Cosmic Log -- MSNBC.com
Alan Boyle
Thursday, June 9, 2011

Experts from around the world today unveiled a six-point game plan for "decarbonizing" the world's sources of electric power over the next 20 years. The Equinox Summit's closing communique, issued at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, adds some new twists to the usual prescriptions for breaking our reliance on fossil fuels. But the big question is: Who'll pick up the ball?


We'll focus on that question during the next episode of "Virtually Speaking Science," airing at 1 p.m. ET Saturday on Blog Talk Radio and in the Second Life virtual world. My guest on the show is Martin Hoffert, professor emeritus of physics at New York University, who'll lay out the energy challenges that lie ahead.


"These are the types of challenges that engineers and scientists would love to work on, but there's no money," Hoffert told me.


At this week's Equinox Summit, scientists, policymakers and entrepreneurs gathered together under the auspices of the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo to draw up recommendations to close the anticipated gap in electric power generation.


Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the university's Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, pointed out that an estimated 16.5 terawatts of power are generated today, with all but 2.5 terawatts coming from fossil fuels. By the year 2050, experts project that the world will need at least 30 terawatts. The energy-generating capacity from renewable sources would have to increase sixfold just to hold the current level of greenhouse-gas emissions steady, Nathwani noted.


"In simple terms, all new growth to be met will have to be non-carbon sources of energy," he said.


The recommendations touch on advanced power-generation technologies as well as strategies for using that power more efficiently:



Advanced nuclear power: International collaborations can accelerate next-generation nuclear technologies, such as accelerator-driven, thorium-based systems and integral fast reactors with a fully closed fuel cycle. Closing the nuclear fuel cycle means that the nuclear waste from one cycle is folded into the fuel for the next cycle. "Nuclear waste can fuel our energy future," said Danish policy researcher Jakob Nygard. Passive nuclear safety systems reduce the risk of a Fukushima-style reactor leak.


Geothermal power: Power companies are already starting to take advantage of the heat stored in the earth, but more could be done. Robin Batterham, former chief scientist for the Australian government, said 50 percent of the world's baseload power could come from geothermal by 2050. "The key question to me is, why isn't geothermal happening faster? ... The answer is fairly simple: The larger and more extensive resources are very deep," he said. To tap those resources, drillers might have to go 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) deep. The summit task force recommends developing 10 large-scale, $1 billion drilling projects "to demonstrate what the real risks are," Batterham said.


Better batteries: Solar cells and wind turbines could conceivably close the energy gap — if it weren't for the fact that they don't generate electricity on a 24/7 basis. What's needed are better technologies for large-scale power storage. WWF-Canada's Zoe Caron said advanced battery technologies are under development in China, the United States, Austria and elsewhere, but "essentially the batteries have not penetrated the market yet." More demonstration projects are needed, she and her summit colleagues said.


Smart cities: Two-thirds of the world's population could be living in mega-cities by the year 2040, said Marc McArthur, manager for the Ottawa Cleantech Initiative, and that suggests that initiatives such as smart metering, "intelligent buildings" and superconducting conduits have a big role to play in making future energy use more efficient. Neighborhood-based pilot projects would serve as "a bridge to the future and also a catalist for change," McArthur said.


Urban electric mobility: Information technology can help match up city residents with appropriate modes of electric transportation, ranging from buses and light rail to shared bicycles and automobiles. Felipe De Leon, a Costa Rica-based consultant for Anaconda Carbon, said the success of ventures such as Netflix and Zipcar, and the rise of concepts such as cloud computing, demonstrates the appeal of "access without ownership" — an approach that can easily be applied to urban mobility. "The trend is moving toward increased access and sharing," he said.


Rural electrification through flexible solar power: The electric-power challenge isn't limited to urban areas. "Quite a bit of stress has been laid on the necessity to provide a leg up to the nearly 2 billion people on the planet who do not even have electric light," Canadian-born nuclear physicist Walt Patterson told me. The summit task force put special emphasis on organic solar cells that could be as flexible as a sheet of plastic and produced on glorified inkjet printers. "There are a lot of industry players who are spending billions on this," the Global Governance Institute's Aaron Leopold said. He envisioned the development of cheap solar-powered battery packs that could produce enough electricity to run a small appliance, and yet would be so portable "you can wrap it up, put it in your backpack and carry it 50 miles down the road."

"A year from now, the next metric is, how many of these steps have we taken?"

Over the next few months, the ideas floated at the Equinox Summit will be turned into a detailed policy document titled "Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030."


The summit's organizers said they were heartened by the progress they've made so far. "After this summit, we can face the future smiling, and with energy," said physicist Neil Turok, the Perimeter Institute's director.


Jason Blackstock, a senior fellow at Canada's Centre for International Governance Innovation, said one of the strengths of the summit was that the attendees were taking on the responsibility for moving the Equinox process forward. "A year from now, the next metric is, how many of these steps have we taken?" he told me.


Manhattan Project for energy innovation?
But New York University's Hoffert cautioned that government leaders will eventually have to put more money into energy research and development. Lots more money.


"The private sector is not going to be able to do this alone," he told me. "That's like saying private companies could have figured out a profitable way to go to the moon. We would not have a commercial aviation industry if there had not been a massive aerospace industry that developed out of World War II and military aircraft."


Just as the Manhattan Project of the 1940s laid the foundation for commercial nuclear power, and just as the Pentagon's ARPANet of the 1960s laid the foundation for today's Internet, it will take government leadership (and government funding) to lay the foundation for tomorrow's energy economy, Hoffert said. That foundation may draw upon cleaner coal technology, with carbon capture and storage. It may incorporate advanced nuclear options. It may even take advantage of space solar power, collected by satellites and beamed down to Earth via infrared lasers. But in any case, the world's energy ills can't be solved by science alone. At least that's the way Hoffert sees it.


"I think that this is basically a political problem," he said. "People who have backgrounds in science and engineering have to get more involved in the political debate. We don't want to do that. By nature, we're geeks. Why do we have to deal with those entities instead of sticking to technologies that we can understand in a rational way? But the world could be destroyed by irrational people, so we have to find a way to make that connection."


What do you think? Are science and technology, free markets and good intentions enough to guarantee our future energy needs, or will it take another government-led Manhattan Project to get the job done? Check out the resources available at the Equinox Summit website, read Hoffert's insightful commentary in the journal Nature, and join us on Saturday for "Virtually Speaking Science."