The energy innovation imperative: Making clean technologies cheap for an energy hungry planet
Alex Trembath is a policy analyst for the Oakland-based Breakthrough Institute, which has the mission of “accelerating the transition to a future where all the world's inhabitants can enjoy secure, free, and prosperous and fulfilling lives on an ecologically vibrant planet.”
By Alex Trembath ’07
As a 24 year old in 2013, I join the rest of my generation in considering the great challenges facing the world this century. Chief among these are confronting the dangers of climate change and lifting billions out of withering energy poverty. The two goals are interlinked and potentially in conflict: If rising demand for energy in the developing world is met by carbon-intensive fossil fuels, then we will very likely exceed critical climate thresholds. Recognizing this conflict does not demand that we keep the global poor in energy poverty nor that we ignore the climate challenge. Indeed, since these challenges reinforce each other, the solution to both is the same: making clean energy cheap.
Currently, the world consumes about 80 billion barrels oil worth of energy per year. But this demand is intensely concentrated in the developed world. The world’s richest 1.2 billion people consume the same amount of energy as the poorest 6 billion. While the average American uses more than 6 barrels of oil annually, the global average is 1.8 barrels. Worse yet, our standards are embarrassingly low. The UN definition of “energy access” is 0.15 barrels of oil equivalent per person per year, or about 2 percent of U.S. per-capita demand. As such, 1.5 billion of the world’s citizens lack any access to electricity, while 2.5 billion rely on wood and dung as their primary energy source.
About 85 percent of all energy is supplied by traditional fossil fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – and currently releases about 30 billion tons of climate-warming carbon dioxide every year. Scientists strongly agree that to remain within our climate “safe operating space,” emissions need to drop to near-zero as soon as possible, preferably by mid-century. But global energy demand, fueled mostly by growth in developing countries like China and India, is projected to at least double by 2050 and quadruple by 2100. If all the world’s citizens in 2100 consume like Europeans do today, global energy demand will reach over 350 billion barrels of oil per year. As energy demand goes up, it takes global carbon emissions with it.
Once we acknowledge the scale of these challenges, we arrive at an obvious and extremely daunting solution. We need to rapidly accelerate energy innovation to make clean energy cheap. Without zero-carbon technologies that are cheaper than coal and oil in China, we will see the vast majority of energy demand growth this century met by carbon-intensive fossil fuels.
Wind mills at the Smokey Hills Wind Farm in Kansas.
Many of our favorite low-carbon technologies – solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles, nuclear reactors – remain either too expensive, too immature, too difficult to scale or a combination of these detriments. Government support for these technologies has created fairly robust young markets in nations like the U.S., Germany and even China, but there is no good reason to believe that simply subsidizing the deployment of existing technologies will result in either the emissions reduction we need or the development of cheaper technologies. In other words, we do not have all the technologies we need to address our twin climate and energy challenges.
There are some crucial targets for innovation, including grid-scale electricity storage to balance unpredictable generation from solar and wind power; cheaper and safer nuclear reactors that turn radioactive waste into electricity; zero-carbon liquid biofuels to power cars, ships, and planes; and carbon capture technologies to reduce pollution from remaining fossil-fueled energy. One possible breakthrough involves using advanced solar technologies to produce liquid biofuels, a potentially huge improvement over natural photosynthetic energy conversion. For all promising innovations, governments can lead the charge. Just like government investments delivered technological breakthroughs such as microchips, the Internet and jet engines, public-private innovation systems can produce the innovations we need to address our climate and energy challenges.
The solar roof at the California Academy of Sciences helped this building become the largest public Platinum-rated building in the world, and also the world’s greenest museum.
The energy innovation imperative should be of particular concern to us Catholics, since care for Creation and care for the poor are central to our faith and communal identity. Three and a half million people die every year from indoor smoke inhalation, more than AIDS and malaria combined. Given the tragedy of our current system, it is no surprise that internationally renowned humanitarian Bill Gates has said that if he had only one wish for the next 50 years, he would wish for an energy technology with half the cost of fossil fuels and no carbon emissions. “This is the one with the greatest impact,” according to Gates. As Catholics seeking to address radical problems like poverty and environmental devastation, we are compelled towards radical and ambitious solutions. I can think of few better ways to live my faith than by supporting innovation to make clean energy cheap.
We will face many challenges this century, including war, terrorism, sustained poverty and inequality. Abundant and cheap clean energy is no panacea, but it does provide crucial platforms for economic development, improved public health, cleaner air, and increased community security. President Barack Obama has called energy “this generation’s greatest project.” I think we’re up to the challenge.
Alex Trembath is a policy analyst in the Energy and Climate Program at Breakthrough. He is the lead or co-author of several Breakthrough publications, and has been cited by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Financial Times and in President Obama's 2012 State of the Union. He is also co-director of Breakthrough Generation, the Breakthrough Institute's annual summer policy fellowship, which brings together some of the brightest young thinkers in the world to work together researching policy, politics, and technology.
Choose groups to clone to: