Alpha Energy: Designing the future in a moonshot factory
Candace Saffery Neufeld of Alpha Energy lays out the renewable energy moonshot’s plans to bring affordable, green electricity to 2.7bn people around the world.
Established in 2016, Alpha Energy is one of French telecommunications giant Telefónica’s ‘moonshot’ endeavors. By combining experienced personnel with breakthrough technologies and embracing new perspectives, Alpha Energy is working to bring renewable energy solutions to the 2.7bn people around the world without access to electricity. “It's a huge challenge that I think is going to take a multi-year approach,” says CEO Candace Saffery Neufeld. “I'm here because I believe it can happen.”
Neufeld took over as CEO of Alpha Energy in April 2018. With 15 years’ experience in the clean energy space, she has worked for and run startups in both solar energy and utility wind energy, with a focus on innovations that allow them to integrate and grow in scale commercially. “I’ve worked with companies and organisations that from a high level try to achieve balance between the human right to a clean environment and the human need to grow and thrive,” she says. “This can actually be achieved, but there needs to be some real innovation around how we scale those energy solutions.”
This is where Alpha Energy intends to enact dramatic and powerful change. Neufeld explains that, whereas a startup is focused on developing an idea that can become marketable quickly to generate ROI, a “moonshot is a long-term commitment.” She continues: “I'm in it for the long haul. I'm so thrilled about the approach we’re taking with Alpha Energy - and the whole moonshot factory - which is built to be a long-term project with a long-term vision, supported by capital from Telefónica to innovate and solve the big problems.”
“We’ve reached a tipping point,” says Neufeld, “where renewable energy generation and storage is cheaper than it’s ever been. It’s basically at parity with fossil fuels.” As countries around the world continue to expand their renewable energy initiatives, the cost of green power solutions will continue to fall. In 2018, a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that the cost of onshore wind power fell by 23% between 2010 and 2018, while photovoltaic power fell by 73% in the same period. “We've seen extraordinarily positive trends in the energy space with renewable generation efficiency increasing alongside radical price drops,” says Neufeld. “But where the real technical challenge remains is how we distribute these new types of technologies.”
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Alpha Energy’s focus, rather than on the generation of renewable energy, is on reinventing the distribution methods by which high-density communities without electricity access receive power. The traditional, centralised grid “is over 100 years old now. It wasn’t built to have two-way communication or Edge Generation pushing into the grid and managing it” says Neufeld. “We have moved into the distribution area where we believe there’s lots of room for innovation. We want to clean up the grid, which means bringing more and more intermittent power into play, on a decentralised level.”
The disparity between innovation in distribution and innovation in generation and storage is only growing larger, she explains. “These recent scaling trends that are happening in wind, solar and storage have definitely brought the problem to a point. The grid itself needs to change as a model.” Traditional centralised grids, when incorporating new users and households, extend their coverage from already-serviced areas. This method is, however, expensive and requires heavy use in order to be cost effective. This means that countries’ poorest areas are frequently barred from entry into a grid system. Neufeld notes that “with grid extension, in many areas that go into household communities or remote areas that have lower loads, that approach has fundamentally been flawed, because it just isn’t economical.” Alpha Energy’s approach is to bring modern energy solutions that work in a decentralised way to areas with medium-to-high population density and variation in electricity loads. “What we're looking at doing is building modular systems that can be self-organised, that can be installed very safely at low loads with basic training. They can be deployed and installed and also have the capacity to scale up, all while being autonomously balanced by artificial intelligence agents.”
Neufeld stresses that Alpha won’t be restricting its efforts to urban or rural areas. “We're looking at a very broad spectrum. When we look at energy assets it ranges from extraordinarily remote to very central areas where the grid is just very unreliable.” Neufeld admits that bringing renewable energy solutions to both urban and rural areas across multiple countries presents a mixture of regulatory, logistical and cultural difficulties. The three main difficulties Alpha faces are, she lists: supplying new technology in a diverse regulatory environment, turning innovation into solutions at a country-level scale and “also developing a universal approach that also needs to be very customisable. That's probably our biggest challenge,” she says. “We want to take on something that's high-level, in the sense that we know clean energy has challenges with intermittency, storage and distribution. That’s global; that’s a physics challenge. How do we take that solution and contextualise it into different economic statuses and regions, different geographic regions, political and cultural regions?
That's going to require deep partnership and deep regulatory and policy work.” Collaboration at the local level to facilitate the deployment of Alpha’s technology, as well as the exchange of ideas and localised solutions, is at the core of the company’s strategy to overcome regional challenges. “One of our mantras is that we want to collaborate. We want to bring multiple players into the solutions space. Where we feel where we can add a lot of value is really going to be in building new technical advances in distributed AI,” says Neufeld. “Our focus right now is on finding the right data sets that bring the right value to distribute our AI. But to install that we need people who are building both residential and commercial solar solutions, and distribution system operators that want to completely change how they manage the grid.”
With fledgling operations around the world, Alpha is seeking out new partners to help support its project. “We want to establish partners on the ground that create solutions with us, because if we don't do that, we're going to build a level of bias into the solution based on what we know and what we think has worked for us in the past,” Neufeld admits. In Bangladesh, the company has entered into a relationship with ME SOLshare, a decentralised grid technology firm specialising in IoT powered microgrid technology. The SOLbox meter allows for peer-to-peer electricity trading between off-grid households connected to solar panels across Bangladesh. ME SOLshare Managing Director, Dr Sebastian Groh said: “We want to take our SOLboxes to communities all over the world. The aim is to create efficient and dynamic local energy markets that empower households and encourage solar entrepreneurism.” Alpha Energy will use the data from ME SOLshare’s meters to gain insights into user behaviour and help to develop future technologies to further serve the needs of people in areas with intermittent or non-existent grid coverage.
“How do we usher in the next 20, 40 years of technology that actually changes how energy is distributed and managed across the globe?” Neufeld is poised at the crest of a breaking wave of renewable energy generation and working to revolutionise and democratise the way electricity is distributed around the world. “I think that we're ripe for a huge paradigm shift and I'm very excited to be in the middle of it.” Even though Alpha Energy’s goal is monumental, Neufeld comes across as determined and optimistic - focused on both the simulation testing Alpha is working on in 2019 and also the end goal. With 2.7bn people around the world without power, and the means to deliver that power more within reach every day, Neufeld says animatedly that “I think that we're in a very unique time right now. This is probably the most exciting time in energy since Tesla and Edison.”
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere