Consumers are increasingly concerned about climate change, and many state regulators have set ambitious renewable energy goals for utilities. The planet’s temperature has been rising for decades, and even the Paris Climate Agreement targets a maximum 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit temperature rise in this century. However, some believe that cutting planet-warming emissions is not enough to stave off disaster. Thus, enters geoengineering.

Geoengineering is “the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change,” according to the University of Oxford. This is generally accomplished one of two ways:

  1. Sucking carbon dioxide out of the sky, aka “carbon removal” or “direct air capture,” so the atmosphere will trap less heat.
  2. Reflecting more sunlight away from the planet so less heat is absorbed in the first place.

The question remains: Do we utilize geoengineering to offset the negative effects of climate change? Read on to learn more about the different categories of geoengineering, as well as the implications of these environmental interventions.

Direct Air Capture

The oceans absorb a lot of CO2. David Keith, a Harvard University physicist, has developed a patented “negative emissions technology” using chemistry to remove carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. In 1995, British researchers suggested fertilizing the oceans with iron to stimulate the growth of CO2-absorbing algae. Phytoplankton algae would soak up CO2 from the water and cause more to be absorbed from the atmosphere. There have been over a dozen major iron-fertilization experiments in the open ocean since 1990.

Reflecting Sunlight

Volcano eruptions have cooled the earth slightly in the past. Concern over “nuclear winter” had scientists studying solar geoengineering back in the 1940s and 1950s. More modern ideas include setting up sun shields in space and floating billions of white objects on the oceans to reflect sunlight.

Dispersing microscopic particles (typically sulphates) into the stratosphere by airplanes to scatter sunlight (4,000 to 10,000 flights a year) was an idea first proposed in 1965. To protect the arctic ice cap, scientists have conceived the idea of deploying tall ships to pump salt particles from the ocean into polar clouds.

Recent attempts at geoengineering

Russian scientists conducted a “stratospheric injection” experiment in 2009 and Harvard University and University of Washington scientists are separately planning their own similar experiments soon. There is a direct air capture (DAC) facility in Zurich, developed by the Swiss company Climeworks, that removes CO2 from the atmosphere using a sorbent filter. Waste heat from a local waste incineration plant drives the process.

Carbon Engineering, a Bill Gates-backed company, has been testing a liquid potassium carbonate sorbent DAC technology since 2015. Coca-Cola aims to use Global Thermostat’s DAC to source CO2 for its carbonated beverages.

A Center for Negative Carbon Emissions was founded in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment at Arizona State University in 2014. Many utilities see Carbon Capture and Storage (CSS) as an opportunity to significantly lower emissions from carbon intensive generation assets. CSS is a proven technology, though not yet adopted at scale.

Issues and concerns with geoengineering

Possible downsides of geoengineering include damaging the protective ozone layer, altering global rainfall patterns, reducing crop growth and acidifying the oceans. The effects that algae blooms could have on the marine food web is unknown.

Other implementation issues to consider include:

  • Global (planet-scale) or local (ice sheets) operations?
  • Who would be in charge of such planetary endeavors?
  • How do you settle on a single global average temperature?
  • Is geoengineering playing “God”?
  • Scaling up experiments is risky. Can we go back if results are unacceptable?
  • Is the geoengineering risk greater than negative climate change effects?
  • Could a focus on geoengineering delay direct greenhouse gas emissions reductions?

Some say that we have been unintentionally geoengineering our climate for more than a century, so why not intentionally geoengineer it now? Others argue that blithely dumping another 40 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year is akin to government deficit spending. The attitude is, “Let future generations deal with it.”

Solar geoengineering is attractive because it is relatively inexpensive, works immediately and doesn’t require global cooperation for local projects. Alternatively, restoring forests, an effective “natural” climate solution, may be the path to follow. The World Resources Institute estimates that a degraded forest area twice the size of Canada is available for reforestation globally.

With the numerous options available today, it is apparent that more research needs to be done to determine if geoengineering is the right solution to combat climate change.

With the rise of renewable energy, the way that energy is distributed is changing. The traditional top-down method of energy distribution, from the utility to the customer, doesn’t always apply to energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources — some of which may be generated by customers themselves.

In these cases, where power flow is actually bidirectional, virtual power plants (VPPs) are becoming a more common distribution option.

What is a virtual power plant?

A virtual power plant is a network of decentralized generation sources, such as wind farms, solar arrays and combined heat and power units, that work in coordination with storage systems and flexible energy consumers.

While VPPs may take a variety of different forms, they all operate with one goal: to relieve demand on the grid. They do this by distributing the power generated by individual units during peak hours.

How does a virtual power plant work?

Virtual power plant participants are connected to a central control system that can boost or decrease energy output in real time. VPPs can provide demand response automatically, responding immediately to price signals, shifting commercial and residential loads, or aggregating other distributed energy resources.

All participants are monitored and controlled with a single system, which makes it easy to initiate these distribution adjustments. The system can also show real-time data consumption of each distributed energy resource (DER) on the grid.

VPPs are not the same as a microgrid, which has a confined boundary and can disconnect from the larger grid to create a power island. VPPs can cover much wider geography and can grow or shrink depending upon real-time market conditions.

The goal of a virtual power plant

Overall, the purpose of a virtual power plant is to connect and network DERs, demand response programs and storage systems in order to monitor, forecast, optimize and distribute their generation or consumption. Including these various DERs in one VPP means the data can be forecasted and analyzed as though it was a single power plant.

The VPP also allows energy utilities to separate the DERs by type and location so they can segment customers. By using segmentation to their advantage, energy utilities can determine what kind of value the VPPs bring to customers.

Energy utilities and virtual power plants

Virtual power plants allow energy utilities to better assess and correct demand response issues. For example, Green Mountain Power in Vermont created a VPP with 500 batteries in homes to address peak demand, yielding $500,000 in savings in one one-hour peak demand period.

In some states, there is growing conflict between energy utilities and third party DERs over who has “control” over the VPPs. For example, PPL Corporation in Pennsylvania is currently in a heated debate against a distributed resource aggregation service business, Sunrun, regarding management of the DERs and the regulations put upon solar customers. In other areas, such as California, New England and New York, “third-party companies have signed bilateral contracts with utilities whereby the company is in the driver’s seat for DER management and the utility is a customer instead of a competitor.” These agreements naturally take away the debate and competition for control.

Despite the growing popularity of virtual power plants, these conflicts demonstrate the need for uniform regulations regarding ownership. Still, the cost savings and environmental benefits for both energy utilities and customers prove VPPs will be useful as energy distribution continues to evolve. In addition, they help make renewable energy more readily available on the grid and provide solutions to demand response efforts.

The future of virtual power plants may be murky as the operations continue to evolve, but one thing is clear: this is the future of energy distribution.

Learn how a digital marketing strategy from Questline Digital can help your energy utility promote the benefits of demand response programs.

If it feels like you’re being bombarded with advertisements, well, that’s because you are. The average consumer is exposed to upwards of 5,000 ads every day … and growing. You’re probably pretty good at tuning out most of those messages. Of course, your customers are good at tuning out messages, too.

That’s why content marketing can be so effective. With this approach, you build long-term satisfaction by providing customers with information that actually interests them — instead of bombarding them with ads they don’t care about.

Do your messages cut through the clutter to reach customers? Here are three great content marketing ideas from other industries that energy utilities can apply to their own content strategy.


Screen capture of Makeup-dot-com content marketing example

At first glance, looks like it’s produced by a glossy fashion magazine. The robust website is filled with makeup product reviews, how-to’s, expert tips and helpful videos.

In fact, the site is owned by cosmetics giant L’Oreal. Yet there’s one thing you won’t find on — blatant sales messages. Ads would be a turnoff and easy to tune out. Instead, L’Oreal attracts customers by offering advice and information that interests them. And, not coincidentally, it helps them use more makeup.

What utilities can do: Help customers, don’t sell to them. Provide content that helps them take control of their energy use, such as efficiency tips or smart home technology advice. When they’re ready, these informed customers will be more open to your program promotions or other marketing messages.

2. Learn from Experience

Screen shot of Farmers Insurance content marketing example

Farmers Insurance is known for their quirky TV commercials featuring actor J.K. Simmons reenacting actual, elaborate mishaps. Farmers’ content hub, Learn from Experience, plays off this theme with entertaining and useful articles drawn from real-life examples.

But this content isn’t about insurance. Instead, it’s about all the things that people need to insure, from cars and homes to life-changing events like weddings and births.

What utilities can do: Energy is critical to customers’ daily lives. Yet their questions and interests may not always be specific to energy use. Look for energy-adjacent topics to build content around. For example, instead of focusing on the energy-saving benefits of a smart thermostat, show customers how the technology also makes their lives more comfortable and convenient.

3. I Love You, Colonel Sanders!

Screen shot of KFC content marketing game I Love You Colonel Sanders

An anime-style dating simulator that’s finger-licking good? I Love You, Colonel Sanders! puts gamers in the role of a culinary student who wants to date their classmate, Colonel Sanders. If it works out, he might even ask you to be his business partner and open a chain of chicken joints.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with selling fast food, the answer is, not much. And yet, the free video game — created by Kentucky Fried Chicken and distributed on the Steam online game platform — has received more than 8,000 positive reviews and generated lots of buzz. In other words, KFC built strong connections around a memorable interactive experience and got customers talking about the brand.

What utilities can do: Make it fun! Educational content doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, interactive games and quizzes aren’t just more engaging, they’re more memorable as well. Customers are much more likely to absorb and retain information when it’s presented as entertaining content.

Every day, as more digital clutter invades our lives, it gets harder to reach customers with truly important messages. By learning from these content marketing ideas and developing your own strategy, your energy utility doesn’t need to push its messages on customers. Instead, customers will come to you to seek out information and advice that interests them.

Looking for new ideas to power your utility’s content strategy? Find out how Questline Digital can help.