20 Technologies to Save the Climate: Are Breakthroughs Mandatory or Icing on the Cake?

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by: Michael Hoexter

(With this post I’m skipping a little ahead of my series on the Renewable Electron Economy but policy debates are starting to heat up as we head into the election year.)

A recent controversy has sprung up around the criticisms of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by a group of fairly well-known analysts, who say the IPCC has severely underestimated the need for heavy investment in basic technology research to solve the climate crisis. In a piece called “Dangerous Assumptions” written for Nature magazine’s Commentary section, Roger Pielke Jr, Tom Wigley and Christopher Green say that “enormous advances in energy technology” will be needed to stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere at somewhere near the target 450 ppm or below. This contradicts assertions by the Nobel Prize winning body of climate scientists that in fact we already have or soon will have the technology we need to reduce our carbon emissions to acceptable levels. Al Gore, who is due to expand upon his ideas for global warming solutions in upcoming months, has reiterated recently that we already have the technology that we need to meet the climate challenge.

In response to the Nature piece, Joe Romm, on his blog, Climate Progress, has written that Pielke Jr et al. are an example of a species that he calls “delayer-1000s” by which he means that these are people who would allow carbon dioxide concentrations to slide up to 1000 ppm or more than double current levels. Romm, a former Deputy Sec’y of Energy in the Clinton Administration, whose current mission is to popularize climate science and solutions to climate change is not averse to painting a vivid picture of what might happen under various climate scenarios. One would expect no less from the author of “Hell and High Water”, a view of what climate change has in store for us.

Romm has pointed out that Pielke and the physicist Marty Hoffert who has staked out a similar position are both affiliated with the Breakthrough Institute. As readers of this blog may remember, the Breakthrough Institute is the brainchild of controversial critics of the environmental movement, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus who declared the “Death of Environmentalism” a few years ago. Romm has been critical of Shellenberger and Nordhaus for their propensity to attack the environmental movement and to advocate, long term research projects in ways that at least divert attention from taking immediate action on global warming. Their institute, after all, is named “BreakThrough” the point being they want to inspire government to invest heavily in long-range scientific research that they hope might lead to those technological breakthroughs.

The Big Question: Do We Have the Technology?

All personal disputes aside, the main question that is dividing Romm, Gore, the IPCC on the one hand and Pielke et. al. Hoffert, Shellenberger & Nordhaus and perhaps Google in its RE<C form on the other, is whether we, with our current technology or technologies that are in the research pipeline, can build essentially carbon neutral societies the world over within a period of approximately three to four decades. Three decades is a long time, so the notion that technology might be “frozen” at the current state of development is perhaps the first red herring that this controversy generates; within three decades new technologies will emerge in some form or other whether we have a policy for it or not. No one is suggesting that we NOT invest in research and development, though we are starting in the US at a point where much can be improved upon in the area of clean technology research.

The “Dangerous Assumption” that these critics of the IPCC are decrying is that a normal rate of technological improvement is inadequate to the task of cutting GHGs by 80% or more. Their favored policy recommendation is to have the (US) government invest massively in long-range research projects that contrasts with their critics’ emphasis on policies that speed the deployment of existing technologies. They make little positive mention of policy tools like carbon pricing or feed-in tariffs that are designed to speed the development of existing technology. The implication is that those who suggest policy drivers for deploying current technology are naïve and operating under a “dangerous assumption”. Another favored criticism that Shellenberger and Nordhaus tend to level at their opponents is that their opponents are acting/talking like the (tired, ineffective) environmental movement. Romm believes that those who support the Breakthrough concept are devaluing if not opposing immediate policy recommendations that target current technologies and current technology use.

 What then is the current set of technologies that we already have or can expect to have within the next decade? I will give my account below of current and emerging technologies and list what their advantages are for reducing carbon emissions. The analysis below is represented in chart form <== or here. Following the Renewable Electron Economy scenario that I believe has the highest probability of success, I have ordered these in approximately descending order of overall carbon emissions reduction potential. Note that the order of these is approximately the reverse of the famous Vattenfall-McKinsey chart which lists the least expensive options first; here the keystone technologies of a completely carbon neutral economy come first, some of which are currently more expensive. (I am italicizing technologies in this list that overlap with previous listings in terms of their GHG reduction potential; I am putting those technologies that can act as carbon sinks in bold):


Combination renewable energy power plants – emerging technology that coordinates intermittent and periodic renewable electric generators (wind, wave, tidal, and solar photovoltaic or CSP without storage) with dispatchable renewables (biomass, hydroelectric, CSP with storage, and pumped hydroelectric) to serve electric load. (59% GHG reduction potential)


Concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) with 6 to 18 hours of thermal storage – existing and emerging technology can reduce coal use for electricity generation by 85%-90% in areas up to 2500 miles away from the world’s deserts. (45% GHG reduction potential)


Photovoltaic cells – existing and emerging technology that is deployable in distributed energy, remote settings. (25% GHG reduction potential)


Forest preservation, restoration and expansion – existing and emerging technology to fix atmospheric and newly emitted carbon dioxide; reduce emissions from deforestation. (>18.2% GHG reduction potential)


Wind turbines – existing technology that may be able to cover as much as 33% of electricity demand with appropriate grid integration. (15% GHG reduction potential)


Modularized construction of buildings with ultra-high efficiency/Passivhaus concept – reduction of 85% of space conditioning energy use. (12% GHG reduction potential)


Electrification of Rails and Roadways – Rail and road electrification is an existing technology that can be extended to more large vehicle traffic in regional and intercity routes (11% GHG reduction potential)

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Biomass pyrolysis and biocoal burial – an emerging technology that generates a bio-oil and carbon rich “bio-coal” or charcoal that when buried fixes carbon for hundreds of years. Reduces production of energy from biomass in exchange for fixing carbon. Biocoal can act as a soil enrichment. (>10% GHG Reduction potential)


Batteries/Ultracapacitors with 200 Wh/kg energy density or greater/variety of chemistries – allow 90% of local and regional traffic to be electrified reducing transport energy use by 70% or greater (>9% GHG Reduction potential)


Biomass-fired power plants– an existing technology that with carbon capture could act as a carbon sink; dispatchable and can back up wind or solar generators. Require policy regulation to ensure non-competition with agriculture for food. (6% GHG Reduction potential)


Vehicle Recharge Infrastructure – existing infrastructure in detached houses, emerging in public areas; emerging quick charge infrastructure. Enables battery electric vehicles or plug in hybrids to extend all-battery range indefinitely (4% GHG Reduction potential)


Voluntary Veganism – vegans eat no animal products so if people go on a vegan diet for 5 days/week or more we would reduce a massive amount of GHGs. The figures from WRI I used attribute 5.1% GHGs to livestock but I have seen figures as high as 18% of global GHGs are attributable to livestock. Numerous environmental benefits are attributable to plant-only agriculture though there is and will be massive resistance to forgoing meat and milk products (including from me). I quite like meat and cheese though I did have a pretty tasty vegan meal at Café Gratitude not too long ago; this technology can be further developed by chefs and by consumers. (>4% GHG reduction)


High efficiency lighting/daylighting – High efficiency fluorescent lighting, daylighting, tubular skylights are here, LEDs and fiber optic daylighting are emerging cutting >75% of lighting energy over incandescents (4% GHG reduction potential)


Sustainable biofuels – Cellulosic ethanol is an emerging technology – because of our current liquid fuels paradigm much touted and over-hyped. To be sustainable require strict policy oversight or voluntary certification – in the Renewable Electron Economy would fuel air and sea transport along with bio-oil. (3% GHG reduction potential)


Wave and tidal power – Existing and emerging RE generation technologies (3% GHG reduction potential)


Electric Arc Heating/Biocoal – Electric arc furnaces already are used in melting steel scrap and a similar principle or biomass substitutes could be used in high temperature industrial applications in place of coal and natural gas (2% GHG reduction potential)


Magnetic Induction Heating – Existing technology allows for hyperefficient stovetop cooking with electricity; future applications may allow for more efficient electric ovens. (1.75% GHG reduction potential)


Syngas waste to energy – Generation of a syngas from municipal waste avoids the formation of dioxins and other toxins; emerging technology can reduce waste by 95% entirely avoiding methane emissions (substituting less potent carbon dioxide) and reducing the need for landfill space except for separated toxic metals, producing dispatchable electricity from the combustion of the syngas in a gas turbine (>1.5% GHG reduction potential).


Methane harvest from sewage – capturing methane to generate power or fuel vehicles from sewage (CH4 to CO2) (>1.0% GHG reduction potential)


Enhanced telecommunication technologies/holographic presence – reducing business travel by 75% – extension of Internet/videoconferencing capabilities. (>0.5% GHG reduction potential).

These by the standards of 2008 exciting but in no way futuristic technologies deployed on a global scale have the potential to reduce our GHG emissions by at least 93.7% with little effect on end user “utility”. The most significant change in end use, and perhaps the most challenging, is the voluntary (or incentivized) reduction in the use of animal products.

The conclusion then to be derived from this analysis is that we do not NEED radical new technologies to reduce GHGs very substantially, especially if we follow the Renewable Electron Economy model and are willing to invest as a government AND a society in clean technology. Such innovations might be nice to reduce costs or ease the transition but they are not necessary.

Therefore it would seem that Pielke et al. and their supporters’ assertions would seem to be more lobbying for gee-whiz science projects rather than scientific analysis.

Potential Criticisms of This Model


I am using year 2000 data that may be no longer reflective of current emissions or future trends.


Response: These technologies are mostly highly scaleable so that more or less of them could be deployed in response to changes in GHG emissions profile


Veganism is a substantial sacrifice for most inhabitants of the developed and rapidly developing worlds


Response: If this is a planetary emergency, some sacrifice of personal utility may eventually seem like a rational response. Even if people choose a reduced meat/dairy diet, which will have substantial GHG benefits, they will not lose the taste experience or dietary benefits of these foods. This remains by no means a high tech or inaccessible solution and culinary giants might even improve the technology through inventive use of vegan ingredients.


The numbers I am using for GHG reductions are guesstimates.


Response: Each of these technologies substantially reduces GHGs in each of the major acknowledged GHG sectors; most can be scaled up or down with fairly wide latitude, even accounting for a 30% increase in global population.

Do These Roads Diverge?

If what I have laid out here is anywhere close to being a realistic assessment of existing and emerging technologies, the course of action is pretty obvious: get as many of these technologies in deployment as soon as possible. Pricing may be higher in the beginning, which could be shouldered by richer countries but then economies of scale in manufacture will bring many or all of these within reach of some of the rapidly developing countries that are the focus of concern.

I believe the strongest policy combination is some form of carbon pricing with the addition of performance based incentives, such as feed in tariffs to promote key technologies more rapidly than the politically acceptable carbon price will allow.

Research and development is not excluded from any policy recommendation but the emphasis on technology investment almost to the exclusion of contemporary policy drivers is a curious phenomenon. Research and development, be it at current levels or at levels 50 or 100 times as high, is a traditional role for the US government and is no departure from business as usual.

Will an Emphasis on R&D Lead to Delay?

Rather than resort to name-calling, there is a very serious issue here that has been lent extra urgency by the publicity lent to Pielke’s/Breakthrough’s position through its publication in the prestigious Nature journal.

As I state above, Breakthrough/Pielke are packaging their position as heterodox and daring when in fact it is a simple restatement of a very common position that the US government has occupied throughout the last half century: the funder of basic and applied research in the sciences and energy. Maybe the AMOUNTS that Pielke/Breakthrough are asking for are larger and are applied to a new theme (solutions to climate change) but the format and relationship of government to constituency are the same.

The folk at Nature may have felt that as it is a plea for more money for research it is a natural fit for their science journal. However, they may not have been in a position to evaluate how uninspired the Pielke piece is in terms of its actual policy recommendations.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger, the founders of BreakThrough, seem to be laboring under the belief that their advocacy of more money for research is a break from the past and perhaps it is a break from THEIR past. They have made a great deal of their differences of opinion with leaders of the environmental movement and, in a way, are more likely to discount anything that agrees with the consensus of that movement. Thus they are able to occasionally get publicity from the wider media world as they “turn state’s evidence” against their former colleagues. In a way, Joe Romm, by attacking Nordhaus and Shellenberger is continuing to play into this game.

Whatever their motivation, if someone were to consult Nordhaus and Shellenberger as policy experts, they would get the distinct sense that all the action is with R&D investment and carbon focused policy instruments are at best dull necessities.

If a policymaker came away with that impression, I believe there would be a lost opportunity to create policy drivers that incentivize accelerated deployment of existing technologies.

Apollo Project or Liberty Ships?

Furthermore, there is a tiresome formula into which the S&N recommendations as well as the public face of Google’s RE<C fall into: that technology advances are about what might be called ecstatic gee-whiz moments of wonder, of dramatic breakthroughs. The microelectronics and the biotechnology revolutions have, I believe, spoiled the public, investors and commentators into thinking that innovations occur in an accelerating crescendo. A study of renewable energy flux, along with its synchronization and storage problems leads us to the conclusion that the creation of large industrial scale operations to build large numbers of renewable generators and install them more efficiently will be a much bigger portion of the renewable energy revolution than the micro-world of molecules and atoms. Yes, there are admirable and elegant designs and inventions that have already occurred and that will occur in the future, but there will also need to be large scale deployment and manufacturing in a way that hasn’t been seen here since the second world war.

In a way, the beguiling high-tech metaphor of the Apollo Project, which Nordhaus, Shellenberger and others drew upon in founding the Apollo Alliance, is a little misleading. Apollo rockets were one or two of a kind, though obviously some of the technologies were later commercialized in larger numbers. What we are talking about more is the far more profound and economically stimulative wartime mobilization of WWII where one had both a Manhattan project going on and the broad participation of the population in accelerated wartime production. In fact, as impressive as some of the achievements of the Apollo project were, the manufacturing techniques that enabled shipyard workers to build a complete Liberty Ship, on average in 42 days through pre-fabricated assembly of ship parts will be just as or even more crucial than more glamorous inventions of the past half century.

To drive this scale of production, there will not only need to be government involvement but also stimulation of private actors through regulation and market incentives to move this process forward. To push all of the action off on R&D and government spending is not to grasp the need to drive change, in the most effective and forward-thinking way, in the entire economy.

With adequate information about the dangers AND opportunities we face both economically and ecologically, more and more people will realize that cleaner and better energy and energy services will need to be paid for. While Romm seems to shy away from embracing the fundamental break with what I call the Cheap Energy Contract, Nordhaus and Shellenberger are still obeisant to the assumption that people in the US will not be willing to pay more for energy in order that it become both a source of employment and profit for them and their neighbors and free us from some of the geopolitical problems we have blundered into.

I believe this attitude of remaining entirely supine in front of our own wishes for cheap stuff is unsustainable for us as an economy; eventually we will need to be willing to or required to pay each other for our work and pay for a cleaner environment rather than continue to pay more and more for our fossil fuel addiction.

Original Post: http://terraverde.wordpress.com/2008/04/09/20technologies/