5. ENVIRONMENTAL SENSORS
To heal the planet, we need to measure it. Distributed sensors are one of the unsung technologies allowing that to happen, and the continued spread of the networked sensor environment will be one of the undergirding technologies behind nearly every sustainability effort imaginable.
Want an example? Back in the 1980s, taller smokestacks helped reduce local air pollution on the east coast. The problem was the smokestacks were correlated to a higher rate of acid rain, which was leading to vast deforestation. How was the connection drawn? Early networked pollution sensors.
The technology, of course, has advanced since then. Networked sensors as small as a dime are already monitoring air and water quality, identifying pollutants, tracking acidification, and capturing real-time data on phenomena that are crucial to our social and economic wellbeing. Wearable air quality sensors are on their way, and localized sensor networks monitoring energy and water usage in buildings are cutting down on waste. The further proliferation of these sensors will dramatically impact the way we live.
Power is the limiting factor holding back a lot of green technologies. Wind and solar, for example, are capable of generating vast amounts of electricity, but adoption of the technologies has been throttled by a major shortcoming: Sometimes it isn’t windy or sunny. Electric cars, similarly, are making huge strides, but until range increases and charging times diminish, fossil fuels are going to rule.
Existing battery technology won’t cut it. For one thing, it’s too expensive. According to the Clean Air Task Force, for California to meet ambitious goals of powering itself through renewables only, the state would need to spend $360 billion on energy storage systems. One company called Form Energy is developing what are known as aqueous sulfur-flow batteries that will cost somewhere between $1 to $10 per kilowatt-hour, compared with lithium’s $200 per kilowatt-hour cost. Storage times should increase, too, perhaps lasting months. Form’s solution could help California meet its energy targets before the middle of the century, providing a roadmap for the rest of the world.