The Promise and Peril of Hunting for Clean Energy Breakthroughs

December 3, 2015 | 11:42 am
Peter O'Connor
Former contributor

On Sunday, Bill Gates announced the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. Reading just the headlines, I was a little skeptical. “Breakthrough” sometimes calls to mind the inaccurate narrative that “We need something different, because improvements to the clean energy technologies we have today won’t be enough.” I’ve read variations of this claim in the New York Times and in scientific journals. Gates does not embrace this extreme position, and takes a more realistic approach.

I’m a fan of technological breakthroughs. I think they’re awesome. For that matter, so are innovative solutions in finance or policy. But the hope of a clean energy breakthrough in the future does not give a reason to delay action nor to dismiss the breakthroughs we’ve already made.

Seeking a silver bullet

A 2002 paper evaluated the potential of each individual clean energy technology to meet 100% of world energy consumption by itself. The authors considered existing technologies unsatisfactory, and suggested a revolutionary new technology was needed (such as space-based solar power). Wind was dismissed simply by saying “Wind power is often available only from remote or offshore locations.” Solar was dismissed by noting the relatively small volume shipped from 1982 to 1998. The paper was not totally dismissive of the potential of solar energy. It noted “A massive (but not insurmountable) scale-up is required” in order for solar alone to provide 100% of the clean energy needed. Although we have in fact scaled solar production up tremendously, I think it would be a mistake to expect solar, or any technology, to be the “silver bullet” that the paper seeks.

In contrast, a landmark 2004 paper took a portfolio approach, illustrating how a combination of existing technologies could solve the climate problem.

Pacala and Socolow (2004) illustrating how a combination of existing technologies can stabilize emissions.

Pacala and Socolow (2004) illustrating how a combination of existing technologies can stabilize emissions through 2050.

Act now

My view, shaped by that 2004 Pacala and Socolow paper, the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, a 2010 analysis by William Nordhaus, and many other analyses, is that we can address climate change at a net economic benefit, and that we don’t need to wait for a miraculous new option.

Pacala and Socolow demonstrate that existing technology can stabilize the climate. Stern and Nordhaus, while they have their disagreements, both show that limiting greenhouse gas emissions is more economically advantageous than allowing climate change to proceed unabated. This position is bolstered by studies that quantify the economic damages from fossil fuels, including climate change and other pollution costs.

We can act now on climate and benefit economically. Existing technologies will reduce their costs through economies of scale and “learning by doing.” Revolutionary breakthrough technologies might eventually offer greater benefits. That’s a far cry from saying that what we have isn’t good enough. We need to continue accelerating deployment of existing technologies, and improving them, while devoting some (but not most) of our clean energy investment resources to more speculative R&D efforts.

We don’t know whether presently nonviable energy technologies like fusion will ever succeed, how long they will take, how much they will cost, or what their potential contribution will be. So we can’t put all of our eggs in that basket.

Deployment works

Deployment of existing technologies in the U.S. and elsewhere has brought the cost of solar power down dramatically, especially since 2009.

The solar experience shows that the distinction between “incremental improvement” and “breakthrough” is not hard and fast. We saw tremendous cost reductions from technological advances in manufacturing, increased deployment from financing innovations, and reduced interconnection times from policy improvements. Yet the dominant technology is still silicon-based photovoltaics, introduced over sixty years ago by Bell Labs.

Existing technologies have the potential for breakthroughs. Solar is not the only example.

The internal combustion automobile, invented by Karl Benz in 1886, saw its most significant innovation a quarter-century later at Henry Ford’s Highland Park complex. Frank Geels observes that Ford and his engineers “did not pioneer mass production from scratch. Rather, their innovation consisted of combining and further developing elements and trends that had already been pioneered previously.” If we are looking for breakthroughs in clean energy, we should keep our eyes open for innovations from other sectors that might be helpful.

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition

So what does Bill Gates have to say?

  • He discusses a few interesting areas of clean energy research. These are illustrative, not exhaustive, and include solar chemical energy conversion, flow batteries, and solar paint.
  • He notes, “The work needs to start immediately. The history of energy transitions is clear: It takes years to develop new sources of energy, and decades to make them a significant part of our energy mix.” This is familiar ground for me. Energy transitions do take a long time, although the transitions within a given niche are more rapid. Fortunately, we are well along the path, having laid much of the groundwork. We are not starting from zero on photovoltaics or wind power—or even on the more speculative options like organic solar cells, carbon sequestration, or cellulosic ethanol (all of which have decades of research behind them).
  • Gates observes, “If we are going to take full advantage of the benefits of solar PV, wind, and batteries… we need innovative ways to stitch them together into a reliable, affordable system.” One aspect of this “stitching,” using flexible loads to match variable supply, is the subject of my current research. The key innovations needed may be found in offices rather than laboratories; the technology already exists. But we need a way to monetize the benefits provided by storage and by flexible loads. If you are providing a valuable service, you should be paid for it. That isn’t always the case in the electricity sector, for a variety of regulatory reasons, but there are some exciting new developments that may change this situation.
  • Importantly, Gates notes, “These technologies [wind and photovoltaics] could be one path to a zero-carbon future, but they are not the only one. Given the scale of this challenge, we should be exploring all potential avenues.” I agree. The solar-to-liquid-fuel research that Gates discusses sounds particularly exciting. And he outlines a way to explore these options without dismissing the potential of the technologies that we have now.