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Myhrvold: We Need to Invent New Energy Technologies

Previously, I wrote about a new study from top U.S. climate scientist Ken Caldeira and leading tech guru Nathan Myhrvold. The study’s modeling results show how monumentally difficult it will be to limit global temperature increase because of the emissions already “baked” into the system. As a result, building out natural gas – or so-called ‘cleaner’ fuel options – to replace coal plants would have a near indistinguishable impact on global warming over the next century. As such, to realize reduced global temperatures (compared to a baseline fossil fuel future), even in the second half of this century, would instead require a “rapid and massive deployment of some mix of conservation, wind, solar, and nuclear, and possibly carbon capture and storage.” It’s a bleak, but realistic assessment of where we stand, so how does (or should) these assessments inform climate and energy policy making?

It’s clear that we need to phase out fossil fuels as quickly as possible and replace them with zero-carbon alternatives.  But the study stops short of informing us on how we can actually do so. The analysis doesn’t include cost metrics for energy technologies, instead comparing them simply by emissions efficiency. While emissions efficiency is important, ultimately cost (and performance) is the key factor to rapidly deploying clean technologies. But coming up with the policy prescriptions wasn’t the goal of the study.  It was to show the character of the results needed to mitigate climate change. Understanding as much is vital to crafting the aggressiveness of policies aimed at rapidly transition the world to clean energy.

Given this, Grist columnist Dave Roberts asked Nathan Myhrvold what the policy implications of his study’s conclusions were.  Specifically he asked do “we need to mobilize on the scale of WWII and build out clean power” or “do we need spend money on adaption and researching geoenengineering” or some mix? In other words, what mix of technology development, deployment, adaptation, and geoengineering is needed based on Myhrvold’s grim conclusions? Myhrvold’s answer was specific: we need a lot more clean technology innovation, plus some work in adaption and geoengineering:

“Some mix. We need to invent new energy technologies. As one example, we can’t store energy worth a damn at the moment. Well, with pumped hydro we can store it in a dam, but only if we are lucky with geography. Without storage, wind and solar are very difficult to fully utilize.

We need higher efficiency in solar. We need new kinds of nuclear technology (I am working on this myself). We need lower cost for all of these things. It would be nice if carbon capture and sequestration would work — unclear how well it does, since it has never been tried at scale. So there is a lot of energy invention to do.

I think we also need to investigate geoengineering. Right now, 2012 will have higher CO2 than 2011. Does anybody believe we are doing the things now so that 2013 or 2014 will be less than 2012? We are not over the hump yet, and until we are, I think that we need to understand that set of options — they may be real, they may not be, but it would be inexcusably irresponsible not to understand them. We probably also need to investigate adaptation to a warmer world.”

For those that follow ITIF’s work, this shouldn’t be new. We need an aggressive clean energy innovation strategy to make clean tech cheaper than fossil fuels and rapidly transform the energy sector. Our present climate realities dictate that we need to double-down on our efforts to spur innovation and accelerate the development of new and incremental technology advancements while concurrently supporting adaptation and resiliency efforts to extreme weather. It’s the only realistic and pragmatic solution to the potentially harmful impacts of anthropogenic climate change.

(Image: Colbert Report)

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