Case Study No. 2 in How to Make Nuclear Innovative
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.
Case Study No. 1 in How to Make Nuclear Innovative
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.
The End of the Nuclear Industry as We Know It
Toward a 21st-Century Model of Nuclear Innovation
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.
The End of the Nuclear Industry as We Know It
How to Make Nuclear Innovative
Lessons from Other Advanced Industries
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.
How to Make Nuclear Innovative
Breakthrough Review in Issues in Science and Technology
Does Climate Policy Matter?
Evaluating the Efficacy of Emissions Caps and Targets Around The World
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.
Britain’s Civilian Nuclear Program Is Not a Stealth Military Program
Lack of Evidence of a Conspiracy is Not Evidence of a Deeper Conspiracy
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.
Calestous Juma Receives 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award
The Breakthrough Institute has named Calestous Juma the recipient of the 2017 Breakthrough Paradigm Award. Professor Juma will accept the prize on stage at the Breakthrough Dialogue in Sausalito, California next June.
The Paradigm Award recognizes accomplishment and leadership in the effort to make the future secure, free, prosperous, and fulfilling for all the world’s inhabitants on an ecologically vibrant planet. Past recipients of the award include Mark Lynas, Emma Marris, Jesse Ausubel, Ruth DeFries, and David MacKay.
Democracy in the Anthropocene
This week, Breakthrough announced that its seventh annual Breakthrough Dialogue will be themed “Democracy in the Anthropocene,” a topic that serves as a challenge in many ways to its participants of varying ecomodernist stripes. “If it turns out,” as the Dialogue’s description concludes, “that we’re not very good at being gods, is it possible to get better at it?”
Does Premature Deindustrialization Pose a Threat to an Ecomodern Future?
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.
What’s the Best Historical Comparison to Climate Change?
Looking for Policy Lessons in the Past
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.
Capitalism and the Planet
Can Growth and Innovation Lead to a Lighter Environmental Footprint?
The notion that high living standards and environmental protection represent a zero-sum game finds expression on both the left and right. On the right, the charge that environmentalists prefer trees and endangered species to people is a long-standing trope. On the left, the idea that humans must dramatically downscale consumption, lest the earth that sustains us collapse, has animated modern environmental thought since the early 1970’s.
Welcome Breakthrough Generation 2016
Scholars Join the Breakthrough Institute for the Summer
Ammonia is Everest Base Camp for Clean Energy
An Innovation Policy in Disguise
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.
Adaptation for a High-Energy Planet
A Climate Pragmatism Project
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.
Zero-Carbon in the 50 States
An Interview with 'Footprint to Wings' Founder Rezwan Razani
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.
March 15: Jessica Lovering Speaking at Climate One
With many of America’s first nuclear power plants nearing the end of their expected lifespan, should they be shut down or given a new lease on life? In recent years the licenses have been extended on many nuclear plants while a few have shut down. There is a lively debate over whether California should shutter the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant. If it does close, would its electricity be replaced by clean fuels, fossil fuels or perhaps new nuclear?
Apples to Apples to Atoms
The Problem with Comparing Learning Rates Across Energy Technologies
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.
Historical Construction Costs of Global Nuclear Power Reactors
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.
Nuclear Costs Reconsidered
‘Negative Learning’ Not Inherent 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.”
Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement
Last week, 'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' coauthor and Alliance for Science visiting fellow Mark Lynas traveled to Oxford to present and debate ecomodernism. Respondents included Oxford geographers Constance McDermott, Richard Grenyer, and Paul Jepson.
Do We Need a New Green Revolution?
Three Breakthrough Senior Fellows Respond to Sharp and Leshner
Earlier this week, Phillip A. Sharp and Alan Leshner argued in the New York Times that we need a new ‘Green Revolution,’ a step-change in agricultural productivity. The United States achieved tremendous productivity gains over the 20th century, the two science advocates argue, but...
Maintaining this level of productivity has been quite a challenge in recent years and is likely to become more difficult over the next few decades as weather patterns, available water and growing seasons shift further and threats of invasive weeds, pests and pathogens rise.
The Year of the Good Anthropocene
Top Breakthroughs of 2015
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.”
COP21 and the Shift Toward Climate Pragmatism
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.
Building the Energy Innovation Consensus
How Innovation Became the Overarching Goal of Global Climate Talks
I have a new piece at Zócalo Public Square on the Paris climate negotiations and energy innovation. It's a riff on these two very different assessments of the climate challenge from Al Gore and Barack Obama.
Ecomodernism in Paris
The biggest news this week was the announcement by President Obama, Bill Gates, and other world and industry leaders that both the private and public sectors would step up their commitment to advanced energy R&D. Bizarre wet blanket skepticism from Joe Romm and Mark Jacobson nothwithstanding, this is huge.
Seeds of a Good Anthropocene
Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Ecomodernist Movement
The UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change's twenty-first Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris is less than a month away. I'm not a huge fan of forums for hundreds of negotiators to figure out how to make business-as-usual sound like ambitious target-setting, but okay.
Does the Internet Save Energy or Not?
Dematerialization or Frontier Effect?
I was fascinated by this well-researched analysis of the energy usage of the Internet over at Low-Tech Magazine.
Fear and Time
Risk Culture and the Broken Doomsday Clock
Things are getting bad — really bad — according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. This past January, the journal reset the Doomsday Clock, its symbol of the imminence of global catastrophe, to a heart-stopping three minutes to midnight — closer than the seven minutes-to-midnight setting during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The specter this time isn’t World War III, the Clock’s longtime focus — disarmament treaties have slashed the numbers of nuclear warheads to a fraction of their Cold War peak — but a raft of terrifying new threats that, in the Bulletin’s estimation, more than make up for the receding menace of nuclear holocaust.
Breakthroughs for an Ecomodernist Future
Energy Access, Radical Innovation, and the Land Impacts of Energy
Another summer, another wealth of research from the Breakthrough Institute thanks to our annual Breakthrough Generation research fellowship. This summer, the Breakthrough Generation Fellows examined the role of development banks in funding energy projects in poor countries, the land footprint of energy, and the role of the state in innovating around complex technologies.
Lessons from the Shale Revolution
A Report on the Conference Proceedings
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?
A Good Anthropocene?
Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future
Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.
What Is the Economics of Ecomodernism?
Decoupling and the Role of the State
What is the appropriate role of markets and the state when it comes to solving big environmental problems? A concurrent session at Breakthrough Dialogue debated different economic schools of thought with respect to how ecomodernists think about growth, innovation, and the environment.
2015 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive
Top Young Scholars to Conduct Research on Global Challenges
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.
The Fossil Fuel Subsidy Red Herring
Subsidies to Fossil Energy Aren't the Low-Hanging Fruit We Might Wish They Were
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.
China’s High-Energy Innovation
An Interview with Dr. Ming Sung, Clean Air Task Force
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.
The Increasing Complexity of Technology
An Interview with Innovation Scholar Don Kash
Following our Lessons From the Shale Revolution conference in late January, the Breakthrough Institute had a chance to catch up with Don Kash, professor emeritus of George Mason University’s School of Policy and Government. Kash spent his entire career working at the intersection of technology, policy, and society, and has been a major influence on contemporary energy and innovation scholars. Long before the Breakthrough Institute made the case for ‘making clean energy cheap,’ he highlighted the crucial role of public energy R&D to improve environmental outcomes.
The End of the Clean Energy Race
The 'Cooperative Advantage' in Energy Innovation
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?
Why We Should Pay the Shale Revolution Forward
"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.
Interview with William Burnett, Formerly of the Gas Research Institute
The Gas Research Institute's Evolving Role in Shale Gas
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.
Interview with Bob Hanold, Formerly of Los Alamos National Laboratory
On the Partnership Office Between Los Alamos and Sandia
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.
The Year of Our High-Energy Planet
Top Breakthroughs of 2014
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.
High-Energy Innovation: The Case of Shale Gas
The Global Quest for Natural Gas
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.
US-China Climate Deal Underscores Need for Substantial Energy Innovation
China to Add More Electric Power From Coal Than From Nuclear, Wind, or Solar
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.
A Climate Pragmatism Project
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.
Interview with Norm Warpinski, Director of Technology for Pinnacle
On the Early Experiments That Catalyzed the Shale Revolution
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.
Interview with David Northrop, Formerly of Sandia National Labs
On the Partnership Office That Facilitated Public-Private Collaboration
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.
Welcome New York Times Readers
An Introduction to the Breakthrough Institute
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 Left vs. the Climate
Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet
Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.
Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks to Nuclear
Royal Family Plans for Nuclear to Provide 15 Percent of Power in 20 Years
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.
Economists have long recognized innovation's central importance to economic growth, but have still not come to terms with the reality that “general-purpose” technologies like electricity, microchips, and the Internet often emerge from long-term public-private partnerships. And since no two technologies are exactly alike, case studies of successful innovation policy must be carefully analyzed to spur similar successes in the future.
Technology has allowed humankind to transcend natural limits that otherwise would have kept us as hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. Continuous innovations, both radical and incremental, will help us achieve a world in which all the world’s inhabitants can lead prosperous, secure lives while diminishing our impacts on wild, beautiful places.
Forging an Ecomodernist Vision of the Future
From Water Consumption to Whales, Generation Fellows Conduct Cutting-Edge Research
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.
Is Coal Really “Peaking” in China?
Better Technologies Needed for Emissions to Start Falling
“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:
Energy For All* – But Make Sure to Read the Fine Print
Why We Need to Be Careful with How We Generalize Energy Needs
Meet Doña Maria (pictured above). She is a mother, housewife, agricultural worker, and shopkeeper, who lives with her two daughters in a rural community located approximately 30 kilometres from Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua. Until recently, she was one of 1.4 billion people on this planet without access to electricity.
That was until Doña Maria participated in a program that provided her family with a solar home system (SHS). The SHS means that Doña Maria has electric lighting – she no longer suffers the polluting kerosene lamp or strains her eyes with the low luminescence of a candle. Doña Maria can power a limited number of small devices, which means she does not have to travel to the nearest grid-connected town to recharge her mobile phone.
Electrify to Adapt
Tanzania to Use More Natural Gas and Coal to Combat Energy Poverty
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.
How Cars Saved the Urban Environment
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.
Development Experts Make the Case for Big Investments in Sub-Saharan Africa
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.
There’s No Way Around the Need for Innovation
How Jonathan Chait Misunderstands the “Technology-First” Approach
Usually the best response to the name-calling that so often passes for public discourse over climate policy is to ignore it, but Jonathan Chait’s June 17 piece in New York Magazine deserves discussion because it unintentionally illustrates the most underappreciated source of climate gridlock today: the partisan groupthink that often prevents liberals from engaging in any kind of conversation about creative ways to finesse the barriers to progress.
Efficiency Gains Have Driven Cost Declines and Increases in Energy Consumption – Will the Trend Continue or Peak?
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 Cooperative Advantage
How Innovation Rewrote the Rules of Foreign Policy
If you wish to conduct some latter-day colonial expansion on behalf of the US government, look no further than US Code 48, Chapter 8: “Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano” — dried bat or bird droppings — “on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.”1
In short: find an unoccupied rock in international waters on which a seagull has relieved herself and you can claim it for America.
The Energy Innovation Imperative
If Carbon Pricing Is Primary Solution, Climate Change Won’t Be Solved
The following article first appeared in Christian Science Monitor and is reproduced with the authors’ permission.
Carbon pricing has been the go-to solution for economists and environmentalists alike since climate change was identified as one of the foremost social and environmental challenges of our time.
Want a climate rescue plan? Carbon pricing. Want to raise revenue for clean energy deployment? Carbon pricing. It's the "silver bullet" for other things, too. Want to reduce reliance on foreign oil? Or raise revenue to correct other tax inefficiencies? Carbon pricing.
Why Tesla Giving Up Its Intellectual Property Is the Model for Clean Tech
Late last week, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, announced he would not initiate lawsuits against anyone who uses the patents for Tesla’s technologies. In effect, Tesla’s competitors can now freely take advantage of the company’s designs for sunroofs, vehicle parts, and batteries.
Given Musk’s celebrity status as an inventor, it is no surprise that most of the press has devoted its coverage to analyzing his rationale. On the face of it, letting others openly copy the technologies and ideas you have painstakingly developed doesn’t seem like a sensible business plan. In the long-term, however, Musk’s decision shows how greater knowledge sharing and looser patent regulations could accelerate innovation in the clean tech industry.
Embracing Creative Destruction
Hopeful Pragmatism for a Disruptive World
Over the last two decades, Joseph Schumpeter has become perhaps the most influential economist in the world, largely because of his view of capitalism as a process of “creative destruction.” His most famous work, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, published in 1942, is today more widely cited than John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Schumpeter taught at Harvard and was elected president of the American Economics Association in 1948. Yet his work was neglected outside of academic economics for almost half a century after his death in 1950.
Solar Panels Are Not Cell Phones
The Developing World Won’t Leapfrog the Traditional Grid to Solar Microgrids
“Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options,” the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon wrote in the New York Times last year, “just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks.”
This seems like good news for those who envision solar panels powering the future economies of today’s developing countries. The Sierra Club believes that the “hardened and centralized infrastructure of 20th-century power grid” will be unnecessary in countries where little or no infrastructure currently exists. The White House recently announced that $1 billion in Power Africa investments (out of $7 billion for the whole initiative) will be directed at off-grid projects, writing that distributed generation “holds great promise to follow the mobile phone in leapfrogging centralized infrastructure across Africa.”
2014 Breakthrough Generation Fellows Arrive
Top Young Scholars to Conduct Cutting-Edge Research
An outdoors enthusiast who studies innovations systems at the Consortium for Policy, Science & Outcomes; a masters student at the Massachusetts Institute Technology performing nuclear fuel cycle analyses; a young woman who biked across two states to advocate for moving beyond fossil fuels; and a postgrad studying water governance who spent a year in rural China. These are among the 10 outstanding young thinkers will join the Breakthrough Institute this summer for research fellowships focused on crafting new approaches to major environmental challenges.
Jeremy Rifkin’s Techno-Nirvana Fantasy
A World of Abundance Where Humans Consume Less?
Techno-utopianism seems to be a particularly American phenomena. As I argued in The Past and Future of America’s Economy it seems like about every half century – usually as it turns out right before a big structural slowdown of technological innovation – pundits and scholars start to go overboard on how great the techno-enabled future will be. Case in point was the 1967 book Year 2000 written by Herman Kahn, noted futurist and founder of the Hudson Institute. Kahn relied on the new “science” of forecasting and ended up with a book that had the tone of “you ain’t seen nothing yet.” He wrote:
The Best-Case Scenarios for Palm Oil
Why Rhett Butler is Optimistic About Forest Conservation
Two firsthand experiences with deforestation – one in Ecuador, another in Borneo – inspired Rhett Butler to launch the news site Mongabay, which was named one of the top 15 environmental websites by TIME, and remains one of the most popular sources for conservation and biodiversity news. Trained as an economist, Butler believes he comes to conservation with a broader view of what motivates people to act, and how certain conservation and land use policies are adopted whereas others aren’t. Most recently, he was an advisor to the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which features a prominent episode on palm oil deforestation in Indonesia. Breakthrough caught up with Butler to discuss the economic benefits and environmental hazards of palm oil production, with an eye toward the policies and trends that give us reason to be more optimistic about deforestation.
Why Innovation Should Be at the Heart of Climate Policy
An Interview With Matthew Stepp of CCEI
As a graduate student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Matthew Stepp was frustrated by the fact that the major climate change policies under debate – carbon pricing, electric vehicle subsidies, feebates – weren’t enough to deeply cut carbon. He was also skeptical that the climate advocacy’s vague call for movement building could change the political economy calculus.
At the Breakthrough Institute, where Stepp was a Generation Fellow, he found others who shared his frustration and were attempting to outline new policies that could effect technological change. Four years later, and Stepp is now the leader of the first think tank in Washington, DC, that is dedicated to spurring clean energy innovation, much like what was accomplished with the shale gas revolution.
Reducing Our Hoofprint
How Agricultural Intensification Can Boost Yields and Biodiversity
Over the last two decades, cattle rancher Carlos Hernando Molina has replaced 220 acres of open pastureland with trees, shrubs, and bushy vegetation. But he hasn’t eliminated the cows. Today, his land in southwestern Colombia more closely resembles a perennial nursery at a garden center than a grazing area. Native, high-value timber like mahogany and samanea grow close together along the perimeter of the pasture. The trees are strung with electric wire and act as live fences. In the middle of the pen grow leucaena trees, a protein-packed forage tree, and beneath the leucaena are three types of tropical grasses and groundcover such as peanuts.
Can Any Tech Stop Asia’s Coal Future?
Solar, CCS, Nuclear, and Natural Gas Not Scaling Fast Enough
Coal will dominate China’s power landscape for decades to come and is increasing in Southeast Asia’s energy mix as well. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has reported that coal will replace natural gas as the dominant power-generating fuel in the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). At the same time, energy consumption in this region is expected to double in the next 20 years, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that coal will account for approximately 83 percent of electricity production in the Asia-Pacific by 2035. In advance of the 2014 Pacific Energy Forum, NBR spoke with Armond Cohen, Cofounder and Executive Director of the Clean Air Task Force, to explore the implications of coal’s growing role in the fuel mix of China and ASEAN countries—as well as India—and assess the tools and policy options available to reduce the environmental impacts.
UC Berkeley's Per Peterson Pursues Radical New Design with Off-the-Shelf Technologies
What is the best design to make next generation nuclear reactors safer and cheaper? That’s the question everyone from Bill Gates to the Chinese government is asking. The US Department of Energy has recently bet that smaller will be cheaper, funding small modular reactors with passive safety features. But much of the action is on molten salt reactors, which are being pursued by Gates-backed Terrapower, Transatomic, and UC Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Professor Per Peterson.
Jim Manzi and the New Conservative Case for Innovation
Recent years have seen growing recognition of the critical role the US government has played in creating world-changing technologies. In several State of the Union addresses, President Barack Obama made mention of the role of government in creating the information-communications revolutions. And various scholars including Richard Nelson, Vernon Ruttan, Fred Block, Rob Atkinson, Michael Lind, William Janeway, and Mariana Mazzucato have described how the federal government financed the invention of manufacturing through interchangeable parts (for rifles), canals and railroads, dams and highways, jets and microchips, pharmaceutical drugs, and much more.
Off on the Wrong Foot
Why A Footprint Is A Poor Metaphor for Humanity’s Impact on the Planet
On the cover of Our Ecological Footprint, published in 1996, a giant foot stomps on the Western hemisphere, carrying the weight of cars, overpasses, and skyscrapers. William Rees, a population ecologist at the University of British Columbia, first thought of the footprint metaphor while boasting to a graduate student about the “small footprint” of his new computer tower in 1992. Linguists trace the use of footprint to mean “space occupied” to 1965 when astronomers described the landing area for a spacecraft. It would be another 14 years before a Senate committee first uttered “environmental footprint.” But is this the best metaphor for humanity’s impact on the natural world?
In Defense of ‘Picking Winners’
To Reduce GHG Emissions, We Need Government-Led Innovation
Virtually all economists working on climate change agree that we should price GHG emissions. Doing so creates an incentive to reduce emissions without the government directing specific technology adoptions or activity changes, that is, without “picking winners.”
Nearly as many economists agree that we should subsidize basic R&D. Doing so accelerates the scientific breakthroughs that will be necessary to avoid even higher concentrations of carbon in the atmosphere. Of course, we can’t and shouldn’t subsidize all basic R&D regardless of how nutty the idea or indirect the connection to GHG reduction. We should subsidize the best ideas, that is, we should pick winners.
The Nuclear Power Imperative
Breakthrough Senior Fellow Richard Lester on the Need for Next-Gen Nuclear
Can we solve the energy problem without nuclear? I’ll come to my own views on this question shortly. But first I want to make a few comments about other people’s views.
In recent months, some prominent and previously antinuclear environmentalists have been declaring their support for a larger nuclear role, citing the risks of climate change for their change of mind.
How Wood-Burning Environmentalists Show Behavior Changes Won't Solve Climate Change
While much of the US has been dealing with severe winter weather, California is experiencing a record dry spell. The clear skies have also brought some cold nights and, with them, wood smoke. What I’ve noticed in my neighborhood is that the desire for a cozy wood fire cuts across political lines. And as the local air quality authority has called a record number of no-burn days due to poor air quality (high levels of PM 2.5, the fine particulates that can get through the respiratory system and lodge in lungs), the anger at restrictions on those cozy fires has also cut across political lines.
Byting the Hand That Feeds
Why Silicon Valley Should Improve, Not Abandon, Washington
In Silicon Valley, 2013 will be remembered as the year the idea of separating from the United States went viral. There was the Stanford lecturer and investor, Balaji Srinivasan, who called for “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,” declaring to a large audience of elite entrepreneurs, "We need to build an opt-in society, outside the U.S., run by technology.”
How Virgin Galactic's Efficient Spacecraft Opens Up New Frontiers for Energy Consumption
In a new article in today’s Wall Street Journal, two Breakthrough Institute staff members argue that the rise of commercial space tourism, heralded by Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo upcoming launch, makes the case that humans will continue to use more, not less, energy in the future, despite improvements in energy efficiency. In fact, contrary to conventional wisdom, efficiency improvements may ultimately enable greater levels of energy consumption.
2014 Breakthrough Senior Fellows Announced
Five Distinguished Scholars Join Breakthrough Community
A economist studying electricity access for India’s poor. A Stanford University scholar who published a groundbreaking ecomodernist critique of environmentalism over two decades ago. One of France’s leading novelists and social critics. The co-inventor of a breakthrough nuclear technology. And the engineering professor who revitalized MIT’s nuclear energy department. Breakthrough Institute is honored to announce these individuals — Joyashree Roy, Martin Lewis, Pascal Bruckner, Per Peterson, and Richard Lester — as Breakthrough Senior Fellows 2014.
This is the sixth year of Breakthrough Senior Fellows. These five new Senior Fellows will join 30 Senior Fellows. Breakthrough Senior Fellows advise Breakthrough Institute staff, collaborate on scholarly and popular papers and reports, and attend Breakthrough Institute’s annual conference, the Breakthrough Dialogue.
The Myth of America’s Great Stagnation
The Age of Innovation Isn’t Over
Is the great age of American economic growth over? You’d be forgiven for thinking so. Despite recovering job growth—the US economy added an estimated 203,000 jobs in November—the United States is likely to experience slower GDP growth in the decades ahead. Since 1960, the rate has been 3.3 percent. But the Federal Reserve predicts a rate of 2.1 to 2.5 percent in the future, and JPMorgan even projects a rate of less than 1.75 percent. The longer trajectory is grim: US economic growth has been gradually decelerating for decades, from a 70-year average of 3.6 percent (1939-2009) to a 10-year average of just 1.9 percent (1999-2009).
Without Government the Market Fails and Fails Badly
What the Simon-Ehrlich Debate Reveals About Technological Change
In a previous post, we discussed some of the evidence suggesting that technology is indeed endogenous and does respond to scarcities and prices.
Many economists have worked on modeling this type of endogeneity of technology and how it responds to prices. Remember the great economist John Hicks’s assertion, which we quoted in our previous post, about how higher price of a factor will tend to induce technological changes directed at economizing on that factor.
Climate Change Is Now in the Developing World’s Hands
Can Their Economic Self-Interest Help Us All?
This past weekend, exhausted diplomats from around the world climbed into fossil fuel–powered airplanes and bade good riddance to Warsaw, Poland. They had spent two weeks holed up in the frigid capital engaging in what has become an annual Kabuki dance over what to do about climate change. Almost exactly as has happened in prior international climate change conferences—gatherings that, like the falling leaves, have become autumnal rites—intonations about a global warming threat were offered, hope for selfless environmental cooperation was expressed, and battles over who should foot the bill were fought. By the time everyone headed for the airport, little of substance had gotten done.
Commanders in Growth?
Charting Economic Growth Under Republican vs. Democratic Presidents
The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post recently reported on a new paper by Alan Blinder and Mark Watson (here in PDF, hereafter BW13), which tackles what would seem to be a straightforward question: Why is it that since World War II the US economy has grown significantly faster under Democratic presidents than Republican presidents? This post looks at this question from the broader standpoint of policy research methods. I conclude that BW13 have asked the wrong question, one that lends itself to many answers or none at all, and perhaps it tells us more about policy research methods than anything else.
The Explosive Rise of Subsidies to Chinese Industry
How China’s Mercantilism Hurts the Global Economy
The intellectual foundation of free trade, and the North Star guide for US international trade policy, was formulated by David Ricardo, a 19th century classical economist whose theory of comparative advantage holds that the market determines which nations are naturally good at producing and that more trade is always welfare-maximizing. What happens when a nation openly rejects Ricardo, desires absolute, not comparative, advantage, and employs massive state subsidies to attain that end, is the subject of Usha and George Haley’s comprehensive and groundbreaking book Subsidies to Chinese Industry: State Capitalism, Business Strategy, and Trade Policy.
It’s Not About the Money
More Money for Basic Science Is Not Resulting in Societal Benefits
Amid the mess of US politics — a pointless government shutdown, across-the-board cuts, endless partisan squabbling — now is a good moment to take stock of the fate of publicly funded science. After all, five years ago next week Barack Obama was first elected president, promising that he would “restore science to its rightful place” in US society. How has he done?
The Lessons of Hinkley Point C
Why Nuclear Needs to Get Cheaper, Faster
The energy-geek world I inhabit has been abuzz this week with the announcement of commercial terms for the construction of 3.2 GW of new nuclear power in the UK, to be known as Hinkley Point C. Total cost to first operation is £16 billion, comprising £14 billion in construction and £2 billion in costs to date. At £5,000 kW installed, we are talking some serious coin here.
Peak Coal in China or Long, High Plateau?
Half of Nation’s Power in 2030 Will Come From Coal
China coal power is one of the world’s largest single contributors to carbon dioxide emissions, which will likely need to be reduced to near-zero levels over the next few decades to manage climate change. So when two reports came out in the last few weeks that project a peak in Chinese coal consumption within the next couple of decades, many environmental and energy commentators concluded that the problem has been tamed, and that coal will be swiftly replaced by wind, solar and gas.
Innovation Before Carbon Pricing
How Economists Misrepresent Energy and Technology
Carbon taxes are in vogue. Economists’ predilection for price signals as the universal solution has fused with environmentalists’ impulse to punish Big Oil and Big Coal to make carbon taxes the darling of the climate change debate.
It’s the elegant solution climate hawks have been looking for since the death of cap-and-trade. But as Dr. Rob Gross, the Director of the U.K. Imperial College Centre for Energy Policy and Technology stated, this idea is, “so simplistic it is absurd.” Carbon taxes are doomed to fail because they do little to drive what is needed most: innovation that generates affordable clean energy that all 7 billion humans will want to adopt, not out of altruism or coercion, but out of self-interest.
Weighing the Benefits and Trade-Offs of Natural Gas
A Conversation with Michael Shellenberger & NRDC’s Kate Sinding
MODERATOR: Kate Sinding is a senior attorney and deputy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program. Her primary focus involves ensuring the proposed natural gas drilling in the northeast is subject to the most stringent environment and health protections.
Michael Shellenberger is an author, environmental policy expert and the president of the Breakthrough Institute, which is a long-time grantee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Co-editor of “Love your Monsters” and “The Death of Environmentalism,” Michael, and his coauthor Ted Nordhaus, were described by Slate Magazine as modernists or ecopragmatists. Welcome to both of you.
‘Mass Flourishing’ Falls to Myths of Economic Growth
Edmund Phelps’s Book Belies State’s Role in Innovation
Despite winning the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2006, Edmund Phelps has endeavored to write a big and ambitious book—something like The Wealth of Nations for the 21st century. Phelps hopes to offer a bold new answer to the big question of why some nations are wealthy and others poor. While innovation is central to his latest book Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change, Phelps does not understand how innovation occurs. What he intended as a learned argument for rolling back ‘big government’ ends up sounding like just another Tea Party diatribe.
The Bottom Line on iPhones vs. Refrigerators
"The Cloud Begins with Coal" Author Responds to His Critics
It’s uncontroversial to note that the global information-communications-technology sector (ICT) uses a lot of electricity. But convert that observation into a per capita form, illustrated, for example, by how many kilowatt-hours an iPhone might use, and protests and invectives sprout up faster than windmills in Iowa.
In response to our new report The Cloud Begins with Coal: Big Networks, Big Infrastructure, Big Power, some in the media got the point, but others seized on the comparison between an iPhone and refrigerator’s annual energy use and made claims of cherry picking and questionable assumptions. It should be obvious -- though apparently not for some -- that we are not talking about the few kilowatt-hours (kWh) a year needed to recharge the battery inside an iPhone, iPad, or their equivalents.
The Cloud Needs More Precise Energy Accounting
Don’t Feel Guilty About Your iPhone Use Just Yet
In the last few weeks an idea has been making the rounds that, when you count all of the required networks and cloud services, your iPhone uses more electricity than your refrigerator. This idea was first presented in a publication called The Cloud Begins with Coal by Mark Mills, and was quickly followed up with further analysis (and a different version of the calculation) by the Breakthrough Institute, “Bracing for the Cloud.” [Disclosure: I am proud to be a Senior Fellow at the Breakthrough Institute.]
Since these articles make some very interesting points, I decided to dive into the data. I’ll share some observations here. At the end, I’ll take a closer look at the iPhone-fridge comparison. Teaser: I wouldn’t crank up the iPhone guilt just yet.
Drilling for Innovation
How Revenue from Oil and Gas Can Fund Clean Energy R&D
In 2011, ITIF proposed using a portion of U.S. oil and gas drilling revenue from federal lands to fund critical clean energy innovation programs. The proposal expanded on a similar idea made in 2008 by House Republicans in the American Energy Act, which called for using revenue from expanded drilling to support both fossil fuel and clean energy programs. In 2013, Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski reinvigorated the idea by calling for the creation of an “Advanced Energy Trust Fund” backed by revenue from expanded oil and gas drilling to support a broad set of policies including clean energy innovation. Shortly thereafter, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE) proposed a scaled-down version that would use a smaller share of oil and gas revenues to support the development of low-carbon and natural gas-based transportation technologies. President Obama ultimately made SAFE’s proposal a key part of his second-term energy strategy during his State of the Union address.
Nuclear and Gas Account for Most Carbon Displacement Since 1950
US Saved About 54 Billion Tonnes of Carbon Dioxide Emissions Switching to Cleaner Energy
A new analysis finds that the vast majority of the carbon dioxide emissions associated with America’s carbon intensity decline since the mid-1900s can be attributed to the increasing shares of two energy sources: nuclear fission and natural gas. These two fuels have done more than any others to displace coal, and have saved the country 54 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions since 1950. By comparison, in 2012 the entire world energy sector emitted 35 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.
No More Railing Against iPhones
ICT Ecosystem Must Be Part of Innovation Strategy
Given the explosion of information and communications technology (ICT) and the proliferation of tablets, smart phones, and other high tech devices, it is pertinent to investigate the potential climate change implications of an increasingly digital world. This is the topic of the Breakthrough blog post “Bracing for the Cloud,” which rightly points out that “we need to be thinking seriously about how we can power the information sector with cheaper, cleaner alternatives.”