Building the Case for a High-Energy Planet

Generation Fellows Assess Future of Energy, Innovation, and Agriculture

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The sixth annual Breakthrough Generation Fellowship came to a close last week, as fellows reflected on the central challenges and questions of the 21st century. From case studies in energy efficiency backfire to evaluations of the land footprint of food to alternative transportation pathways, this year’s projects led to surprising and path-breaking answers. From left to right: Linus Blomqvist, director of Conservation Program; Erik Funkhouser, fellow; Tom Keen, fellow; Loren King, policy associate, Economic Growth & Innovation Program; Alex Aki, fellow; Jessica Lovering, policy analyst, Energy & Climate Program; Luke Lavin, fellow; Amy Meyer, fellow; Oliver Kerr, fellow; Marian Swain, fellow; Dina Abdulhadi, fellow; and Alex Trembath, policy analyst, Energy & Climate Program.

August 23, 2013 | Breakthrough Staff,

How much land would be required to power the world on renewable energy alone? When does greater energy efficiency actually increase energy consumption? How are China and the United States working together on innovative technologies like solar and wind? What is the future of travel? These are some of the big questions Breakthrough Generation 2013 Fellows confronted this year, leading to surprising and path-breaking answers.

Generation Fellows Erik Funkhouser and Oliver Kerr investigated conventional models of technology transfer and found them lacking. As a corrective to the innovation pipeline fallacy, they cast developing markets as active agents in the creation, deployment, and adoption of new and improved technologies that would provide cheaper, better, and clean forms of energy. By investigating numerous case studies they found that innovation works best by leveraging existing systems, networks, and relationships, and by understanding that societal needs and preferences differ between countries and contexts.

National governments, the International Energy Agency, the United Nations Panel on Climate Change, and others have embraced efficiency as a primary means of addressing climate change through energy and emissions savings. But these projections rarely tell the full story. In eight case studies, Amy Meyer identified how energy efficiency has been used as an input for continued technological innovation, cost reduction, and increased energy use. In doing so, we bring the effectiveness of energy efficiency as an energy-savings measure into question, and highlight the importance of energy efficiency in creating new ways of using energy and diffusing energy services through society.

In 2012 the US transportation sector was responsible for 70 percent of the nation’s total petroleum consumption and emitted 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide. In order to better understand future pathways to a low carbon transportation sector, Alex Aki compared alternative vehicle technologies to conventional petroleum internal combustion technologies, with the goal of understanding the former’s "technological readiness.” She found that the electrification of vehicles offers the most promising near-term path to decarbonization.

The contrast between visions of a "soft energy world" – one that relies on a small amount of decentralized energy – and a "high energy planet" – one that embraces universal abundant, cheap, and clean energy services as a moral imperative was brought into sharp relief by Marian Swain and Luke Lavin. Using a series of metrics, illustrations, and comparisons, we distinguished the fundamental differences of these two worldviews and began to lay the case for a high-energy planet.

The relationship between human impacts on the environment and production of goods and services for human consumption is one that bears continued re-evaluation. In the environmental science literature, nitrogen and phosphorous are often treated as uniformly negative inputs to the environment, but it’s a more complicated story. Dina Abdulhadi investigated the efficiency of nitrogen and phosphorous use in agricultural settings. Using a new metric she found evidence that some countries have become more efficient at using N and P, suggesting a "decoupling" between agricultural production and harm to the environment.

As the global population approaches nine billion and per-capita incomes rise, food demand is expected to increase considerably over the next few decades. Without higher productivity to match, this could lead to further losses of habitats and species. Tom Keen critically reviewed the existing literature on the relationship between food consumption and land use as a basis for constructing a model of the entire chain from food consumption to farm-level yields. Alongside climate change, we find the land-efficient provision of food is a central challenge for conservation in this century.

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The Generation fellowship concluded last Friday, August 16, with presentations to a group of 20 Breakthrough Institute funders and friends. At the close of the fellowship, Marian Swain joined the Breakthrough staff as a policy associate in the Conservation and Development program. Meanwhile, the other fellows continue to secure their next pursuits, including work at the World Bank, employment at a tech consultancy, and further graduate and post-graduate studies. We expect many of our fellows from this summer will lead the way for pragmatic thinking on today’s toughest challenges. Until then, we wish them the best of luck on their next chapter and thank them for their hard work this past summer.


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