Over the last 18 months developing our clean natural gas technology, we’ve developed some heuristics to help us assess our progress and the general capability of any system or set of systems that can address the climate crisis. We’re happy to evolve this list as we gain knowledge so if you think we’ve missed something let us know!
There are six key characteristics we believe a climate play must have to have a chance of making a positive difference.
Does it crush drilling and coal mining?
CO2 by itself has no moral valence, indeed its emission correlates well with human progress. But net transport of carbon from the crust to the atmosphere has to be ramped down extremely quickly. We have to stop putting fossil carbon into the atmosphere. Does your process cause drilling to phase out by 2040?
Does it lend itself to enormous scale?
Few people intuitively understand the scale of our energy infrastructure. 50 GT of CO2 per year is an enormous number! Your process must be able to seamlessly and rapidly scale to 10s of GT-CO2 effective impact in just a few years. Solving a tiny fraction of the overall problem, while potentially worthy on its own merits, has inadequate impact at global scale. For example, if tomorrow all cement and steel was magically carbon neutral, it would make almost no difference.
Does it have fundamental supply constraints?
This is about critical materials, inputs, and supply chain. Your process’ scaling must not be impeded by obvious supply constraints, like abundance of rare metals in the crust, availability of arable land, labor/skills abundance, etc.
Except in rare cases, it is extremely difficult to hit enormous scale rapidly unless it can be built everywhere. Therefore, it should be within the technical manufacturing capabilities of a large percentage of countries and not just an advanced few.
In other words, does the process’ scaling look like construction or does it look like GPU nanofabrication? Can the system scale easily?
Does it produce and consume huge quantities of energy?
We must unlock enormous new sources of primary energy, essential for human civilization and progress. In practice, this means exploiting existing energy sources that are already enjoying explosive growth, which means solar, batteries, and wind, in that order.
Does your process leverage cheap solar? We will probably need at least 50 TW of new solar. You should have a plan to use all of it!
Does it bank on greed and self-interest?
The process must deliver a green dividend, not extract a green premium. It must expand human well being. It must be generically tolerable. It must be safe enough for unskilled labor to install and maintain.
It must not require massive changes of culture, such as acceptance of degrowth or voluntary or involuntary reductions in caloric needs.
It must not require enormous political changes, such as instantiation of global communism or totalitarianism.
It must not require politically impossible market shifts, such as a point-of-sale carbon tax adequate to pay for 1-1 carbon capture and sequestration, which would double the price of gas, immiserating billions and leading to mass unrest.
It must not require mass preference shifts, such as 100% adoption of vegan diets and/or abolition of pets and/or enthusiastic celebration of municipal scale nuclear power and/or universal adoration of eminent domain.
It must not require any enormous step changes in anything, but in particular the industries and infrastructure that meet our basic needs. No “great leaps forward“.
All of these unacceptable processes or conditions have one thing in common: they impose impossibly high levels of friction on the process of adoption.
Does your process cut against human nature? Does it thrill customers?
Does it leverage capitalism?
The system must be wildly profitable at every scale, with rapid capital return to drive bootstrapped growth and attract additional investment. It has to capture enough of its green dividend to drive its own growth.
Does your process scale incrementally? What is the minimum profitable scale? How small can you make it? Does it require partnering with a big, disinterest company to reach minimum scale?
Does your process require any regulatory shifts before it can start its economic engine? It’s one thing to steamroll a regulatory regime once your process is earning a trillion dollars a year in profits, but what about before its profitable?
Does your process print money?
Does it require zero miracles?
We need technical solutions that work in the short term, are easy to mass produce, and are very profitable. Fusion is cool but probably none of these. The single most competitive advantage for any process trying to solve the climate challenge is that it must have rapid design iteration cycles to feed back learning, cut cost, and multiply scale.
Okay, what’s left?
The set of potential solutions which satisfy most/all of these requirements is limited but not empty.
In particular, we think Terraform’s approach meets all these requirements, as do a good number of similar efforts to retool commodity supply on the back of cheap solar.
Let’s get specific and go point by point.
We crush drilling because we directly substitute our low cost, carbon neutral hydrocarbons for legacy fossil carbon sources. We’re excited about a future with higher CO2 emissions and zero net emissions – good for human progress, for supersonic aviation, and for the climate.
We’re building a process that can substitute essentially all oil, gas, and coal in industry. Because this energy source is upstream of various polluting uses, we believe our one, common process can naturally decarbonize steel, agriculture, cement, and dozens of other industries without having to retool thousands of existing, productive and profitable factories.
We’re not subject to any supply constraints. Our process uses generic materials commonly used in construction. We plan to scale up production in thousands of factories in all major cities, using local materials and labor. We don’t use any scarce or rare materials. We are actively simplifying our process to better enable parallel deployment at the largest possible scales worldwide.
Our process will use a comfortable majority of all energy produced worldwide. One does not simply substitute >$6T/year of oil and gas consumption with a 30% efficient synthesis process without using a staggering supply of energy. Only solar (or in rare cases, wind) has growth potential adequate to meet this demand at the right cost, scale, and timeline. Extrapolating current solar growth, we’ll saturate current global demand in the early 2040s, right on schedule.
Our Terraformers are designed from the ground up to be better value than drilling. More production per unit time, money, risk. Displacement of drilled hydrocarbon production, therefore, delivers a green dividend for both energy producers and consumers. No huge culture changes on the critical path. No need to retrofit existing infrastructure. No need to train a global workforce and change consumption to, eg, hydrogen fuel.
Terraformers cost ~$100,000 each. No need for a colossal pilot project to hit economic goals, nor billion dollar gigafactories to reduce production cost. No need to build new power sources – we can smoothly integrate into the existing solar development pipeline, enabling incremental granular scalability across every market. We project that regulatory tweaks may be advantageous long term to increase installation rate, but at that scale the industry will have the momentum of a freight train – we think it highly likely that regulations will already be promoting expanded production in order to maximize local production of economic value.
Our process already works and is based on science that has been around for decades if not centuries. We are devoting zero effort to developing new cutting edge catalysts or trying to ramp up the TRL of alien technology. Any organization only has so much bandwidth and we are focusing it on solving scaling through rapid design iteration. With the help of the Inflation Reduction Act, no further reductions in the cost of solar are needed for us to be extremely profitable.
Does this sound like fun? Are you a full stack hardware engineer? Would you like to work on rendering oil drilling obsolete? Show us pictures of your machines! (We are aware this link is slightly broken, be resourceful!)
One thought on “Climate Tech Checklist”
Exciting stuff! Just wanted to leave a heads up, the link on the last sentence leads to a 404 🙂