These 9 technological innovations will shape the sustainability agenda in 2019

With a new year, we’re taking a fresh look at where sustainability is headed globally. What technologies will drive the global discussions, and moreover, which will have the greatest impact in 2019? I asked McKinsey’s leading sustainability experts for their thoughts.

[Editor’s note: For updated perspectives on climate technologies, please see “Delivering the climate technologies needed for net zero” (2022) and “Innovating to net zero: An executive’s guide to climate technology” (2021).]

1. Public electric transport. It’s not only individual vehicle owners who have better access to electric vehicles (EVs) than ever before—there are 160 electric and hybrid vehicle models available today—but municipalities are taking notice as well. In China, 300,000 electric buses hum down city streets every day. Their widespread adoption in China—an economic coup as much as a policy one—will entice European cities to follow suit. Although these eBuses have higher acquisition prices due to upfront battery costs, their total cost of ownership (TCO) is lower due to their independence from pricey diesel. They also eliminate local particulates, including SOx, NOx, and CO2, all major issues in most cities today.

Read more: The European electric bus market is charging ahead, but how will it develop?

2. Electric trucks. With personal electric vehicles grabbing more and more market share, commercial fleets could follow suit rapidly. But to ensure an efficient transition, we need a firm understanding of the total cost of ownership. Decades ago, widespread adoption of electric trucks—or “eTrucks”—was cost prohibitive. But today, the total cost of ownership could soon be on par with diesel-run trucks, due in part to increasingly cost competitive and available electric vehicle infrastructure. We predict that adoption of battery electric commercial vehicles (BECVs), especially in the light- and medium-duty segments, could surpass the car EV sales mix in some markets by 2030. And although many heavy-duty BECVs will need to charge mid-route, our analysis shows that a charging station every 80 to 100 kilometers on popular routes will suffice for early phases of adoption.

Read more: What’s sparking electric-vehicle adoption in the truck industry?

3. Cheap energy storage. The new age of electric vehicles has rapidly expanded the market for lithium and cobalt batteries—and drastically reduced their price. Lithium ion batteries now cost $200 per kilowatt-hour compared to $1,000 per kilowatt-hour just nine years ago. The expanded market for batteries has implications for more than just EVs. Industry and utilities are finding broader use for them as energy-storage solutions. With prices for batteries rapidly dropping, they are proving valuable to reduce power costs, increase reliability and resiliency, and make power systems more flexible to operate. But the wide accessibility of cheap energy storage also means utilities will need to change quickly. One way will be to move away from a variable rate structure to a fixed fee for access to the grid (like cable TV), especially as consumers begin to generate their own energy. Another will be to revise grid-planning approaches by increasing circuit-by-circuit nodal planning.

Read more: Battery storage: The next disruptive technology in the power sector

4. Long-term storage. Lithium-ion batteries are great for addressing short-term storage needs (4-5 hours) that arise frequently (20-200 times per year), but the market also wants solutions that address long-term storage needs brought on by seasonal shifts and multi-day periods when the sun does not shine and the wind does not blow. Historically, hydropower dams were one of the only approaches to manage these seasonal shifts. Otherwise, the system would need to build a whole series of plants that only run for a few days each year. Fortunately, a new series of innovators believe they are close to developing long-duration storage technologies. Google X just spun off Malta, which is storing renewable energy in molten salt. Antora Energy is trying to solve the same problem by building a low-cost thermal battery for grid-scale energy storage. And BP-backed Lightsource is adding storage to solar developments. What’s clear is that if long-term energy storage works, the price of power will decline significantly. These long-term solutions could eliminate the cost incurred through the underutilization of assets during and save money by inserting lower-cost generators such as solar and wind in the power supply.

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5. Plastic recycling. 260 million tons of plastic waste is generated across the globe every year, but only 16 percent gets recycled. The plastics industry has the opportunity to move away from a “take, make, and dispose” business model and adopt a circular model, which aims to eliminate waste across sectors while creating economic, societal, and environmental benefits. One promising circular process is pyrolysis, which uses heat and the absence of oxygen to reconvert plastic waste back into liquid feedstock. The benefits are economic as much as environmental, with a recycling-based profit pool estimated at $55 billion by the next decade.

Read more: No time to waste: What plastics recycling could offer

6. LED light efficiency. Energy-efficient LED lighting is quickly replacing traditional incandescent bulbs in American homes and is expected to achieve 84 percent market share by 2030. In 2030 alone, LED lights will reduce energy consumption by 40 percent, which adds up to $26 billion in savings adjusted to today’s energy prices. These are dramatic cost savings, but according to the Department of Energy, the U.S. can still see an additional 20 percent in energy savings with increased investment in LED lights.

7. Accessible solar power. Renewable energy continues to become cheaper and more accessible into 2019, a trend that has major implications for the nearly 1 billion people across the globe without access to electricity. While expanding the grid is part of the access solution, countries in sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, which account for a majority of the world’s unelectrified population, are exploring renewable solutions like solar energy to bring energy quickly and inexpensively to millions. Innovative financing plans can help make previously unaffordable solar home systems (SHSs) a smart solution for communities that are too far from a reliable grid connection. A recent McKinsey assessment determined that SHSs can help power 150 million households by 2020.

Read more: Bringing (solar) power to the people

8. Carbon capture and storage. Instead of just focusing on completely decarbonizing the major industrial commodities behind plastics and cement, we can also consider safely capturing the carbon emitted when these commodities are produced. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) allows industry to capture carbon at its source, compress it, and move it to a suitable permanent storage site. The technology not only has the potential to significantly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions—it can also mean more money if the CO2 can be used profitably to make other products. Several industries are already working to put captured carbon dioxide to profitable use, including manufacturers who use captured carbon to make plastics, such as polyurethane. Emerging technologies, including direct air capture, have previously been too cost prohibitive to implement at scale. But a new Stanford University study predicts that direct air capture, which grabs carbon dioxide from the air and converts it into synthetic fuel, could eventually drop from $600 per ton of carbon dioxide to less than $100.

Read more: Why commercial use could be the future of carbon capture

9. Hydrogen in the energy transition. It’s difficult to imagine how we meet ambitious global warming benchmarks without including hydrogen as a critical part of the solution. Hydrogen-led pathways to cleaning up the environment forecast hydrogen powering more than 400 million cars, 15 to 20 million buses, and more than 20 percent of passenger ships and locomotives by 2050. Although battery-powered electric vehicles exhibit overall higher fuel efficiency, hydrogen-powered fuel cells can store more energy with less weight. This makes them an ideal solution for heavy cargo vehicles that must travel long distances. Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles are already on the road in Japan, South Korea, California, and Germany—and more than 10 models are slated for release by 2020. In short, hydrogen fuel could help the world meet its goal of decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by 60 percent. Although the necessary technology exists today, the costs for producing hydrogen need to decline significantly, and the infrastructure that supports it needs a step up. Hydrogen could facilitate smarter use of other renewables by acting as a long-term transport and storage solution for renewable electricity. It could be a key enabler in the energy transition.

Read more: Hydrogen scaling up: A sustainable pathway for the global energy transition and Hydrogen: The next wave for electric vehicles?

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