Can we engineer a tectonic shift in the industrial, social and economic fabric of a global society, dislodging it decidedly away from fossil fuels? Is such a thing even possible to conceive, much less plan and execute? Participants in an innovative gathering of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative in Waterloo, Ontario, believed so — and set about imagining how the world could realistically cleave a bold new pathway toward a lower-carbon energy future in electricity. Australian science journalist Wilson da Silva, who moderated the sessions, reports from the inside.
Not enough, and too much. This is the nub of the science works. Historically, scientific discoveries have beem problem faced by our modern technological civilization: not enough sources to satisfy the coming boom in energy demand, and too much climate-changing greenhouse gas produced in the energy already in use.
Globally, the world is struggling to generate 22 trillion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity annually, mostly from sources that produce greenhouse gases. By 2030, the world is likely to need 31 trillion kWh a year. So how will this demand be met — and ramp up even further in the decades ahead as India, Brazil and China ride the wealth curve ever higher — while somehow reducing the use of energy sources that would only exacerbate climate change?
This is the challenge of our times — and has occupied many political leaders, bureaucrats and diplomats for two decades. Addressing it has seen the world come together in a long series of tortuous rounds of discussions and negotiations about emission limits and targets, arguing about compromise and compensation — only to, in some cases, end in disagreement and even acrimony.
Is there another way? What if we viewed the problem starting from a scientific and technological perspective first, and then factored in the political, economic and social dimensions — might such an approach help reinvigorate our thinking, break deadlocks, catalyze long-term change and even realize all new opportunities? After all, we know the greatest single contributors to the health, prosperity and advancement of civilization. Thanks to our accumulation of scientific knowledge over centuries, we now routinely vanquish once deadly diseases, travel enormous distances at will, communicate in an instant, build great structures and more. Scientific knowledge has brought us to the peak of our prowess and well-being as a species: never before have so many humans lived so well and for so long.
The potential for “science-first” thinking to address problems and unlock hidden opportunities was the idea behind the Waterloo Global Science Initiative (WGSI). WGSI is a partnership between Perimeter Institute and the University of Waterloo — and a good example of how two organizations can combine different strengths to work toward a better future. The university provides leading energy expertise through its research centres on sustainable energy and nanotechnology. Perimeter, while maintaining its sharp focus on basic research through theoretical physics, is able to facilitate successful multidisciplinary collaborations and share information through its world-class educational outreach operations.
WGSI aims to advance dialogue on key topics approximately every two years by attracting experts in select fields, along with emerging leaders from around the world, to special gatherings that capitalize upon the knowledge driven atmosphere of the Waterloo Region. Participants will be challenged to address real-world problems and realize opportunities by considering the wise, long-term application of science and technology in fresh, new ways.
The first topic chosen by WGSI for discussion was energy, and the first gathering was to be known as the Equinox Summit (evoking notions of that pivotal point in time when change occurs). Organizers knew that no single gathering could address the complexities of the subject and that a “silver bullet” solution to growing energy needs was highly unlikely. So they focused on a vision for a lower carbon, more electrified future that could extract ideas from participants about the scientific and technical nature of electric power by concentrating discussion on the generation, storage and distribution of electricity.
Why electricity? Because it is the world’s fastest-growing form of end-use energy consumption — and forecast to grow steadily: net electricity generation worldwide is forecast to rise by 2.3 percent year per year to 2035, while total world energy demand is expected to grow by 1.4 percent per year, according to International Energy Outlook 2010, produced by the US Energy Information Administration (USEIA). In most advanced economies, electricity makes up the largest proportion of energy use. In the United States, for example, electricity accounts for 38.3 percent of consumption (made up of 48 percent coal, 22 percent nuclear, 18 percent natural gas, 11 percent renewables and 1 percent oil), again according to USEIA, while transportation accounts for 27 percent (mostly from oil). However, the continued high price of oil in the decades ahead will likely accelerate the trend for the electrification of transport so that by 2030, the use of electric power will represent an even larger proportion of world energy consumption.
By 2050, global primary energy demand is expected to almost double from 16.5 to 30 terawatts per year. Meanwhile, global trends in technology development, information access, personal mobility and urbanization are placing unprecedented demand on our electrical infrastructure. The challenge is to meet this demand without further altering our planet’s climate: more than 68 percent of our global electricity supply in 2008 was produced by burning fossil fuels, primarily coal and natural gas, releasing 11.9 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. Most of this CO2 will stay in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years, continuing to act as a greenhouse gas that warms the Earth and disrupts the climate patterns to which our civilization has been accustomed (figure 1).
Increasing our global electricity supply to meet this growing demand, while reducing carbon emissions, is a monumental undertaking. As noted thinker Vaclav Smil, a professor at the University of Manitoba and author of many books and papers on energy and environment, has said, “A non-fossil world may be highly desirable, but getting there will demand great determination, cost and patience.”
Nevertheless, the importance of achieving both goals has been recognized at the highest policy levels, including by the International Energy Agency, the UN Development Programme and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Yet many national commitments around the world to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases fall far short of those needed to limit climatic risks. And over the past decade, coal — the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel — has been the fastest-growing global energy source, meeting close to half of new electricity demand.
By examining the generation, distribution and storage of electricity, Equinox Summit organizers hoped that meeting participants could focus their collective wisdom in key areas and provide meaningful contributions to the global energy dialogue with possible scenarios that help address rising energy needs.
In June 2011, with the full conference framework in place, the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030 was convened. It brought together 40 leading innovators from science, policy, civil society and business along with young, emerging leaders from around the world to meld their diverse knowledge and creativity into strategies that could help redirect the global electricity system on a more sustainable trajectory.
Participants were prepared with advance information kits, orientation sessions and early discussions that delved into details of the need to expand power capacity, increase resilience and security, and improve the efficiency of the world’s electricity systems. The multiday conference inaugurated a unique collaborative process — known as the Equinox Process — to capitalize upon the multinational, multidisciplinary and intergenerational composition of the participants. Outcomes from the gathering would include an immediate Equinox Communiqué with their high-level, collective point of view. And after months of follow-up, an Equinox Blueprint would provide a more detailed summary of their ideas, including “exemplar pathways” that may help stimulate the global energy dialogue with fresh, long-term thinking about how science and technology might most effectively be harnessed to help address one of the most complex challenges of this century.
The Equinox Process was, more specifically, built upon these four core ideas:
- Long-term vision. Neither technology development nor societal change occurs quickly. The aim was to begin with an end in mind — a vision of shared goals for where the global energy system should be in the decades ahead. It was hoped that, in so doing, the summit could resist the temptation to follow only where immediate pressures and easiest opportunities might lead.
- Global, multidisciplinary and intra-generational. Transforming societies toward a long-term vision requires mobilizing talented innovators from different nations, generations and disciplines. By bringing together individuals who reflect the diversity of the world in as many ways as possible, the discussions could draw upon the rich knowledge of our global society. The intergenerational dimension of the participants was particularly important to ensure that the shared knowledge and ideas generated take root in the generation who will be the world’s custodians in the decades to come.
- Blueprint for action. The WGSI founders felt that transformative processes require a “living blueprint” for action. The ideas that emerged at the summit, to be captured in a report known as the Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030, are designed to be the beginning of a process of development and engagement for the participants — not a static document, but the start of an evolving conversation. The goal was to go beyond making recommendations, and to prompt further creative thinking and exploratory action. For this reason, the summit itself was a launching point for a series of activities that will allow participants to further develop ideas in the years ahead.
- Scientific foundations. Robust scientific knowledge had to provide the foundation upon which lasting transformation can be achieved. Though social, economic and policy innovations are essential to maximizing the potential of emerging science and new technologies, without rigorous scientific grounding, effective transformation of the world’s energy system will not be possible. In their deliberations, participants focused on those contributions science and technology could make to a major transformation of the global energy economy.
The summit brought together 40 participants from 17 countries for an intense series of discussions over five days. They approached issues in the generation, distribution and storage of electricity via three distinct groups, involving:
The Quorum — A group of leading scientists asked to attend the meeting as exponents of particular technologies that they believed could make transformative contributions to our electrified future. This group provided the scientific foundations for the process.
The Forum — Among the innovations of the Equinox Summit was the involvement of young men and women in their 20s, carefully selected from among emerging, international leaders in public policy, industry and civil society. The year 2030 will be their world, and during the summit their role was to help evaluate and drive proposals for their “exemplar pathways” to help accelerate and maximize some of the technologies proposed by the Quorum.
Advisers — This group included veteran entrepreneurs, policymakers and scientific leaders who contributed their experience to the discussions and pathway development, ensuring the ideas considered realworld practicalities and implementation challenges.
Guiding participants was a team of Equinox Summit organizers and contributors. Jatin Nathwani, director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy, and Jason Blackstock, senior fellow for energy and the environment with the Centre for International Governance Innovation, were pivotal in this regard. Overseeing the effort, behind the scenes, was John Matlock, a director with Perimeter Institute who is experienced in a wide range of public, private and science communication activities. A full listing of content team members, advisers, board and other organizers appears at WGSI.org.
Members of the Quorum — the scientists with expertise in potentially transformative technologies — were asked to pitch their ideas for how the technologies might help address both the imminent shortage of electricity and the urgent need to rely on low-carbon solutions. They were specifically asked to address four core considerations:
- The potential of the technology for carbon reduction, i.e., greenhouse gases per tonne, per year, by region
- Scaling capacity; can it deliver gigawatts?
- Economic considerations and targets (cost/kWh)
- A time-frame for commercial viability of the technology
Quorum members were also asked to address the current state of the art, including key shortcomings, limitations and challenges; the technology readiness level (TRL), and the anticipated TRL at project completion with target level of performance (including technical data to support this); key technical risks or issues associated with any R&D plan; a suggested manufacturing approach for scaling the technology and any scalability/cost issues; the impact additional investment would have on the project, and how much might be necessary to achieve objectives, how the technology could be transitioned by 2030 to the next source of private or public funding and what additional investment would be required to achieve full commercial deployment.
As if this wasn’t enough of a challenge for one conference, WGSI founders were also keen to ensure public engagement, believing that the meeting would benefit from general public audiences at all plenary sessions, online streaming of most events and live broadcast of panel discussions. Although this is unusual for a science and technology conference involving highly detailed content, a strong science communication partnership between Perimeter Institute and TVO, Ontario’s public educational media organization, made it possible. The two regularly collaborate on bringing together interesting minds and sharing important ideas with the world in clear and highly visual ways. TVO’s involvement became a key feature of the Equinox Summit, helping to energize participants. And the on-demand playbacks of the public activities continue to inform wider audiences on energy issues. Below is a list of the plenaries that kicked off each day’s discussions (box 1).
The mix of summit activities for participants included morning plenaries where technologies were pitched (along with “benchmark videos” outlining the obstacles faced in generation, storage and distribution), providing a foundation for the day, followed by private working sessions and breakout groups to examine finergrain details. Summaries from the groups were captured in the late afternoon as the public enjoyed an extra track of special lectures. The evening periods began with private working dinners to solidify the day’s findings and concluded with live broadcasts of The Agenda with Steve Paikin in which various participants of the conference took part. Most closed working sessions through the daily schedule operated under Chatham House rules as, inside, were select journalists from Nature, Scientific American, the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, among others, who were free to report the discussions but not identify or reveal the affiliation of those speaking. The combination of private and public events with science communicators all around was a motivating force for participants intent on converging on clear outcomes. And it was fascinating to see, away from the organized activities, so many spontaneous, invigorated and animated exchanges taking place throughout the institute’s interactive areas. For many of the senior authorities involved, the stimulating interaction they had with the Forum — “very, very bright young people,” as one adviser described them — was the highlight of the summit.
When the summiteers began their journey, the global electricity challenge had been broken down into three distinct silos: generation, distribution and storage. Through their intense discussions emerged a clearer, more integrated way of making sense of the problem and thinking about potential solutions: a concept named the Low Carbon Electricity Ecosystem (see figure 2). This new approach highlights how a series of technological, economic and social innovations in different contexts can contribute to our thinking on transforming how society approaches electrical energy use.
The concept of how to use the technologies discussed also shifted: it became clear that most of those systems considered — and those that showed the greatest promise — were often not innovations ready to deploy. Most of the proposed technological pathways needed to be further explored, developed, expanded or commercialized in order to be truly transformational. Some concepts had specific applications that might be niches, but would have a powerful impact; others were applicable depending on geography, climate and resource availability.
What became clear was that the Low Carbon Electricity Ecosystem concept could be applied to almost any place in the world. And that the technological exemplar pathways were a toolbox that could be deployed according to local needs and abilities. These pathways — discussed by summit participants and elaborated upon in the resulting report, Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030 — identify specific opportunities for transformative action and sectors of the energy problem that are amenable to improvement through science and technology. The summit’s findings describe existing barriers to that improvement and suggests how those barriers might be overcome. Each pathway includes not just technologies, but also a selection of possible policy prescriptions, interventions and action points that could help generate or accelerate change.
The Low Carbon Electricity Ecosystem became a simple way to provide coherence and structure to the exemplar pathways that the summit participants came to propose, and the pathways themselves became avenues for imagining how to catalyze science and technology to help accelerate our global energy transformation.
The first three of the exemplar pathways focus on technologies that could help replace our reliance on fossil fuels for the generation of constant, reliable “baseload” power in long-established electrical systems. Baseload power is the minimum amount of electric power delivered or required over a given period of time at a steady rate. Baseload power plants are the production facilities used to meet a part of the continuous energy demand of a region; they produce electricity at a constant rate and usually at a low cost and are the backbone of any large-scale electricity system.
Access to reliable baseload power and on-demand dispatchable electricity drives the global economy and has become indispensable to billions of people. However, burning the coal and gas that provides the majority of this baseload power emits tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere daily, leading to harmful climate change.
But dramatically reducing the carbon intensity of baseload power is extremely difficult. For each of the three promising options examined by the summit participants, a large-scale implementation on a terawatt (TW) scale of installed capacity over the next four decades was considered necessary to meet the challenge. The following four points are the exemplar pathways, and the first three deal with baseload power.
1. Renewables coupled with large-scale storage. The first exemplar pathway is the one with the shortest time frame for implementation: the development of large-scale storage coupled with renewable energy facilities such as wind or solar. It relies on existing storage technologies currently deployed at the small scale or in pilot plants in various sites. The goal would be to upscale, de-risk and commercialize the technologies for widespread deployment.
It’s long been known that energy from the wind and sunlight has great potential for low-emissions electricity, but their variability and intermittency make them difficult to integrate into existing power systems. Currently, when the wind or solar energy generated is not immediately used, it is discarded, or “spilled” — leading to large losses because there is no adequate storage. Large-scale batteries, meeting the energy and power requirements of the grid, installed near the source of electricity generation or close to the end user, could therefore play a part in turning clean and abundant, yet intermittent, energy sources into reliable, steady forms of baseload power for cities and industry — and avoid wastage.
Among innovations in storage technologies, the summit participants believed electrochemical batteries offered the most advantages: they can be sited anywhere, they’re modular, their rapid response times may be used concurrently with other advanced energy management applications, and they can be placed near residential areas due to their low environmental impact. Within electrochemical batteries, summit participants judged “flow batteries” as among the most advanced, and vanadium redox flow batteries in particular as showing promise.
Vanadium redox flow batteries are a type of rechargeable, large-scale battery that employs vanadium ions in different oxidation states to store chemical potential energy. Over the past 25 years, a design based on vanadium and using sulphuric acid electrolytes has been under investigation with testing and evaluations at several institutions in Australia, Europe, Japan and North America.
The main advantages of the vanadium redox battery are that it can offer almost unlimited capacity simply by using larger and larger storage tanks; can be left completely discharged for long periods with no ill effects; can be recharged simply by replacing the electrolyte if no power source is available to charge it; and, if the electrolytes are accidentally mixed, the battery suffers no permanent damage.
The summit identified the barriers to full commercialization of vanadium flow batteries as (a) the need to reduce manufacturing costs per kilowatt (kW) by achieving higher electric current density and increasing stack module sizes; (b) inexpensive, chemically stable ion exchange membranes not subject to fouling by impurities in the electrolyte medium need to be developed; and (c) the scale-up, capital and cycle-life costs and optimization need to be improved. Other issues to be addressed are the volatility in the price of vanadium pentoxide and a need to boost the current low energy density of the electrolyte.
The summit participants identified three initiatives to expand the use of large-scale storage for renewables:
- Existing research efforts and gridscale battery demonstration projects should be expanded and prioritized to profile the reliability and scope of renewable energy combined with storage.
- Larger-scale demonstration projects are needed to establish the economic viability of storage technologies. These may require partnerships between existing utilities and technology developers to help with commercialization and wider implementation.
- Appropriate policy interventions to encourage storage from renewable energy sources and discourage spillage.
2. Enhanced geothermal. The second exemplar pathway proposed by summit participants was Enhanced Geothermal Systems (or EGS). Geothermal power is an attractive source of abundant baseload electricity with low emissions. However, to date, geothermal facilities have been deployed only where naturally occurring heat, water and rock permeability allow easy energy extraction.
Enhanced geothermal is a new approach: with deep enough drilling, every country in the world could potentially have access to a large amount of this energy resource. It allows the use of the heat within the Earth in a wider range of locations than existing geothermal resources, where there is insufficient naturally occurring steam or hot water, and where the permeability of the Earth’s crust is low.
It does not require natural convective hydrothermal resources, but seeks to enhance or create geothermal power from hot dry rock sites through “hydraulic stimulation”: pumping high-pressure cold water down an injection well into the rock. This increases fluid pressure in the naturally fractured rock, mobilizing shear events that enhance permeability — a process known as hydro-shearing, which is very different from hydraulic tensile fracturing used in the oil and gas industries. When natural cracks and pores in a site do not allow economic flow rates, permeability can thus be enhanced, allowing geothermal power to be extracted in a larger number of locations and to function as a busload station producing power 24 hours a day, much like a conventional power generating plant.
If it could be tapped for electricity production, the heat of the Earth offers an essentially inexhaustible supply of energy: the estimated enhanced geothermal resource base in the United States alone is some 13,000 times the current annual consumption of primary energy. Using reasonable assumptions regarding how heat would be mined from stimulated enhanced geothermal reservoirs, the extractable portion still amounts to 2,000 times that annual consumption, according to a comprehensive study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commissioned by the US Department of Energy (The Future of Geothermal Energy, January 2007).
Worldwide, it has been estimated that geothermal generation could reach 1,400 TWh per year — representing as much as 3.5 percent of worldwide electricity — within four decades, replacing the burning of almost 800 million tonnes of CO2, according to a 2011 report by the International Energy Agency.
While there are technical challenges to overcome in order to make EGS a common source of global energy, most of the difficulty is a lack of engagement by business and government at a large enough scale to make a significant impact: recent efforts have focused on small-scale projects. Major barriers to the technology’s expansion have been the high front-end capital costs of geothermal projects, and the lack of investor confidence due to the paucity of available drilling data — only a small number of wells have been drilled worldwide to date. Until the technology is sufficiently de-risked to overcome the natural conservatism of private capital, exploration of the resource will be limited to isolated, government-supported development. Summit participants expect engagement by major financial and energy players will be needed to make the cost projections attractive to investors.
Most of the uncertainty in geothermal projects centres on the lack of understanding of the size and characteristics of individual resources before drilling begins. Additionally, some questions around the local environmental impacts of engineered geothermal systems need to be studied and better understood. As for technical issues, these are largely about the ability to create a closed water circuit, the avoidance of mineralization and channelling (leading to localized cooling) and the integrity of rock fracturing — all considered surmountable over time. The Equinox Summit participants were extremely enthusiastic about the potential of EGS. In order to reduce the technical and financial risks of large-scale engieered geothermal technology, they called for the establishment of a public-private partnership to roll out up to 10 commercial-scale, 50 megawatt demonstration projects around the world. These would be internationally collaborative efforts, marrying industry leaders and government partners.
These projects would help reduce risks and uncertainties for drilling by bringing down the learning curve: drilling into larger amounts of the geothermal resource base would likely result in greater economies of scale for delivered power, which would translate into lower average costs per well — not only for wells per field, but wells drilled regionally. This learning curve approach has been applied successfully in the oil and gas drilling technologies. The approach may also lower prospecting and surveying costs by allowing the sharing of information — with all data derived from the projects to be made publicly available to facilitate transfer of drilling technologies and expertise internationally, also building confidence between the government and private investors.
Large-scale demonstration projects are a potentially powerful means of building confidence and improving technological understanding to encourage the uptake of new technology. These would not only establish whether the projects are technically feasible but also de-risk the construction and operation of ‘commercialscale’ facilities.
3. Advanced nuclear. The third exemplar pathway centred on advanced nuclear technologies and sought to address the coming spike in energy demand in the decades beyond 2030 as the developing world becomes more fully industrialized, with high-rise buildings, shopping centres, air conditioning and other high-density demand for electrical power, especially baseload power. The scale of the shift to low-carbon energy sources, coupled with the substantially lower power density of renewable energy extraction (even if intermittency is addressed with largescale storage) and the uneven distribution of renewable and geothermal energy resources, means that a third low-carbon baseload option is required — and this will need planning, as well as research and development, in the lead-up to 2030 (box 2).
Nuclear energy currently provides 14 percent of the world’s generated electricity, and the 439 reactors now operating in 31 countries provide reliable baseload supplies with almost zero emissions during operation. However, there are public concerns about the long-term radioactive wastes created and the fact that reactor cores need be maintained at a high pressure in order to keep their coolant — water — liquid at high temperatures.
New reactor designs (Generation III, IV and V) offer an increased level of inherent safety. Designs such as that for the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) also raise the promise of closing the nuclear fuel cycle because they can “burn” most of the high-level nuclear waste such as reactor-grade plutonium and minor actinides. The system also allows reuse of the waste from earlier generation plants, turning that waste from a liability into an energy asset.
A small amount of non-reprocessable waste would still be generated by an Integral Fast Reactor, although the scope of the waste management challenge is substantially reduced to decades rather than tens of thousands of years as with traditional reactors. To address this, summit participants also reviewed ideas for Generation V reactors such as Thorium-fuelled Accelerator Driven Systems (TADS). These may allow the generation of energy while “burning” or destroying longer-lived waste. In addition, the reactor remains sub-critical, or unable to sustain a chain reaction without a proton beam activated. Were an accident to occur, the beam could be turned off and the reactor’s core would cease operating immediately.
Both designs use metal coolants, which can disperse heat via natural convection; allow the nuclear fuel cycle to be closed and waste recycled; and rely on resources — thorium and uranium — which have a high-energy density and are abundant on the Earth’s crust. One of the other benefits of these two reactor technologies is that they are unsuitable for the development of the fissile material for nuclear weapons, addressing proliferation concerns.
A majority of summit participants believed Generation IV and V reactors are transformative technologies that could help address the dual need for a dramatic increase in energy resource and density in the 21st century while also being low-carbon, with the added advantage of allowing an existing problem — that of nuclear waste — to become a low-carbon energy resource for future generations.
Although both reactor designs have enormous potential, there was a sense that projects to further demonstrate full-scale implementation of these technologies is moving ahead too slowly, and there is a need to accelerate progress, pursue whole-of-system demonstrations and move more rapidly to commercial deployment.
The evolution of safety regulations that foster innovation in safety designs of the next generation reactors would be an essential feature of developments required to realize the potential of advanced nuclear. To leverage the innovation capacity of the nuclear industry, regulations should be reviewed in order to provide industry with incentives for innovation while maintaining strict safety and security standards.
Although the potential of these reactor designs seems undisputable, a high degree of public skepticism toward nuclear power has existed for years, and the tragedy of Fukushima has exacerbated fears. Communicating the inherent safety and sustainability of IFR and TADS technologies is a challenge, but not one considered by Equinox participants to be insurmountable.
The summiteers proposed that a large-scale international collaboration focused on the development and demonstration of IFR and TADS technologies is required to demonstrate the benefits of both. This will also require the mobilization of funding to address public perceptions.
Given that the forum members were asked to look to 2030, an aggressive timeline for implementation of these advanced nuclear technologies was proposed:
4. Off-grid electricity access. The fourth exemplar pathway sought to address a proportion of the world’s population living without reliable access to electricity, to the detriment of their health, education and livelihood. Some 85 percent of the 1.5 billion who lack access to electricity live in rural areas; while economic development will help address some of this, by 2030 this number will drop only to an estimated 1.2 billion, with the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa.
The summit participants looked at a number of technologies that might provide inexpensive, portable and durable solutions to generating even limited amounts of electricity, which could help spur a dramatic improvement in quality of life. By providing electricity for basic lighting, cooking and refrigeration, such technologies would lay the foundations for expanded education and economic development.
Within the family of promising solar technologies, the summit participants identified organic photovoltaic (PV) cells, currently in development, as part of a suite of electricity generating technologies with the potential to make transformative changes — if applied research and early-stage uptake by niche markets can help drive down costs to affordable levels. These cells rely on polymers or small organic molecules for light absorption and charge transport, while the plastic nature, flexibility and durability of the overall product offers the possibility of low production costs in high volumes.
A key realization of summit participants was that the “energy poor” — the 1.5 billion people without electricity — represent an enormous market for products that improve livelihood and productivity. The problem is that populations such as these are rarely considered viable consumers of high technology. Flexible solar technologies such as organic PVs offer the opportunity to bridge this gap: although electricity from these cells will initially cost more per watt than energy produced by large-scale centralized generation, for those living far from reliable electrical grids, access to even a small amount of reliable, self-generated electricity can dramatically improve quality of life. These changes are highly valued, and even the poorest of the poor are willing to pay for them — and some have the capacity to do so, as they already pay more for kerosene and other fuels. Organic PVs are an example of emerging technologies that may allow the delivery of usable electricity to the energy poor that will often be faster, be orders of magnitude cheaper and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than extending grid-based energy.
The Equinox Summit participants converged on a dual-track pathway to address this. First, an accelerated R&D program for organic PVs would boost the current low efficiencies, increase the lifetime of the material to more than 10 years, and explore alternative materials that are part of the thin-film flexible solar technologies as well as the development of manufacturing approaches for high-throughput production. The second was the adoption and deployment of emerging thin-film solar technologies such as organic PVs by aid agencies, the military and other groups involved with humanitarian and emergency situations where the need for energy is high but solutions are cumbersome (getting around heavy-to-transport diesel generators and diesel fuels). These two pathways could serve as a springboard to accelerate the acceptance of the technology, stimulate demand and drive commercial opportunity for development.
5. Low-carbon urbanization and smart transport. The last of the exemplar pathways involves the application of a number of existing information and communication technologies, as well as the larger-scale use of smart grids and superconductors for transmission and distribution in dense urban settings, to make cities more efficient and reduce their overall carbon footprint.
The world is undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history: more than half of the Earth’s population now lives in urban centres and, by 2030, this is expected to swell to 60 percent, or almost 8 billion, with urban growth concentrated in Africa and Asia. While mega-cities will account for a substantial part of this, most of the new growth will take place in smaller towns and cities, which have fewer resources to respond to the magnitude of such change.
The coming expansion of cities provides an unparalleled opportunity — since they have yet to be built — to address a number of social and environmental problems, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Coupled with the retrofitting and upgrading of facilities and networks in existing urban centres in the industrialized world, and with good planning and enlightened governance, many cities could deliver education, health care and high-quality energy services more efficiently and with fewer emissions than less densely settled regions — such as rural areas — simply because of their advantages of scale, proximity and a lower geographic footprint.
Summit participants proposed a high level of integration of existing technologies to deliver a smart energy network that is information rich, utilizes superconductors for enhanced capacity of electricity transmission and allows transportation needs to be met by multiple approaches not reliant on private ownership of vehicles that — coupled together — could be transformative. Improvements in how urbanization unfolds will be easier to manage through widespread adoption of such technologies and can have a significant positive impact in energy use and consumption.
In addition, the density of urban areas can help relieve population pressure on natural habitats and biodiversity. Building them sustainably from the outset is an opportunity to avoid a new future source of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as develop more livable and efficient urban centres for future generations.
This will require a number of policy interventions and government investment decisions to create the infrastructure necessary for new information and communication technologies, integrated and enabled through the development of smart grids, to help reduce demand for electricity, manage loads and help make public mass transit more efficient and convenient. The summit participants developed a list of these, and a timetable for deployment, suggesting the application of smart grid technologies, high-capacity superconductors and information systems as part of an integrated technology focus for key “pilot cities” in the developing world — such as the Lembang district of West Java, Indonesia — and accessing existing funding sources and programs such as the Asian Development Bank, the Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the GIZ (the German Agency for International Cooperation).
This is an overview of findings by the Equinox Summit participants. More information about their ideas and pathways can be found on-line at WGSI.org, where the full Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030 can be found, along with supplementary material and a discussion from its launch at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver in mid-February.
In summation, the “not enough, and too much” conjecture not only referred to energy needs and climate change, but for many summit participants, there was concern over not enough time to gather and too much scientific data to wade through. But ultimately, the interesting mix of personalities and expertise, coupled with a unique process of private and public conversation that emphasized science and critical thinking first, delivered a fresh new way of addressing global energy issues that WGSI founders hope will propel further, positive dialogue.