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GCEP Research Symposium focuses on advancing the clean energy agenda
Thought leaders from industry, academia and journalism offered new insights on how to move the clean energy agenda forward at the annual GCEP Research Symposium on Oct. 14-15 at Stanford University. More than 450 people attended the two-day event, which featured lively talks, tutorials and a discussion of how industry views the potential for advancing clean energy around the world.
GCEP Director Sally Benson opened the GCEP Symposium. "We have seen tremendous advances in the past decade across the entire energy industry," Benson said. "The cost of photovoltaic modules continues to decline dramatically, from $3 per watt in 2004 to less than 70¢ today and the installed capacity of PV has increased 40-fold."
Similarly encouraging news is found in the wind power industry, with global installed capacity of wind power growing at an average annual rate of 23 percent.
Likewise, big changes have happened in the transportation sector. The average new car sold in the United States is about 25 percent more efficient. Hybrid electric vehicle sales in the U.S. have increased five-fold, and there are now more than 70 models to chose from. And, electric vehicles are making dramatic inroads into certain sectors of the market.
Producing electricity from fossil fuels is also getting cleaner. Natural gas production in the U.S. has increased nearly 30 percent due to a combination of technological breakthroughs that enable producing hydrocarbons from shale. And this year a Canadian company launched the world's first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage operation at a coal-fired power plant, reducing emissions by 90 percent.
Despite these significant advances, much more needs to be done, Benson said. As worldwide demand for energy services grows at 2.1 percent per year, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise. Coal use is growing even more quickly. Yet millions of people in the developing world still need access to electricity and modern cooking fuels. While solar and wind are growing rapidly and have large potential for meeting the world's energy demands, the intermittent nature of these renewable resources makes low-cost, large-scale energy storage a priority, she added.
Looking forward, GCEP will continue to support research to develop lower cost and higher efficiency renewable electricity; durable, higher performance and lower cost batteries and fuel cells; scalable and cost-effective renewable fuels; and affordable low-carbon fossil fuels.
Following Benson's talk, Chris Field, founding director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford and co-chair of Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, summarized the findings of the recent IPCC Fifth Assessment Report.
Field emphasized the importance of viewing climate change as a challenge in managing and reducing risk. "We don't know exactly where we're headed with climate change," he explained. "It may be that the most likely projections turn out to be more serious than we actually encounter, or it may turn out that they're less serious...What we want to make sure is that we're prepared to deal with the full range of possible outcomes."
The IPCC report found that human influence on the global climate system is clear, with observable impacts on the atmosphere, the land and the ocean. Yet the growth of greenhouse emissions between 2000 and 2010 was larger than in the previous three decades, in part because of a worldwide renaissance in coal.
"One of the big surprises is that as we've gotten more serious about stopping the climate challenge, we've actually seen an increase the rate of emissions growth,” Field said. If we are going to be on a trajectory of climate mitigation in the second half of the century, we need to start investing in clean technologies now and steadily over the next few decades, he added.
Substantial emissions reductions could be achieved through new investments in energy efficiency, solar electricity, renewables, nuclear power, and carbon capture and storage technologies, Field said. "[Climate change] is a challenge that's ripe with opportunities for individuals and companies to effectively pursue solutions,” he concluded.
Lessons from industry
Chad Holliday, a member of the board of directors of Bank of America, a GCEP sponsor, pointed to the company's $50 billion commitment to sustainable growth as an example of how industry can advance a transition to clean technologies.
He recalled his time as an executive at DuPont (which became a GCEP sponsor in 2011) when scientists confirmed that the company's Freon refrigerants were contributing to the depletion of the Earth's fragile ozone layer. Instead of denying the scientific evidence, DuPont responded with a pledge to replace all of its ozone-depleting Freon within five years. At first, the announcement caused tremendous consternation for the company and its customers.
"That decision, though, led to the Montreal Protocol [eliminating ozone-depleting substances worldwide], and led to all our competitors coming on board, and led to, I think, some very significant environmental accomplishments," Holliday said. "It's nothing like as complex as the climate issue Chris [Field] described, but I think there's a few learnings in there, if we could finally make them work to go forward."
On the positive side for industry, he added, "people saw a gigantic market [for new refrigerants] opening up."
Stanford Professor Arun Majumdar, who was recently named vice chair of the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, moderated a discussion on how two of the world's biggest industries, ExxonMobil (a GCEP sponsor) and Google, are addressing the global energy challenge. Pete Trelenberg, manager of environmental policy and planning at ExxonMobil, explained that the company uses a proxy price on carbon emissions that rises through 2040 when developing its annual Outlook for Energy. This results in large efficiency gains between 2010 and 2040 that are the size of the global energy consumption in 2010, and gradual decarbonization of the energy system worldwide.
The world is fast
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, delivered a wide-ranging talk entitled, "The World is Fast."
The most important goal for countries today is to achieve resilience and sustainability, Friedman said. He called on the U.S. to lift its ban on oil exports, impose a revenue-neutral carbon tax, create a national clean energy standard to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and monitor methane leakage to make sure that the natural gas industry becomes a bridge to the future, "not a ditch."
Daniel Kammen of the University of California-Berkeley focused his talk on advancing the clean energy agenda in Kenya, the Philippines and other developing countries.
The symposium also featured energy tutorials on thermoelectrics, wind, net energy analysis of renewables and synthetic fuels.
The event concluded with talks by GCEP Distinguished Student Lecturers and the announcement of the winner of the best poster competition. Videos of most of the talks and presentations can be viewed online.
Mark Shwartz writes about energy technology at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.
Photos by Bill Rivard
December 8, 2014
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