Is Paris Good or Bad?
What Does Syria Signing onto the Paris Agreement Mean for Global Climate Progress?
Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.
Here’s me, shortly after the 2015 climate negotiations, on why the Paris Climate Agreement is good.
Last week, Southern Company announced that it would continue its project to build two AP1000 reactors at Plant Vogtle in Georgia. The decision, which still awaits approval by the Georgia Public Service Commission, could leave Vogtle as the only commercial nuclear power plant under construction in North America. So it’s important to understand why Vogtle is moving forward while many other nuclear projects around the country have been canceled.
What will it take to bring 21st-century innovation to the nuclear industry? How to Make Nuclear Innovative, a new Breakthrough Institute report, makes the case for an entirely new model of nuclear innovation based on lessons drawn from some of the most innovative industries in today’s economy. This case study, the third in the series, assesses the “biotech-pharma networked model” of innovation in relation to the nuclear industry’s players, regulators, and public institutions. The nuclear industry will need more support in taking new technologies from the university lab to start-up companies, the authors find, and more explicit recognition of the public health benefits of nuclear compared with other energy sources.
If there’s a nuclear renaissance happening in the world today, it’s not in America. More reactors went online globally in 2016 than in any year since 1990, but that was mostly in other countries—China, Pakistan, India, and Russia. That makes sense, since electricity demand is growing globally while stagnating in the United States. But is there a downside to the United States forfeiting leadership in nuclear energy?
What will it take to bring 21st-century innovation to the nuclear industry? How to Make Nuclear Innovative, a new Breakthrough Institute report, makes the case for an entirely new model of nuclear innovation based on lessons drawn from some of the most innovative industries in today's economy. This case study, the second in the series, follows the recent development of wide-body aircraft as a model, and at times a cautionary tale, for similar innovation in the nuclear industry.
What will it take to bring 21st-century innovation to the nuclear industry? How to Make Nuclear Innovative, a new Breakthrough Institute report, makes the case for an entirely new model of nuclear innovation based on lessons drawn from some of the most innovative industries in today’s economy. This case study, the first in the series, explores the recent history of commercial spaceflight, and the path NASA has taken to stimulate private-sector activity, in order to extract lessons for the nuclear industry and its public-facing institutions.
News last month that Westinghouse is facing crippling losses due to cost overruns and delays at four new nuclear reactors under construction in the US are but the latest evidence that the nuclear power industry in developed economies is in deep trouble. China, South Korea, and Russia continue to build new nuclear plants. But in the United States, Western Europe, and Japan, the nuclear industry, as we have known it for over a half-century, is coming to an end.
What will it take to bring 21st-century innovation to the nuclear industry?
How to Make Nuclear Innovative, a new Breakthrough report, makes the case for an entirely new model of nuclear innovation. Instead of conventional light-water reactors financed and constructed by large incumbent firms, the advanced nuclear industry will be characterized by innovative reactor and plant designs, new business models, and smaller entrepreneurial start-ups.
Last April, Will Boisvert noted that 2015 was a record year for new nuclear power around the world, with more reactors added than in any year since 1990. But 2016 proved to be an even bigger year for nuclear power, with ten reactors coming online around the world, adding 9.5 gigawatts (GW) of capacity. This was the largest annual addition of nuclear power since 1990, and the largest two-year addition of nuclear power since 1989-90.
While the recent election has many environmentalists worried that federal action on climate change has hit a dead end, others are finding silver linings in the actions of states and municipalities. Such is the case with this sharp report from Brookings, “Growth, carbon, and Trump: State progress and drift on economic growth and emissions ‘decoupling’” by Mark Muro and Devashree Saha.
The last decade has seen tremendous progress in renewable energy. The cost of manufacturing solar panels and wind turbines has fallen precipitously. Thanks to ongoing policy support in the form of mandates and subsidies, world solar photovoltaic capacity reached 227 GW in 2015, up from just 40 GW in 2010. World wind capacity, meanwhile, has more than doubled since 2010, hitting 433 GW in 2015.
The election of Donald Trump has raised deep concern about the future of international efforts to address climate change. President-elect Trump has called climate change a hoax, and has vowed to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan, and end the so-called “War on Coal.” It is not yet clear, however, what impact these actions would have upon US or global emissions.
By Alex Trembath and Emma Brush
Well, that was surprising.
Last week, those of us working in the energy and environment space joined the rest of the world in adjusting to the unexpected election of Donald Trump. Environmental forecasting is always hard, and perhaps only more so in pursuit of predicting what a Trump Administration’s environmental policies will look like.
A 2015 Breakthrough Generation fellow, Suzanne Waldman is currently completing her doctoral degree in Communication Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, where she researches risk perception of nuclear power and nuclear waste. As we well know, questions surrounding both issues tend to dredge up a range of responses, from the technocratic to the anti-nuclear, that Waldman says correspond with different cultural “frames,” or worldviews. Drawing on research by Dan Kahan and others, she emphasizes that “we’re all in different tribes when we think about risk” and that these tribes each tell a particular kind of story. When it comes to the weighty question of disposing of our nuclear waste, she has set out to find, is it possible to engage these contradictory stories into some larger narrative, one that brings us closer to policy solutions?
Last week, the New York Times published an Op-Ed by Peter Wynn Kirby, a social anthropologist at Oxford, alleging that the United Kingdom promoted the Hinkley Point C project as “a stealth initiative to bolster Britain’s nuclear deterrent.” The author’s argument is entirely dependent on a “painstaking study” authored by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex.
The invocation of war—in situations other than where people in uniforms are firing guns at each other—is the last political stop before despair. In declaring war on crime (Hoover 1930s), cancer and drugs (Nixon 1970s), and terror (Bush 2001), politicians have long demonstrated their frustration in the face of intractable problems that seem to defy all efforts to resolve them. So it was only a matter of time before someone declared war on climate change. “World War III is well and truly underway. And we are losing,” Bill McKibben wrote this month in an article for The New Republic titled “A World at War.”
The release of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” last year sparked a variety of critiques. Some took issue with ecomodernism’s embrace of large-scale agriculture. Others differed with the Manifesto’s focus on growth and modernization, arguing for the opposite: degrowth and lower consumption. And of course there are the traditional environmental bugaboos. Nuclear power. Industrialization. GMOs.
If we, as a
species global society loosely cooperative set of nation states, really want to stop climate change, it would be nice to have some sort of historical success story on which to model our policies and actions.
Dr. Wade Allison taught and studied at the University of Oxford for over 40 years, where he is now an Emeritus Professor of Physics. His two books, Radiation and Reason and Nuclear is for Life, provide great introductions and references for those looking for a deeper understanding of how radiation affects the environment and public health.
Last week, California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced it intends to close the state’s last nuclear power plant, Diablo Canyon, starting in 2024. Diablo Canyon, a 2200-megawatt plant just north of San Luis Obispo, generates 8–10% of California’s electricity every year with zero air pollution and zero carbon emissions. The closure is explained in a proposaldeveloped by the utility along with environmental and labor groups.
Despite all the obituaries, last year’s stats show the nuclear renaissance is alive and kicking—and keeping pace with wind and solar. Here’s how to keep it going.
Last year the success of wind and solar power made headlines as installations of new turbines and PV panels soared. Meanwhile, “nuclear is dead” think pieces mushroomed in the press as old plants closed and new projects floundered in delays and cost over-runs.
But while the “rise of renewables” is indeed reason to celebrate, the “death of nuclear” storyline has been greatly exaggerated. Far from being moribund, in 2015 the global nuclear sector quietly had its best year in decades. New reactors came on line that will generate as much low-carbon electricity as last year’s crops of new wind turbines or solar panels. The cost of building those reactors was less than one third the cost of building the wind turbines and solar panels, and typical construction times were under 6 years. The conventional wisdom that nuclear projects must be decade-long, budget-busting melodramas proved starkly wrong last year. In crucial respects the nuclear renaissance has hit its stride and is making a fundamental contribution to decarbonization—one that will accelerate if the industry gets recognition and support for what it is doing right.
Everyone knows that the dose is critical when you are taking a prescription medication: a small amount can provide significant benefit, but a large dose can kill you. This “non-linear” effect is taken for granted in pharmaceuticals, but is not generally adopted for regulating the risks of radiation. Dr. Edward Calabrese is a professor and toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. He has spent his career studying non-linear effects in different carcinogens. From hundreds of studies, he has concluded that radiation should be treated more like pharmaceuticals, and regulators needs to change how they think about radiation risks and harm.
In September 1987 twenty four countries signed the Montreal Protocol, beginning the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other materials that destroy the ozone layer. The international community decided the impact of a small group of industrial chemicals was simply too dangerous, and outlawed them.
Perhaps it is time to take a hard look at another industrial chemical with dangerous global warming impacts — ammonia. Specifically, ammonia that is produced from fossil carbon, with high CO2 emissions. Fossil ammonia.
A phaseout of fossil ammonia would do more than cut CO2 emissions from the fertilizer industry. It is in fact an innovation policy in disguise. The real effect is to drive the technological innovation we need to take on the main game — the decarbonization of energy.
Even as adaptation has more recently gained mainstream acceptance as an unavoidable response to rising global temperatures, it continues to be a sideshow to the main event of limiting greenhouse gas emissions through international climate negotiations. This misses enormous opportunities for effective action to reduce human suffering due to climate and weather disasters, and to lay a stable foundation for cooperative international efforts to address both climate adaptation and mitigation.
One could be excused for concluding, upon reading Bill McKibben’s latest anti-fracking jeremiad in the Nation, that a new Harvard study released in February has found that US methane emissions over the last decade have risen due to increasing natural gas production. “This new Harvard data,” McKibben writes, “suggests that our new natural-gas infrastructure has been bleeding methane into the atmosphere in record quantities.”
While the Clean Power Plan is embattled in the courts, Rezwan Razani wants states to start playing the game. Her organization, Footprint to Wings, encourages states to join the race toward net zero-carbon emissions and offers a playbook and coaching. Drawing on her experiences in Hollywood and regional planning, Razani works to create a new narrative around decarbonization that both inspires and motivates us to act more aggressively to reduce emissions. The race to zero carbon is kicking off with an actual race on May 21st this year, the Race to Zero Carbon 5k and 10k in Bridgewater, New Jersey. The event includes clean energy expositions and Zero Carbon Coaching for those that want to know about methods for dramatically reducing carbon emissions.
In a recent duo of blog posts energy economists Danny Cullenward and Jonathan Koomey broadly challenge the notion that so-called rebound effects are likely substantial and should be dealt with as such. The basis for their claim is their recently published peer-reviewed article, which challenges my 2013 analysis finding consistently large long-term rebound effects across 30 sectors of the US economy between 1980 and 2000.
Future energy scenarios are dependent on assumptions about the prices and scalability of energy sources, often relying on historic learning curves to predict the future costs of various fuels or generation technologies. But the academic literature has become overly focused on comparing learning curves for different energy technologies, often in an attempt to divine intrinsic economic qualities about different technologies. In particular, it’s common to highlight the difference between the trends for solar PV panels, which are often described as following Moore’s Law, contrasted with nuclear power, where costs appear to only increase over time. But the metric that matters most, cost of generating electricity, appears to follow no guaranteed trend for these technologies, as new data shows.
In Breakthrough’s 2013 report, How to Make Nuclear Cheap, we argued that nuclear needed innovative new designs to become radically cheaper, able to displace fossil fuels. But in the aftermath of that report, we uncovered a large disagreement about why nuclear power became expensive. In particular, many critics have claimed that cost escalation and “negative learning” are intrinsic to nuclear power.
Last month in Paris, the cognitive dissonance between environmental demands for immediate and rapid decarbonization of the global economy and the long standing rejection of nuclear energy by environmental NGO’s and advocates reached the breaking point. Four climate scientists, led by Dr. James Hansen, flew to Paris to reiterate their call for environmental leaders to reverse their opposition to nuclear energy. “The future of our planet and our descendants depends,” the four scientists wrote, “on letting go of long-held biases when it comes to nuclear power.”
Earlier this month, Science published a paper by the Anthropocene Working Group, or AWG, detailing the evidence of humanity’s impact on the planet. “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene,” reads the title of their paper. Erle Ellis, one of the authors of the new paper and a Breakthrough Senior Fellow, has a somewhat unique view on the issue as an ecologist. Below is a lightly edited interview with Ellis.
In 2015, the Breakthrough Institute welcomed that debate. In April, several of us co-authored “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” which states that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The theme of our summer Dialogue this year was “The Good Anthropocene,” where Clive Hamilton debated Manifesto coauthor Mark Lynas on our stage. We also released the fifth issue of our Breakthrough Journal, themed “The Good Anthropocene.”
On December 12th, bleary-eyed negotiators walked out of the Paris-Le Bourget conference center to announce a global agreement to fight climate change. Reactions to the agreement have generally taken two forms - overheated claims about the historic nature of the agreement from many proponents and dismissal from both those demanding stronger action and those opposed to any action at all, on grounds that the agreement represents little change from business as usual.
What motivated you to write your recent essay about the double standard the West is trying to hold India to on climate change?
Earlier this year I was speaking at a premier Washington DC think tank around the time India announced it wouldn’t commit to overall emissions reductions at the climate negotiations. Someone in the audience said to me, “Why can’t India play by the same rules everyone else is agreeing to?” My response was “Why can’t India develop like everyone else did?”
Where are Indians when it comes to energy for development?
Today Indians with grid connectivity spend at least 20 – 25 percent of their income on energy. This only allows them a fraction of energy that the developed world consumes. Indians on an average consume one-fifth of the average coal consumption of an American and one-third of a European. The Chinese, Americans and Japanese all spend less on procuring renewable energy relative to their incomes than do Indians.
The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?
It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.
A new study comes out with claims of a giant epidemic of thyroid cancer among kids exposed to radioactive iodine from the Fukushima nuclear accident. It’s disproven by another recent study showing that thyroid cancer rates are no higher in Fukushima than in distant regions uncontaminated by the accident. Which study gets lots of attention? And which one gets none?
The Breakthrough Institute will honor David MacKay, Regius Professor of Engineering at Cambridge University and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, with the 2016 Breakthrough Paradigm Award in recognition of his excellence in energy and climate change analyses.
Public positions on natural gas are strongly influenced by interpretations of the science on fugitive methane emissions. These vary significantly. The self-identified anti-natural gas wing includes professors like Robert Howarth and popular media figures like filmmaker Josh Fox. Other scholars, such as Cornell’s Lawrence Cathles and Council on Foreign Relations’s Michael Levi, have essentially concluded that fugitive methane is mostly a red herring in the coal-versus-gas conversation, and that natural gas can be a suitable “bridge fuel” in power-sector decarbonization. Other institutions like the Environmental Defense Fund concede that natural gas can be an “exit ramp” toward a clean energy future, but insist that fugitive methane must be tightly regulated to ensure that a coal-to-gas transition provides a warming benefit.
Since 2011, Breakthrough Institute has sought to understand the origins of the shale revolution, primarily for environmental reasons. Cheap shale gas has allowed the US power sector to move away from coal, which has in turn reduced US carbon emissions by more than 10 percent between 2005 and 2013. What lessons could the shale revolution have for future energy transitions, whether to solar, nuclear power, electric cars, or fuel cells? How can public and private energy innovation efforts achieve future technological breakthroughs that are similarly disruptive?
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Michael Shellenberger
The recently released final rule of the EPA Clean Power Plan projects to reduce US power sector carbon emissions by 32 percent under 2005 levels by 2030. That's awesome. But by allowing existing nuclear capacity to close and be replaced by fossil fuels, the CPP jeopardizes almost one-half of EPA's emissions reduction goals from 2013 to 2030.
Diablo Canyon is California’s last nuclear power plant. It has been the state’s most famous and most controversial plant ever since it divided Sierra Club members in the late 1960s. Perched amidst spectacular natural beauty on the California coast, Diablo faces threats on many fronts. State regulators are demanding that it build expensive cooling towers to ease its impact on marine life. Harsh claims are being made about its vulnerability to earthquakes. And there are lawsuits filed by environmental groups aimed at shutting it down.
States that close existing nuclear power plants will be allowed to increase carbon dioxide emissions under a final EPA rule regulating carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis finds.
Against projections of unsustainable growth, industrializing countries are poised to enter an era of “green growth,” explained a panel at Breakthrough Dialogue. To encourage this transition, however, requires better metrics for valuing public goods like clean air and longer lifespans.
Increasingly few people believe humans are likely to prevent global temperatures from rising two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. How then should we think about likely impacts — and possible responses? Those were the questions debated at a Breakthrough Dialogue concurrent session on climate risk.
Energy consumption is going to explode in poor countries this century –– over 90 percent of the growth in energy consumption through 2050 will occur in non-OECD countries. These countries are also where the International Energy Agency (IEA) hopes to reduce future demand growth the most in the name of mitigating climate change –– 77 percent of the modeled demand reductions in the IEA’s 450pmm scenario come from non-OECD countries.
A rollercoaster enthusiast who traveled to India to study tribal women’s empowerment; an energy analyst interested in the impacts of innovation on geopolitics; an engineer who has worked on alternative transportation and urban development; and a former scholar of the Victorian era who now writes on energy technologies and risk perception. These are among the seven outstanding thinkers who will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting pragmatic, new solutions to major environmental challenges.
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.
This is a two-part series on the future prospects of renewables. Read Part 1 here.
In our last post, we offered a survey of the progress made so far in wind and solar deployment at the grid-wide scale throughout the world. An accurate and honest accounting of variable renewable energy (VRE) is essential to our goal of building zero-carbon power systems on a high-energy planet. In this follow-up post, we’ll consider what we can glean from VRE performance and modeling about scaling wind and solar further this century.
This post is coauthored by Alex Trembath and Jesse Jenkins.
After decades of incipient growth, it seems that wind and solar power are finally ready for prime time. These two renewable energy resources are growing rapidly and are beginning to move the needle in global energy supplies.
The announcement two weeks ago of Tesla Motor’s cheap new lithium-ion storage batteries set the renewable energy world on its ear. Breathless commentators pronounced them a revolutionary advance heralding cheap, ubiquitous electricity storage that would make solar power a 24/7-power source for the masses. Elon Musk, Tesla’s wunderkind CEO, fed these hopes at the glitzy product launch for the 10 kilowatt-hour (KWh) Powerwall home storage battery.
“You could actually go, if you want, completely off the grid,” he told them. “You can take your solar panels, charge the battery packs, and that’s all you use.”
Every few months — or constantly, depending on your attention span — we hear another round of passionate recommendations that fossil fuel subsidies be phased out to level the playing field for clean energy. Most recently, World Bank president Jim Yong Kim emphasized that “we need to get rid of fossil fuel subsidies now” in his agenda for promoting clean energy.
Sounds like a sensible goal, but there’s reason to think that eliminating fossil fuel subsidies wouldn’t be nearly as transformative as is often suggested. In this post, I’ll briefly explain why that’s the case.
Four years ago a large earthquake and tsunami devastated northeast Japan. More than 15,000 people were killed. A subsequent nuclear meltdown added fear to grief.
As terrible as the meltdown was, the radiation did not have significant public health consequences, much less the catastrophic ones that many feared and some continue to claim.
On the fourth anniversary of the tsunami, earthquake, and meltdown, journalist Will Boisvert investigates and unearths five public health findings from Fukushima that you've probably never heard.
What’s the state of energy innovation in China? Breakthrough spoke with Ming Sung, Chief Representative for the Asia-Pacific region at Clean Air Task Force, about the work underway in China to rapidly develop and commercialize carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear, and renewable technologies to curb pollution and meet energy demand.
Last week, Stony Brook professor and economics blogger Noah Smith published a blog post titled “Nuclear will die. Solar will live.” In the post, Smith argues that nuclear power plants are incredibly large, capital-intensive, and complex investments, while solar power “can be installed in large or small batches” and continues to benefit from cost reductions. Smith ties solar’s success to nuclear’s challenges and criticizes Breakthrough Institute for our “anti-solar antipathy.”
Last year, the Breakthrough Institute and ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes released High-Energy Innovation. In the report, my colleagues and I argue that rapidly growing energy demand in emerging economies and increased multilateral investment represent the next great opportunity to accelerate energy innovation.
We contrasted this to a framework embraced over the last few years: the idea that the United States was in a race to capture the jobs and industries associated with clean energy technologies like solar panels, batteries, and advanced nuclear reactors.
"Did the US kill OPEC?"
This is the question that New York Times economics columnist Eduardo Porter asks today, referencing Breakthrough Institute’s research, which found that 35 years of public-private investments led to the technologies that allow for the cheap extraction of natural gas and oil from shale.
Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with William Burnett. William worked in energy R&D for the US Energy Research and Development Administration, the Department of Energy, and Gas Research Institute (GRI). He retired from GRI as Executive VP, where he was responsible for R&D planning and management in natural gas supply, transportation, distribution, and utilization.
Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Energy Analyst Alex Trembath talked with Bob Hanold, formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bob completed his PhD in engineering science at Case Institute of Technology and accepted a postdoctoral fellowship at Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1966, where he worked until his retirement in 1999. Although initially involved in microseismic fracture mapping and hydraulic fracturing for geothermal projects, he transitioned entirely to oil and gas projects with the formation of the Partnership Office.
If 2013 was the year of hope and change, 2014 will be remembered as the year of the high-energy planet. The “small is beautiful” ethos crumbled as global energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions grew faster than ever in recent years, despite the financial crisis, a global recession, and fears of “secular stagnation in the West.
In July of this year, Greenpeace installed a solar/battery microgrid in the village of Dharnai in eastern India. The 100-kilowatt system was designed to provide power for the village’s 2,400 residents, 50 businesses, 2 schools, and other infrastructure. Greenpeace called the project “inspiring,” writing that case studies like Dharnai prove “villages can develop their own clean power and contribute to saving their environment by showing we don’t need to use nuclear, coal or other fossil fuels for energy.”
The recent boom in natural gas production in the United States, brought about through technical innovations in the recovery of natural gas from previously inaccessible shale rock formations and land-use policies that favor private development, has helped lower electricity costs and benefitted the petrochemical and manufacturing industries. Even more significantly, it has contributed to a drop in US carbon dioxide emissions to their lowest levels in two decades, as inexpensive natural gas accelerates the closure of aging coal plants around the country.
The growth of natural gas generation in the US power sector has overwhelmingly displaced coal generation, a new Breakthrough Institute analysis of regional power generation data finds. There is little evidence in the aggregate regional power generation data that cheap gas has displaced other low-carbon sources of electricity, such as renewables, nuclear, or hydro. Nor is there evidence that increased gas generation has induced new demand.
Talks at the UNFCCC COP20 in Peru undoubtedly have been buoyed by the recent US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change. While the pledges by the two largest players may represent a political breakthrough, a new Breakthrough analysis of China’s energy plans shows there is reason for concern. Despite unprecedented efforts, China will likely replace existing coal consumption with more new coal power generation than that from new nuclear, or from new wind and solar power generation combined.
Clean energy innovation and decarbonization efforts will be overwhelmingly concentrated in rapidly industrializing countries, where demand for energy is high and deployment opportunities are broad, says a new report from a group of 12 energy scholars.
High-Energy Innovation evaluates four clean energy technologies – shale gas, carbon capture and storage, nuclear, and solar – and finds that, in all cases, industrializing countries are making significant investments and leveraging international collaborations in order to make energy cleaner, cheaper, and more reliable.
Arthur van Benthem is an Assistant Professor of Business Economics and Public Policy at Wharton. His research specializes in environmental and energy economics. His recent work focuses on unintended consequences of environmental legislation and natural resource taxation.
What motivated you to write your article “Has Leapfrogging Occurred on a Large Scale?”
I worked for a couple of years in the long-term energy scenarios team at Shell in my home country of the Netherlands. We made assumptions on tech leap-frogging occurring. The assumption was energy-efficient technologies would result in China’s future growth in energy consumption being lower than that of rich countries during their development.
Q: What is energy efficiency?
Energy efficiency is a measure of the energy productivity of an economic good or service. The less energy required to produce a unit of output, the more energy efficient that economic activity is. Energy efficiency is correlated to energy intensity, a commonly used measurement of economic goods, services, and even whole industries and sectors. Energy intensity is typically expressed in some unit E (for energy) over GDP (gross domestic product), or E/GDP.
Continuing Breakthrough Institute’s series of in-depth interviews with pioneers of the shale revolution, Senior Innovation Analyst Loren King talked with Norm Warpinski, a Halliburton fellow for Pinnacle – a Halliburton service. Of his many contributions to hydraulic fracturing, Norm is perhaps best known as a principal developer of microseismic monitoring, which was crucial to understand the nature of underground fractures. At Pinnacle, Norm works on developing new tools and analyses for hydraulic fracture mapping, reservoir monitoring, hydraulic fracture design and analysis, and integrated solutions for reservoir development. He previously worked at Sandia National Laboratories from 1977 to 2005 on various projects in oil and gas, geothermal, carbon sequestration, and other geomechanics issues.
David A. Northrop completed his BS, MS, and PhD in chemistry at the University of Chicago. He started working at Sandia National Lab in 1964 and worked there until his retirement in 1998. During his tenure, Northrop was heavily involved in fracture observation and shale mapping systems. In the following interview, Northrop talks about the early days of Sandia’s involvement in natural gas research, and the unique Partnership Office that facilitated public-private collaboration.
In response to our New York Times op-ed about the limits of energy efficiency and the furious reaction to it from some quarters, Andy Revkin asks whether we can find room for agreement on the rebound effect.
To some degree we already have.
Gillingham et al.’s latest working paper is emblematic of the great progress realized in recent years to squarely confront the challenge of energy efficiency rebound by an ever-widening cadre of serious scholars.
A new research letter in Nature (McJeon et al 2014) concludes that globally abundant natural gas will not “discernibly reduce fossil fuel CO2 emissions.” The paper models a scenario in which the US shale gas revolution is scaled globally. While natural gas displaces higher-carbon coal-fired power, zero-carbon power like nuclear and solar are also displaced, according to the model, and cheap gas encourages more energy consumption. The net impact is marginal: between 2 percent less and 11 percent more emissions in the authors’ “abundant gas” scenario:
What is renewable energy?
As a category, renewable energy encompasses a broad range of energy technologies and fuels, ranging from photovoltaic solar cells to the burning of animal dung for fuel in many poor regions of the world. Major sources of renewable energy –– in the rough order of the amount of energy they contribute globally –– include hydroelectric power, wood used for heating, cooking, and electrical generation, bioenergy produced from agricultural crops and waste, wind energy, concentrated solar power generated with mirrors and steam turbines, photovoltaic solar cells, geothermal energy, and tidal energy.
Over the last several decades there has been a broad consensus that energy efficiency is a cheap and easy way to reduce carbon emissions. Make our cars and light bulbs more efficient, the thinking went, and energy use will go down.
In a new opinion piece for the New York Times, Breakthrough cofounders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus comment on the recent bestowment of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics to the trio of researchers whose work led to the creation of light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus commend the researchers for their scientific achievements, but caution against the idea that LEDs will significantly reduce energy consumption, as touted by the Royal Swedish Academy in the award presentation. Shellenberger and Nordhaus conclude:
The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on energy efficiency, centering around the economic benefits of energy efficiency, rebound and backfire, and relatedly, the limitations of energy efficiency as a climate mitigation strategy. Here is our collection of analyses and opinions on energy efficiency:
Countries that expect to consume much more energy will likely experience higher levels of energy efficiency rebound, concludes a new Breakthrough report, released today. Rebound is the phenomenon in which energy efficiency measures increase demand for energy, which diminishes expected energy savings.
Lighting, Electricity, Steel: Energy Efficiency Rebound in Emerging Economies presents three historical case studies of when energy efficiency rebound occurred: lighting from 1700 to present, electricity generation in 20th century America, and iron and steel production from 1900 onward.
Last week, the Department of Energy announced a major investment in advanced nuclear power, a draft solicitation for up to $12.6 billion in loan guarantees across four categories of innovative nuclear energy technologies: front-end fuel cycle innovation, advanced nuclear reactors, small modular reactors, and upgrades or uprates to existing reactors.
A reversal in the International Energy Agency’s views on energy efficiency suggests that as much as 2,176 million tons of oil equivalent worth of extra clean energy consumption will be required by 2035 to meet the organization’s aggressive climate targets. That’s the equivalent of 19 Australias’ energy consumption. This finding is the result of a Breakthrough analysis of a new IEA report, which showcased a new position for the agency on what energy experts call “rebound effects” – a hotly contested phenomenon in energy consumption growth.
This week the International Energy Agency updated their technology roadmaps for solar photovoltaics (PV) and solar thermal energy (STE). The bottom line is that significant policy and technological progress are required for solar to play a major role in electricity in the future. With that progress, IEA finds, solar PV could provide as much as 16 percent of global electricity by 2050, with STE providing another 11 percent –– making solar’s collective 27 percent the largest single contributor to global electricity in this IEA scenario.
The Breakthrough Institute team works to publish up-to-date analysis on natural gas, centering around the history of the shale revolution, pragmatic climate policies, and technological innovation. Here is our collection of analysis on natural gas:
What is natural gas?
Natural gas is methane (CH4), a combustible gas than can be used as fuel for automobiles, for industrial process heat, for residential uses like cooking, and for electricity generation in power plants.
Natural gas is found in a variety of geologic formations, including coalbed seams, sandstone, limestone, shales, and, frozen methane hydrates under the ocean floor. The extraction of natural gas from the ground also produces natural gas “associates” or “gas liquids” like propane, ethane, and butane, that are typically separated from methane and used for other commercial purposes. Because natural gas takes so many different forms and exists in so many different formations, vast quantities of it are found in most parts of the world.
Ask an economist how to combat climate change, and you’re likely to get a pretty simple answer: put a price on carbon.
“If you let the economists write the [climate] legislation, it could be quite simple,” MIT business school economist Henry Jacoby told NPR last year, implying that the whole plan to curb greenhouse gas emissions could “fit on one page.”
In short, tax fossil fuels in proportion to the amount of carbon they release. Make coal, oil and natural gas more expensive. “That’s it; that's the whole plan,” as NPR’s David Kestenbaum put it.
Last Tuesday, energy officials in Saudi Arabia announced plans to become a major nuclear energy state, assuring the reactors would be used only for peaceful purposes (The Nuclear Wire). They intend to move fast, beginning construction by year’s end.
Have the construction costs and duration of new nuclear builds always increased over time? How did humans move away from hunting whales for oil and lubricants? What will innovation look like in the 21st century given that it is increasingly complex? These are a few of the big questions Breakthrough Generation Fellows 2014 tackled this summer, laying the foundation for groundbreaking research in the areas of energy, environment, and innovation.
“While uncertainty over the changes in coal stockpiles still exists, we’re confident that the unbelievable may be at hand: peak coal consumption in China.” So concludes a recent blog post from the Sierra Club’s Justin Guay and Greenpeace International’s Lauri Myllyvirta, the latter of whom recently published an analysis suggesting that Chinese coal consumption dropped in the first half of 2014:
Despite declining emissions, cleaner air, and falling energy prices, natural gas opponents continue to look the gift horse that is the US shale gas revolution in the mouth. The latest canard comes from CO2 Scorecard, the policy wing of environmental consultancy Performeks LLC. Some readers will recall that last year, CO2 Scorecard released a study claiming that rising natural gas generation accounted for only about a quarter of US emissions reductions from 2011 to 2012. Now, in a recent report, which has been cited by the AP and Mother Jones, they claim that rising gas generation accounts for all of the increase in US coal exports. This analytical sleight of hand leads them to claim that fuel switching from high-carbon coal to lower carbon natural gas in the U.S. power sector has resulted in a net increase in global CO2 emissions.
Despite facing a direct threat from climate change, Tanzania plans to rely heavily on coal and natural gas for its future energy needs as the country strives to develop its economy.
The east African nation has suffered from a growing energy deficit in the last several years, caused partly by recurring droughts that have crippled hydropower capacity. Critics say the government has mostly failed to tap the country’s other renewable energy potential to help bridge the power gap.
When African heads of states descend on Washington, DC, next week for the US-Africa Leaders Summit, hosted by President Obama, the challenge of raising millions of Africans out of energy poverty is poised to take center stage. Adding to this conversation are the Electrify and Energize Africa Acts, two parallel pieces of legislation being moved through the House and Senate (respectively). If enacted, the legislation ensures the government will create a framework to increase electrification in sub-Saharan Africa, at no additional cost to US taxpayers.
Most of us tend to think that the more energy we consume, the more we destroy the planet. But according to Linus Blomqvist, Director of Research at the Breakthrough Institute, just the opposite may be true: a world with cheaper, cleaner, and more abundant energy might improve the wellbeing of the growing human population and, at the same time, leave more land for natural habitats and wildlife.
What if Iceman from the X-Men could put a frozen ice wall around the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant so that no radiation could get out? I’d be all for it.
Actually, that’s more likely than you might imagine.
For the past three years, the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) has faced an uphill battle of restoring public trust in their ability to manage the ongoing cleanup of the crippled Fukushima Daichi plant.
Bike share programs might seem like the ultimate environmentally-friendly mode of urban transportation. As more people hop on bikes, the thinking goes, the use of cars will drop.
But researchers have found that the math isn’t quite so simple. According to a new study, London’s bike share program actually increases the number of automobile miles driven per year, partly because trucks are needed to ferry bikes between stations.
In 1898, delegates from across the globe gathered in New York City for the world’s ﬁrst international urban planning conference. One topic dominated the discussion. It was not housing, land use, economic development, or infrastructure. The delegates were driven to desperation by horse manure.
The horse was no newcomer on the urban scene. But by the late 1800s, the problem of horse pollution had reached unprecedented heights. The growth in the horse population was outstripping even the rapid rise in the number of human city dwellers. American cities were drowning in horse manure as well as other unpleasant byproducts of the era’s predominant mode of transportation: urine, ﬂies, congestion, carcasses, and trafﬁc accidents. Widespread cruelty to horses was a form of environmental degradation as well.
Africa has experienced massive economic growth over the last decade, but in order for this growth to translate into significant development outcomes, big investments will be needed to provide electricity to the 600 million sub-Saharan Africans who lack it, said a panel of development experts at Breakthrough Dialogue.
Lack of cheap and reliable energy is a significant barrier to continued economic growth. While some advocates have suggested that small-scale, distributed renewable energy technologies can meet the needs of sub-Saharan Africa, two of the panelists argued that Africa’s power sector will much more diverse, and, at least in the near future, dominated by hydro and fossil fuels.
The following essay was first delivered as the William & Myrtle Harris Distinguished Lectureship in Science and Civilization at the California Institute of Technology on April 30, 2014, and was revised on May 18, 2014.
Thanks to the Harris Family and the Cal Tech community, especially Jed Buchwald and Diana Kormos Buchwald, for the honor to speak with you about cars and civilization. The first speaker, my long-time research partner Nebojsa Nakicenovic, concluded his remarks with the transition from sail to rail about 1830. My title page shows both a horse-drawn coach, the Brewster Park Drag, custom made in 1892 for the Vanderbilt family, who made their fortune in shipping and railroads, and the 1964 Chevrolet research vehicle CERV II with a top speed of 320 km/h (200 mph), and the power of 500 horses. In November 2013 Sotheby’s auctioned the horse-drawn coach for $253,000 and the Chevy for $1,100,000.
When most people think of energy efficiency, they think of modern amenities, like their squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs. But according to one of the world’s experts on the history of energy, lighting has become more efficient for 700 years — and much cheaper as a result.
“Over the last 700 years, there has been a 10,000-fold decline in the cost of lighting,” explained London School of Economics professor Roger Fouquet at Breakthrough Dialogue. “Between 1800 and 2000, there was a 1,000-fold increase in lighting.”
The Energiewende is the world’s most audacious energy policy experiment and comprises Germany’s biggest infrastructure project since post-Second World War reconstruction. No other national energy policy has attracted such international interest, nor polarized opinions. Energiewende — literally translated as “energy turn” or “energy transition” — has two main elements — a withdrawal from nuclear power and an increase in the use of renewable energy.
What is “energy poverty”?
Energy poverty simply means a lack of affordable, reliable electricity needed to support a comfortable, prosperous standard of living. Billions of the world’s energy poor aren’t connected to any power source. And for those who are connected to the grid, the actual flow of electricity is sporadic and blackouts frequent.
Because of outdated and insufficient infrastructure, many countries do not generate enough electricity to meet growing demand, leaving actual consumption at extremely low levels. The average American uses about 13,200 kWh/year. By comparison, here are the averages for citizens in a few African countries (and Todd’s fridge):
World leaders are failing to come to grips with the implications of rapidly rising energy consumption for climate change, climate experts said at last week’s Breakthrough Dialogue.
“If everyone in the world were to consume energy at Germany’s highly efficient levels,” explained Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, “global energy consumption would need to triple or quadruple. How do we provide the energy equivalent of adding 800 Virginias while meeting climate goals?”
In the last few years, there has been a growing consensus among scholars and wonks that the rest of the world will follow the West in living modern lives complete with modern infrastructure, industry, and development. The question is not whether poor countries will develop and lead high-energy lives, but how much more energy they will consume, and how much of it will come from low-carbon sources.
Access to affordable and reliable energy is absolutely essential for human development; but energy production takes a heavy toll on the environment. With demand for energy expected to grow for decades to come as developing nations emerge from poverty, substantial innovation into clean energy technologies will be necessary to achieve our ambitious goals for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.
Eduardo Porter, "Federal Role in Recent Drop in Oil Prices," January 20, 2015
Amy Harder, "Can the US Government Revive Nuclear Power?" November 23, 2014
Tim McDonnell, "Obama's Deal with China Is a Big Win for Solar, Nuclear, and Clean Coal," November 12, 2014
Walter Russell Mead, "Fuzzy Math Can't Hide Shale Boom's Green Credentials," August 21, 2014
Fred Pearce, "World's poor need grid power, not just solar panels," August 5, 2014
Brad Plumer, "There's a big gap between Obama's climate ambitions and his actual policies," June 9, 2014
Jim Manzi, "Energy in the Executive," June 4, 2014
Justin Gillis and Henry Fountain, "Trying to Reclaim Leadership on Climate Change," June 1, 2014
Robert Bryce, "A Nuclear Option for Energy," May 9, 2014
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Global Warming Scare Tactics," April 8, 2014
David Rose, "The Real Cost of Climate McCarthyism," April 5, 2014
Jim Manzi, "The New American System," April 2014
Jennifer Dhouly, "Some Say Keystone Fight Distracts From Broader Climate Aims," February 16, 2014
Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, "Environmentalists Made a Big Mistake By Focusing All Their Attention on Keystone," February 6, 2014
Ben Geman, "Greens Still See Red On Nuclear," February 2, 2014
Max Luke and Jenna Mukuno, "Boldly Going Where No Greens Have Gone Before," January 8, 2014
Ben Geman, "Environmentalists Face a Day of Reckoning on Keystone Pipeline," December 30, 2013
CNN Crossfire, "Is Nuclear Power Safe?" Debate Between Ralph Nader and Michael Shellenberger, November 7, 2013
Matthew Stepp and Alex Trembath, "A Climate Policy That Would Actually Work," October 11, 2013
Staff, "The Striking Challenge of Fracking: Who Does It Benefit and Who Gets Hurt," October 2, 2013
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Can Climate Skeptics Save the Planet?" September 27, 2013
Christopher Colford, "Innovator-in-Chief: The Public Sector," September 3, 2013
Editorial Board, "Don't Give Up on Nuclear Energy Yet," September 5, 2013
Ashutosh Jogalekar, "Nuclear vs. Renewables: A Tale of Disparaties," August 22, 2013
Eduardo Porter, "Coming Full Circle in Energy, to Nuclear," August 20, 2013
Bryan Walsh, "The Surprisingly Large Energy Footprint of the Digital Economy," August 14, 2013
Bryan Walsh, "New Nuclear Reactor Designs Could Address Safety and Cost Concerns," August 5, 2013
Martin Wolf, "A Much-maligned Engine of Innovation," August 5, 2013
Clyde Prestowitz, "Thank Washington for Shale Gas and Oil," August 1, 2013
Fred Pearce, "New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet's Last Best Hope," July 15, 2013
Eliza Strickland, "Can Nuclear Reactors Be Cheap?" July 12, 2013
Bryan Walsh, "Nuclear Energy is Largely Safe. But Can It Be Cheap?" July 8, 2013
Walter Russell Mead, "Shale Gas is Fracking Green," July 6, 2013
Kevin Begos, "Obama Fracking Support In Climate Speech Worries Environmental Groups," June 27, 2013
Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "Going Green? Then Go Nuclear," May 22, 2013
Andrew Sullivan, "Another Look at Nuclear," May 17, 2013
Russell Gold, "Rise in US Gas Production Fuels Unexpected Plunge in Emissions," April 18, 2013
Kevin Begos, "EPA Methane Report Further Divides Fracking Camps," April 28, 2013
Alex Trembath and Matthew Stepp, "Fight Coal, Not Keystone," April 8, 2013