Ecosystems are collapsing and the weather’s getting really wild. Some say we have to change the way we live, others believe technology will save us from ourselves, writes Simon Wilson.
A company in New Plymouth has invented a way to transmit electricity without wires. They call it power beaming.
Scaled up globally, power beaming will allow energy to be generated or harnessed anywhere it’s efficient and desirable to do so, and transmitted anywhere else. When the sun comes up on solar panels in the Sahara, they could be heating homes in Auckland.
With no battery storage and very little energy loss during transmission. Power pylons would become a thing of the past.
The process works by converting electricity into electromagnetic energy, which is shaped into a beam or “rod” and transmitted via a series of relay antennae. The company that invented this created a name for itself from the process: Emrod.
It’s early days: Emrod demonstrated its invention in September last year in Munich, by transmitting a beam of energy for 36 metres across a warehouse. Since then it has trialled the process successfully over longer distances. “It’s easily scaled up,” says chief science officer Ray Simpkin. “We know how to do that.”
The application might only be local: solar and wind power transmitted from hilltops into towns in the valley below. But Emrod’s goal is much bigger than that. They imagine it encircling the planet with a grid of low-orbiting satellites connecting renewable power sources with end users. A “World Energy Matrix”.
Or perhaps someone builds giant solar panels in space and they beam the power to Earth using relay satellites.
If this sounds like something the James Bond villain Dr No might do, remember there is already a world communications matrix: it’s how your mobile phone and the internet work.
Emrod’s founder and chief executive, Greg Kushnir, says their biggest problem isn’t technology or finance.
“For some reason,” he says, “there’s a cognitive gap for people. They have no problem believing they can pick up a phone - which uses electromagnetic waves sent via satellite - to communicate with people all over the world and send information. But it’s hard for people to accept you can do the same with energy.”
Power beaming is one of several technologies that could make New Zealand completely self-sufficient in renewable energy - quite soon, and forever. But the potential is far bigger: there’s a massive opportunity in investing, scaling and taking it to the world.
“That is exactly how we see it,” says Kushnir. The demonstration last September was for the European Space Agency and the European aeroplane manufacturer Airbus, which has a large aerospace division.
He also knows the clock is ticking. Last year, he says, “there was no other company in the world that could do it. In the last few months, it seems the industry has been catching up with our vision and starting to throw budgets and teams at this. But we have a head start, we started this three years ahead of everybody else”.
This is why, after the Government shut down new oil and gas exploration in 2018, it established a “future energy centre” in New Plymouth, called Ara Ake. Emrod is one of its clients.
Both the fossil fuels exploration ban and Ara Ake were Green Party initiatives accepted by Labour.
The Emrod potential also points to something else: it’s the reason global investment powerhouse BlackRock is interested in New Zealand. There is serious money waiting to be made in the future-focused energy technology being developed here.
Will technology save the world? Will it save New Zealand? Will some combination of electric vehicles, other clean technologies and global finance allow us to survive and prosper in a climate-crisis world?
Under the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, we are required to halve our emissions by 2035 and reach net zero by 2050. This is a bi-partisan commitment: National signed up to the targets and Labour, jollied along by the Greens and supported by National, established a framework for progress with the Zero Carbon Act.
But we’re nowhere near on track for either the 2050 or 2035 goals. Data from the Ministry for the Environment shows gross emissions have risen by 19 per cent since 1990 and net emissions by 25 per cent. They peaked in the mid-2000s but have barely fallen since.
Both Labour and National continue to affirm with straight faces their commitment to the Paris targets. But in the next breath, they announce policies that push us in the opposite direction.
Half our emissions come from agriculture, yet Labour’s regime for reducing methane emissions from farm animals is minimal and National isn’t on board at all.
Both want more roads, which will slow the conversion of cities to public and active transport. Instead, they look to the ongoing infrastructure boom for salvation. Labour especially is focused on tunnels, whose oceans of concrete will, almost by themselves, wreck our ability to hit the 2035 target. National proposes more urban sprawl, which will probably do the same thing.
The ministry also has research that shows 61 per cent of us want “a more ambitious emissions target”. And in a recent Guardian Essential poll, only 28 per cent of respondents said they thought building more roads was important. But 72 per cent of us wanted better alternatives to driving, such as public transport, coastal shipping and rail transport.
And yet these things are not happening, or not happening at all quickly. Why not?
Part of the answer, I think, is that there are two conflicting views on how to solve the climate crisis. Call it the Great Divide.
Both sides agree we have to radically reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. One side says that to do this, we have to change the way we live. That means we try to stop doing - or at least cut back - the things that are destroying the planetary ecosystem and exhausting its natural resources.
This is the position adopted by the Green Party and Te Pāti Māori, the United Nations, all environmental activist groups, almost all environmental scientists and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, set up by the United Nations.
It’s also the official position of every COP meeting: the UN’s annual international conferences that pontificate on what to do about the crisis now.
The second view is that we don’t need to change the way we live, much or even at all, because technology will solve the problem for us.
This is the position of the National and Act parties. It’s also the effective position of the Labour Party, although they may deny it, and of most other major political parties around the world. Many scientists and tech start-ups are working hard to make it true. And BlackRock is not the only finance-sector corporate to spot the potential for immense riches inherent in their work.
The divide is easy to see in transport. The Greens say we need a rethink of how cities work, so public transport, cycling and walking become far more appealing as ways to get around.
National says hydrogen-powered trucks will replace diesel trucks and soon enough we’ll all be driving EVs. Keep calm and carry on: we can build more roads because the emissions problem will be solved.
Ironically, neither National nor Labour is quite as committed to the tech solutions as you might think. Neither promotes the immediately-available tech solutions for our transport woes, such as congestion charging and dynamic lanes on main roads.
National even opposes the feebate scheme that supports EVs and has done its best to sabotage every move to reduce demand for fossil-fuel cars. Act is no different.
It’s as if many of our politicians just don’t believe those surveys. As if they’ve decided that while we want good outcomes, what we really want is not to change. We might tick the box, but we’re lying.
Technology has always affected the way we live in the world, creating new possibilities and problems, solving those problems and creating new ones, and on it goes.
The global population grew so fast during the 19th century that by the start of the 20th, city streets were threatened with pestilential amounts of horse manure. Even worse, the world was running out of land to grow food.
Then the motorcar arrived and in 1913 Henry Ford’s assembly-line production began to make it widely available. Within just a few years, that solved the first problem. The second was overcome in 1909, when German chemists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch invented a way to make nitrogen-based fertiliser and scale it for commercial use. Without their process, it’s thought starvation would have limited the global population to only half its current size.
Today, clean technologies are booming. In Texas, more energy is now generated from wind and solar than from oil. The massive Glenbrook steel plant south of Auckland will soon switch from coal to electric battery power.
During Cyclone Gabrielle in February, 3000 customers of the solar-energy company solarZero “kept their lights on” while the power went out all around them. SolarZero is a local start-up, now owned by BlackRock, which has 10,000 customers and intends to have 100,000 by 2030.
Will we solve the climate crisis with our own nitrogen-fertiliser moment? Nobody knows. Companies like Emrod have a long way to go before they can assuredly say yes.
Should we assume it will happen anyway? Nobody knows the answer to that, either.
Conversely, if we steadfastly resolve to reduce emissions and make our towns and cities more resilient in an ever-more raging climate, might that just be a colossal waste of money?
Again, looking out a few decades, we don’t really know. But we do know that emissions to date, along with those we cannot stop in the next few years, will make storms and droughts and wildfires worse before there’s any chance the climate will get better.
Even the most optimistic tech wizards agree we can’t just sit and wait to be saved.
And there’s an extra dimension to this debate. It’s become a proxy for another one, about how we live, especially about how we build and live in cities.
Take transport again. We could, for example, lower the suburban speed limits and create “low-traffic neighbourhoods”, with limited access for cars, so kids can walk to school safely. Build denser cities and maximise the safety and value of public spaces.
Or we could buy cars that are big and tough, like tanks, and drive the kids around in them.
Safer streets will lower emissions: it’s a foundation policy for reducing car dependency.
But safer cars for those in them is the tech solution and it’s the number-one choice in car buying today.
So if we fuel those big SUVs with renewably-sourced electricity (doable soon) and programme them not to hit anything (possibly doable soonish), is the problem solved?
This argument rages in cities all over the world.
For all the wonders of technology, there are some real problems with relying on it to see us through this mess.
For starters, just because it could, doesn’t mean it will. Technology has not made the world safe from nuclear arms, eliminated malaria, cured cancer or even the common cold, stopped road crashes, overcome obesity, ended poverty, made it easy to assassinate evil dictators or put a colony on the Moon. It hasn’t even produced flying cars.
Fifty years ago, all of those things seemed possible and some quite certain. Many could be done right now, but it’s not happening.
Technology doesn’t move in straight lines. It’s like a Yellow Brick Road, following twists and turns, going down dead ends, taking us places we didn’t know we wanted to go. All without any guarantee of an Emerald City.
When technology serves humanity, usually it’s because it’s in the interests of its owners to do so. Often, as with mobile phones and social-media software, it’s both a blessing and a curse. And sometimes, technology takes us straight to hell.
Comparing climate change and the ozone hole is instructive. In the 1980s, a “hole” was discovered over Antarctica in the layer of ozone in the atmosphere that filters the sun’s harsh light.
The cause was chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), commonly used aerosols, packing foams and fridges. Unless the world moved fast, the result would be skin cancers and cataracts in humans and failures in crops and animal reproduction.
It took only a few years. The scientific contribution was critical, but the key was international collaboration and government action: CFCs were banned globally.
That political will is missing today, here and elsewhere. In New Zealand, neither main party has even signalled a cut-off date for fossil-fuelled vehicle imports.
Not that EVs will drive us to nirvana. There’s a range of ethical issues involved in the mining and manufacture of the batteries. Car companies have focused on large vehicles, making the roads more dangerous for everyone else. They’re fun to drive and owners tend to feel guilt-free: both these things mean they are driven more, which adds to congestion and further reduces road safety.
The EV take-up has been faster in this country than almost everywhere else, but even so, the Government’s Emissions Reduction Plan assumes only 30 per cent of the vehicle fleet will be fully electric by 2035.
We’re very good at hanging on to our old cars. Many fossil-fuelled vehicles bought today, including hybrids, could still be on our roads in decades - with their owners demanding the “right” to buy petrol to run them.
Imagine the counterfactual, if successive governments had given transport emissions the same emergency treatment as CFCs. We could have had fast-tracked renewable generation, an end to fossil-fuel vehicle imports this decade and incentives to EV importers to focus on microcars, not SUVs.
It’s not that EVs are bad. On the contrary, they will have an important role in our low-carbon future, providing the personal transport we will always need. But they will not save the world.
Just this year, National and Labour have both announced fast-track processes to speed up the construction of wind and solar farms. That’s very welcome.
But National also says it will allow oil and gas exploration to resume.
“Leave it in the ground” is the single most important demand in the global campaign to reduce carbon emissions. The fact that exploration is continuing elsewhere is no excuse: no one should be let off the hook.
Refusing to accept this undermines almost everything National says about its commitment to tackling climate change.
The party also opposed government funding for the Glenbrook battery. It seems that although tech might save us, that will only be when there are no political points to score by opposing it.
There’s a much bigger problem with relying on technology. Often, it assumes the aim is not to preserve a habitable planet but to protect ourselves as it becomes uninhabitable.
Establish colonies on the moon and Mars. Put a bubble over our cities and use the wonders of technology to grow food, recycle everything and keep ourselves entertained. While outside, the waters rise, the ecosystem withers and the world burns.
Saudi Arabia is doing this already, using its oil wealth to build an entirely self-sufficient city in the desert that will be sealed off from the outside world. It’s called The Line. Most people, needless to say, will not be allowed to live in it.
And one more tech problem: it has a persistent habit of creating unintended consequences. Those coal-fired furnaces of the Industrial Revolution, the internal-combustion engines and nitrogen fertiliser that became so vital to life in the 20th century: they caused the climate crisis.
It’s easy to laugh at the Martian colony fantasies of Elon Musk. But are they so different from the fantasies of politicians who approach the climate emergency today with dreams of a wonderful world in 30 or 40 years’ time, when technology has saved us?
Change our lives or rely on technology to save us? There’s a way through this divide. It’s to do both.
The Government has been busy on a number of fronts, replacing coal and gas boilers in schools, extending the EV charging networks and so on. Last week Prime Minister Chris Hipkins announced a $2 billion fund to be set up here by the investment company BlackRock. The fund will support ventures that move New Zealand towards its goal of 100 per cent renewable energy.
“This,” said Hipkins, “is exactly the type of partnership essential to my vision of action on the climate.”
Critics have pointed out that while BlackRock has a high-profile commitment to clean energy, it also has a long history of ethically dubious investments. But do you turn your back on a company like that, or work with them to do the right thing?
BlackRock chief executive Andrew Landman said his company was drawn to this country because “the level of innovation in green technology is far greater in New Zealand”. Perhaps he just saw a chance to make money, but so what?
The reason for Landman and Hipkins’ excitement can largely be put down to the work of the Crown agency Ara Ake and its clients.
“My role,” said chief executive Cristiano Marantes, “is to commercialise energy innovation. It’s a great ecosystem. Connecting local capital with innovators and scaling it up for the world.”
Emrod is one of many beneficiaries of that. There’s also Vortex Power Systems, which has invented a way to turn waste heat into electricity by way of an artificial tornado, with trials soon to begin in Tairāwhiti. Hiringa Energy is building infrastructure for green hydrogen and New Zealand’s largest trucking firm, HW Richardson, will convert 1300 of its trucks by 2030. Lodestone Energy is “bringing grid-scale solar to Aotearoa New Zealand”, with five solar farms that will generate enough energy to power a city the size of Hamilton.
And the New Zealand Super Fund is working with Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners (CIP) to establish an offshore wind farm in the South Taranaki Bight. It says the existing plan could generate 11 per cent of our current electricity demand by 2030, and could be expanded to produce double that.
Ara Ake “fills the gap”, says Emrod’s Greg Kushnir. “They’ve kept us in New Zealand. We want to stay here, but we get lured all the time to the US and to Europe.”
He has a surfing metaphor. “It’s like we saw the wave from a long way out, miles and miles away. And we’ve been paddling hard, getting ourselves in a position to ride it. Now the wave is here.”
There’s a test for the ways we approach the climate crisis. Will the proposed response help us live within our means? Will it allow us to find a balance in our use of the world’s resources, or will it just use more of them up?
To put that another way, we’re on track for a massive boost in renewable energy, in this country and globally. The wave is here. But as the extra power becomes available, we can’t just use it to keep destroying the planet in other ways.
Simon Wilson is an award-winning senior writer covering politics, the climate crisis, transport, housing, urban design and social issues, with a focus on Auckland. He joined the Herald in 2018.