idea. They’ve banded together to form the American Solar Grazing Association. Nexamp’s Zaid Ashai says that Nexamp has sheep at a few of its sites, but it’s also investigating other ways to combine solar energy and farming. “We still have not even scratched the surface on how to integrate agriculture and solar power plants more closely,” he says. He says beekeeping is an obvious option.

Boston-based BlueWave Solar, meanwhile, is about to start construction on dozens of projects in Massachusetts that will combine solar with vegetable farming. The state government is offering financial incentives for such projects.

Julie Bishop raises the Katahdin breed of sheep, which have hair rather than wool.

Dan Charles/NPR


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Julie Bishop raises the Katahdin breed of sheep, which have hair rather than wool.

Dan Charles/NPR

“It’s an exciting time,” says Lucy Bullock-Sieger, the company’s director of civic engagement. In order to qualify for the state subsidies, the solar panels in such projects have to be built at least eight feet off the ground, allowing easy access for farmers and their equipment. Bullock-Sieger says the company is working with farmers who plan to grow pumpkins, strawberries, butternut squash, and cranberries.

At the University of Arizona, researchers found that certain varieties of tomatoes and peppers actually grew better when partially shaded by solar panels.

They have a name for this combination: Agrivoltaics.



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Coal to get toppled by solar, wind and other renewables in 2021


Solar and wind power are growing so rapidly that for the first time ever, the United States will likely get more power in 2021 from renewable energy than from coal, according to projections from the Institute for Energy Economic and Financial Analysis.
This milestone is being driven by the gangbusters growth for solar and wind as well as the stunning collapse of coal. And it comes as the United Nations warned on Tuesday that countries are not doing enough to keep the planet’s temperature from rising to near-catastrophic levels.

“The next piece of the energy transition is very close at hand,” said PJ Deschenes, partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a boutique investment bank focused on clean energy. “Coal is coming offline as fast or faster than we anticipated.”

Coal provided about half of America’s power generation between 2000 and 2010. However, coal usage started to fall sharply late in the last decade because of the abundance of cheap natural gas. Coal was dethroned by natural gas in 2016, according to the US Energy Information Administration.

‘Negative feedback loop’

Despite President Donald Trump’s promise to save coal, the industry’s decline has only continued. This was underlined by last month’s bankruptcy of Murray Energy, America’s largest private coal mining company.
US power companies are rapidly retiring old coal plants and replacing them with wind and solar farms. Utility companies like PSEG (PEG) and Xcel Energy (XEL), which long relied on coal, are now pledging to deliver carbon-free electricity.

Navajo Generation Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, permanently closed last week. The shutdown means that South Nevada’s electricity is now coal-free.

US power plants are expected to consume less coal next year than at any point since 1978, according to the EIA. That will cause coal’s market share to drop below 22%, compared with 28% in 2018. That shrinking market share makes existing coal plants even less profitable.

“It’s a negative feedback loop,” said Greentech’s Deschenes.

This trend is playing out overseas as well. Global electricity production from coal is on track to fall by a record 3% in 2019, according to CarbonBrief. That drop is being driven by record declines from Germany and South Korea as well as the first dip in India in at least three decades.

2021 is a ‘crossover year’

Dennis Wamsted, editor and analyst at IEEFA, is predicting that 2021 will be the “crossover year” in the United States, where coal is supplanted by renewables, which include solar, wind, hydropower, biomass and geothermal.

“Coal and renewables are rapidly heading in opposite directions,” Wamsted said in a report.”If the crossover doesn’t occur in 2021, it will without a doubt do so by 2022.”

This transition has already played out in Texas, which was long a coal-first state. During the first half of this year, wind power surpassed coal for the first time in Texas history. Wind made up just 0.8% of the Lone Star State’s power as of 2003. That figure has climbed to 22%, compared with 21% for coal.

Critics of renewable energy correctly note that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow.

That’s why Deschenes said he hopes these milestones draw greater attention to the importance of energy storage systems that hold renewable energy for when it’s needed.



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Secretive energy startup backed by Bill Gates achieves solar breakthrough


Heliogen, a clean energy company that emerged from stealth mode on Tuesday, said it has discovered a way to use artificial intelligence and a field of mirrors to reflect so much sunlight that it generates extreme heat above 1,000 degrees Celsius.

Essentially, Heliogen created a solar oven — one capable of reaching temperatures that are roughly a quarter of what you’d find on the surface of the sun.

The breakthrough means that, for the first time, concentrated solar energy can be used to create the extreme heat required to make cement, steel, glass and other industrial processes. In other words, carbon-free sunlight can replace fossil fuels in a heavy carbon-emitting corner of the economy that has been untouched by the clean energy revolution.

“We are rolling out technology that can beat the price of fossil fuels and also not make the CO2 emissions,” Bill Gross, Heliogen’s founder and CEO, told CNN Business. “And that’s really the holy grail.”

Heliogen, which is also backed by billionaire Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, believes the patented technology will be able to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions from industry. Cement, for example, accounts for 7% of global CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

“Bill and the team have truly now harnessed the sun,” Soon-Shiong, who also sits on the Heliogen board, told CNN Business. “The potential to humankind is enormous. … The potential to business is unfathomable.”

Unlike traditional solar power, which uses rooftop panels to capture the energy from the sun, Heliogen is improving on what’s known as concentrated solar power. This technology, which uses mirrors to reflect the sun to a single point, is not new.
Concentrated solar has been used in the past to produce electricity and, in some limited fashion, to create heat for industry. It’s even used in Oman to provide the power needed to drill for oil.
The problem is that in the past concentrated solar couldn’t get temperatures hot enough to make cement and steel.

“You’ve ended up with technologies that can’t really deliver super-heated systems,” said Olav Junttila, a partner at Greentech Capital Advisors, a clean energy investment bank that has advised concentrated solar companies in the past.

Using artificial intelligence to solve the climate crisis

That means renewable energy has not yet disrupted industrial processes such as cement and steelmaking. And that’s a problem because the world has an insatiable appetite for those materials. Cement, for instance, is used to make the concrete required to build homes, hospitals and schools. These industries are responsible for more than a fifth of global emissions, according to the EPA.
That’s why the potential of Los Angeles-based Heliogen attracted investment from Gates, the Microsoft (MSFT) co-founder who recently surpassed Amazon (AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos as the world’s richest person.

“I’m pleased to have been an early backer of Bill Gross’s novel solar concentration technology,” Gates said in a statement. “Its capacity to achieve the high temperatures required for these processes is a promising development in the quest to one day replace fossil fuel.”

Heliogen, founded by Bill Gross, must convince industrial companies it's worth the investment to switch over to its solar technology.

While other concentrated solar companies attacked this temperature problem by adding steel to make the technology stiffer and sturdier, Heliogen and its team of scientists and engineers turned to artificial intelligence.

Heliogen uses computer vision software, automatic edge detection and other sophisticated technology to train a field of mirrors to reflect solar beams to one single spot.

“If you take a thousand mirrors and have them align exactly to a single point, you can achieve extremely, extremely high temperatures,” Gross said, who added that Heliogen made its breakthrough on the first day it turned its plant on.

Heliogen said it is generating so much heat that its technology could eventually be used to create clean hydrogen at scale. That carbon-free hydrogen could then be turned into a fuel for trucks and airplanes.

“If you can make hydrogen that’s green, that’s a gamechanger,” said Gross. “Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company.”

‘No-brainer’

For now, Heliogen is squarely focused on solar. One problem with solar is that the sun doesn’t always shine, yet industrial companies like cement makers have a constant need for heat. Heliogen said it would solve that issue by relying on storage systems that can hold the solar energy for rainy days.

Now that it has made this breakthrough, Heliogen will focus on demonstrating how the technology can be used in a large-scale application, such as making cement.

“We’re in a race. We just want to scale as fast as possible,” said Gross.

After the large-scale application, Soon-Shiong said Heliogen would likely be ready to go public.

'Nervous and scared.' Coal workers fear for pensions after Murray Energy bankruptcy

In the meantime, Heliogen will require a healthy dose of capital to scale and it’s working with investors on a private round of funding. Soon-Shiong signaled he plans to invest more in Heliogen. Heliogen declined to provide information on how much money it has raised so far.

“This is an existential issue for your children, for my children and our grandchildren,” Soon-Shiong said.

Heliogen’s biggest challenge will be convincing industrial companies using fossil fuels to make the investment required to switch over. Gross said the company has been talking to potential customers privately and plans to soon announce its first customers.

“If we go to a cement company and say we’ll give you green heat, no CO2, but we’ll also save you money, then it becomes a no-brainer,” said Gross.

Its biggest selling point is the fact that, unlike fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, sunlight is free. And Heliogen argues its technology is already economical against fossil fuels because of its reliance on AI.

“The only way to compete is to be extremely clever in how you use your materials. And by using software, we’re able to do that,” Gross said.



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