DOE secretary Steven Chu has said we need Nobel caliber breakthroughs.
That is also the view of energy chemist Nate Lewis of the California Institute of Technology. “It’s not true that all the technologies are available and we just need the political will to deploy them,” he says. “My concern, and that of most scientists working on energy, is that we are not anywhere close to where we need to be. We are too focused on cutting emissions 20 percent by 2020—but you can always shave 20 percent off” through, say, efficiency and conservation. By focusing on easy, near-term cuts, we may miss the boat on what’s needed by 2050, when CO2 emissions will have to be 80 percent below today’s to keep atmospheric levels no higher than 450 parts per million. (We’re now at 386 ppm, compared with 280 before the Industrial Revolution.) That’s 80 percent less emissions from much greater use of energy.
Lewis’s numbers show the enormous challenge we face. The world used 14 trillion watts (14 terawatts) of power in 2006. Assuming minimal population growth (to 9 billion people), slow economic growth (1.6 percent a year, practically recession level) and—this is key—unprecedented energy efficiency (improvements of 500 percent relative to current U.S. levels, worldwide), it will use 28 terawatts in 2050. (In a business-as-usual scenario, we would need 45 terawatts.) Simple physics shows that in order to keep CO2 to 450 ppm, 26.5 of those terawatts must be zero-carbon. That’s a lot of solar, wind, hydro, biofuels and nuclear, especially since renewables kicked in a measly 0.2 terawatts in 2006 and nuclear provided 0.9 terawatts. Are you a fan of nuclear? To get 10 terawatts, less than half of what we’ll need in 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d have to build 10,000 reactors, or one every other day starting now. Do you like wind? If you use every single breeze that blows on land, you’ll get 10 or 15 terawatts. Since it’s impossible to capture all the wind, a more realistic number is 3 terawatts, or 1 million state-of-the art turbines, and even that requires storing the energy—something we don’t know how to do—for when the wind doesn’t blow. Solar? To get 10 terawatts by 2050, Lewis calculates, we’d need to cover 1 million roofs with panels every day from now until then. “It would take an army,” he says. Obama promised green jobs, but still.
Hence the need for Nobel-caliber discoveries.
I shouldn’t be bitchy, but it’s a frenzy out there. As if frenzy is a good thing, Republicans look over things and think, “See. The free market is all abuzz with innovation. Soon, our problems are solved.” Democrats not much differently, “See what guidelines and incentives can do to spark innovation?”
We’re in an era where things are going every which way yet we are hamsters on a wheel. It’s better than frozen in the headlights, I suppose. Among many challenges, a ‘Model-T’ solution that inherently organizes efficiency across the market is a lot to wish for. There will be skeletons.