Clean-energy miracles: Myth or viable strategy?

A debate is growing between techno-optimists who argue for a sharp increase in clean-energy research to pursue breakthroughs and those who say we should push harder on existing green technologies.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
5 min read

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--As people consider the best path to a sustainable energy future, two polar ends of a debate are emerging between those who argue for a big boost in technology research and those who advocate more aggressive use of existing technology.

Those who work at incumbent companies in the oil and gas industry don't expect miracles with the ability to transform energy overnight, according to speakers at the EmTech conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology yesterday.

At the opposite extreme are techno-optimists, such as Bill Gates and venture capitalist John Doerr, who say that much more money should be plowed into research and development to stimulate clean-energy innovation.

Funding more energy research is a good idea, but don't expect even a sharp increase in spending to turn energy around quickly, said Jose Bravo, chief scientist at Shell Global Solutions, during a panel.

"You don't create miracles by throwing money at something--that's never been the case," Bravo said. "It's not like you'll wake up one morning and Bill Gates has funded a project that saved the Earth."

Many of today's green-technology entrepreneurs and investors have come from the IT industry, where the pace of change has been rapid and relentless. But the major energy transitions that happened in the past--from wood to coal, for example--took decades.

Expecting energy to operate at the same pace as Moore's Law and the world of bits and bytes is misguided, said Elisabeth Moyer, assistant professor of atmospheric science at the University of Chicago.

"There's been a lot of excessive techno-optimism based on people's experience with information technology. It's just not that way in energy. You're constrained by the laws of physics," Moyer said during a talk. "It's going to be big, hard, expensive, and slow. There's really no way around it."

What are your options?
The Obama administration made clean-energy investments a big part of the economic stimulus package and continues to make energy research a priority through a number of initiatives. The ARPA-E agency, for example, is tasked with placing bets on breakthrough energy technologies in areas such as energy storage and recycling carbon dioxide from power plants.

High-profile investor Vinod Khosla, who manages a $1 billion green-technology fund, regularly argues that people underestimate the impact of technology innovation. Khosla chases potential game-changing ideas, such as Calera, which has a process for making cement using waste carbon dioxide, and Kior, a start-up that is testing a process to make bio-gasoline from wood.

"A better way to forecast the future is to invent it because it's been proven that extrapolating the past doesn't work," Khosla said at the ARPA-E Summit in March. Bill Gates, meanwhile, has invested in TerraPower, a company pursuing a nuclear reactor design that would use spent fuel from other nuclear power plants, allowing it to operate for decades without fueling.

Speakers on the energy panel at EmTech yesterday advocated for more technology research and development in renewable energy, biofuels, and carbon capture and storage. But they made clear that the immediate future will continue to be dominated by hydrocarbons and that all energy sources, including renewable energy, come with tradeoffs and costs.

Looking for a clean-energy home run (photos)

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ExxonMobil, for example, has a research and development project with Synthetic Genomics to make liquid fuels from genetically engineered strains of algae. But algae production takes huge amounts of water. Making a modest amount of oil from algae--about 150,000 barrels per day--would require all the water that Mexico City consumes in a day, said Shell's Bravo.

Solar, which accounts for less than 1 percent of power generation in the U.S., is more expensive than wind for making electricity. However, both require large amounts of land to do a very large scale and are intermittent, which makes managing reliability of the grid more complicated, said John Reilly, associate director for research at MIT's Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. Storage on the grid can help shore up wind and solar, but high costs mean it will be used relatively little--mainly for providing short periods of power under an hour, he said.

The developed world can and should use energy more efficiently, but overall usage around the globe is certain to go up in the coming decades as the developing world uses more energy to raise its standard of living, panelists said. Nuclear power, which is seeing a surge of construction in China, costs about twice what a pulverized coal plant does, Reilly said.

"As soon as you look at something that looks like a silver bullet, you see that it's tarnished and not moving as fast as you thought," he said.

Bridge fuel
One consensus among the energy experts was that use of natural gas will increase significantly in the decades ahead and should be used as a "bridge fuel" to sustainable energy. Oil companies are moving into natural gas, which can be used for heating, electricity generation, and transportation. Natural gas emits about half the greenhouse gases per unit of energy that coal does.

The discovery of large reserves of natural gas in shale rock in the U.S. has changed the overall energy industry equation, said ExxonMobil Senior Technical Adviser Nazeer Bhore. Demand for natural gas will grow 80 percent from 2005 to 2030, a situation that demonstrates how energy changes happen over long periods.

"Nowhere in U.S. (energy) history has something come in so silently and made such a large impact," he said. "Changes in energy are very evolutionary in the short run but revolutionary in the long run."

To a large degree, whether a country should invest in--and count on--energy breakthroughs or fund programs to encourage deployment of existing technologies, such as wind and electric vehicles, is a policy question. On research, ExxonMobil's Bhore said the government should fund "pre-competitive" research and let commercial companies sort out technology winners.

All panelists said that the energy industry needs more policy certainty with regard to greenhouse gases, with Bhore coming out in favor of an economy-wide tax on carbon emissions. With more clarity on the cost of greenhouse gas emissions and the goals of U.S. energy policy, companies could better assess different energy technologies, panelists said.

"We like whatever allows us to make a decision--a price, a tax, whatever framework for us to make a decision," said Shell's Bravo.