Energy R&D: The Missing Link to a Sustainable Energy Future

Q: What do you get when you gather roughly two dozen top researchers from academia, government, and industry to speak on interdisciplinary energy-related issues for a week?

A: A lot of informative but crowded slides, high-octane brain power, fact-based analysis of where we are and we’re headed globally, informed questions, and surprisingly practical answers.

The annual conference of the Center for Nonlinear Studies—housed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL)—was held this year in mid-May in Santa Fe. “Energy for the 21st Century” included sessions on the global impacts of energy systems, the future of conventional and alternative fuels (for both power and transportation), plus biofuel and solar energy research approaches.

In particular, the speakers and attendees gathered to share their knowledge and ideas with an eye toward determining fruitful research directions—especially research that would appropriately be led by national labs.

The first day’s sessions dealt with several topics of interest to the power generation industry. A few highlights of that day follow. More insights about nuclear, solar, smart grid, and global energy database developments, will be forthcoming in future issues of POWER.

Energy Touches Everything

In his opening comments, Terry Wallace of LANL reminded participants that energy resources place a high demand on water resources. Where water is required for energy production, adequate water quality and quantity may be unavailable for other uses. Today we already have 5.5 billion people [correction 6/12: should be approximately 1.5 billion] who lack access to freshwater. Even those living in desert and drought-stricken regions of developed nations are being affected by water scarcity.

How we decide to develop energy sources for the future will also affect, and be shaped by, other resources and geopolitical forces. Take lithium, for example. Wallace, who worked in Bolivia for 10 years, noted that Bolivia has the world’s largest reserves of lithium—an essential element in the manufacture of advanced batteries. Several speakers commented on the pressing need for energy storage. But what risks might the world face if it relies upon one or a handful of nations for essential supplies for its energy technologies? We’ve already seen the consequences of relying upon a small number of nations for fossil fuels.

Then there’s iridium, used in photovoltaics. Wallace said the world will more than consume all the available iridium within five years.

Wallace, like those following him, acknowledged that decisions about resources need to be made, for better or worse, in “the political cauldron.” Though researchers have their own politics to contend with, and often compete for limited public and private funding, at least they are less likely to make research decisions with an eye toward reelection. That alone points to one reason such conferences are valuable to the rest of us. If scientists, economists, mathematicians, and other researchers of the sort who gathered in Santa Fe can share their best ideas and data among themselves—beyond media sound bites and political positioning before congressional committees—then they might just have half a chance of developing sound approaches to the hugely complex and multidisciplinary energy challenges that are staring us in the face.

Toward Decarbonization

Dr. Nebojsa Nakicenovic (Naki) gave what might have been billed as the keynote presentation to launch the conference: “World in Transition: Towards Decarbonization.”

Naki was a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore Jr. (See the short video interview with him—also available from the video section of the home page.) He’s currently deputy director general of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) near Vienna, Austria, and director of the IIASA’s Global Energy Assessment project, among other positions.

He noted that energy sits at the confluence of a number of problems facing the world, including nonproliferation, economic development, and climate change. A two-degree Celsius increase in temperature puts society at the edge of its coping capacity, he said, and a mere 2 degree increase is looking like an unattainable best scenario.

That someone with Naki’s background would be fully aware of the climate change impacts that lie ahead is no surprise. What might surprise you is his realistic and pragmatic approach to mitigating climate change.

Like most of the other speakers I heard on the opening day, he emphasized that there’s no single, simple answer to the problem. For example, biomass and carbon capture are necessary, he said, but both require a price on carbon. As for regulating carbon emissions, he’s disappointed in cap-and-trade programs and favors carbon taxes instead.

Upfront investments in research and development (R&D) are critical, he insisted. We need radical energy efficiency gains and significant investment in end-use technology. However, energy R&D in International Energy Agency countries declined in most years since the last energy crisis. The U.S. spends orders of magnitude more on national security R&D than on energy security, even though energy security is tightly bound to national security in multiple ways. And even when money is available, it may not always be allocated in the most effective ways. For example, he noted that the National Science Foundation has energy R&D funds, but the money is not integrated; instead, it’s fragmented among several unrelated programs.

The Global Energy Assessment, which Naki leads, is focused on “a paradigm change on the energy side in the mode of the IPCC.” Though he didn’t offer any easy answers, two recommendations may be part of that paradigm change. Underdeveloped countries, he said, need to “leap frog” the high-carbon economy to avoid repeating the problems and emissions created in the developed world, and we need a longer-term investment strategy and markets that accommodate longer-term investments.

Cheap, Copious, and Clean Energy Needed

LANL’s Rajan Gupta noted that the 20th century was one of cheap, copious energy (at least in the developed world). In this century, we need to add “clean” to that list. “There’s a tremendous amount of fossil fuel out there,” he said. “The challenge is the greenhouse gases.”

He sees harnessing solar power as the solution—though he also observed that geothermal has “tremendous potential” and, “in principle,” we could increase nuclear by a factor of five to six to provide needed baseload capacity. The problem with all renewables is their low energy density and the need for energy storage.

Whereas the 20th century was dominated by fossil fuels, the first half of the 21st, in Gupta’s view, needs to use oil (for transportation) and gas (for power generation) as backup and storage, rather than as the dominant fuels. Hybrid vehicles are part of this “transition” scenario, as are solar thermal and heat pump technologies for heating and cooling, energy efficiency best practices, and a smart grid.

His holistic approach to the global 21st century energy challenge includes:

  • CO2 sequestration.
  • Promoting incentives for public transportation.
  • Population stabilization.

The European Union and Japan are better positioned to go green, he said, because they’ve reached zero to negative population growth and do not need to plan for new systems. They also have efficient public transportation systems.

The bottom line: We need top-down and bottom-up solutions. For an overview of one bottom-up piece of the solution, see the forthcoming story in POWER’s Global Monitor department on the Global Energy Observatory, which seeks to become the mother of all energy databases. This wiki project, which was conceived and developed by Gupta, is being headed up by LANL.

Smart Grids and Slow Learners

Two other opening day presentations addressed grid-related issues. Though the concept of a smart grid has been around for at least 20 years, it’s still mostly a concept rather than a reality, the presenters acknowledged. One reason for that is the difficulty of getting anyone to foot the bill for new transmission lines and new interfacing technologies.

That’s starting to change now that huge, multinational companies see an opportunity to leverage government funds to jump-start new business lines, but we’re still a long way from a fully integrated continental grid whose operations are optimized by sophisticated models, software, and market mechanisms.

In the meantime, stay connected to POWER for updates on smart grid developments.

—Gail Reitenbach, PhD is POWER’s managing editor.

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