May 23, 2012
Bjorn Lomborg Wants to Make Clean Energy Cheap, Doesn’t Know How
Bjorn Lomborg wants to make clean energy cheap. Unfortunately, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist and Cool It doesn't seem to understand that making clean energy cheap is about much more than R&D.
In an interview on Wednesday with the San Francisco Examiner's Thomas Fuller, Lomborg says:
"I love this thought--it comes from the Breakthrough Institute. Basically, the idea is that everyone seems to be trying to make fossil fuels so expensive that we won't use them. But that's never going to happen. So why don't we try to make green energy so cheap that everyone will want to use it?"
He then argues, "We should spend vastly more on research and development."
Lomborg get's that part right. As we've long argued, today's paltry investments in clean energy R&D -- from both public and private sectors alike -- is woefully inadequate to the energy innovation imperative we face today. With a broad expert consensus making the case and politicians from President Obama to Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) calling for more public investment in clean energy R&D, we seem to be approaching the political 'critical mass' necessary for real change on that front.
But for Lomborg, clean energy R&D is something you do instead of deploying clean energy technology available today, and that's where we part ways with "the Skeptical Environmentalist."
What Lomborg apparently doesn't understand is that efforts to truly "make green energy so cheap that everyone will want to use it" will necessarily involve major direct public investments to spur the rapid deployment of emerging clean energy technologies. Far from something that just occurs in the lab, the innovation process extends well beyond R&D.
A Man of Many (False) Trade-offs
Bjorn Lomborg is a man of many trade-offs. In his frequent writings and public appearances, a discussion of supposed trade-offs and their relative costs and benefits is usually at the heart of his arguments.
Lomborg frequently argues that "we shouldn't waste time cutting emissions" and tackling climate change today, because investing in technology innovation will yield cheaper solutions tomorrow (i.e. "by mid-century").
In his interview with the Examiner, Lomborg argues:
"The depressing thing is that everybody talks about green energy, but everybody thinks that means putting up windmills. Putting up very specific windmills. My point is if you actually want to do good, it's not about putting up windmills that are, even now, inefficient, it's about putting up windmills in the future that are so efficient that everybody will want one."
Elsewhere, including at great length in his book Cool It, Lomborg runs (arguably contrived) economic calculations to show the costs and benefits of these supposed trade-offs, arguing, for example, that our money would be better spent on fighting infectious diseases like malaria and other "more immediate" threats, instead of trying to stop climate change.
Of course, these trade-offs are really false. When unchecked climate change presents an existential threat to humanity, the choice isn't between taking action and not taking action. The choice is about what course of action to take.
It is, of course, critical to place climate change within the greater context of the global development challenges we face. When we conceptualize climate change as a problem of too little development -- i.e. poor nations relying on affordable (and to date, that means dirty) fuels or the deforestation of vast stretches of rain forests to power their growth and rich nations still too dependent on these antiquated energy technologies -- rather than a problem of human excess and too much development, we can see our way to a more durable and effective path to combating climate change (see the new collection of writings, "The Emerging Climate Consensus" for more on this critical shift in thinking).
But Lomborg is kidding himself (and misleading others) if he thinks we can afford to delay efforts to spur a rapid transition to a global clean energy economy and slash emissions. The science is clear, our time is short, and while investing in R&D will open critical new and affordable pathways to a low-carbon economy, we have no time to waste.
Furthermore, if we're really dedicated to making clean energy cheap, the choice isn't between investing in clean energy R&D or investing in deployment of clean energy technologies. We need to do both, and the question is really how can we best drive deployment to secure improvements in price and performance -- that is, how can deployment make clean energy cheap, even as we begin to cut emissions.
Lomborg Isn't Alone in Embracing a False Trade-Off Between Innovation and Deployment
Lomborg is, unfortunately, right about one thing: climate advocates have all too often focused on policies to deploy today's technologies while giving short shrift to critical efforts to spur clean technology innovation. And when they do so, they fall into the exact same tragic false dichotomy Lomborg himself plays up.
Take Climate Progress' Joe Romm as a case study. Romm steadfastly maintains that no significant technological innovation is needed to tackle the climate challenge and transform the entire global energy system. Instead, it's all about "deploy, deploy deploy." And we've all heard the oft-repeated myth "we have all the technologies we need, all we lack is the political will" issued from the mouth of numerous climate advocates.
These arguments are politically motivated, however, and stand at odds with the overwhelming expert consensus that the scale of the energy and climate challenge demands dramatic and transformative innovation.
For climate advocates who've seen far too many arguments from the likes of Lomborg and the Bush Administration that we should delay action while we wait for cheaper, more convenient technologies to emerge from labs, it's hard to embrace the energy innovation imperative. Acknowledging the clear need for greatly accelerated energy innovation is assumed to be a political weakness.
This is a mistake. The scale of our energy challenge clearly demands both accelerated deployment of clean energy technology and an order-of-magnitude increase in public investment in clean energy innovation. Expert consensus is unwavering on that front.
The assumption that we need to have all of the technologies on the shelf today to even begin the decade's long transformation of the global energy systems is a pernicious trap, one that should be rejected outright, not tacitly accepted, as climate advocates do when they embrace the "we have all the technologies we need" myth.
Furthermore, a robust clean energy innovation strategy would strengthen, not weaken the political support for the kinds of renewable energy standards and carbon caps climate advocates call for. Supporting the innovation necessary to produce the steady supply of affordable technologies needed to meet these regulations is critical to securing the sustained political support they will need over the decades ahead. It's time for climate advocates to put our money where our mandates are.
Technology Deployment to Make Clean Energy Cheap
In the realm of energy policy, innovation and deployment are typically viewed as two separate and distinct domains. This is hardly the case.
In a 2006 paper available here, energy innovation expert Dr. Greg Nemet explored the various factors leading to the steady decline in price experienced by solar photovoltaic technology over the past decades. What he found is summarized in the following table:
Essentially, Nemet discovered four primary factors contributing to the remarkable factor of 26 drop in price experienced by photovoltaic technology between 1975 and 2001 (the period he studies):
- Economies of scale - e.g. the size of manufacturing plants - responsible for 43% of the price reductions;
- R&D breakthroughs - e.g. improved photovoltaic cell efficiency and new cell manufacturing processes - responsible for 32% of the price reductions;
- Learning by doing effects - e.g. reduced silicon usage, higher yields, etc. - which contributed to a variety of factors responsible for about 10% of the price reductions;
- Spill-over of technology advances pioneered in other industries - e.g. lower silicon supply costs due to advances spurred by the microchip industry - contributing to factors responsible for about 15% of the price reductions.
The lesson should be clear: innovation doesn't stop at the lab, nor do the factors driving down the price of clean energy technologies. Both R&D and deployment were critical to driving down the price of solar cells, and both strategies are essential to make clean energy cheap.
This means it's time to reject the false dichotomy between R&D and deployment -- whether advanced by Bjorn Lomborg or green climate advocates -- and see both as part of an interconnected innovation process. A strategy to make clean energy cheap must embrace the accelerated deployment of emerging technologies and design effective policies to do so.
These policies should focus not just on quantity -- getting megawatts in the ground -- but technology performance as well -- i.e. driving reductions in the real, unsubsidized price of emerging clean energy technologies. And they should come from a clear understanding of the various factors driving improvements in price and performance.
This has not been the case with many (if not most) of the deployment policies implemented to date, including the renewable energy production or investments tax credits and renewable portfolio standards popular in America as well as the feed-in tariffs spurring clean energy across Europe. Price improvements may be an incidental and welcome side-effect of the economies of scale supported by these policies, but it's far from their central thrust. How to best drive price improvement and technology performance is therefore given little (if any) consideration in the design of these deployment policies.
Making clean energy cheap and overcoming the urgency climate challenge will require much more intentional policy design. We can afford such laxity no longer.