The Technology Review's Emerging Technologies Conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Thursday hosted a panel titled "Innovation and the Energy Crisis," where speakers cast global warming as an urgent problem.
Growing energy demand, notably from developing nations such as India and China, coupled with climate change caused by global warming, have created a situation that requires both technology and new government policies, panelists said.
"The energy infrastructure turnover is on the order of 50 years certainly or greater, driven by the enormous infrastructure and capital costs involved," said moderator Robert Armstrong, an MIT professor of chemical engineering and the co-director of the. "These are grand challenges that involve science, technology and policy."
Joseph Romm, founder and executive director for the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, said that a breakthrough energy technology is not required to address global climate change, which is caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
"The answer is we should spend every last dime on technology available today and technology available in the next five years. All the technology in the world won't be worth anything if we don't act now," said Romm, who is a former director of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy at the U.S. Department of Energy.
Romm said that science around global warming "has gotten incredibly solid and alarming," with projections pointing to significant rising sea levels this century.
The public dialogue around global climate change, however, indicates that most people do not fully understand the breadth or urgency of the problem, said Nathan Lewis, professor at the California Institute of Technology.
"This is no longer about science. This is about risk management," Lewis said. "If we don't solve this problem in the next 20 years, pure and simple from a scientific point of view, the world will never be the same."
Lewis said that the scale of shifting the energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels while meeting growing demand worldwide means that people should focus on techniques that will have the biggest impact on reducing greenhouse gases, notably those involving carbon dioxide.
He advocated conservation efforts to reduce energy consumption. But even with those, the planet has only "four cards" left to consider when addressing a problem of this scale, Lewis argued.
He recommended "clean coal," where carbon dioxide from coal is captured during extraction and sequestered underground or at the bottom of the sea to reduce its impact on the atmosphere.
He also advocated nuclear power at a large scale. And he urged use of solar electricity and cheap storage of renewable energy through chemical fuels.
All panelists called on the federal government to establish policies to curb greenhouse gas emissions. These would take the shape of a carbon tax, or a cap and trade system of buying carbon credits, and need to be implemented in conjunction with other large emitters.
"It's important to make a policy and make a policy stable," said Kelly Fletcher, the leader of General Electric's Sustainable Energy Advanced Technology group. The year "2020 is just around corner, and we need solid policies that send the right signals to the market and to the consumers to move forward."
During a question-and-answer period, a conference attendee who identified himself as the chief technology officer of the Energy Department's Oak Ridge National Laboratory said that regulations could cause an "economic burden" for U.S. companies, which would give an advantage to the Chinese.
Romm responded, saying that the U.S. could reduce its energy consumption and still enjoy the same comfort and quality from consumer products. He noted that California's per capita in-door electricity consumption has dropped in the past 20 years without a degradation in lifestyle.
"People talk about cost and talk about burden. What is the cost of rising sea levels?" Romm said.
GE's Fletcher called for government programs around energy that recall the national focus of the U.S. space program in the 1960s.
At the same time, he said "market forces," in the form of economical and reliable products, will be the most significant factor in adopting cleaner energy technologies.