May 27, 2021
There's a recent phenomenon in which smart people, mostly white men, parachute down from a higher plane to tell us mere mortals the truth about fighting climate change. Colorfully dubbed "first-time climate dudes" by journalist Emily Atkin of the newsletter Heated, they invariably offer some version of doom and gloom, whether it's Bill Gates calling any attempt to rapidly reduce greenhouse emissions to near zero "a fairy tale", or novelist Jonathan Franzen proclaiming in the New Yorker that we must "accept that disaster is coming."
Humanity may look back after 20 or 50 years and wonder why we ever thought it was so hard or so expensive to move beyond the era of fossil fuels.
Sorry, climate dudes, but I think you're dead wrong.
Wrong too is John Kerry, President Joe Biden's climate envoy, when he says that half of future emissions cuts will have to come from technologies not invented yet.
He should know better.
In fact, we already have the basic technologies we need to slay the monster of climate change. Moreover, these technologies are not just affordable now, but they continue to get cheaper (and better) at a stunning pace, and new ideas are constantly emerging. In fact, humanity may look back after 20 or 50 years and wonder why we ever thought it was so hard or so expensive to move beyond the era of fossil fuels.
Don't misunderstand me, though. I can do alarmism as well as anyone--at least about the science. I wrote a story nine years ago about the growing worries and evidence that climate change could be happening faster than the consensus predictions at the time, as positive feedbacks like melting permafrost and declining sea ice coverage kicked in. Since then, it has become clear that the fears were more than justified. Without immediate and dramatic emissions reductions, we face an inevitable future of potentially catastrophic extreme weather--what an article in the journal Nature calls a "rapid and unstoppable" sea level rise, and many other devastating impacts. And if we delay too long, all those feedbacks could eventually push the planet towards a "hothouse Earth" scenario (as a scientific paper that went viral put it) like that of the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 million years ago, when the Arctic was a subtropical paradise and the tropics may have been too hot for most life to exist.
But if both the threat and the need for urgent action are huge, the solutions are already at hand. While I'm not a professional scientist, I have covered climate change for BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and other publications for more than three decades and, in the last few years, have been fortunate to work as writer or editor on a number of reports on the topic, such as Risky Business's From Risk to Return and both the Global Energy Transformation: A Roadmap to 2050 and Electrification with Renewables from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). These and a slew of other studies, like these 56 compiled by Stanford University, show a clearly achievable and affordable three-step path to making the dramatic emissions cuts needed to prevent climate catastrophe.
The first step: electrify everything possible. That means roads crawling with Teslas, Chevy Bolts (like mine), and their progeny; heat pumps and induction stoves in homes; electric furnaces in industry; and even electric ships and airplanes. Since using electricity is so much more efficient than burning fossil fuels, extensive electrification actually cuts total energy demand and energy costs--even at today's prices for renewable energy. (And let's not forget that the powertrain in an electric vehicle is light years more efficient than the one in the internal combustion engine of a gasoline-powered car; as little as 12 percent of the energy in the fuel is actually used to make a gasoline car move, while electric cars are 77 percent efficient or more--and electric powertrains have as few as 20 moving parts, while conventional power trains have 2,000.) And since most electrical devices can be quickly ramped up or down to match the electricity supply, and some, like plugged-in electric vehicles, can even pump electrons back into the grid, widespread electrification touches off a virtuous cycle. By making it easier to incorporate the variable output from wind turbines and solar arrays, it smooths the implementation of the second key step--generating all the electricity we need from renewables. The third step then is a serious expansion of energy efficiency measures like home weatherization to reduce overall energy consumption even further.
So why aren't we racing down this path to a cleaner, safer future? In his recent book, The New Climate War, top climate scientist Michael Mann persuasively blames the powerful campaigns of denial, deception, distraction, and delay mounted by the fossil fuel industries and their supporters. But as he also hints, there is a more fundamental barrier that is rooted deep in human nature, which also helps explain the pernicious "doomism" of the "first-time climate dudes." Basically, humans have always been lousy at foreseeing or even understanding the potential pace of technological and social change--or all of the new possibilities that can emerge from those advances.
Remember how IBM chairman Thomas Watson famously said in 1943 that there might be a total world market "for maybe five computers?" Or how Lord Kelvin predicted nearly half a century earlier that "radio has no future?" Or how no one dreamed that we'd all now be carrying the power of a 1990s supercomputer in our pockets, enabling us to buy virtually anything online, share cat videos, or binge-watch The Crown on Netflix?
Failing to anticipate and take into account future innovation is a story that repeats itself over and over again, especially in areas like environmental and health regulation. For a story in BusinessWeek, I once dug up the actual costs of meeting new regulations that had been implemented years previously, such as limits on sulfur dioxide emissions imposed on power plants to curb acid rain. In every case, the final costs were far lower, and the reductions and benefits much greater, than even the most optimistic projections from the experts. The reason: Once rules or other types of incentives are in place, smart people will figure out clever new ways to get the job done.
That's why Bill Gates is so wrong when he claims we need a technology "miracle" to successfully fight climate change. In fact, humanity has always been able to depend on something even more powerful than any single groundbreaking advance; we have a better magic in the form of innovation at all scales, from big breakthroughs to countless incremental improvements in materials, designs, manufacturing processes, and installation practices.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that renewable technologies have declined in costs and been deployed faster that even the most optimistic projections. A 2012 US Energy Department publication reported that solar photovoltaic module prices had plunged from $4.90 per watt in 1998 to $1.28 per watt in 2011, dryly noting that "most analysts in recent history have underestimated the rapid reductions in module prices." Indeed, the 2012 report itself was no exception to that persistent underestimation. It hoped that the Energy Department could spur a further 75 percent reduction by 2020. The actual drop? More than 85 percent, to under $0.2 per watt.
Similarly, just five years ago, Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicted that lithium-ion battery prices would drop to just under $200 per kilowatt-hour by 2020. That would represent a stunning decline from $1,000 per kilowatt-hour in 2010, but the estimate was not nearly ambitious enough. The actual lowest price in 2020 was $100 per kilowatt-hour.
And back in 2010, the International Energy Agency predicted that the world's total capacity for solar PV (the "PV" stands for photovoltaics--the technology that converts incoming photons of sunlight to electricity) would hit 410 gigawatts by 2035.
Because of these rapid advances, "new solar photovoltaic (PV) and onshore wind power cost less than keeping many existing coal plants in operation," IRENA reports. Renewable capacity additions in 2020 hit an all-time record, up nearly 50 percent from 2019. And country after country is reporting record shares of renewable power on their electricity grids, such as the United Kingdom's wind farms providing 48.5 percent of the nation's entire electricity supply on a windy May 3, 2021, or Denmark generating more than 50 percent of its electricity from wind and solar for the entire year of 2020.
Now, every day brings new reports of potential advances. There are solar cells made with perovskite or stacked in 3D structures that may offer lower costs or higher efficiencies, and solar arrays built on hydropower reservoirs, thus making both types of generation more effective by cooling the panels and slowing evaporation from the reservoirs. Wind turbines continue to break records in size and output, such as an 855-foot-tall 15 megawatt behemoth from Vestas, and the pace of offshore wind development is accelerating rapidly to take advantage of a renewable resource so vast that it could supply 90 percent of the United States' total electricity needs in 2050.
Nor are wind and solar the only renewable games in town. The horizontal drilling technology pioneered in fracking for gas and oil is now making it possible to create closed-loop geothermal energy systems that offer continuous low-cost baseload electricity--and a flexible source of power that can be readily "dispatched" (as the jargon goes) wherever it is needed to balance the second-by-second fluctuations in wind and solar generation. And powerful tides are fueling electric cars in Scotland and will be delivering megawatts to the Nova Scotia grid from the Bay of Fundy.
Meanwhile, the storage and use of electricity are being constantly improved. Consider lithium ion batteries laced with graphene to boost their energy density and extend lifetimes, solid state batteries that promise 50 percent greater energy density and more rapid charging, or demonstration projects that store renewable energy in hot stones. There also are innovative lighter and more powerful electric motors, like the inside-out design from Belgium start-up Magnax. (Typical motors have a stationary part--the stator--inside which there is a part that turns--the rotor. Magnax flips that around, with the rotor outside of the stator.) There are also standardized commercial geothermal heat pump systems that deliver heat and air conditioning at far higher efficiencies than competitors can. Even seemingly simple advances, like an ultra-reflective white paint, can cool buildings and bring major efficiency gains.
The key point here is not to single out any of these specific technologies or approaches as being magic bullets, but rather to highlight the fierce competition now underway that is already driving relentless, continual improvements and cost reductions in renewable energy technologies--and also potentially leading us down promising new avenues as yet unforeseen. We've already witnessed this competition in action in the demise of solar thermal systems (which used mirrors to reflect and concentrate the sun's heat to heat up water), done in by ever-cheaper solar photovoltaic panels, and in the recent stumbles of would-be hydrogen-truck manufacturers, as improvements in lithium-ion batteries make electric trucks the better option.
And given the current pace of innovation, it's possible to imagine a future far different from the despair and pessimism of the climate doomists. There's no reason why we can't be headed towards what solar energy pioneer Martin Green calls "a future of insanely cheap energy."
So cheap, in fact, that some experts are already suggesting that one cost-effective way to create a reliable electricity grid with variable generation from wind and solar is simply to build massive overcapacity. The extra capacity, in turn, would then open up new possibilities, such as making enough "green" hydrogen or other renewable fuels and feedstocks (when electricity demand is lower than capacity) to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from other activities that are hard to electrify, from steelmaking to ocean shipping. IRENA's reports also document the potential for countries like Morocco or Chile to use their enormous solar resources to become profitable exporters of those renewable fuels.
Of course, none of this is easy. Nurturing the full flowering of these innovations and speeding their deployment will require immense political will, big investments, and a whole passel of supportive policies. But we should have the imagination and faith to understand know that climate change is one problem that we can solve.
There's no Gates-ian fairy tale, no Franzen-like acceptance of disaster, and no awaiting the invention of some Kerry-like miracle technologies.
As physicist Ray Pierrehumbert once wrote in these pages about renewable technology, "It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it."
© 2021 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
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