Saturday, November 22, 2014

What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change

In the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario, rapid advances in renewable energy technology bring down carbon dioxide emissions significantly. (Credit: Click to enlarge.
Across the board, we need solutions that don’t require subsidies or government regulations that penalize fossil fuel usage.  Of course, anything that makes fossil fuels more expensive, whether it’s pollution limits or an outright tax on carbon emissions, helps competing energy technologies locally.  But industry can simply move manufacturing (and emissions) somewhere else.  So rather than depend on politicians’ high ideals to drive change, it’s a safer bet to rely on businesses’ self interest:  in other words, the bottom line.

Because CO2 lingers in the atmosphere for more than a century, reducing emissions means only that less gas is being added to the existing problem. Research by James Hansen shows that reducing global CO2 levels requires both a drastic cut in emissions and some way of pulling CO2 from the atmosphere and storing it.  (Credit: Click to enlarge.
In the electricity sector, that bottom line comes down to the difference between the cost of generating electricity and its price.  In the United States alone, we’re aiming to replace about 1 terawatt of generation infrastructure over the next 40 years.  This won’t happen without a breakthrough energy technology that has a high profit margin.  Subsidies may help at first, but only private sector involvement, with eager money-making investors, will lead to rapid adoption of a new technology.  Each year’s profits must be sufficient to keep investors happy while also financing the next year’s capital investments.  With exponential growth in deployment, businesses could be replacing 30 gigawatts of installed capacity annually by 2040.

While this energy revolution is taking place, another field needs to progress as well.  As [James] Hansen has shown, if all power plants and industrial facilities switch over to zero-carbon energy sources right now, we’ll still be left with a ruinous amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It would take centuries for atmospheric levels to return to normal, which means centuries of warming and instability.  To bring levels down below the safety threshold, Hansen’s models show that we must not only cease emitting CO2 as soon as possible but also actively remove the gas from the air and store the carbon in a stable form.  Hansen suggests reforestation as a carbon sink.  We’re all for more trees, and we also exhort scientists and engineers to seek disruptive technologies in carbon storage.

Incremental improvements to existing technologies aren’t enough; we need something truly disruptive to reverse climate change.  What, then, is the energy technology that can meet the challenging cost targets?  How will we remove CO2 from the air?  We don’t have the answers.  Those technologies haven’t been invented yet.  However, we have a suggestion for how to foster innovation in the energy sector and allow for those breakthrough inventions.

Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt.  The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.

Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments?  The result could be energy innovation at Google speed.  Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects.  The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy.  These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing.  The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability.  Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.  Our society needs to fund scientists and engineers to propose and test new ideas, fail quickly, and share what they learn.  Today, the energy innovation cycle is measured in decades, in large part because so little money is spent on critical types of R&D.

Read original article at What It Would Really Take to Reverse Climate Change

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