clean energy technology

Bringing Lessons in Low-carbon Innovation to Rio+20

Opportunities for low-carbon innovation are growing, driven by policy changes, market shifts, and continued growth in energy demand, particularly in developing countries. This Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, ahead of the UN’s “Rio+20” Conference on Sustainable Development, C2ES will have a chance to share what it’s learned about low-carbon innovation with partners from around the world.

With the Global Environment Facility (GEF), we will convene a panel of companies (Johnson Controls, DuPont), small-business innovators (from the Cleantech Open), and government and business representatives (from UNIDO and ABDI) to share stories and lessons from the front lines of clean-tech entrepreneurship. The event, to be held at the U.S. Center pavilion, will examine the keys to successful low-carbon innovation, and the benefits for climate mitigation and adaptation, energy security, resource efficiency, and job creation.

Can Nuclear Be Part of Our Clean Energy Future?

Nuclear energy is often touted as a reliable, carbon-free element in our electricity portfolio, but three major challenges must be overcome before it can play a bigger role in our energy mix: cost, reactor safety, and waste disposal. Recent progress on each of these fronts shows that nuclear energy may indeed be a greater component of our clean energy future.

As a zero-carbon energy source that also has the highest capacity factor, new nuclear generation is especially well suited to provide baseload generation, which is an emerging gap in our electricity system. As electricity demand rises, aging coal plants are retired, and we pursue greenhouse gas emission reductions, there is a growing need for new low- and zero-carbon baseload electricity generation. Without technological breakthroughs in electricity storage technology, wind, and solar, energy cannot adequately meet baseload demand due to intermittency. Natural gas is lower emitting than coal, but it still emits greenhouse gases and has historically been vulnerable to price volatility.  

Low-Carbon Innovation for a Strong Defense

As discussed in the first part of this blog series A Strong Defense for Low-Carbon Innovation, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has both the demand for and procurement capabilities to advance the development and deployment of innovative low-carbon technologies. This post highlights a variety of leading businesses innovating and creating new opportunities in response to the U.S. Department of Defense efforts, and some of the challenges businesses encounter along the way.

Strategic public-private partnerships are key to helping the DOD meet its energy goals and present significant low-carbon business opportunities. Employing the expertise of companies, such as those specializing in electricity generation or computer technology, gives the DOD access to specialty skills and knowledge needed to advance innovative low-carbon technologies. Businesses, in turn, have the potential to enhance their competencies through government-funded research and development, or provide new technologies for commercial markets after large-scale demonstration through the DOD.

A Strong Defense for Low-Carbon Innovation

This post is the first of a two-part series on low-carbon innovation in the defense industry. It looks at how the DOD is uniquely positioned to drive low-carbon innovation. The second part in the blog series looks at how businesses are working with the DOD to bring low-carbon solutions to market.

From GPS to the Internet, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) has a history of driving the creation of innovative technologies now used every day by Americans. With low-carbon policies a major challenge in Washington today, many clean energy advocates are seeking leadership from the DOD, which is the single largest consumer of energy in the country, to help drive clean energy solutions. Motivated by the need to better protect troops and support its operations, the DOD is becoming more involved in low-carbon technology research, development, and deployment. As stated in the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), this work will shape the future commercial potential of energy technologies, as “military installations [serve] as a test bed to demonstrate and create a market for innovative energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.”

The Business Behind Low-Carbon Solutions

Business leaders from across the country convened in Atlanta last month to share critical lessons from developing and deploying low-carbon solutions.  At our Business of Innovating conference, dozens of company leaders—from Coca-Cola and Mars to Dow and Bayer—discussed new products and solutions that are beginning to drive business growth in clean energy while limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  Their efforts reflect a deepening understanding of changes in market preferences and demand for low-carbon solutions. 

Solar Decathletes Bring Homebuilding Talents to Washington, D.C.

Over the past few weeks, college students have been shedding light on the future of solar energy on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Out of 19 teams from around the globe and 10 energy performance and livability contests, one overall winner emerged at the recently held U.S. Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon. The winning WaterShed home design, built by students from the University of Maryland, was inspired by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The house included a 9.2 kilowatt rooftop solar array and prominently featured storm water management and recycling components, such as a butterfly roof and pollution filtration.

Climate Debate in Word Clouds: The Conflicting Discourse of Climate Change

Like it or not, climate change is now part of the “culture wars.” Like abortion, gun control, and health care, climate change divides conversations along political battle lines of left versus right. But if you listen closely to what is being said, you will find that people are talking past each other, engaged in a debate that has little to do with an evaluation of climate science. Instead, it is a clash about values, beliefs, and worldviews. Opinions are based largely on ideological filters that people use to understand complex issues, influenced strongly by the cultural groups of which they are a part and the opinions of thought-leaders and pundits whom they trust. The arguments are constructed around the frames by which people view the science, not the science itself.

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: Smart Shopping

This is the third post in a three-part series on PEVs. This one examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 1  Part 2 

In our previous posts, I described some of the benefits to national security and the environment with the use of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs). This final post takes a look at what is often the most important issue to Americans: their wallets. PEVs are not cost-competitive with conventional vehicles in most situations yet, but there are some considerations that could be compelling for consumers to consider this winter when the first PEVs hit the market.

At a Policy Crossroad for Clean Energy Technologies

The United States is at a crucial crossroad in its stance on clean energy policy. Once the leader in emerging clean technology markets, the U.S. now trails European nations and China in the research, development, and deployment of many new energy technologies. Financial analysts and industry insiders presented a stark choice at a standing-room only hearing hosted by the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming last week: either we can adopt and extend policies that promote domestic growth of clean energy industries, or we can continue to fall further behind other countries around the world in our ability to compete in the markets of the 21st century. Chairman Ed Markey (D-MA) echoed the experts in saying that without clear long-term and short-term incentives, companies will invest clean energy dollars in other countries, most notably China. In effect, we will be trading our addiction to Middle Eastern oil for an addiction to Asian clean energy technologies.

Clean energy technology markets are already substantial in scope and are likely to grow in the coming decade. According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, global investments in new forms of clean energy have already surged from under $50 billion in 2004 to more than $170 billion four years later. And as mentioned in our brief on Clean Energy Markets, annual investments in global renewable energy could reach $424 billion a year in 2030.

The panel of expert witnesses advised the Committee that if the United States wants to be a leader in clean energy, it needs to foster innovation by extending successful programs like tax credits, loan guarantees and grants, and adopt a renewable energy standard (RES). Tom Carbone, Chief Executive Officer of Nordic Windpower, said firms like his need clear market signals, such as a price on carbon or a RES, so they can respond to market demand.

Michael Liebreich, Chief Executive of Bloomberg New Energy Finance, emphasized the importance of market signals. Under an RES, the government would require that a certain percentage of utilities’ power plant capacity or generation come from renewable sources by a given date, and mechanisms such as credit trading would allow flexibility in meeting this requirement. However, the RES needs both to be ambitious and to have stiff penalties for noncompliance in order to be successful. Such a policy solution could help create the market demand clean energy firms need to establish footholds and ultimately achieve significant, self-reinforcing growth.

Mark Fulton, Global Head of Climate Change Investment Research at Deutsche Bank, urged the adoption of policies that are transparent, have longevity, and have certainty (TLC) in order to ensure the United States has a competitive advantage in global energy markets. Investors want transparent policies that clearly define the rules and create a level playing field. So to attract private funding, these policies should be in place for the length of the investment and should not be subject to the kind of frequent and uncertain renewal that has stymied the production tax credit and investment tax credit.

In addition to their environmental benefits, Ravi Viswanathan, General Partner at New Enterprise Associates, believes that these policies are exactly what are needed at this uncertain economic time. Mr. Viswanathan argued that clean energy investments can lead to job creation and energy independence. If we have the right incentives, clean energy jobs would be created domestically rather than abroad. Innovation has long been a source of our competitive advantage. Other countries, such as China, have speed, capital, and scale, and they are exercising their manufacturing advantage. Now, these countries are beginning to do something that investors had not anticipated: foster innovation. Once other countries start innovating in earnest, unless the United States takes action, the economic benefits associated with these technologies will go elsewhere.

In his closing statement, Chairman Markey highlighted the role government has played in fostering innovation and developing new markets, citing examples from the Manhattan Project to the internet. In all past cases, the United States showed leadership in developing a national plan that incentivized private investment. We need a similar plan today in the energy sector that incorporates Fulton’s principles of TLC and harnesses the power of the markets to spur innovation. As mentioned in our Clean Energy Markets brief, well-crafted climate and clean energy policy can give nascent clean energy industries a foothold by creating domestic demand and spurring investment and innovation. The time to act is now: through policy leadership at home and abroad, the United States can position itself to become a market leader in the industries of the 21st century.

Making the Case for Plug-in Electric Vehicles: Breathing Easier

This is the second post in a three-part series that examines the reasons to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle. Part 1  Part 3

Last week, I discussed why consuming oil is bad for U.S. national security. In this post, I’ll look at another reason to consider a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) – helping the environment. I’ve previously explored the effect PEVs will have on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It is clear that PEVs have the potential to reduce GHG emissions significantly so long as society also reduces the carbon intensity of the electrical grid. But the environmental benefits of PEVs are not limited to climate change.

Figure 2: It's hard to see through all the smog, but that’s the Brooklyn Bridge in NYC in 1988. (Source)

PEVs also benefit local air quality, which might matter a lot if you live in a city with poor air quality. Despite enormous strides in the U.S. to reduce air pollution, the EPA estimated in February of this year that nearly 127 million Americans live in areas where air quality concentrations are above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). The Clean Air Act requires the EPA to establish and periodically update and evaluate the NAAQS. While air quality has improved significantly since 1990, nearly half of Americans still face air quality-related health risks, including decreased lung function, aggravated asthma, and premature mortality.

Air pollution primarily comes from stationary fuel combustion, industrial processes, and vehicles. Transportation mainly contributes to two air pollution problems: ground-level ozone and particle pollution. Particle pollution or particulate matter (PM) consists of solid particles and liquid droplets in the air; coal fired power plants, as well as diesel vehicles including cars, trucks, and buses, are some of the sources of PM. Ground-level ozone, a serious air pollutant also known as smog, results when sunlight reacts with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (which are components, for example, of vehicle exhaust).

The health effects of air pollution include decreased lung function, respiratory infection, and even increased risk of heart attacks and strokes under certain conditions. While the U.S. EPA and state governments are moving ahead with regulations that improve the air quality for Americans, most people (especially in urban areas) remain at risk of effects from excessive ozone and PM. The American Lung Association recommends the EPA reduce air pollution from vehicle tailpipes. One way consumers can help is by purchasing vehicles with lower tailpipe emissions such as PEVs.

The more miles Americans travel in passenger vehicles powered by electric motors, the more local air quality will improve according to a study completed by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). It is difficult to quantify air quality benefits from using PEVs since air pollution can come from multiple sources, including vehicle tailpipes as well as power plants. All-electric vehicles in cities will almost certainly improve local air quality since a mile traveled that is powered by electricity does not produce any vehicle emissions and the power plants that produce the electricity are often located away from city centers. For plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, those improvements are tempered by the percentage of miles that rely on the gasoline or diesel-powered backup energy source rather than by the batteries. In fact, using PEVs can result in more local air pollution at the electricity generation source, especially if the source is a coal power plant. This potential problem underscores another reason (in addition to the goal of reducing GHG emissions) that we should work on reducing power plant pollution as we green the vehicle fleet.

PEVs will not end air pollution in the United States, but increasing the market penetration of these vehicles will help reduce air pollution in cities throughout the country. In the next post, I’ll look into how the financial numbers might work out with a PEV for your next vehicle purchase.

Nick Nigro is a Solutions Fellow

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