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Saturday, June 11, 2011

Experts lay out energy game plan

Experts from around the world today unveiled a six-point game plan for "decarbonizing" the world's sources of electric power over the next 20 years. The Equinox Summit's closing communique, issued at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, adds some new twists to the usual prescriptions for breaking our reliance on fossil fuels. But the big question is: Who'll pick up the ball?
We'll focus on that question during the next episode of "Virtually Speaking Science," airing at 1 p.m. ET Saturday on Blog Talk Radio and in the Second Life virtual world. My guest on the show is Martin Hoffert, professor emeritus of physics at New York University, who'll lay out the energy challenges that lie ahead.
"These are the types of challenges that engineers and scientists would love to work on, but there's no money," Hoffert told me.
At this week's Equinox Summit, scientists, policymakers and entrepreneurs gathered together under the auspices of the Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo to draw up recommendations to close the anticipated gap in electric power generation.
Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the university's Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, pointed out that an estimated 16.5 terawatts of power are generated today, with all but 2.5 terawatts coming from fossil fuels. By the year 2050, experts project that the world will need at least 30 terawatts. The energy-generating capacity from renewable sources would have to increase sixfold just to hold the current level of greenhouse-gas emissions steady, Nathwani noted.
"In simple terms, all new growth to be met will have to be non-carbon sources of energy," he said.
The recommendations touch on advanced power-generation technologies as well as strategies for using that power more efficiently:
Advanced nuclear power: International collaborations can accelerate next-generation nuclear technologies, such as accelerator-driven, thorium-based systems and integral fast reactors with a fully closed fuel cycle. Closing the nuclear fuel cycle means that the nuclear waste from one cycle is folded into the fuel for the next cycle. "Nuclear waste can fuel our energy future," said Danish policy researcher Jakob Nygard. Passive nuclear safety systems reduce the risk of a Fukushima-style reactor leak.
Geothermal power: Power companies are already starting to take advantage of the heat stored in the earth, but more could be done. Robin Batterham, former chief scientist for the Australian government, said 50 percent of the world's baseload power could come from geothermal by 2050. "The key question to me is, why isn't geothermal happening faster? ... The answer is fairly simple: The larger and more extensive resources are very deep," he said. To tap those resources, drillers might have to go 3 to 5 kilometers (2 to 3 miles) deep. The summit task force recommends developing 10 large-scale, $1 billion drilling projects "to demonstrate what the real risks are," Batterham said.
Better batteries: Solar cells and wind turbines could conceivably close the energy gap — if it weren't for the fact that they don't generate electricity on a 24/7 basis. What's needed are better technologies for large-scale power storage. WWF-Canada's Zoe Caron said advanced battery technologies are under development in China, the United States, Austria and elsewhere, but "essentially the batteries have not penetrated the market yet." More demonstration projects are needed, she and her summit colleagues said.
Smart cities: Two-thirds of the world's population could be living in mega-cities by the year 2040, said Marc McArthur, manager for the Ottawa Cleantech Initiative, and that suggests that initiatives such as smart metering, "intelligent buildings" and superconducting conduits have a big role to play in making future energy use more efficient. Neighborhood-based pilot projects would serve as "a bridge to the future and also a catalist for change," McArthur said.
Urban electric mobility: Information technology can help match up city residents with appropriate modes of electric transportation, ranging from buses and light rail to shared bicycles and automobiles. Felipe De Leon, a Costa Rica-based consultant for Anaconda Carbon, said the success of ventures such as Netflix and Zipcar, and the rise of concepts such as cloud computing, demonstrates the appeal of "access without ownership" — an approach that can easily be applied to urban mobility. "The trend is moving toward increased access and sharing," he said.
Rural electrification through flexible solar power: The electric-power challenge isn't limited to urban areas. "Quite a bit of stress has been laid on the necessity to provide a leg up to the nearly 2 billion people on the planet who do not even have electric light," Canadian-born nuclear physicist Walt Patterson told me. The summit task force put special emphasis on organic solar cells that could be as flexible as a sheet of plastic and produced on glorified inkjet printers. "There are a lot of industry players who are spending billions on this," the Global Governance Institute's Aaron Leopold said. He envisioned the development of cheap solar-powered battery packs that could produce enough electricity to run a small appliance, and yet would be so portable "you can wrap it up, put it in your backpack and carry it 50 miles down the road."