This post will explain why some sort of massive government Apollo program or Manhattan project to develop new breakthrough technologies is not a priority component of the effort to stabilize at 450 ppm.
Put more quantitatively, the question is — What are the chances that multiple (4 to 8+) carbon-free technologies that do not exist today can each deliver the equivalent of 350 Gigawatts baseload power (~2.8 billion Megawatt-hours a year) and/or 160 billion gallons of gasoline cost-effectively by 2050? [Note -- that is about half of a stabilization wedge.] For the record, the U.S. consumed about 3.7 billion MW-hrs in 2005 and about 140 billion gallons of motor gasoline.
Put that way, the answer to the question is painfully obvious: “two chances — slim and none.” Indeed, I have repeatedly challenged readers and listeners over the years to name even a single technology breakthrough with such an impact in the past three decades, after the huge surge in energy funding that followed the energy shocks of the 1970s. Nobody has ever named a single one that has even come close.
Yet somehow the government is not just going to invent one TILT (Terrific Imaginary Low-carbon Technology) in the next few years, we are going to invent several TILTs. Seriously. Hot fusion? No. Cold fusion? As if. Space solar power? Come on, how could that ever compete with CSP? Hydrogen? It ain’t even an energy source, and after billions of dollars of public and private research in the past 15 years — including several years running of being the single biggest focus of the DOE office on climate solutions I once ran — it still has actually no chance whatsoever of delivering a major cost-effective climate solution by midcentury (see “This just in: Hydrogen fuel cell cars are still dead“).
I don’t know why the breakthrough crowd can’t see the obvious — so I will elaborate here. I will also dicusss a major study that explains why deployment programs are so much more important than R&D at this point. Let’s keep this simple:
- To stabilize at 450 ppm, we need to deploy by 2050 at least 14 stabilization wedges (each delivering 1 billion tons of avoided carbon) covering both efficient energy use and carbon-free supply (see Part 1).
- Myriad energy-efficient technologies are already cost-effective today — breaking down the barriers to their deployment now is much, much more important than developing new “breakthrough” efficient TILTs, since those would simply fail in the marketplace because of the same barriers. Cogeneration is perhaps the clearest example of this.
- On the supply side, deployment programs (coupled with a price for carbon) will always be much, much more important than R&D programs because new technologies take an incredibly long time to achieve mass-market commercial success. New supply TILTs would not simply emerge at a low cost. They need volume, volume, volume — steady and large increases in demand over time to bring the cost down, as I discuss at length below.
- No existing or breakthrough technology is going to beat the price of power from a coal plant that has already been built — the only way to deal with those plants is a high price for carbon or a mandate to shut them down. Indeed, that’s why we must act immediately not to build those plants in the first place.
- If a new supply technology can’t deliver half a wedge, it won’t be a big player in achieving 450 ppm.
For better or worse, we are stuck through 2050 with the technologies that are commercial today (like solar thermal electric) or that are very nearly commercial (like plug-in hybrids).
I have discussed most of this at length in previous posts (listed below), so I won’t repeat all the arguments here. Let me just focus on a few key points. A critical historical fact was explained by Royal Dutch/Shell, in their 2001 scenarios for how energy use is likely to evolve over the next five decades (even with a carbon constraint):