Letter from America: the (technology) solution to decarbonising California

Professor Doug Crawford Brown has left Cambridge to settle on the West Coast of the USA. He will be keeping in contact by sending ‘Letters from America’ for this Think Piece section of the website.

Setting the stage
In 2017 I moved from the UK and back to the US (Santa Barbara, California) after a decade in Cambridge. I had taken the position at the University of Cambridge based on my sense that the UK was world-leading in the low carbon transition following passage of the 2008 Climate Change Act and the creation of enterprise groups such as Cambridge Cleantech. In returning to the US, I feared I was returning to a nation of climate deniers and science skeptics, at least in Washington. The challenge to keep America’s decarbonisation pledges alive after President Obama was daunting. I came equipped with lessons learned in the UK, especially in the area of cleantech. I would let the British side of me teach those Yanks how to get the science, policy and technology right.
That may have been a good plan had I moved to DC, but I was soon disabused of that notion when I arrived in California and began working with government and businesses. What can we say about that State?
  1. It will go its own way through the Governor’s Office, ignoring DC and forming alliances abroad with nations that still listen to science and engineering. The UK stands high on that agenda. An alliance would be welcome this side of the pond.
  2. It is already ahead of the UK (and almost all of the EU) with respect to carbon emissions. Per capita emissions of carbon dioxide in California are now at 9 tonnes per person per year, below those of the UK which hover above 10 even without counting the imported carbon in goods we buy from abroad.
  3. The same is true for the carbon intensity of the economy, with California producing almost the same GDP as the UK but with half the population. You can do the math(s).
  4. Its ambitions, written into both state and local policy, are as strong as any in the UK, with a central role for cleantech as a driver of the economy. The State is committed to reducing emissions by 80% relative to 1990, all by 2050.
  5. It will form alliances with the cleantech sectors elsewhere (such as in Cambridge) only if that ‘foreign’ sector can bring added value to a technology and low carbon revolution already well underway on the west coast.
Moving into that market from abroad will require ‘upping your game’ in Cambridge to produce solutions to carbon reduction that are ahead of those already achieved in California.
An example: Integrated homes, cars and storage
The American approach embraced in my new home town of Santa Barbara is best seen in the technology being developed by Elon Musk and Tesla (see the picture below, provided by The Verge magazine at www.theverge.com/2016/10/28/13463236/tesla-solar-roof-battery-new-elon-musk). We have very little need for either heat or air conditioning in our buildings, given a temperature of between 18 and 23 degrees C almost every day. There are also 300 days of complete sunshine, in a city where most buildings face south and partially west. What does that suggest to you? To me – and to Musk – it suggests solar power used to supply plug load. Not only has he developed panels that are close to being competitive with the energy efficiencies and low prices of China, he has supplemented this line of products with architectural panels that look very much like the red tiled roofs we love in Santa Barbara (OK, those are admittedly more expensive than his panels).
He adds to this the Tesla Powerwall, a home system with 14 kWh of storage for those times when the sun is not shining. The price is not cheap - £4000 at current exchange rates plus another £600 to install – but then the market is new. We are starting down the learning curve.
45% of the carbon emissions in Santa Barbara are due to vehicles. To combat this, the electric vehicle is everywhere, much more so than in the UK. Wherever you look in town, there is a Tesla or Prius or Volt etc. Charging infrastructure is still poor, although there are increasing numbers of supercharging stations with the ability to recharge 170 miles of driving in less than 30 minutes. But if the state-wide power grid is used there is not much carbon reduction compared to a high efficiency petrol car.
With your home panelled in low carbon solar and with an electric vehicle, however, you are ‘off grid’ and your car becomes a second storage battery with even larger capacity than the Powerwall. The carbon emissions of driving drop by more than factor of 4 compared to any car Jeremy Clarkson would approve. The key is an integrated system of solar power production, energy storage in the home and fully electric vehicles that can be plugged back into the home when there is a need for load levelling. This is the future of decarbonisation underway in Santa Barbara, and in California more generally. This what we are investing in. This is what we are looking for in partners.
The UK Cleantech Sector     
So where does the UK cleantech sector fit into this vision and opportunity? Musk is already miles ahead on the basic components and the business model. There is a lot of catching up to do in the UK. But his products are still higher in cost than most home and car owners can afford. The efficiencies of his solar panels are good but not outstanding. The storage capacity of his batteries is adequate for local and regional driving, but California is a long state and storage must improve by a factor of 2. Charging times are prohibitive if one is not at a supercharging station (and there are few of these), and even then it is much longer than pumping a few litres of petrol. And the weight of the batteries pulls down the efficiency of the vehicle.
What do you have to offer California? Can you improve the efficiency of the solar panels at reasonable cost? Can you make more architecturally attractive solar materials? Can you reduce the weight and increase the energy density of storage systems for both the car and home? Can you improve the drive train of an electric vehicle? Do you have an innovation that helps in the coordination of the home-solar-battery-car package? Have you created a policy or business instrument that will bring the utilities on board? Do you have an innovative use for re-cycled batteries?
If so, you have a future with the Great State of California. They will welcome you with open arms, and I will facilitate the introductions, but only if your innovations are better than home grown Californian ones already on the table. But this is a limited time offer because California is home to some of the most vibrant technology and cleantech firms in the world, and they are all vying for top spot at the table. They are innovating rapidly, so the UK may find the train has left the station if you dawdle. They are not doing this simply to be the leader in California. They recognise that the US market in any cleantech area is driven almost entirely by what happens in California. Capture the California market and you have set the stage for the nation, regardless of what the Trump administration believes. Those of you who are innovating back in the UK will want to jump on board over the next year at latest.