The European Union elections at the end of last month (May 2019) saw an unprecedented win for The Green Party.
The same week, the Deputy Assistant Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police stated his intent to prosecute more than 1000 climate change protestors who disrupted London’s business district during the Extinction Rebellion protests in April.
These events underscore the tensions and rising sentiment of outrage over climate change amongst the general public.
While the protests certainly raised awareness, the elections promise to bring meaningful change. The Green Party increased its number of seats by 40 per cent. The implication of this win is that the EU parliament will now require support from The Green Party in order to form any effective coalition – and this may help shift more public funding towards innovation in sustainable energy creation and storage.
Other governments have also been investing in clean energy and sustainability initiatives. In 2018, the Canadian government committed $950 million in federal funding to support the winners of its technology “supercluster” competition. The competition served a dual purpose, to support R&D in the green economy, whilst stimulating the broader economy and creating jobs.
For this reason, the judging rubric favoured those who not only focused on research, but also promised job creation and IP strategies that benefit Canada.
The five winners spanned Canada’s diverse regions. They included a Quebec-based group focused on powering supply chains with AI, an Ontario-based collaboration using internet of things to improve manufacturing productivity and efficiency, a British-Columbia consortium using technology to spur precision medicine and environmental research, an Atlantic-ocean group focusing on sustainable development of aquaculture, offshore oil and gas extraction and clean energy alternatives, and a Saskatchewan team developing plant-based proteins. These teams will receive their money over the next 5 years and must match the federal funding.
The government in Australia has also been supporting sustainable energy initiatives. Australia has already achieved significant milestones, with more than 20 per cent of its electricity now coming from renewables.
One of the latest ventures is an investment in a water battery. Snowy Hydro has received A$5 billion in government backing to turn its state-owned hydroelectric scheme into a water battery.
Snowy Hydro’s scheme already encompasses 145km of pipes, nine power stations and 16 dams which provide irrigation and generate energy.
The idea of converting the system to support a water battery is not new. Hydro pumps are an older technology which pump water during times of cheap or excess energy generation and release the water to generate energy during leaner times. While the technology itself is well-known, it reflects Australia’s modern commitment to finding solutions for energy storage as it ramps up its clean energy generation industry.
Meanwhile, President Trump has continued his staunch position against investing in climate change prevention technologies. After pulling out of the Paris climate accord, he has continued to act on his climate change skepticism.
At the Arctic Council in May, he refused to sign an agreement to protect the Arctic ecosystem from pollution and rapid ice melting, unless all mention of climate change was removed.
With or without government support, scientific researchers continue to innovate. Recently, a team out of Lancaster University discovered a new material, made from manganese hybride, which could enable smaller, more convenient design of tanks for hydrogen-based vehicle fuel.
Researchers at Ohio State University have also built a new potassium-oxygen battery that could replace lithium energy storage. Previous potassium-oxygen batteries could be more efficient than lithium, but they degraded too quickly to be cost-effective. The Ohio State team developed a way to use polymers to protect the battery’s cathode and prevent this degradation, which may be a breakthrough for this new battery material.
With promising innovations from researchers, the outlook for new green technologies is promising. However, there are several areas of concern that must be addressed to ensure success for innovative start-ups.
First, there is, and will continue to be, a challenge retaining top AI talent. Start-ups must compete with big tech firms who can afford to offer higher pay and benefits.
A second, related challenge for innovative start-ups is funding. Government grants and funding can provide significant support. In fact, research from the University of Cambridge looked at 657 start-ups in the sustainability sector, and discovered that patenting activity of a start-up grew on average 73 per cent every time they collaborated with a government agency on “cleantech” development.
The start-ups also saw a 155 per cent increase in financing one year after licensing a technology developed by a government agency. This is particularly encouraging given the recent Party victories in the EU parliament. However, there will likely still be a funding gap that requires the intervention and vision of private investors.