Top Environmental Solutions of the 2010s: Where Are They Now?

By Mary Mazzoni

The SunShot initiative: Driving down the cost of solar energy

Electricity sourced from solar cost about 36 cents per kilowatt-hour in 2010, compared to less than 15 cents for energy produced from fossil fuels. Launched in 2011, the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative — inspired by President John F. Kennedy and his legendary Moonshot program — aimed to leverage public and private investment to dramatically drive down the cost of solar within a decade. 

So, what happened? Thanks to SunShot and similar efforts around the world, the International Energy Agency deemed solar the “cheapest electricity in history” in 2020. On average, utility-scale solar now costs less than 5 cents per kilowatt-hour worldwide. Still, a “flood into the mass market” is a stretch — solar photovoltaics account for 3.4 percent of electricity generation in the U.S. and about 4.5 percent globally — but analysts now see this decade as the tipping point. 

“Solar PV’s installed power capacity is poised to surpass that of coal by 2027, becoming the largest in the world,” according to 2023 projections from the International Energy Agency. “Cumulative solar PV capacity almost triples in our forecast, growing by almost 1,500 gigawatts over the period, exceeding natural gas by 2026 and coal by 2027.”

Edible food packaging: Water in membranes and cookie coffee cups

Student designers developed the “Ooho” water container in 2014, aiming to replace plastic bottles with an edible membrane. Soon after, Stonyfield Organic launched frozen yogurt capsules packaged in an edible outer layer made from fruit, and Seattle’s Best Coffee teamed up with KFC in the U.K. to create edible coffee cups made from cookies

So, what happened? Needless to say, edible food packaging never really caught on. The concept comes with a number of unanswered questions — namely how to ship it and store it without the outer, supposedly edible layer becoming dirty. Most now consider other alternatives like packaging reuse and refill systems to be a more viable way to reduce waste. But edible packaging innovators haven’t lost hope. The food tech company Foodberry, for example, says it has more than 20 patents for food products packaged in edible, plant-based shells — including hummus, ice cream and coffee. 

Hyperloop: Solving our transit woes with magnets and capsule cars

Elon Musk first shared his idea for a high-speed ground transport system called the Hyperloop back in 2013. The futuristic concept envisioned passengers traveling in magnet-propelled capsules at more than 750 miles per hour. Musk open-sourced the early plans, and several startups took up the mantle

So, what happened? Progress on the Hyperloop never matched the hype, but the dream lives on. The startup Hyperloop One merged with Virgin in 2017 and completed its first passenger test in Nevada in 2020. Though the two test passengers only reached speeds of 100 miles per hour (slower than some commuter trains), the company considered it a major milestone. Other companies including Hyperloop Transportation Technologies and Musk’s Boring Company also continue to pursue the technology.

Algae-based biofuel: From cars to airplanes

“Algae-based biofuel is a new energy source that has been getting a lot of attention lately,” TriplePundit contributor RP Siegel reported in 2012. “Certain types of algae contain natural oils that can be readily distilled into a vegetable oil or a number of petroleum-like products that could serve as drop-in replacements for gasoline, diesel and jet fuel.”

Airlines including United and Continental made headlines for flying with sustainable aviation fuel made from algae in 2011. As the decade wore on, stakeholders like the U.S. Departments of Energy, Agriculture and Defense started testing algae-based biodiesel for use in trucks, while consumer companies including Unilever looked to algae oil to replace petroleum-derived ingredients in personal care products.

So, what happened? Large oil firms including ExxonMobil were among the early investors in algae-based biofuel. In the years since, they’ve largely cut and run, and algae biofuels are hardly the norm. The global algae biofuel market was valued at around $5 billion in 2020, compared to more than $4 trillion for the fossil fuel sector. But investors still see the potential, particularly in aviation, and algal oils are now fairly commonplace across the personal care sector. 

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