Climate Compass Blog

Energy innovation can help power the nation

Jay Premack/USPTO

Innovation to Power the Nation (and the World): Reinventing our Climate Future event held at the Carnegie Institute of Science Auditorium. Keynote remarks by Michelle Lee, Under Secretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property and Director of the United States Patent and Trademark Office; and panelists including: Dr. Jayant Baliga, Dr. Kristina Johnson, Nathan Hurst, Bob Perciasepe and moderated by Amy Harder. 

Energy, business and policy experts agree: Current technologies aren’t enough to keep the world from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, the ambitious goal of the Paris Agreement. We will need innovation to fill the gap.

Where do we need breakthroughs? What do we need do more, do differently or do faster to evolve our energy system to be efficient, dependable and low-carbon? What policies would help drive the innovation we need?

These are some of the questions that guided a recent discussion C2ES helped organize at the Carnegie Institution for Science.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Director Michelle K. Lee opened the conversation by  emphasizing the importance of innovation to face the challenges posed by climate change. “History has shown us there are few challenges that innovative minds cannot overcome,” she said.

Here are some of the highlights of the discussion, which you can watch here:

We can vastly improve energy efficiency

Dr. B. Jayant Baliga, an inventor with 120 patents and a professor at North Carolina State University, sees an enormous opportunity to improve energy efficiency, not necessarily through new inventions, but by more widely using some of the technologies we already have.

One of Baliga’s inventions, the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT), dramatically improves efficiency in power flow in everything from appliances to cars to factories, saving an estimated 100 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

Using variable speed motor drives that take advantage of IGBTs can improve efficiency by 40 percent, but only about half of U.S. motors run on these drives, compared with nearly 100 percent in Europe, Baliga said. With two thirds of U.S. electricity used to run motors, the energy savings could be enormous.

Lighting consumes about a fifth of electricity in the U.S. Going from incandescent bulbs to CFLs reduces energy use 75 percent. But in the U.S., only 2 billion out of the 5 billion light sockets have CFL bulbs in them, Baliga said. “We need some encouragement for people to use these kinds of lights,” he said.

Business plays a crucial role

Businesses understand the importance of climate change for both their operations and customers. Nate Hurst, Chief Sustainability & Social Impact Officer at HP, said companies should examine their operations and supply chains to drive energy efficiency, and also make products that are as energy efficient as possible.

HP, along other multinational companies, recently pledged to power global operations with 100 percent renewable energy, with the goal of 40 percent by 2020. The company also announced a new commitment to achieve zero deforestation also by 2020, which means all HP paper and paper-based packaging will be derived from certified recycled sources.

Companies need to diversify their energy sources, but the biggest challenge is price. Hurst suggested government incentives and tax credits can play a role in bringing alternative energy prices down.

Policy is needed at the federal, state and city level

C2ES President Bob Perciasepe said policies to recognize the costs of greenhouse gas emissions, such as a price on carbon, can stimulate innovation. Cities, states and businesses are pressing forward with policies and actions to save energy and expand clean energy. C2ES recently launched an alliance with the U.S. Conference of the Mayors to bring businesses and cities together to speed deployment of new technologies.

One area where more innovation is needed is carbon capture, use and storage. “We know how to do it, but we have to find cheaper ways to do it,” Perciasepe said. “And we have to find ways to use carbon, not just shove it all back into the earth.” For example, the Ford company is testing ways to capture carbon emissions from its manufacturing plants to make plastic for use in the interior of cars.

Hydropower can play a key role

Dr. Kristina Johnson, an electrical engineer and former Undersecretary for Energy at the Department of Energy, said it’s crucial to find new ways to use renewable energy. Her company, Cube Hydro Partners, acquires and modernizes hydroelectric facilities and develops power at unpowered dams.

“When we built our first little power plant in an existing dam, it cost less than $20 million, but it was the equivalent of having planted a million fully grown trees in the rainforest, which would have been a billion dollars,” she said. Hydropower can help provide constant energy to fill in for wind and solar power, she said.

Other areas where innovation would boost clean energy would be small modular nuclear reactors, although more work needs to be done on handling the waste, and an economic way to store or reuse emissions from fossil fuel plants, she said.

The last question asked by moderator Amy Harder of The Wall Street Journal was: What is the most important invention society needs to make and bring to scale to address the challenge of climate change?

What our panelists said:

  • A visionary new source of power,
  • Enhanced versions of the sources already known, such as ocean currents or solar power,
  • The right economic incentives to scale the solutions we already have, and
  • New materials that can be reused and recycled without compromising quality.

Preparing for more summer heat waves

Heat Wave PhotoClimate change is causing longer and hotter heat waves that take a toll on public health and on a community’s economy, prompting some local governments to take action.

Heat can be deadly. From 2006-2010, exposure to extreme heat resulted in 3,332 U.S. deaths. The elderly and the poor are among the most vulnerable due to pre-existing health issues and limited access to air conditioning. But young outdoor enthusiasts are also at risk. Five hikers died during a heat wave this summer in Arizona, where it got as hot as 120 degrees F.

Heat waves are not only dangerous, they’re also expensive. Extreme heat can damage crops and livestock, reduce worker productivity, drive up energy costs, and increase demand for water resources. A 2011 heat wave and associated drought in the Southwest and Southern Plains cost $12.7 billion.

A hotter, drier Southwest

While it’s hard to determine how climate change influences individual extreme weather events, we do know climate change exacerbates both their frequency and intensity.

In the Southwest, residents are expected to see an additional 13 to 28 extremely hot days (temperatures of 95F or hotter) by mid-century, and 33 to 70 additional days by the end of the century. Higher temperatures will also exacerbate droughts and fire cycles.

How to prepare

The Southwest region has already taken steps to prepare for the impacts of more extreme heat. This is especially critical for urban areas, where stretches of heat-absorbing concrete and asphalt create a heat island effect, increasing temperatures in some cities by up to 15 degrees above surrounding areas

In Southern California, the city government in Chula Vista is working to implement 11 strategies to help adapt to the impacts of climate change. They include using reflective or “cool” paving and roofing to reduce the urban heat island effect, and amending building codes to incentivize water reuse and lower demand for imported water.

In Arizona, the city of Phoenix’s Water Resource Plan includes short- and long-term strategies to deal with water shortage scenarios, including monitoring supplies and managing demand, developing increased well capacities for water storage, and coordinating with neighboring counties to secure additional water resources.

A council of local governments in Central New Mexico is working to determine the impacts of heat waves on infrastructure, including the role of extreme heat in degrading asphalt and pavement, and what types of pavement materials are most resilient to extreme heat.

Early efforts to improve climate resilience can help a community prepare for costly extreme weather events and more quickly bounce back from them. Local governments like the cities of Phoenix and Chula Vista and those in New Mexico are demonstrating strong leadership that can be an example for others. Coordinating with partners in state government and the business community, including through the C2ES Solutions Forum, can ensure local governments’ resilience plans provide maximum protection against the heat waves of the future.

A bright future for the International Solar Alliance

Rooftop solar panels in central India.

Photo courtesy Coshipi via Flickr

A bold initiative to vastly expand solar energy in developing countries recently reached two major milestones toward its ultimate goal of mobilizing $1 trillion in solar investments by 2030.

In late June, the World Bank Group signed an agreement establishing it as a financial partner of the International Solar Alliance, providing more than $1 billion in support. The Bank Group will develop a roadmap and work with other multilateral development banks and financial institutions to mobilize financing for development and deployment of affordable solar energy.

The news follows the June 7 joint announcement between India and the United States to launch an initiative through the Alliance focusing on off-grid solar energy.

The International Solar Alliance was announced at the Paris climate conference in December by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President François Hollande. It was one of many new initiatives involving business, civil society, and public-private partnerships launched in Paris.

The alliance will comprise 121 countries located between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer that typically have 300 or more days of sunshine a year. Companies involved in the project include Areva, HSBC France and Tata Steel. 

According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), global solar capacity experienced record growth in 2015, with the annual market for new capacity up 25 percent over 2014. More than 50 gigawatts were added, bringing the total global capacity to about 227 gigawatts. That’s about 10 percent of the total amount of electricity the U.S. produced in 2015.

In developing and emerging economies, affordable financing is a challenge. The alliance will work to expand solar power primarily in countries that are resource-rich but energy-poor by mobilizing public finance from richer states to deliver universal energy access. Strategies include lowering financing costs, developing common standards, encouraging knowledge sharing and facilitating R&D collaborations.

President Hollande laid the foundation stone of the International Solar Alliance at the National Institute of Solar Energy in Gurgaon, Haryana in January, marking the first time India has hosted the headquarters of an international agency. The Indian government is investing an initial $30 million to set up the headquarters. The French Development Agency has earmarked over 300 million euros for the next five years to finance the alliance’s first batch of projects.

The solar alliance complements India’s own ambitious solar energy goals, which include a 2030 target of 40 percent of electric power capacity from non-fossil fuel energy sources as part of its intended nationally determined contribution to the Paris Agreement. India also plans to develop 100GW of solar power by 2022, a 30-fold increase in installed capacity. 

The growing support for the solar alliance is evidence of rising political momentum around the world to act on climate change and transition to a low-carbon economy. Look for a third major milestone in September, when the Alliance meets for its inaugural Founding Conference in Delhi.

How millennials can shape our climate future

Governments, businesses and universities are focusing increasing resources and attention on what is now our nation’s largest generation, millennials.

Generally defined as those born between 1982 and 2000,  millennials now represent the largest share of the American workforce. They’re more educated than prior generations. They’re more culturally diverse. And they’re more socially conscious.

How will this millennial generation shape our climate and energy future? Consider just two observations about how millennials want to live and get around -- housing and transportation.

A study found more than 6 in 10 millennials prefer to live in mixed-use communities. They’re more interested in living where amenities and work are geographically close. More than a third of young people are choosing to live as close as 3 miles from city centers.

As for transportation, millennials drive less than other generations. They’re opting for walking, biking, car-sharing or public transit. From 2001 to 2009, vehicle-miles traveled dropped 23 percent for 16- to 34-year-olds.

These preferences point to a future that is low-carbon and more sustainable. Dense urban living and mixed modal transportation options can result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions. A 2014 report from the New Climate Economy notes that “more compact, more connected city forms allow significantly greater energy efficiency and lower emissions per unit of economic activity.”

Millennial demands are influencing other sustainability topics, too. A Rock the Vote poll earlier this year found 80 percent of millennials want the United States to transition to mostly clean or renewable energy by 2030. An earlier poll from the Clinton Global Initiative found millennials care more than their parents’ generation about the environment and would spend extra on products from companies that focus on sustainability.

These facts indicate that this generation of 75.4 million people (in just the United States) wants to live differently than previous generations. Energy policies and technology habits will need to change to keep pace.

Government is paying attention, with President Barack Obama calling on millennials to tackle the challenge of climate change. Businesses, like energy providers, are working to deliver service in a seamless and more socially connected way. And universities are offering more sustainability-focused programs than ever before. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE)’s program list is growing, and university presidents are being asked by students to join the Climate Commitment to reduce emissions and improve resilience to climate impacts.

While millennials wield huge influence, the real power of change will come from all generations working together to develop innovative solutions and implement pragmatic policies to shape a low-carbon future and environmentally stable and economically prosperous planet for all who will inherit it.

 

Canada, Mexico, US should collaborate on climate

Image courtesy Freestock.ca

When the leaders of the United States, Canada and Mexico meet June 29 in what’s being called the “Three Amigos” summit, there will be a lot to discuss: trade, the economy, security, and repercussions from the “Brexit” vote. One topic we know will be on the agenda is climate change, whose impacts threaten residents of all three countries.

Each country submitted a pledge to reduce emissions as part of the Paris Agreement. At the North American Leaders’ Summit in Ottawa, they’ll also announce a new goal for North America, collectively, to generate half of the continent’s electricity from non-emitting sources by 2025 – a goal that’s achievable with a little more effort.

Each country has national and city/state/provincial level policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But more will need to be done beyond business and policy as usual to substantially take advantage of our three countries’ clean energy potential. Closer coordination on climate and energy policy is a good place to start.

Among the policy areas where collaboration would be helpful are:

Carbon pricing

Setting a price on carbon emissions, either through a tax or cap-and-trade system, is considered the most efficient way to reduce them. Many national or subnational pricing systems are already in place in North America:

  • Quebec and California have linked their cap-and-trade programs and Ontario plans to join. Mexico has interconnected electricity with California and the state imposes a charge on imported electricity that does not meet its greenhouse gas thresholds. Mexico has interconnected electricity with California, and the state has requirements on imported electricity as part of its climate program.  
  • Nine U.S. states in the Northeast participate in a cap-and-trade program for electricity called the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI.
  • Mexico has a carbon tax on fossil fuel (including imports) and has a law that created a market for greenhouse gas offsets.

All three nations should work to expand carbon pricing either at the national or subnational level. Because bigger markets are more efficient, they should seek to standardize measurement, reporting and verification systems (MRV) and methodologies for offset programs.

By either directly linking programs, as California and Quebec have, or by indirectly linking through the use of offsets, Canada, Mexico, and the United States should aspire to send a pricing signal as broadly as possible. By sharing technical expertise and making efforts to align MRV, we can create more efficient and effective programs.  

Short-lived climate pollution

Meeting the goal of keeping the rise of global temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius by mid-century will require action on more than just carbon emissions. Near-term actions to reduce climate pollutants that remain in the atmosphere for shorter periods of time such as methane, black carbon, and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) could significantly limit peak temperature increases in the coming decades.

Canada and the United States recently announced plans to regulate both existing and new sources of methane and agreed to reduce emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40-45 percent below 2012 levels by 2025. Mexico, which has a significant oil and gas sector, is expected to join in this pledge. Similarly, it makes sense for the three countries to work together to reduce HFCs and black carbon as quickly as possible.

Transportation

Light-duty vehicle greenhouse gas emissions standards have been harmonized among the three nations since 2014. Both the Canadian and Mexican governments adopted the LDV standards set forth by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Canada will follow the vehicle standards through 2025, while Mexican standards run through the end of 2016. Mexico is also considering adopting more stringent heavy-duty vehicle emissions standards to match European regulations; Canada and the United States both follow NHTSA’s emissions standards through 2018.

States, provinces, and cities in the three countries can also lead on zero emissions vehicle adoption, such as electric vehicles (EVs). Ontario, Quebec, and British Columbia in Canada all offer financial incentives for the purchase of an EV. Likewise, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, and several other U.S. states offer EV tax credits or rebates. Mexico City has pursued electrification of its taxi fleet, offering up to $3,000 for the purchase an electric taxi.

Along the Pacific, California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia have cooperated to promote EV purchases and the spread of EV charging infrastructure. Mexican states along the Pacific could join their northern neighbors to encourage EV deployment.

Carbon capture

Carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) technology has the potential to yield dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions from the power and industrial sectors. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that CCUS can achieve 14 percent of the global greenhouse gas emissions reductions needed by 2050 to limit global warming to 2C above preindustrial levels. In fact, without widespread use of CCUS technology, climate change mitigation costs may rise as much as 138 percent. For the industrial sector in particular, there are no practical alternatives to achieve deep emissions reduction.

Recent CCUS project milestones include the retrofit of the Boundary Dam coal-fired power plant in 2014 in Saskatchewan, Canada, and Shell’s incorporation of CCUS technology on hydrogen production at the Quest Project in Alberta, Canada, in 2015. But CCUS technology deployment is not on track to meet interim 2025 targets. Since a CCUS project can take five to 10 years from conception to operation, financial and policy support is critical now. 

New and enhanced policy drivers at the national and subnational levels are needed in the U.S., Canada and in Mexico to drive research into ways to turn carbon dioxide from a waste product to a useful commodity and accelerate deployment of CCUS technology at the commercial scale.

Working together

Canada, Mexico and the United States have connected economies with significant trade in energy and other products. All three countries are major oil and gas producers, but also have portfolios of clean energy such as nuclear, hydropower and renewables. It only makes sense that we should be connected in our efforts to address climate change.