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Grand Challenge

Franklin M. Orr, Jr.

Director, Precourt Institute for Energy, Stanford University
Founding GCEP Project Director, Stanford University (2002-2007)


From white paper originally issued November 2002 and updated October 2003

Six billion people currently inhabit the earth. A quarter of us have only limited access to energy services: heat, transportation, and electricity for myriad uses. In 20 years, another 1.5 billion people will join us, and their living conditions will depend in large part on the availability of energy. Supplying this energy will be a significant challenge, but it is not the only challenge we face.

We humans are interacting with the geochemical systems of our planet on a global scale. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by a third from its pre-industrial value, and the resulting change in the acidity of the upper ocean can be detected. While climate has varied throughout Earth's history from natural causes, today there is a lively debate about the timing and magnitude of the climate's response to the presence of more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

While that debate continues, we should consider now how to develop technology options that have much lower emissions of greenhouse materials (e.g., carbon dioxide, methane, and black soot). Supplying the energy required by both well-established and developing societies while at the same time reducing greenhouse emissions will be one of the grand challenges that we humans must face in this century.

Meeting this challenge will require financial resources and the engagement of the best minds we can find.

We can imagine many potential technology paths that have lower greenhouse emissions. In fostering technological innovations that will permit significant reductions in emissions, we need to understand what barriers (including performance, cost, safety, environmental impact, and consumer acceptance) will limit our ability to put the new technology in place, and then attack these barriers with research.

We need options that can be used by people in both developing and developed countries. We should work now to put in place research that will create innovative technologies for energy supply and use in the future. And as individuals we can all contribute by choosing efficient ways to use energy.

A project that is working toward these goals is now underway at Stanford University with the support of a group of global companies (including ExxonMobil, GE, Schlumberger, and Toyota). With initial funding of $225 million, the Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) will unleash the creativity of faculty and students at Stanford and other universities and research institutions worldwide. With a sustained effort in this project and many others, we can begin now to create a path toward an energy future that is feasible and practical, applicable to both the developed and the developing world, with much lower greenhouse emissions.


 

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