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 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.
“It is important that we do not choose too early the winners and losers among technologies,” Orr stressed. “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.”
The “obvious contributors” to low-carbon electricity generation that are already available are wind and solar, the professor said. But he stressed that government subsidies will be needed to commercialise technologies beyond the research stage.
“Eventually technologies have to compete – though a carbon tax or cap-and-trade rules can set the boundaries of the competition,” Orr said.
As a former project director of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford University, which conducts research into future low-emission technologies, Orr said there are many interesting ideas which may become the next breakthrough technologies.
“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,” Orr said. But there is evidence that costs will continue to come down, he argued, as a result of constant efforts to increase conversion efficiencies and reduce costs.
The Stanford scholar also believes biofuels have a future, but stressed that environmental issues arising from energy crop cultivation and implications for food security need careful assessment. “There are more opportunities to use sunlight to make fuels through chemical routes,” he said.
On using hydrogen as an energy carrier, Orr said that while hydrogen is clean in the sense that it only produces water when burned, it still needs to be made from a primary energy source. It might be possible to use the sun to split water directly instead of producing electricity first to split water, he said.
“Fuel cells can use hydrogen efficiently, but costs are currently too high, and they require 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,” Orr explained. He concluded that the research community will have to tackle many challenges before it can grasp all the opportunities on offer.
In the meantime, there are already technologies available that can help reduce emissions in the short term, the professor said. The largest early reductions will come from using energy much more efficiently, “especially in the US, where we have not paid sufficient attention in the last couple of decades of cheap energy,” he said.
“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,” Orr argued.
Moreover, a move from coal to natural gas to cut CO2 emissions significantly would be a good option in places like the US, “where natural gas supplies appear to be more abundant than we thought a few years ago,” he said.
“The important thing is to start work now and stay with it over the long haul,” Orr said.
Franklin M. Orr was speaking to Susanna Ala-Kurikka.