In 2011, Google discontinued its RE<C program which pledged to tackle the issue of climate change facing our planet. The RE<C initiative aimed to promote promising technologies and specifically to find sustainable form of generating electricity, cheaper than coal.
While stopping the program has been a knock to climate change efforts, the subsequent report from 2 of Google’s engineers has unearthed a bleak future for our environment.
The paper by Ross Koningstein and David Fork, suggests that even our most ambitious projections will not be enough to stop severe and potentially catastrophic climate change.
Starting in 2007, Google committed significant resources to tackle the world’s climate and energy problems. A few of these efforts proved very successful: Google deployed some of the most energy-efficient data centers in the world, purchased large amounts of renewable energy, and offset what remained of its carbon footprint.
However, Google’s boldest energy move was the RE<C program, which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants. RE<C invested in large-scale renewable energy projects and investigated a wide range of innovative technologies, such as self-assembling wind turbine towers, drilling systems for geothermal energy, and solar thermal power systems, which capture the sun’s energy as heat.
Its aspirational goal: to produce a gigawatt of renewable power more cheaply than a coal-fired plant could, and to achieve this in years, not decades.
“At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope—but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed” stated Koningstein and Fork.
As they reflected on the project, they came to the conclusion that even if Google and others had led the way toward a wholesale adoption of renewable energy, that switch would not have resulted in significant reductions of carbon dioxide emissions. Trying to combat climate change exclusively with today’s renewable energy technologies simply won’t work; we would need a fundamentally different approach.
“For us, designing and building novel energy systems was hard but rewarding work. By 2011, however, it was clear that RE<C would not be able to deliver a technology that could compete economically with coal, and Google officially ended the initiative and shut down the related internal R&D projects. Ultimately, the two of us were given a new challenge. Alfred Spector, Google’s vice president of research, asked us to reflect on the project, examine its underlying assumptions, and learn from its failures” added Koningstein and Fork.
The engineering duo decided to combine their energy innovation study’s best- case scenario results with James Hansen’s 2008 climate model. Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s foremost experts on climate change, showed that exceeding 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere would likely have catastrophic effects.
We have already past that limit, with experts agreeing to a current rate of 400ppm, but Koningstein and Fork wanted see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350ppm threshold.
Their calculations revealed quite the opposite. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use.
So the best-case scenario, which was based on their most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others.
Such a conclusion showed that reversing the trend would require radical technological advances on all climate change fronts; in cheap zero-carbon energy, a wholesale revolution in energy efficiency, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.
“Those calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light. Suppose for a moment that it had achieved the most extraordinary success possible, and that we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all the world’s coal plants—a situation roughly equivalent to the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario. Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change."
This realization was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change” admitted Koningstein and Fork.
Consider an average U.S. coal or natural gas plant that has been in service for decades; its cost of electricity generation is about 4 to 6 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour. Now imagine what it would take for the utility company that owns that plant to decide to shutter it and build a replacement plant using a zero-carbon energy source. The owner would have to factor in the capital investment for construction and continued costs of operation and maintenance — and still make a profit while generating electricity for less than $0.04/kWh to $0.06/kWh – a figure verging on inconceivable in the current mentality.
It is clear that we need to start thinking outside of the box to find a solution, which addresses environmental concerns within our profit driven energy systems.
If our target is to bring about sustainable energy cheaper than that produced by a coal power station, then meeting it head on with a renewable energy power station is clearly not the answer. We must consider the limitations of coal, the role of regulatory and fiscal regimes and the less traditional advantages of current and future renewable energies.
For example, anything that makes fossil fuels more expensive, whether it’s pollution limits or an outright tax on carbon emissions, helps competing energy technologies locally. However, in our global economy, industry can simply move manufacturing (and emissions) somewhere else. So rather than depend on politicians’ high ideals to drive change, it’s a safer bet to rely on businesses’ self interest: in other words, the bottom line.
Transmission and distribution may represent one advantage for some renewable energies over coal. Where economical coal power generation demands large scale power stations, many renewable energies can generate power in-situ or on a local scale. This characteristic would allow more sustainable energy sources to benefit from the cost saving benefits of reduced transmission and distribution infrastructure.
However, today’s renewable energies do not possess the reliability needed to take on such a primary role in electricity generation, and potential savings from transmission and distribution still leave them far from the economic situation they would need to achieve.
The conclusions of Koningstein and Fork report make clear that we need new, innovative, “disruptive” technology, if we are to get anywhere near our hopes of stopping potentially catastrophic climate change.
We need to find entirely new technologies, perhaps moving away from the use of heat to create steam, which turns turbines – the basic model of almost all power generation.
A disruptive fusion technology, for example, might skip the steam and produce high-energy charged particles that can be converted directly into electricity. For industrial facilities, maybe a cheaply synthesized form of methane could replace conventional natural gas. Or perhaps a technology would change the economic rules of the game by producing not just electricity but also fertilizer, fuel, or desalinated water.
In carbon storage, bioengineers might create special-purpose crops to pull CO2 out of the air and stash the carbon in the soil. There are, no doubt, all manner of unpredictable inventions that are possible, and many ways to bring our CO2 levels down to Hansen’s safety threshold if imagination, science, and engineering run wild.
“We’re glad that Google tried something ambitious with the RE<C initiative, and we’re proud to have been part of the project. But with 20/20 hindsight, we see that it didn’t go far enough, and that truly disruptive technologies are what our planet needs.
This groundbreaking, yet somewhat depressing, report focuses on the cleaner and cheaper production of electricity. However, we believe that increasing energy efficiency is up there with the most important actions we can take to address climate change.
Smart buildings, cities and grids are an essential part of the equation - http://memoori.com/portfolio/bems-market-2013-to-2017/
Smart technology firms need to step up and take on the challenge, for the sake of the environment AND their own bottom lines.