Do we need technology breakthroughs to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations below 450 parts per million and avert climate catastrophe?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not think so, as I explained here (although they certainly want to spend more money on R&D, as does everyone on the planet who cares about global warming except maybe Senator John McCain). I agree with the IPCC, as do most energy analysts I know.
People who don’t see global warming as an urgent matter, like President Bush, his Sience Advisor, his former Energy Secretary, Gingrich, Lomborg, and Michael Crichton, think we can’t possibly solve the problem without breakthroughs (see “The Debate of the Decade” for most of the quotes or links) — or at least that’s what they say.
Then we have the Breakthrough Institute (B.I.), which, as its name suggests, also thinks we need breakthroughs, but seems to be quite genuinely concerned about global warming. The Breakthrough Institute was founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of the famous “The Death of Environmentalism” essay and the recent book Breakthrough. Roger Pielke, Jr., among others, is a Fellow.
In this post, I’ll explain why the answer to the question posed is “no” and why that’s a good thing! The short answer is
- Energy technology breakthroughs (defined below) hardly ever happen.
- Even when they do happen, they rarely have a transformative impact on energy markets, even over a span of decades.
So what does the word ‘breakthrough’ mean? A classic definition might be “a strikingly important advance or discovery.” Merriam-Webster says it’s “a sudden advance especially in knowledge or technique.” Wikipedia, in its long entry on innovation, says
“Breakthrough, disruptive or radical innovation … involves launching an entirely novel product or service rather than providing improved products & services along the same lines as currently…. Involves larger leaps of understanding… There is often considerable uncertainty about future outcomes. … Radical innovation involves considerable change in basic technologies and methods.
These seem reasonable to me. Slow, incremental improvement is not a breakthrough. The windpower industry has dropped its costs steadily by a factor of 10 over the past quarter century, while slowly improving performance. These are the steady gains we expect as a technology moves along the manufacturing learning curve and achieves economies of scale. Heck many technologies like wind even have a predictable link between product cost and installed capacity (see here) — that is a key reason deployment policies are much more important than spending huge sums looking for breakthroughs. [If there has been anything anybody in the wind industry would call a technology breakthrough as defined here, I'd be interested in hearing about it.]
Now B.I. recently accused me (here) of using “an extremely narrow definition of the word ‘breakthrough’ because it’s much easier for him to refute. But if he had read Breakthrough’s policy whitepaper, “Fast, Clean, Cheap,” [JR: I have. It's not something I can recommend to anyone else.] he would know that we call for breakthroughs in performance, price, and brand-new technologies“:
Technological breakthroughs are needed to boost the performance of current clean energy technologies and to decrease the cost of deploying them. Without these breakthroughs, the costs of these technologies are too high, and their performance and return on investment too low, to justify private sector investment in their widespread deployment….
Finally, in order to be deployed at levels that might allow them to displace conventional energy sources on a large scale, clean energy alternatives like solar and wind will require significant improvement in the cost and performance of battery and other energy storage technologies.
Well, you can call a dog a cat, but it’s still a dog. You don’t need breakthroughs to do any of that. One way to see that is to look at the wind or PV industry over the past decade — lots of private sector investment and widespread deployment in states or countries where there are public policies to encourage deployment, not so much where there isn’t. Yet its the same technology around the country and the world. Hmmm. In any case, those sentences don’t define what the word means. They just assert some outcomes that B.I. claims breakthroughs are needed for. But, as we’ve seen, those outcomes don’t require breakthroughs. So this isn’t a definition.
I will be blogging at length about concentrated solar power in a couple of days, and none of the industry executives I spoke to believe they need breakthroughs or massive government R&D support of the kind B.I. wants — what they want is the solar investment tax credit renewed this year for eight years and a serious price for carbon dioxide as soon as possible. They also wouldn’t kick a national renewable portfolio standard out of bed for eating crackers.
Still, B.I. claims, “We need breakthroughs in all of these areas because, as the Nature piece showed, the technology gap is that big. Romm misinterprets what others say in very narrow terms to create conflict where there is none.” [So you see where the Nature piece fits in and why it must be wrong -- since it shows something that isn't true.]
We don’t need breakthroughs in any of those areas, as I’ll explain in a few days when I lay out the “solution” to global warming in a few days.
But I don’t think I misinterpreted anyone. The definition I used for breakthrough in my previous debunking of Shellenberger and Nordhaus on this matter comes from their September 24, 2007 article in The New Republic (see here, first page), which the magazine says was adapted from their book Breakthrough:
Over the last ten years, a consensus has emerged among energy policy experts–one no less important than the consensus among climate scientists that carbon emissions are warming the earth. What’s needed, they say, are disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve nonincremental breakthroughs in both price and performance.
When I use the word breakthroughs I mean “disruptive clean-energy technologies that achieve nonincremental breakthroughs in both price and performance.” S&N seem to have the same definition here that pretty much everyone else uses, very similar to the Wikipedia definition above for “Breakthrough, disruptive or radical innovation.”
So I haven’t defined breakthroughs in “very narrow terms.” I used their own definition, which is close to the standard one. Using that definition, they are wrong. [As an aside, I know a great many of the energy policy experts in this country, certainly more of them than S&N do, and I can assure you no such consensus exists. I would call it a fringe view.]
The rest of the post explains why they (and the Nature article) are wrong — and why it’s a good thing they are wrong
[This is a reprint of my earlier debunking of S&N (here), so skip it if you've already read the post.]
WHY ENERGY TECHNOLOGY BREAKTHROUGHS ARE OVERSOLD
- Such breakthroughs hardly ever happen.
- Even when they do happen, they rarely have a transformative impact on energy markets, even over a span of decades.
Consider that solar photovoltaic cells — a major breakthrough — were invented over 50 years ago, and still comprise only about 0.1% of U.S. electricity (and that amount thanks to major subsidies).
Consider that hydrogen fuel cells — a favorite technology of the breakthrough bunch — were invented more than 165 years ago, and deliver very little electricity (and what little they do deliver comes only because of major subsidies) and no consumer transportation. [If you want to see why we still don't have commercial hydrogen fuel cell cars and won't for a long time -- because they require seveal genuine breakthroughs to be practical, read this 2004 analysis from the American Physical Society. It will also give you a good feel for what a real breakthrough is.]
Consider fusion — ’nuff said!
I know this seems counterintuitive, when we see such remarkable technology advances almost every month in telecommunications and computers. But it’s true — and I will explain why in this post.
Let me start with a question I often pose to audiences of energy and environmental exports: What technology breakthroughs in the past three decades have transformed how we use energy today? The answer may surprise you:
There really haven’t been any — certainly none has ever been suggested to me after years of giving talks.
We use energy today roughly the same way we did 30 years ago. Our cars still run on internal combustion engines that burn gasoline. Alternatives to gasoline like corn ethanol make up but a few percent of all U.S. transportation fuels–and corn ethanol is hardly a breakthrough fuel and required a massive subsidy and a mandate to achieve its recent growth. (In every country that has succeeded with alternative fuels — and there aren’t many — mandates have played a central role).
Fuel economy from the mid-1970s did double by the mid-1980s, as required by government regulations, but in the last quarter-century, the average fuel economy of American consumer vehicles has remained flat or even declined slightly.
The single biggest source of electricity generation, by far, is still coal power, just as it was 30 years ago. The vast majority of all power plants still generate heat to make steam turn a turbine-and the average efficiency of our electric power plants is about what it was 30 years ago. We did see the introduction of the highly efficient natural gas combined cycle turbine, but that was not based on a breakthrough from the past three decades and constrained natural gas supply in North America severely limited growth in gas-fired power, so the share of U.S. electricity generated by natural gas has grown only modestly in 30 years. Nuclear power was about 10 percent of total U.S. electric power 30 years ago and now it’s about 20 percent. But the nuclear energy “breakthrough” occurred long before the 1970s, and we haven’t built a new nuclear power plant in two decades, in large part because that power has been so expensive (and the growth in nuclear power required massive government regulatory support).
We do have a lot more home appliances, but they still haven’t fundamentally changed how we use energy. Interestingly, home energy use per square foot has not changed that much even with all those new electronic gadgets for two reasons. First, my old office at DOE developed major advances in key consumer technologies, including refrigeration and lighting. Second, efficiency standards for appliances have made the use of those efficient technologies widespread. From the mid-1970s until today, refrigerator electricity used has dropped a whopping three quarters. Perhaps that should be called a breakthrough, especially because some of the savings came from remarkable improvements in the guts of the refrigerator from Oak Ridge National Laboratory. But we still use refrigerators pretty much as we did, so in that sense, these breakthroughs didn’t change how we use energy — and they still required mandates to deeply penetrate the market.
One of the most widely publicized energy technology breakthroughs occurred in 1986 when researchers in IBM’s Research Laboratories in Zurich, Switzerland discovered a material that conducted electricity with no resistance at considerably higher temperatures than previous conductors. Over the next few years a series of breakthroughs in these high-temperature superconductors were announced. This technology generated great excitement because it held the promise of super-efficient electric motors and loss-free long-distance electric transmission lines. My old office at DOE poured millions into applying the breakthrough. Yet all these years later, you may ask, where are all the high-temperature superconductors? They have had very little impact on either electric motors or power transmission.
So noted Royal Dutch/Shell, one of the world’s largest oil companies, in its 2001 scenarios for how energy use is likely to evolve over the next five decades. Note that this tiny toe-hold comes 25 years after commercial introduction. The first transition from scientific breakthrough to commercial introduction may itself take decades. We still haven’t seen commercial introduction of a hydrogen fuel cell car.
I tend to think that Shell’s statement is basically true, although I believe we could in some instances speed things up–but only with the kind of aggressive technology deployment programs and government standards that conservatives do not like and S&N think are not central. Given that we must dramatically reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends over the next 25 years, we must focus on technologies that are either commercial today or nearly commercial today. That’s why S&N’s whole analysis is wrong. They argue:
1. Straw man. 2. Very wrong. 3. Quite irrelevant. 4. Precisely why we need regulations!
1. We need a price for carbon and a bunch of intelligent regulations to achieve the necessary emissions reductions. No one I know is only arguing for a carbon price.
2. This is the Bush Administration’s central argument. If the fate of the planet rests on non-existent technology, we are in big, big trouble — because the thing about nonexistent technology, like fusion, is that it tends to stay non-existent, or like hydrogen cars, just has too many technical and infrastructure barriers to overcome (a point I will return to in the next part) — even after you spend hundreds of millions of dollars pursuing the technology. Fortunately, the technology to combat warming does exist, as I argue in my book at length [see also this recent post, "The technologies that will save the planet"].
3. Again, we can’t rely on historically super-rare “dramatic and rapid technological breakthroughs” and don’t need to. So this whole argument is moot. We need to drive capital into the private sector to deploy existing technology far more than we need to ramp up public sector money to develop breakthroughs.
4. We will need a new energy infrastructure — primarily for vehicles and electricity. Such infrastructure changes historically have required government action — because the infrastructure barriers to entry in those two sectors are so enormous that new technology (and even smart old technology, like combined heat and power) can’t compete effectively. This is the central reason that technology breakthroughs don’t transform the energy market the way they seem to in other sectors, a point I will elaborate on in Part III.
The bottom line though is that if you want to transform the infrastructure for vehicles and electricity, if you want to solve the global warming problem, you need intelligent government regulations infinitely more than you need a massive effort to find breakthough technologies. Indeed, I can certainly solve the the global warming problem with smart regulations and no publically-funded breakthroughs, but I almost certainly cannot solve global warming with publically-funded breakthroughs but no smart regulations to get them into the marketplace quickly and at the necessary scale.