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A fortnightly corral of science, technology, eye-tunnelling robots, and good news. Not necessarily in that order. View this in your browser.
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The Crunch # 69


The end of our clean energy journey. Huzzah! Plus, neuromorphic computers, CBD oil, super magnets for brain imaging, gory vampire cartoons, and one of our best good news lists ever.

Four months ago you, our readers, sent us off on a quest to figure out what's happening with the global clean energy revolution. We were quite pleased. We thought it would be a nice way to learn something new. A fun, nerdy little project we could do on the side while life carried on. We figured the whole thing would be done and dusted in a few weeks. 

We were fools.

We've learned a lesson. Don't ever trust your readers.

We've ended up writing a bloody thesis.

Turns out that trying to figure out the global energy system - one of the most complicated things in existence, a world spanning, tangled knot of pipes, plugs and pylons - is a lot harder than we ever anticipated. It's taken us four months, hundreds of hours of research and writing and some pretty dark moments at 2am on a Tuesday morning, to get this thing across the line. 

It's also been an amazing experience. We've learned so much. For the first time ever we feel like we truly understand the potential of clean energy to revolutionise almost every aspect of modern life. We also have a newfound appreciation for just how high the stakes are. If we get it right, everything changes. If we get it wrong, we burn. We're calling it the Homo Electric series, a three part investigation into the largest technological challenge in our species' history.

Homo Electric, Part 1: The Trillion Dollar Time Trial
This is the bit where we make sense of the whole energy situation, outline the challenge, and show you how high the stakes are. If you like this bit, you'll like the rest.

Homo Electric, Part 2: How to Make Electricity Great Again
We dive into the extraordinary things happening with wind, solar, batteries all over the world, and dissect the death throes of the coal industry. This one's the most fun. 

Homo Electric Part 3: The Sum of Our Choices
The hardest to write, and also the most rewarding. A comprehensive look at electric vehicles, industry, the modern grid, and why ultimately, why the clean energy revolution is up to us.

Be warned. It's a commitment, and we know it's not for everyone. But if you're willing to take 2 hours out of your life, sit down at home with a cup of tea and put on some nice background music, and dive in, you will learn something new. Think of it like a written documentary, the best snapshot of what's going on in clean energy today that it's possible to get right now, anywhere on the internet. We've poured our heart and soul into this, and it's really good. We promise. 

If you're looking for a taste, we've included an excerpt from Part 3 below that we think pretty much sums up where we got to in the end. Thanks so much to everyone who's written in, commented on the piece, supported us along the way, donated via Patreon, and made it possible. It's been epic.

PS. we're never trusting our readers again. 

Oh, and new subscribers - if you're here for good news, and not all this clean energy malarkey, scroll further down, you'll find it all below. 

... we started this story with the idea that the clean energy transition is the greatest technological challenge in human history. That is still true. We’ve never done anything like it before. Forget trips to Mars or cures for cancer. It doesn’t come bigger than this. And yet, the dirty secret is that the technical side of things isn’t the hardest part.

We’re clever apes, with billions of neurons and centuries of knowledge and progress to draw on. We stand on the shoulders of a lot of giants, and we’ve got the ability to reach dazzling new heights. The clean energy transition is being worked on by millions of people around the globe, and there’s a dazzling array of cost effective solutions to every part of the puzzle if you know where to look. The first half of the Trillion Dollar Time Trial, our quest to make electricity great again, has already been solved, technologically speaking, and we are furiously working on making the second half possible too. That part of this story is actually overwhelmingly positive. We’re cycling the fanciest contraption ever invented and the dedication pouring into its continual improvement is inspiring.

Take a moment then, to marvel at the clever apes, who figured out a way to replace black rocks and dinosaur juice with burning monuments of molten salt in our deserts and gleaming panels of glass in our cities. Stop, for a second and admire the towering windmills that we’ve dragged into our oceans, to harness the power of gales. The story of the clean energy transition is one of human collaboration and ingenuity on an epic scale, a story about our quest to find new minerals in the earth’s crust to bake into energy storing devices, and the alchemy that turns the universe’s most abundant gases into fuel for our flying machines and our wheeled carriages of wonder and light.

The clean energy transition isn’t a scientific challenge any more either. The scientists have done their bit, and will continue to do so for decades, documenting the change, doing the research, giving us better predictive capabilities. It’s science that let us know the damage we were doing, and science that’s given us answers for a long time now about where we’re headed. We’re the first generation in history to truly understand that we’re driving off a cliff, and also the last generation that’s going to be able to do something about it.

It’s not a financial issue. We have the money. In fact, there is a real risk of underinvestment across almost all energy technologies — and it’s not due to a lack of capital. Global markets are awash with capital. As long as there is long-term certainty that will allow these systems to participate in the market, the financing will be there to help spread that risk. Paris was the signal to the market that low-carbon business models, technologies and practices will be the norm in every industry in the next three decades. Those low-carbon systems are in high demand around the world — like, tens of trillions of dollars-worth of demand — and meeting that demand is by far the greatest economic opportunity in a generation.

The cheering crowds that line the roads aren’t a problem. Globally, support for climate change policies are overwhelming. From the beaches of Vanuatu to the docks of Copenhagen, from the cities to the countryside, across every generation, race, gender, class and religion, the desire to do something is palpable. There is almost no other global issue that brings humanity together more effectively than climate change. Research consultancy Edelman for example, surveyed a whopping 26,000 people across 13 countries in July, ensuring that at least 2,000 demographically representative respondents were reached per country. The main question on the survey was “How important do you think it is to create a world fully powered by renewable energy?"

82% of respondents deemed that goal important.

The problem isn’t technology, or science, or money, or public support....

carry on reading

Good news you probably didn't hear about 


The United States is on track to set a new record for coal plant closures this year, with 22 plants in 14 states totalling 15.4GW of capacity going dark. #MAGA. Clean Technica

Spain will shut down most of its coalmines by the end of this year, after the government agreed to early retirement for miners, re-skilling and environmental restoration. Guardian

In the last two decades, female genital mutilation has fallen from 57.7% to 14.1% in north Africa, from 73.6% to 25.4% in west Africa, and from 71.4% to 8% in east Africa. Guardian

Nepal has become the 54th country in the world, and the first country in South Asia, to pass a law banning corporal punishment for children. End Corporal Punishment

According to a new report by UNICEF, Bangladesh has reduced its child mortality rate by 78% since 1990, the largest reduction by any country in the world. Kinder-World

The Portuguese parliament has just passed a new law, approved with support of left-wing and right-wing lawmakers, banning the use of wild animals in circuses by 2024. Phys.org

The United Nations says that the ozone hole will be fully healed over the Arctic and the northern hemisphere by the 2030s, and in the rest of the world by 2060. Gizmodo 

The European Parliament has passed a full ban on single-use plastics, estimated to make up over 70% of marine litter. It will come into effect in 2021. Independent

250 of the world's major brands, including Coca Cola, Kellogs and Nestle, have agreed that 100% of their plastic packaging will be reused, recycled or composted by 2025. BBC

$10 billion (the largest amount ever for ocean conservation) has just been committed in Bali for the protection of 14 million square kilometres of the world’s oceans. MongaBay

The Kofan people of Sinangoe, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, have won a landmark legal battle to protect the headwaters of the Aguarico River, nullifying 52 mining concessions and freeing up more than 32, 000 hectares of primary rainforest. Amazon Frontlines

And last but not least, regular readers know we try as hard as we can to keep our heads above the fray, but we can't help ourselves this time around. One of the big winners in the recent US midterms? SCIENCE. Seven new members of Congress have STEM or medical backgrounds and at least six have kept their seats. So good. NBC

Indistinguishable from magic


A 40,000 year old painting of a banteng, a South Asian wild cow, has been discovered in a remote cave in Borneo. It's the oldest artistic depiction of an animal ever discovered. BBC

Self driving vans are now being used in downtown Arlington, Texas to ferry people between the city's landmarks, restaurants and sporting events. Washington Post

A Chinese-German team has 3D printed nanoscale, spiral-shaped robots, powered by magnetic fields, that can swim through the vitreous humor of a human eye. Science Mag

In Manchester, the world’s largest neuromorphic computer, designed to work like a brain, has received its one-millionth processor and been switched on for the first time. 

A new class of MRIs with 10.5-tesla magnets (three times the weight of a Boeing 737) can now show how information flows between neurons in a live human brain. Nature

Three people with chronic paraplegia have had their mobility restored via a wireless implant on their spinal cord that uses electrical stimulation. Science Daily

Roboticists in California have created micro-drones with winches that can lift 40 times their own weight and collaborate with other drones to open doors. The Verge

The information superhighway is still awesome


The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. You remember how it starts with a school bell, and the kids talking during the interludes? Well here's what those kids are doing 20 years later. NYT

Can we please get an Amen for this great article by Nat Alieson, who really dislikes @GaryVee and the entire genre of 'struggle porn' so beloved of influencers. Medium

Our favourite grumpy old druid, on form. Warren Ellis has been working on Season 2 of Castlevania, and it's out now on Netflix. Perfect for all your gory vampire fantasy needs.

What the hell is CBD and why is everyone talking about it? A nicely balanced round up here on the benefits of the cannabis derivative, and how it's become a new wonder drug. NYT

We usually try avoid Elon Musk clickbait, but we'll make an exception this time. Looks like he's back on track. Check out his recent interview with Kara Swisher. ReCode

China is making a film adaptation of Cixin Liu's Wandering Earth, and holy hell it looks amazing. It's coming out in February 2019. First global Chinese blockbuster? Youtube

Ashlee Clark Thompson grew up learning she would be targeted when she shopped, because of implicit bias... until the day she walked into a store with no humans. CNet

Meanwhile, back at FC HQ


After months of lame excuses, we've managed to get off our sorry asses and send out all the Patreon swag to our subscribers. All of you should have received your stuff by now, if you haven't drop us a line and we'll make sure it hasn't gone astray. Sorry it took nine months. We kinda suck. Turns out that running a small mail order operation, while researching and writing this newsletter and keeping on top of the speaking gigs that actually pay our bills is trickier than we anticipated. No excuses. We'll be a lot better on this going forward. 

We also want to start reminding everyone that our annual 99 Reasons list is coming up in early December (here are the 2017 and the 2016 versions). We'll be dropping that in The Crunch # 71. That's not the next issue, but the one after that. So please keep your eyes peeled, and bookmark your diaries and all that jazz. 

And finally... if anyone comes across any great science and tech charities that you think could do with a little helping hand, send through your suggestions. We'd love to send them some money! 

Thanks as always for tuning in, and if you like what you're reading you should almost definitely send us some money so we can give it away, or at least recommend this newsletter to someone else.

Much love,

Gus and Tane


Thank you for reading. You can support us on Patreon (we'll give your money away better than you can). If it's your first time, you can subscribe over here. There's an archive of all the back issues over here. Find us on Twitter as @future_crunch and on Facebook as futurecrunch.
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