Climate change and green energy technologies

Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Plant in Iceland
Steam rising from the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant in Iceland

I find it frustrating to read articles on climate change which insist that the only way forward is to invest massively in new energy technologies. After all, it’s not as if there are serious, expert voices opposing such a move. There is a growing consensus that we must look beyond fossil fuels, make full use of the creativity and ingenuity of scientists and engineers, and have them come up with solutions to the coming energy crisis, whether that be due to restrictions in carbon emissions, peak oil, other resource scarcity or whatever.

This week’s edition of Nature contains two opinion pieces that address the issue of climate change and future energy technologies. In one of these, Isabel Galiana and Christopher Green argue that rather than “horse-trading over emissions targets”, governments should instead make much greater commitments to technology research and development, and finance this with a slowly rising carbon tax. This is a jolly good idea, but the justification given is specious.

In another article, Gert Jan Kramer and Martin Haigh argue that proposals to power the world with green technologies within a decade are unrealistic because of limits to the rate at which low-carbon technologies can be deployed. Having reported over recent years on a number of emerging energy technologies, it’s clear to me that many of the most promising will take at least 10 years before they move from research labs to the industrial prototyping stage. Other technologies may mature faster; we should invest heavily in them, and also in more blue-sky ventures.

One of the problems identified by Kramer and Haigh is the current lack of policies to accelerate technology development. That needs to be addressed before we can begin talking seriously about the large-scale deployment of post-fossil fuel energy technologies.

If you’re interested in technology and policy specifics, take a look at the news report by Phil McKenna in the 21 November issue of New Scientist. There you will find details of the US Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which has this year committed US$151 to aid the commercial development of some 37 projects, many of which are risky, and expected to fail. Europe is also actively supporting the development of green energy technologies, though I’m not sure how its efforts compare with those across The Pond.

When it comes to reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and the adoption of low-carbon technologies, it’s not an either-or choice we have to make.

Further reading

Isabel Galiana & Christopher Green, “Let the global technology race begin”, Nature 462, 570 (2009)

Gert Jan Kramer & Martin Haigh, “No quick switch to low-carbon energy”, Nature 462, 568 (2009)

Phil McKenna, “US bets £150m on high-risk renewable energy”, New Scientist, 21 November 2009