Scholar: 'Don't choose clean tech winners too early'

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In order to manage the huge task of transforming the current energy system to fit climate considerations, it is important to keep future ground-breaking technology options open while making the early emission cuts by using energy more efficiently, Franklin M. Orr, director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University, told EurActiv in an interview.

Franklin M. Orr is director of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University. Previously, he was project director of the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University.

He was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Which of the low-carbon technologies already available do you believe have the most potential to contribute to energy security and climate objectives?

For electric power generation, the obvious contributors that are available now are wind and solar. Wind power has lower costs of generation than solar approaches do, though both are intermittent resources: the wind does not blow all the time in any one place, and the sun shines half the day, on average. Solar-thermal generation deals with the intermittency by storing hot fluid that can then generate steam during the night. Solar PV [photovoltaic] is the most expensive of the three – and direct storage of electricity, as in a battery, is not presently done at grid scale.  

Nuclear power is also a large current source of very low-carbon generation. The carbon emissions for nuclear plants come from the concrete and steel that go into the plant.

Demonstration of CO2 capture and storage from fossil fuel power plants is beginning to be tested on a larger scale, but it is not yet practised widely in power generation settings.  

The EU is investing in offshore wind and carbon capture and storage technologies as the next saviours of the planet. Where do you see the US going in terms of political support for certain technologies?

Many states in the US now have renewable portfolio standards that will require bigger fractions of renewable generation in the power mix, and wind is currently the least expensive of the options for meeting the standards, so it seems likely to continue to grow rapidly, but from a relatively small current base.  

What happens on CCS depends strongly on the legislation being considered in the US Congress now. For the moment, only demonstration projects are being planned. There is considerable disagreement across the political spectrum concerning how tightly CO2 should be regulated and what form the regulation should take.  

What do you think it will take for these to be applied on a large scale? Is there room for greater technical cooperation between the US and Europe? 

Demonstrating CCS at scale is a big and expensive undertaking, so technical cooperation between the US and Europe makes sense.

What are the biggest obstacles to developing alternative energy systems?

The biggest obstacle is undoubtedly the scale of the current energy system. Replacing it and accommodating growth in demand will require a sustained effort and very large investments.

How important is political support for niche technologies? 

It is important that we do not choose too early the winners and losers among technologies. The research pipeline needs to provide many ideas and technology options that can then be tested and improved in the economic competition that will determine, within whatever rules are set for emissions, how the mix of energy resource use evolves in the future.

It is commonly observed that commercialisation of technologies beyond the research stage can be difficult, and this is an area where government incentives can help. But eventually technologies have to compete – though a carbon tax or cap-and-trade rules can set the boundaries of the competition.

What are the next breakthrough technologies that are currently being researched? Do you think hydrogen, for example, has potential and when could this realistically be realised?

There are many interesting opportunities. The really large energy resource is the sun, but currently costs for converting that sunlight into electricity, or hydrogen for that matter, are several times higher than other ways to make the electricity or hydrogen (typically involving fossil fuels). There is lots of effort to increase conversion efficiencies and reduce costs, and there is evidence that costs will continue to come down.

In addition, there are opportunities to use biofuels, though care will be needed to avoid environmental issues and competition with growing food. There are more opportunities to use sunlight to make fuels through chemical routes.

Hydrogen is an energy carrier, not an energy resource, and it has the advantage that when it is burned, only water results. But it has to be made from some primary energy resource. One possibility would be to split water directly using the sun instead of making electricity first and then using it to split water.

Fuel cells can use hydrogen efficiently, but costs are currently too high, and they require the use of expensive and scarce catalysts. Better batteries that have higher energy density and fewer toxics would enable transportation by electric vehicles, though we would also have to modify the electric power generation system to avoid increasing emissions from coal-fired, base-load power plants.

So there are lots of opportunities and lots of challenges for the research community to tackle.

The parties to the UNFCCC are trying to hammer out a post-Kyoto climate agreement, which will require ambitious emissions reductions in the next decade. Are there any competitive solutions that will be able to substitute fossil fuels in the short term?

The biggest early reductions will come from much more efficient use of energy, especially in the US, where we have not paid sufficient attention [during] the last couple of decades of cheap energy.

Significant improvements in transportation efficiency, buildings' energy efficiency, lighting and so on are possible with technology that exists now, if we consumers choose to use them. And most of them will save us money over the life of the investments.

In places like the US, where natural gas supplies appear to be more abundant than we thought a few years ago, substitution of natural gas for coal reduces CO2 emissions by about 50% for the same amount of energy. The important thing is to start work now and stay with it over the long haul.

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