What to Do Next
The Climate Next panelists debate new strategies for curbing global warming.
Read the rest of the Climate Next project, starting with the introduction.
But those cost curves are one of the trickiest bits of climate policy. We know that human behavior can accelerate the development of individual technologies, but it's very hard to know which of those technologies would end up becoming radically cheaper over time. For example, we can assume that the cost of producing solar power will go down in the coming decades. Figuring out how much it will go down (and whether it will become a viable alternative to fossil fuels) is another thing entirely—even small changes in the expected rate of decrease yield vastly different projections for its success.
Roberts does a nice job laying out the four cornerstones of a national innovation system: R & D to push technological development faster, various incentives and Federal procurement policies to create market pull, an institutional ecosystem of supportive research institutions and government agencies, and robust government-supported resources and capabilities for the industry.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger, though, believe that the current generation of renewable energy technology is so far from competitive that it precludes building a real base of support for climate action.
Indeed, economies around the world have been slowly decarbonizing for two centuries. Energy intensity has declined at about one percent a year over that period and carbon intensity about half that. Those trends have been driven by technological, economic, and political changes alike. We've developed ways to generate power—still mostly fossil based power—that are better, cleaner and cheaper. The structure of our economy has changed dramatically, with the rise of the information and service economies and the decline and outsourcing of our industrial economy driving declining energy intensity. And rising post-material values have led to political demands for cleaner energy and less pollution which have in fact resulted in higher regulatory costs for dirty energy and substantial subsidies for clean energy. It is unlikely that efforts to increase the regulatory costs of coal as envisioned by Brune, accelerate the development of gas as envisioned by Levi, and promote low-cost energy efficiency as envisioned by Roberts will do much to significantly accelerate those trends over the next several decades. Nor will the variety of other policies that Roberts proposes to throw against the wall—renewable energy standards, feed in tariffs, a national grid, smart growth, the list is endless—lacking vastly better technological alternatives.
For them, the technology has to precede many policies. That's one reason that they, like Cohen, think the Pentagon would be a natural engine for the tough and market-unfriendly work of pushing energy breakthroughs. The best part of the Department of Defense? It's so big that it would be its own best customer for any innovations.
Perhaps it's best to end this discussion with a look at the scale of the problem. Given the economic growth of China, India, and other major developing countries, we can anticipate that global energy demand will grow, and so will the need for clean sources. Here's Armond Cohen's compelling look at what we'd need to do to meet that demand.
Since achieving merely one carbon-freeterawatt of those 30 carbon-free Terawatts would require 25 times more wind power than we have today *, or three hundred times current global solar capacity, or, for that matter, three times our current global capacity of nuclear plants, it's pretty clear that fossil fuels are likely to be part of the picture for quite a while—[which suggests that] developing the [carbon capture and storage] option at scale is likely to be pretty important. … It's also clear that at least current-generation renewables, with their substantial land use demands, intermittency challenges (which, even at current penetration levels in California and parts of Europe have required substantial numbers of new gas power plants to fill in when the wind isn't blowing—a cost which is typically not counted against the renewables), and very high cost (at present, solar [photovoltaics] is at something like four times the cost of new nuclear power in the United States), are going to have a hard time filling out most of those 30 terawatts. We are going to need lots of innovation, and every scalable option we can imagine.
This story was produced by Slate for the Climate Desk collaboration.
Correction, Nov. 18, 2010: Armond Cohen originally miscalculated the wind-power expansion required to generate one terawatt of energy. Generating one terawatt would require 25 times, not four times, more wind power than is available today. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for TheAtlantic.com. A former staff writer for Wired.com, he's the author of the forthcoming history of clean energy in America, Powering the Dream.
Photograph of coal power plant by Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images.