May 7, 2017 by


Offshore wind, clever concrete and fake meat: the top climate change innovations

Trump’s climate plans have sparked anger and upset – but businesses are finding alternative solutions. Oliver Milman runs down today’s best climate innovations

The Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island has opened up the way for further developments along the coast.
The Block Island wind farm in Rhode Island has opened up the way for further developments along the coast. Photograph: Deepwater Wind

People in the US and beyond concerned about climate change may be alarmed at the Trump administration’s policies and attitudes – but there are plenty of businesses and innovators doing work at various scales.

From solar to fake meat and low-carbon concrete, Oliver Milman explores some of the best examples of climate change-tackling innovations and innovators.

Community solar

Large-scale solar is a booming industry in the US, with the sector now employing twice the number of people involved with coal mining. But the decarbonization of America’s energy system is happening at a more local level, too.

There are 25 states with at least one community solar project online, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, and 2016 was a bumper year, with 218 MW added.

“It’s picking up speed, and there’s a lot in the pipeline, so it’ll be a mainstream driver of solar in the future,” said Alex Hobson, a spokeswoman for the association. “There is room to grow and there’s a lot of interest from people who never thought about solar, such as those renting or who are moving out of their buildings in the near future.”

Community solar works by allowing several people, such as those in a building with several apartments, to derive energy from a solar project installed on their building or elsewhere. Some utilities provide customers the ability to purchase the renewable energy from a shared facility, while in other cases groups of people band together to take advantage of state and federal incentives to make the investment themselves. California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Minnesota are currently leading the way.


How to switch to solar power in your home and why now is the time

Vegetarian meat

Agricultural activities currently contribute about 10% of America’s total greenhouse gas emissions each year, largely due to the methane expelled by cattle.

Americans are eating less beef than they did a decade ago, but further reductions would be handy if the US is to reduce its emissions to levels that would help avoid dangerous climate change. A raft of new meatless meat options have been made available for those who are reluctant about going vegetarian but can’t quite stomach the impact of meat production.

The Impossible Burger, a fake meat offering, has gained plenty of headlines due to the fact it “bleeds” much like the real thing. The $12 burger, backed by investors including Bill Gates and Google, has confused some diners but it’s hoped it will help make people cut down on beef, saving land, water and emissions in the process. There is plenty of competition, too, from brands such as Beyond Meat, Gardein and the venerable Tofurky.

Low-carbon concrete

Worldwide use of concrete is soaring, largely due to a building boom in China and, to a lesser extent, India. In fact, China has used more cement since 2011 than the US did during the entire 20th century.

The greenhouse gas emissions in its production are significant, prompting researchers to come up with a greener alternative. In February, Rutgers University’s Richard Riman announced a new technology that can make a variety of materials, including concrete. Combined with cement, the product can reduce the carbon footprint of cement and concrete by up to 70%, according to the university.

“I looked at how shellfish make ceramics at low-temperature, like carbonate crystals, and then looked at what people can do with water to make landing strips in Alaska, and I said we should be able to do this with ceramics, but use a low-temperature chemical process that involves water,” Riman said.

“When you can develop technologies that are safe and easy to use, it’s a game-changer.”

Lawn treatments

A technology company called WISErg has developed a product called the Harvester, which transforms food waste into fertilizer than can be applied to lawns. The product, launched in 2014, has helped the company get more than $30m in investment.

In the same area, a startup in Connecticut is working on replacing gasoline-run mowers with a solar-charged alternative that, for each lawn, saves emissions equivalent to those of a car on the road for 12,000 miles.

Offshore wind

Wind currently supplies around 5% of America’s electricity but the sector is on the up thanks to the introduction of offshore wind farms.

In December, the first US offshore wind turbines started turning near a small island off the coast of Rhode Island. The Block Island wind farm is small – capable of powering about 17,000 homes – but has opened up the way for further developments along the coast.

Donald Trump isn’t a fan – he has fought a losing battle to prevent a wind farm near one of his golf courses in Scotland – but the falling cost of turbines is making offshore wind more competitive. Maryland is currently mulling two different proposals for offshore wind which would dwarf the Block Island development.

Electric cars

Electric vehicle sales jumped 70% in 2016, following a disappointing previous year, with more than 30 different models on sale by the end of the year. Tesla, Chevrolet, Nissan and Ford lead the way, with more than half of sales occurring in California, which mandates a certain slice of auto sales must be electric.

Electric cars are parked at a charging station.
Electric cars are parked at a charging station. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Continued growth could depend on whether a federal tax credit is extended but the electric vehicle market is maturing from a niche oddity to a competitive international field. The Chinese government is calling on auto manufacturers to sell more electric vehicles to improve air quality, with Ford announcing it will electrify 70% of the vehicles sold in the country by 2025. There’s still a long way to go – many drivers still worry about the availability of recharging stations – but this is yet another clean energy market that America could lead in.


Even the sober assessment of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) leaves much to guesswork when it comes to meeting emissions reduction goals. If the world is to avoid 2C or more of warming, as-yet undeveloped technology will need to be used to extract carbon dioxide from the air at some point, due to the patchy progress in cutting emissions.

One desperate intervention could be solar engineering, which is being studied by a team led by David Keith at Harvard University. The researchers are looking at how chemical compounds, such as limestone dust, can be dispersed in the atmosphere, thereby scattering sunlight and sparing an area below from its heat.

How this can be achieved, and whether it is even desirable to do so, is an ongoing debate. But if we continue to cook our planet, then governments may have to turn to the likes of Keith to help avert the worst.

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