No silver bullets

January 26, 2015

Wilson da Silva looks at some innovative ideas in energy storage.

NOT ENOUGH, AND TOO much: that’s the core problem we face globally when it comes to energy and climate change. Demand for energy is booming: it’s forecast to rise 56% by 2040 from 2010 levels. More than 85% of this increase will come from countries outside the club of rich nations, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Energy prices are rising, and there’s a race on to drill oil and gas fields, dig coal mines and build power plants. It’ll get even more frenzied beyond 2040 as India, Brazil and China ride the wealth curve higher.
But today, too much energy – 87% – comes from fossil fuels, energy sources that exacerbate climate change. Despite notable efforts to reduce emissions, fossil fuels will remain the dominant energy source: by 2040 renewables – like hydro, wind, solar and biomass – are forecast to contribute 15% to our coming needs, just four points up from 2010.
What to do? Ignoring the human contribution to climate change is one way to react, but reality has a habit of catching up with you: if 97% of peer-reviewed science says industrial activity is the cause, and that economically catastrophic changes will result, it’s a brave soul who bets otherwise. As astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently quipped, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it”.
The problem with greenhouse gases is that they stay in the atmosphere for decades, even centuries, with new tonnage piling up on previous years’. And with demand booming, global policymakers are worried enough to consider the seemingly unthinkable: a shift away from fossil fuels entirely.
“To combat climate change, reducing emissions will simply not be enough – we need to eliminate them altogether,” said Ángel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, when handing down a new report in October 2013. “We need to achieve zero emissions from fossil fuel sources by the second half of the century.”
That’s a hell of a challenge.
In innovation terms, there are two ways forward: to boost efficiency and extract more energy from fossil fuels, thereby getting more bang per tonne of greenhouse gas emitted; or to commercialise zero-emission technologies.
It’s the latter where innovation is stuck in the narrow band of wind and solar, and advocates of these technologies do everyone a disservice by pretending they can meet all demand. In energy, there are no silver bullets.
In Canada recently, a brave band of scientists, engineers and policy specialists tackled this head-on. Could the world really move away from fossil fuels this century; would such a shift be possible, much less achievable? The answer entails planning technology pathways over a 60-year time-scale, and developing promising technologies.
“We hoped we would emerge with pragmatic next steps for a global energy transition,” says Jatin Nathwani, an engineering professor and energy specialist at Canada’s University of Waterloo, one of the scientific advisors.
The resulting report, Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030, does just that.

It proposes five technological pathways: develop large-scale electricity storage for wind and solar plants, removing the problem of intermittent supply; explore enhanced geothermal deep drilling by creating 10 commercial-scale, 50 megawatt demonstration projects worldwide, run as public-private partnerships, which freely share knowledge (reducing the technical and financial risks for commercial players); accelerate and deploy organic photovoltaic technologies for the 1.5 billion people who live in off-grid communities; and pursue sustained research of advanced nuclear reactor designs – such as the Integral Fast Reactor – which offer inherent safety and allow most high-level radioactive waste to be ‘burned’ as energy is generated.

And finally, ‘smart urbanisation’: roll out 2000 new and existing ICT technologies – plus the larger-scale use of smart grids and superconductors for transmission and distribution in dense urban settings – to make cities more efficient and reduce emissions.
Where would the money come from? One source is suggested by the same OECD report: abandon the tax breaks OECD countries give to oil and gas producers, which are worth between US$55 billion and US$90 billion a year.

WilsondaSilvaWilson da Silva is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of COSMOS science magazine, and he chaired the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 meeting in Canada.

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