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For Now, at Least, Efficiency May Be the Best Tool for Reducing Carbon Emissions, Experts Say
With greenhouse gas emissions increasing and global temperatures creeping toward a catastrophic tipping point, researchers and business leaders at a day-long forum focused on how new and emerging technology could make the use of carbon-based fuels more efficient and less damaging.
Renewable power sources, while promising, aren't yet ready to fill the gap, said Tadahiko Ishigaki, chief executive for the Americas for Hitachi, which sponsored the Washington, D.C., forum. In the meantime, experts said, the United States, China, and other countries will remain heavily dependent on coal, and clean-coal technologies will remain experimental and expensive.
For that reason, they said, policymakers worldwide should make efficiency central to their efforts to reduce the emission and harmful impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
"Energy efficiency is very promising and the cheapest and most efficient way to reduce emissions by the United States," said Hajime Ito, president of Japan External Trade Organization/ New York.
"Energy efficiency is the near-term essential thing to do because we can wake up and start doing it tomorrow morning," added William Moomaw, director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University.
The 5 March forum was sponsored by Hitachi, the Japanese industrial giant, and it drew some 400 people to hear discussion under the theme "Meeting Energy Needs, Reducing Environmental Impact." Speakers came from Japan, Brazil, and the United States; Hitachi, the Brookings Institution, and AAAS each organized a panel.
Opening remarks were offered by Ishigaki, Brookings President Strobe Talbott, and Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of Science.
Though the panels covered a broad range of issues, the discussion returned repeatedly to coal—a power-source so important, and so damaging, that speakers insisted it should be a central focus of climate policy, science diplomacy, research and development, and technological innovation.
And yet, the forum also featured a tone of cautious optimism: After years of inertia, political and public will to take action is gaining momentum, some speakers said. That coincides with technological advances that are already having an impact, while technologies no on the far horizon could create a new energy future.
Kerry: "Moving in the Wrong Direction"
U.S. Senator John Kerry
In a keynote speech, U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Massachusetts), recalled the first climate hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives in the late 1980s, followed by world conferences and agreements in Rio de Janiero and Kyoto. Today, Kerry holds a position on the Senate's Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation; he chairs the subcommittee on Technology, Innovation, and Competitiveness and sits on the Global Climate Change and Impacts subcommittee. From that vantage, he sees climate conditions deteriorating after two decades of much talk, but little global action.
Before the industrial revolution, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was about 280 parts per million; where just a few years ago researchers thought the planet might tolerate greenhouse gas concentrations of 550 parts per million (ppm), influential researchers now say the maximum level should be 350ppm—but levels are already at 385-400ppm. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from human sources have grown four times faster in last eight years than in the 1990s, Kerry said. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere have gone up 33% faster, surpassing the worst-case emission scenarios envisioned by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The result: Kerry said the average global temperature is already up 0.8 degrees centigrade, and existing emissions will likely drive that to 1.6 to 1.8C. And many researchers warn that a rise of 2C (3.4 degrees Fahrenheit) could push the planet's climate past a tipping point toward wholesale and catastrophic climate change.
"We've been moving in the wrong direction—not even moving in the right direction," Kerry said. And, he added, the emissions growth is "only going to get faster unless there's a dramatic shift in public policy."
Added Moomaw: "We have a bigger task ahead of us that we though we had."
The Coal Conundrum
In that challenging context, coal is "the most intractable problem," said Science reporter Eli Kintisch, who moderated one panel at the forum.
While dozens of coal-fired power plants have recently been cancelled in the United States, speakers noted such plants still account for 50% of the nation's power, and 70% in China, where a new coal-fired power-generation plant comes online every week. In India, coal-related industries employ 26 million people. And the U.S. coal industry, apparently concerned about the shifting policy landscape, has begun a $500 million ad campaign to promote "clean coal," though most experts say that clean-coal technology has not yet been developed for large-scale use.
Clearly, speakers said, coal will remain a critical power source for the two nations ranked first and second in greenhouse gas emissions, until "clean-coal" technology advances or cleaner, more efficient power sources are ready to replace it.
New coal plants being developed by China, India and the United States will overwhelm the goal of the Kyoto accords on climate change, said physicist Martin Hoffert, a professor emeritus at New York University. He noted that James Hansen, the influential NASA climate expert, is calling for a moratorium on the construction of coal plants.
"The more you know about this, the more you worry about it," Hoffert said. "So we need to approach it with a commensurate sense of urgency." His remark drew sustained applause.
Several speakers noted that a clean-coal project known as FutureGen had shown promise until the administration of former U.S. President George Bush put it on hold, citing cost overruns. FutureGen is a public-private partnership that planned to build a power plant in Illinois fueled by coal, but with near-zero emissions; it would capture from 1 million to 2.5 million metric tons of CO2 every year and pump it into deep geologic formations below the Earth's surface.
The decision set back the search for clean-coal processes in the United States, but the impact has been felt worldwide. China Huaneng Group, a huge coal-based power generator, along with the governments of China, India, and South Korea, all have been involved in the project.
Kelly Sims Gallagher
Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of the Energy Technology Innovation Project at Harvard University, said she was in China last fall and was "surprised by how upset the Chinese were that the U.S. had dropped" FutureGen. The Chinese called the decision "profoundly disappointing," she added, and indicated "it would set back their research on clean coal and carbon capture and storage."
While the Obama administration has indicated an interest in re-starting FutureGen, Gallagher urged that the United States engage China in a broader collaboration on pollution and climate change that would include joint demonstration projects in both the United States and China.
Hoffert said policymakers must view the search for technological breakthroughs through a different lens. Coal is clearly the cheapest fuel for producing electricity, he said, but that doesn't include the cost of climate damage. Technology-based solutions will be expensive, he said, and cost-overruns may be inevitable.
He cited a parallel in military weapons systems, which produce dramatic innovation but frequently experience cost overruns as they're developed. "None of these things were cost-effective to begin with," Hoffert said. "If we had that whole philosophy of procurement [where overruns are unacceptable], we'd never have any weapons systems."
Charles Ebinger, director of Brookings' Energy Security Initiative, warned against "having the wrong debate" about coal, a debate focused on balancing the needs of the climate and the value of coal to the economy. "We are talking about the fate of the Earth," he said. "Until you have perception that we're talking about a potential catastrophe, you are not going to bring along the coal states and the coal state senators... The message is not being heard on Capitol Hill."
The Power of Efficiency
Until clean-coal becomes a practical reality, and until renewable energy sources can match coal's power to generate electricity, conservation and efficiency are the best means for reducing demand for power—and emissions from coal-fired power plants. Kerry cited a recent report by McKinsey & Company which found that technology-driven energy efficiency could yield almost 40% of needed emission reductions in years ahead.
While the United States needs "a broad portfolio" of new energy sources, efficiency is "one of the easiest and cheapest ways to achieve greenhouse gas reductions," said Stephen Eule, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce vice president for 21st Century Energy.
"Energy efficiency is the world's greatest resource," added Kateri Callahan, president of the Alliance to Save Energy. The United States has "turned to it time and again over the past 30 years to power our economy."
Without past efficiency improvements, Callahan explained, the nation would need to produce 50% more energy today than it does. And the 2007 federal law phasing out incandescent bulbs by 2014 will save as much energy as all other federal appliance standards adopted since 1980.
In two panel presentations, executives from Hitachi and Toyota detailed some of the technology now in use or being developed that could drive dramatic improvements in efficiency.
Takashi Hatchoji, the chief environmental strategy officer at Hitachi, is "leading a revolution" at his company, said panel moderator Michael Shepard, president of E Source. In his talk, Hatchoji said that under Hitachi's "Environmental Vision 2025" plan, the company intends to cut emissions associated with its products by 100 million tons by 2025 compared to 2005. The key, he said, will be using technological innovation to achieve efficiency in a range of applications.
One example: A prize-winning home washer-dryer features five energy-saving technologies and two water-saving technologies.
Hatchoji listed a number of other areas where Hitachi is developing technology to power efficiency. Among them: carbon capture and storage; natural gas power generation; iron- and steel-making processes; lithium-ion batteries for hybrid cars; cooling systems for massive data centers; and agricultural information management systems that use satellite imagery for the optimization of fuel usage in harvesting.
And, he said, Hitachi has had extensive engagement with China on the issue of energy conservation.
Toyota's push toward hybrid and other green vehicle technologies has made it a world leader in 21st century automotive engineering. Tom Stricker, director-corporate manager for Toyota Motor North America, described the impact of the Toyota Prius hybrid vehicle—and where Toyota's search for efficient vehicles is leading.
The Prius was introduced in Japan in 1997 and in the United States two years later. Though sales are growing, the Prius and other hybrids still account for only a small share of the global auto market.
But, Stricker said, the 1.8 million hybrids sold thus far have saved 900 million gallons of gasoline; they also allowed dramatic reduction of CO2 emissions. Toyota hopes to be selling 1 million hybrids a year early in the next decade, he said.
Toyota's drive-train engineering is based on the possibility that the world is nearing a time of peak oil production; as the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, gas and diesel supplies will decline and become more expensive.
Meanwhile, Toyota plans to introduce a vehicle that may be the next wave in efficiency technology: a plug-in hybrid electric car with a lithium-ion battery. Stricker said 150 of the plug-in hybrid vehicle will be tested in United States beginning later this year. And in 2012, Toyota will introduce electric vehicle based on the FT-EV concept—a small, lightweight, fully electric plug-in vehicle with a range of about 40 miles on an overnight charge with 110-volt household power.
But he acknowledged that the emission-reducing effect of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles is limited by an electricity-production system that relies on coal and an antiquated transmission grid. "Greening of the grid is needed to fulfill the environmental promise" of such vehicles, Stricker said.
"We Must Look Ahead 1000 Years"
Other speakers at the Hitachi Forum described projects that seem to spring from science fiction, but which are all under study.
Kerry described a process advanced by a successful venture capitalist that extracts CO2 from coal-fired power plants and turns it into cement-like calcium carbonate. And he pointed to a 100-square-mile area that spans Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Arizona where solar and geothermal energy are so abundant that they could produce six times the entire energy need of the United States—if they could be harvested.
Conventional nuclear power remains slow and expensive to start up, speakers said. Hoffert questioned whether nuclear power fueled by thorium would be more practical—it is plentiful worldwide, it can be processed efficiently, it poses minimal risk for nuclear proliferation, and its waste is less dangerous than waste from uranium-powered reactors.
But Hoffert's principal interest is in exploring how satellites could gather solar energy in space and then beam it down to earth. Both he and other speakers also suggested that policymakers have to consider geo-engineering. (The speakers weren't specific on what sorts of geo-engineering should be considered, but the concept generally involves removing greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere by manipulating natural processes—seeding oceans with iron to nurture micro-organisms that consume CO2, for example, or by putting mirrors in space to reflect warming sunlight away from the planet.)
There's a caveat, however: The most ambitious projects may never be started, speakers said, without a new era of research and development in high-risk ventures that could permanently shift the energy-climate paradigm.
Currently, the U.S. economic and policy landscape is not fully conducive to such efforts. Eule noted that that nation's R&D tax credit is "on-again, off-again;" by locking in the tax credit, he said, the private sector could have more certainty in charting its R&D plan.
Others noted that investors and business too often are governed by the potential for short-term profits. And the world financial crisis has compounded the problem, making some business leaders and policy-makers more cautious and short-sighted.
Moomaw noted that China is poised to become a leading producer of photovoltaic cells. "We are investing millions of dollars in failing banks," he said, "while China is investing in alternative fuels."
Hoffert stressed the need for sustained investment to finance projects that might not pay off for 25 or 30 years. That's been the timeline for some major projects undertaken by U.S. national labs, and it should be the expectation for energy R&D as well, he argued.
The key is long-term vision—and a willingness to take big risks with big potential payoffs.
As a nation, "our unique talent ... has been in breaking the rules and doing things that have never been done before," Hoffert said. "I think this is our destiny."
Ishigaki, Hitachi's chief executive for the Americas, offered a similar point, but in more classical terms. The decisions made today on energy and the climate "affect not only us, but our children and generations to come," he said. "Now is the time to act responsibly."
To underscore the point, he quoted an ancient Chinese proverb: "Though we can live only 100 years, we must look ahead 1000 years."
25 March 2009