The city of the future: net-zero technologies in action

Start-ups are tackling climate change from all angles with technologies designed to improve grid efficiency, develop new energy sources, and reduce emissions. Susanne Hauner finds out how some of these emerging technologies contribute to the net-zero effort.


o reach net-zero by 2050, we need to decarbonise every aspect of life. We need more efficient power generation and distribution, more sustainable buildings, transport systems and industrial processes. And in addition to cutting new emissions, we also need to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

At the Net Zero Festival hosted by Business Green in September, start-ups showcased their technologies designed to support this transition to net zero. From smarter renewable energy distribution to circular battery supply chains and jet fuel made from waste, we take a look at some of the most promising ideas.

Enabling distributed variable generation

UK-based Electron is trying to improve renewable power distribution with a marketplace platform designed to optimise localised energy trading. 

“The challenge isn't in generating clean power,” said Electron CEO Jo-Jo Hubbard at the event. “The challenge is in optimising the consumption of that clean power. That means consuming it at the right time and in the right place, and that is not happening today.”

In Scotland, for instance, wind power generation often exceeds the network's capacity to export it to where the demand is, meaning power is being wasted. As Hubbard explained, “the UK, last year, turned off over £500m pounds of wind generation nationally, and this is forecast to reach about £2.5bn in the next few years if we don't find a solution”. 

Current power markets were not set up to optimise distributed variable generation. To tackle this problem, the ElectronConnect platform allows utilities to create and optimise local marketplaces and manage local resources and network capacity more efficiently.

Electron was part of Project TraDER, a two-year local flexibility market trial that demonstrated flexible energy trading, on a neutral market platform, between renewable assets, local users and local and national energy markets. 

“This is one of those win-win solutions because renewable generation increases its export and revenue, and customers get lower-cost power, which incentivises them to switch to more electrical devices,” Hubbard said of this approach. “Network companies get to use their assets more effectively and society gets more clean power consumption.

“Net zero systems means switching from top-down, centrally managed systems to bottom-up, transactionally optimised markets.”

On-site solar heat and power

On a mission to ‘decarbonise heat’, Naked Energy has developed Virtu, a hybrid solar collector combining solar photovoltaic (PV) and solar thermal to produce heat and power for on-site consumption.

Billed as ‘the world's highest energy density solar technology’, the system is designed for use in buildings and applications with a high heat consumption, such as hotels, hospitals, care homes, manufacturing plants, and bottling and sterilisation facilities.

“Unless we decarbonise heat, we won't reach net-zero,” said Naked Energy co-founder Christophe Williams. “We're doing very well with electricity, in terms of decarbonising our power system, but heat as a distributed energy source is very difficult to tackle.”

Naked Energy promises higher energy density compared to traditional solar PV panels as its system requires less space to generate the same output. “Compared to normal technologies, say standard solar PV, we can produce up to three and a half times the carbon savings, and also deliver 50% better return on investment for a given area,” Williams said.

The company is currently integrating its technology on ‘an iconic London building’ as part of a project which will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Making the most of buses and batteries

Zenobē specialises in battery storage for transport and grid applications. The company supports electric bus fleets across the UK, New Zealand and Australia and operates 300MW of grid-scale energy storage capacity.

“We're really seeing energy and transport as part of the same ecosystem,” said Steven Meersman, founder and director of Zenobē. “We think we can make the ecologically sustainable solution also financially sustainable by bringing these two networks closer together.”

The company approaches this by supporting the design and the engineering of large charging infrastructure and battery projects, as well as through its own software and grid storage capability.

Meersman gave an example: “We've got buses running in London and in Glasgow where we're providing the funding, but more importantly, our software takes a 24/7 snapshot of what's happening with vehicles so we can work with drivers and vehicle OEMs to further reduce the energy these buses consume.”

When the batteries are retired from powering buses, Zenobē reuses them in stationary aggregation, giving them a second life in grid storage with the aim of creating a circular supply chain rooted in delivering local benefits.

Scaling up carbon capture

Carbon Engineering, a Canadian company working to commercialise carbon capture technology, plans to build Europe’s first commercial direct air capture plant.

“The climate science is very clear: to limit global warming to 1.5°C, we must reduce emissions at source, but we also need to remove billions of tonnes of CO2 from atmosphere,” said Stuart Gregg, UK and Ireland country manager at Carbon Engineering.

After developing and proving its technology with pilot plants using established equipment from other sectors, the company is now scaling up. It is collaborating with Storrega in northeast Scotland to build Europe's first commercially viable direct air capture with underground sequestration (DACS) plant.

Due to come online by 2026, the plant will have the capacity to remove one megaton of CO2 per year from the atmosphere, roughly the same as 40 million trees.

“The UK has a unique advantage that could put us ahead of the global pack, such as offshore capability, a skilled workforce, proven infrastructure and geological storage capacity,” Gregg said. “So, the UK has all attributes to become a global leader in DACS technology.”

Cleaner jet fuel from waste

While small aircraft can be powered by batteries or hydrogen for short flights, only liquid fuels currently supply the high power and energy density needed for medium and long-haul flights. These flights make up more than two thirds of aviation’s global CO2 emissions.

To help reduce aviation emissions, UK-based Velocys produces sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) from household and commercial waste. Waste is broken down into carbon and converted to hydrocarbons using a process known as Fischer-Tropsch synthesis.

The fuel is compatible with planes currently in operation, explained Neville Hargreaves, vice-president for waste to fuels at Velocys. “It's sustainable because the feedstock is waste. Instead of taking new fossil carbon out of the ground, we're using carbon that would have been incinerated releasing CO2 if we didn't take it. Compared with normal jet fuel, it'll deliver a net CO2 saving of at least 70%.”

The company has partnered with British Airways to develop what could become the UK’s first waste to jet fuel facility, Altalto, by the mid-2020s. “Altalto will take more than half a million tonnes a year of household and commercial waste, otherwise destined for landfill or incineration, and make up to 80 million litres of cleaner burning SAF,” Hargreaves said.