Pragmatism Today for a Net Zero Tomorrow

I'm packing my bags for Dubai this week to speak at the United Nations Climate Change Conference - or COP28. 

Despite a record $1.1 Trillion of spending on clean energy investments in 2022, 80% of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels. Combine that with increasing concerns about the future of renewable industries like wind, and the path to Net Zero emissions continues to elude us. The argument I will be making in conversations this week is that we have become so focused on building tomorrow’s solutions that we’re missing opportunities to make real gains in emissions reductions today. 

It’s not from indifference or malice, it’s just how we are wired. We obsess about building something new. We use terms like, “disrupt,” “revolutionize,” and “fundamentally change” to describe solutions to real world problems. We should dream big. We should invest in technology that can supercharge our efforts for Net Zero. But it’s that desire for moonshots over pragmatism that causes us to miss opportunities in plain sight.

Consider this; fixing one minor issue within coal and natural gas power plants, like the failure of boiler tubes, can eliminate up to 4.8% of projected U.S. emissions by 2030.  Recent research by Rho Impact suggests that the failure of boiler tubes, a critical component of coal and natural gas-based energy generation, creates as much as 230 million metric tons of CO2 annually. That’s the equivalent to 4.8% of projected U.S. emissions in 2030 or the decarbonization potential of 274 million acres of forest. Impact today, while we invest in tomorrow.

When a power plant fails, we immediately turn to backup generation - or “peaker plants” as we call them in the U.S. These facilities have significantly larger emissions footprints than primary power plants. Our goal should be to operate them rarely. 

So, why can’t we prevent things like boiler tubes from exploding? The key obstacle has been the lack of data. Critical infrastructure can suffer from catastrophic failure because we missed early warning signs. Physical realities like corrosion, erosion, and cracking that, if identified earlier, could have been easily addressed. Not unlike a doctor reading a patient’s test results and writing a prescription or suggesting an outpatient procedure. It’s about having the right data and using it to draw the right conclusions. 

From a more global perspective, every piece of physical infrastructure we rely on to run our world - from energy to transportation to manufacturing - is still operated with limited data and largely disconnected from the digital revolution. Advances in technology like robotics, sensors and artificial intelligence give us a chance to collect and analyze data in ways that were unimaginable just five years ago. That can mean the difference between normal operations and catastrophic failures. Imagine using data and AI to prevent bridges from collapsing or explosions at refineries. 

When I was a senior in college, I visited a power plant that was dealing with regular outages due to boiler tube failures. I was shocked that the plant manager was forced to make crucial decisions relying on sparse, subjective, and incomplete data points written on a notepad. Worst of all, people had died at the plant striving to obtain the data. As an engineer, I saw a solvable problem that inspired me to create the first wall-climbing robot, a precursor to what has evolved into Gecko Robotics, to digitize that power plant and hundreds more like it. 

If ending something as mundane as boiler tube failures can make a real difference in emissions, imagine what’s possible by changing the way other industries with major carbon footprints operate. Stopping boiler tube explosions might not be the glamorous moonshot that makes the cover of Forbes Magazine, but it exemplifies the opportunity to use data to make concrete emissions reductions today. We must bias towards action if we have any shot at Net-Zero in our lifetime.

As the world turns its focus to COP28, and our vital mission of achieving Net Zero, let’s agree we can do both. We can dream big for tomorrow while also making tangible gains today. Data and advancing technology gives us a fighting chance, we just have to embrace it. That’s the conversation I’m looking to have this week - and if we’re successful - the legacy of COP28 will be less about press releases and more about outcomes. 

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