Offshore wind turbines, Copenhagen. Flickr user C.G.P.Grey via a Creative Commons license
When you think of the future of energy, do you think of hillsides blanketed with wind turbines, cars powered by batteries instead of gas, and solar-powered office buildings?
If none of that sounds futuristic enough for you — where are the flying cars, bioengineered “living” cities fed by the sun and algae-powered lights? — that’s because it really isn’t.
The future of clean energy technology is already here, according to Dan Kammen, Jigar Shah and Joe Fargione — panelists at The Nature Conservancy’s “Future of Nature” forum on energy held Monday, May 13 in Boston. These experts — representing academia, business and conservation — agreed: The world has all the technology we need for a clean energy future. The challenge is implementing it at scales that can make a difference for controlling the global greenhouse gas emissions caused by energy production.
And we need this now more than ever. Last week, scientists measured 400ppm of CO2 in Earth’s air — a level that hasn’t existed in millions of years, before humans were around. With the global population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 and no uniformed effort to control emissions in sight, CO2 measures will likely surpass the 400ppm marker very soon.
Moderator Anthony Brooks of Boston radio station WBUR — a co-sponsor of the event — asked the panelists: Can renewable energies help make a dent in climate change while still meeting our energy needs? Here’s what they had to say.
The Future Is Now
Dan Kammen, class of 1935 distinguished professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, said we can look to California or Germany for signs of progress. California’s goal to reduce emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 is spurring new innovations. For example, every new home built in California after 2020 has to be zero net energy — but this doesn’t mean every house will have solar panels on the roof; instead home owners can get a share in a solar or wind farm. And Germany’s investment in solar technology means the country is now generating 22% of its power from renewables.
“With the sunshine of Alaska, Germany has done something no one could have predicted,” said Kammen.
What’s more, added Jigar Shah, there’s a democratization effect happening — for example, 35% of all renewable energy in Germany is owned by private people.
“It used to be just large companies investing in renewables, but now that’s switching to millions of small investors,” said Shah, a partner at Inerjys cleantech investment firm and founder of SunEdison, one of the world’s leading solar services companies.
But clean energy isn’t just about electricity, it’s also about transportation, pointed out Joe Fargione, science director for The Nature Conservancy’s North America region. One option is biofuels, but they are the least efficient way to produce energy from a land-use perspective — right now, 40% of U.S. corn crop is used for biofuels, but it meets less than 10% of fuel demand.
Instead, he favors a move toward electrification — battery-powered vehicles — which is already happening at a small scale for personal transportation and has much more potential for growth.
“If the price of batteries falls by half, it would be cost-effective for everyone to drive electric,” he said. “That may not be as far away as people think.”
And new inductive-charging technology is making electric more feasible for larger transport vehicles, such as these buses with small batteries that can be wirelessly charged via the pavement.
The final piece is energy storage — how to store excess energy to be used on low-output days. Here, too, the technology is growing rapidly, with new techniques such as pumped hydro, battery storage, compressed air and liquefied air.
The Power of You
So, if the technology is there, what’s holding us back?
This is where a little sci-fi vision is in order. Because, while we may have all the technology we need, what’s lacking is the coordination and support for deploying these technologies to their fullest. Namely, said the panelists, the federal government needs to act in favor of clean energy — from deployment of renewables to energy efficiency standards — and the general public needs to make these a priority as well.
After some political bantering and a discussion of the pros and cons of Massachusetts’ proposed offshore wind farm, moderator Brooks closed the panel with a proactive question: What concrete things can people do to support the deployment of renewables?
Each panelist offered up some hopeful ideas:
Dan Kammen: “There are a lot of things. Energy audits for homes and businesses do pay off. And if we want to tell industry we’re serious, we need to put a price on carbon. It is just good business sense to tax what we don’t want, in this case carbon pollution, and to reward what we do want, investment in a low-carbon economy.”
Jigar Shah: “Make sure everyone in your sphere of influence knows climate change is real and important. It’s so much easier to make a difference locally. If you want to stop a coal plant, go to local meetings and get involved.”
Joe Fargione: “As we’ve heard, there’s a lot of technology out there that’s not being implemented. It comes down to building the political will to support this. To stop climate change, we need to get to zero-carbon energy.”
Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Nature Conservancy.