Energy innovation can help power the nation

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.

June 29, 2016 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. CREDIT: Jay Premack/USPTO

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.