Wednesday, May 11, 2016


Bill Gates has predicted researchers will “discover a clean energy breakthrough that will save our planet and power our world” within the next 15 years.  The Gates’ open letter is a thoughtful and accurate diagnosis of where we are, but we should ask whether innovation on its own is enough.  We already have, or are close to, many of the scientific breakthroughs we need, but the challenges lie in the hard grind of making them viable in terms of cost. In some cases this involves major expenditure in developing new infrastructures and new production facilities, and also stranding existing assets. And time is not on our side. We need other policy instruments, including markets and regulation, both to limit emissions while we get to low and zero carbon, and to force the pace with key technologies whose application is already within our grasp. Reliance on belief in a single and as yet unknown “silver bullet” risks a dangerous complacency and is surely not what is intended.

So what might a “clean energy breakthrough” might look like.  After all we already have quite a number of low carbon contenders: nuclear, carbon capture, wind, solar etc.

A single breakthrough or multiple developments in known technologies?

The answer is surely and emphatically the second. The energy sector is extremely diverse both in relation to production and consumption. Geography has a profound influence on the potential for low or zero carbon renewable energies, most obviously so for solar, wind and hydro-electric power, but also for biofuels.  In terms of distribution and consumption, the very different needs between and within the transport, heat and industrial sectors also tend to require a multiplicity of solutions. And in reality we already have a very wide range of options in terms of many forms of renewable energy, nuclear and carbon capture, as well as in the technologies for using energy. This diversity is also reflected in growing decentralisation of many aspects of energy production and consumption, which further argues for a wide variety of solutions.

But there are perhaps two high priority areas where further breakthroughs are potentially the most profound in their impact.  Most policy scenarios[1] emphasise early decarbonising of electricity generation, by whatever means, and then using the low or zero carbon power to penetrate and substitute fossil fuels in other applications like heat and transport.  The still largely unresolved problem is not production of “primary electricity” per se, but balancing supply and demand in real time, and with intermittent or inflexible resources (eg wind/solar). [2]   So the first area is energy storage; advances that can either store surplus output or provide a low cost energy reserve are a potential game changer. The second area is carbon sequestration - actual removal of CO2 from the atmosphere. The Paris ambition for zero carbon puts a big premium on any breakthroughs that are carbon negative in operation, offsetting the effects of residual emissions elsewhere.

Energy storage. A critical challenge.

This was the subject of a recent April 2016 seminar, described in my comment of 3 May. The crucial requirement is for storage of energy generated in the first instance as electricity. Presentations and discussion suggested that battery technologies are moving very rapidly, and will be extremely important in creating flexible and reliable power networks based on zero carbon generation. In this context, the relevant scales range from the smallest local networks or off-grid operations up to large national systems.

But an even bigger prize, across countries with strongly seasonal heating or cooling needs, would be seasonal storage at reasonable cost and on a large scale. The economics of storage indicates this is unlikely to be batteries (high capital cost for a relatively small number of charging cycles). That leaves heat, which is a potentially useful but essentially localised form of storage, or conversion of electricity into a chemical energy store, eg hydrogen or ammonia. The ideal would be a route that led to chemical storage as a gas or liquid fuel, natural gas or diesel. This resolves the problems of spilling surplus power, and overcomes the seasonal storage problem. It could have the added cost and other advantages of compatibility with existing infrastructure, notably in the gas network.

Negative Emissions

A realistic carbon sequestration technology with a known cost (at least as an order of magnitude) is a real game changer for the economics of a low carbon economy and our approach to policy.  The necessity for this technology is a corollary of the “net zero” approach on which a UK energy minister has said that the government intends to legislate. It was also emphasised in a recent article by Myles Allen.

Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a known technology, of which Drax might have been an early demonstration. One problem is scale and the potential competition bio-crops may face for land in a world also facing possible food security problems. But new GM crops, suitable for arid or marginal lands, might provide one route to an answer. These of course simply constitute an enhancement of the natural carbon cycle, and other artificial methods based on chemical processes may be possible. This looks like one of the biggest outstanding challenges, but if there were a breakthrough it would be game changing. Knowledge that we have a viable backstop technology "if all else" fails, reduces the risk and uncertainty in decision taking and, arguably, provides a simpler approach to pricing carbon emissions.

Reliance on innovation alone may be a dangerous mistake.

The Stern Review described the main instruments of energy and climate policy in the mutually interdependent and complementary categories of markets and pricing, regulation, and innovation. There is a danger of putting too much faith in technology and innovation on their own to solve our problems.  And the clean energy breakthroughs, when they come, may bring their own unanticipated political and practical issues. If we are to avoid the worst outcomes we also need to be making better use of the technologies we already have at our disposal, and other policy options that are already open to us.

Attaching more urgency to what we can do now has a huge potential benefit. This includes pressing ahead faster with known technologies like conventional carbon capture (CCS), but it also includes using the tools of markets and of regulation. We know that better pricing of carbon, and regulation, can discourage unnecessary and wasteful use, and reduced emissions now help us buy time.  Not only does this give us more time to find solutions.  It also improves our global future independently of what eventually emerges as the best solution and mix of technologies . This is because we will reach any given climate milestones (such as 2oC) later or, if we are lucky, avoid some of the more dangerous outcomes altogether.

[1] See for example the UK Committee on Climate Change
[2] This is one of the important questions being addressed by the Oxford Martin School Programme on Integrating Renewable Energy.

1 comment:

Yousif Al-sagheer said...

Absolutely right,the real time balancing of supply and demand is the most urgent problem to be solved. Upon which, I believe, the long term seasonal balancing would be solved through a proper sizing study for the underlying system.