We don’t need new miracle technologies to cut emissions – we need to act now

Originally posted on EVANNEX.
through Charles Morris

We know what we need to do to reduce carbon emissions and clean the air we breathe: replace fossil fuel vehicles with electric vehicles and fossil fuel power plants with renewable energy sources.

Image courtesy of EVANNEX. (Photo by Casey Murphy)

Stating the problem and the solution may be simple, but getting there will be anything but. No one doubts that the transition to a low-carbon economy will require an unprecedented effort, and we hear a lot of voices arguing that today’s technologies are not up to the task – some believe the right approach is to focus on research. future technologies, while gradually reducing emissions from the existing fossil fuel-based system.

Of course, many of these arguments come from supporters of the fossil fuel industries (we can’t solve the problem overnight, so it’s best to do nothing), or bogus ‘zero emission’ technologies like nuclear and hydrogen (replacing fuels with other fuels, a little less polluting). Others come from mad scientists who sell risky, unproven programs like carbon sequestration or direct carbon capture (it’s too late to cut emissions, but give us a few billion dollars, and we’ll try to clean up some of the mess).

Unfortunately, a lot of these ‘research, not action’ arguments come from people who are ‘on our side’, so to speak – people who understand the need to tackle climate change, but who are not directly involved in making it happen. implementation of EV and renewable energy solutions, and therefore may not have a detailed understanding of the current state of technology.

US Climate Envoy John Kerry recently said“Scientists tell me that 50 percent of the reductions we need to make to get to net zero will come from technologies we don’t yet have.” It is certainly refreshing to hear that senior government officials listen to scientists, but they might also do well to listen to engineers and entrepreneurs in relevant fields.

Bill Gates has long been a proponent of finding solutions to climate change, but he seems to have little interest in deploying technologies that already exist. He recently reviewed renewable energy and batteries will not be enough to decarbonise the global economy, so we need “miracle technologies”. Gates has advocated for and invested in emerging concepts such as carbon capture and storage, direct air capture, small modular nuclear reactors and biofuels.

To 2021 International Energy Agency report seems to be offering support to the “let’s wait a minute” crowd. He predicts that “in 2050, almost half of the reductions [will] come from technologies currently in the demonstration or prototype phase. However, the same report recognizes the feasibility of short-term action: “All the technologies needed to achieve the necessary significant reductions in global emissions by 2030 already exist.”

Of course, Tesla has always focused on the action here and now, in keeping with Silicon Valley’s famous philosophy of continuous improvement. In 2003, the Tesla team did not have an optimal automatic battery to work with – they brought the Roadster to the market using widely available laptop batteries (while developing new technology for the next model). Tesla has been criticized for prioritizing innovation over quality control, and more than one former Tesla executive has told me there is a grain of truth in this – the Tesla way. is to bring new technology to the production line as quickly as possible, even if it means making a costly mistake every now and then. A Tesla that is on the road cuts emissions with every mile – a Tesla that only exists in a CAD program is not. Otherwise, as I told in my Tesla story, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning carefully considered the pros and cons of various types of alternative fuels, including hydrogen and biofuels, before deciding to build their business on electric battery technology.

In a recent article for The hill, Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, examines the claim that we will need new technologies such as carbon capture, bioenergy and new forms of nuclear energy to achieve the net zero.

The main technologies for generating renewable electricity today are wind, solar, geothermal, and hydropower, collectively known as wind-water-solar (WWS) technologies. “All of them are heavily marketed,” writes Jacobson. “In fact, wind and solar are currently the cheapest power generation technologies. Wind and solar are also so abundant that they can each power the universal energy of the world over and over again.

Of course, renewables must work in tandem with energy storage. As Jacobson explains, existing storage technologies include batteries, pumped hydroelectricity, hydroelectric dams, flywheels, and compressed air storage, and several of these are already in commercial operation. “Already in many places, more solar batteries are cheaper than coal or nuclear and replace both,” writes Jacobson. “In fact, battery costs have fallen by 90% over the past 10 years. No miracles are needed in this area, just faster deployment. So we don’t need modern bioelectricity, nuclear or carbon capture. “

Transportation is the other half of the equation, and here too the implementation has gone well beyond the demonstration and prototype phases. “Electric vehicles are commercial vehicles and replace fossil fuel vehicles of all types and weights,” writes Jacobson. Exceptions include long-haul aircraft, ships, and highway trucks. “These long-haul heavy vehicles are in the last 5 percent of energy technologies that may take 2035 to 2040 to market. However, these vehicles can and likely will run on hydrogen fuel cells. To produce hydrogen, we will use existing and improved electrolysers powered by renewable electricity. Thus, no biofuel, such as ethanol, biodiesel or biofuel, is needed. “

“We have 95% of the technologies we need today and the know-how to ensure that the rest addresses both energy and non-energy emissions,” concludes Jacobson. “No miracle technology is needed. By implementing only clean, renewable WWS energy and storage and implementing non-energy strategies, we will tackle not only the climate, but also the 7 million annual deaths from air pollution worldwide and energy insecurity. None of the “miracle technologies” addresses all three. “

Of course, no one is saying that basic research, or the study of technologies in the distant future, should stop. However, at this point in history, it would probably be wise to devote more of the limited global R&D funding to D rather than R. Researchers around the world are working on larger capacity batteries and faster charging, more efficient solar cells. , better storage options and smarter power grids, and their efforts promise to deliver results in years, not decades.

We cannot afford to divert limited resources to studying technologies that may or may not pay off in 2050. Most analysts agree that the current pace of electrification is far too slow to avoid catastrophic climate change. To quote the IEA report quoted above: “Government climate commitments to date – even if fully achieved – would be well below what is needed to reduce global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions. to zero net by 2050 and give the world an equal chance to keep the global temperature from rising to 1.5 ° C ”

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About Dianne Stinson

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