VANCOUVER, CANADA—The modern world needs electricity to function, and a lot of it. But obtaining it from coal, gas, and other fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide during their extraction or use arguably threatens the world with climate catastrophe. Last summer, a group of scientific experts, business and policy leaders, and young environmental leaders spent four intense days at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada, brainstorming what they considered the most promising technologies to replace carbon-intensive modes of electricity production. Yesterday, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (publisher of ScienceNOW), they released their findings, which present a comprehensive road map to a low-carbon electricity system by 2030.
The group’s top priorities included replacing coal for base-load power, the bulk electricity that utilities must provide in large quantities around the clock. Today, fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas provide more than 68% of the world’s base-load power, according to the International Energy Agency. To phase out coal, the group recommended honing and then scaling up several relatively new technologies, such as advanced geothermal energy, which entails drilling deep enough into the earth to harvest the heat of the earth’s interior. They also recommend developing and scaling up two types of advanced nuclear power plants: integral fast reactors and thorium reactors. Both styles of plant produce inexpensive, carbon-free power while recycling nuclear waste.
The group also recommended scaling up energy-storage efforts, because electricity from renewable sources, including wind and solar, often goes to waste between the time it’s produced and when the electricity is needed. At a AAAS symposium, Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy and a member of the group that met last summer, said he and his colleagues recognized that no energy-storage technology could solve the problem single-handedly. However, he singled out large-scale battery storage as a way to store more power, highlighting a durable but young technology called flow batteries, which store energy using two interconnected tanks of electrically charged liquid. The group also called for a series of large-scale battery demonstration projects worldwide to show that renewable energy can be stored at the scale needed.
The report, called Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030, additionally called for high-voltage superconducting power lines to supply electricity cleanly to energy-hungry cities. To reduce electricity consumption in cities enough to make them sustainable, they recommended overhauling whole transportation systems by replacing gasoline-powered vehicles with electric ones and with electric-powered mass transit.
For the 2 billion people in the developing world who live off the power grid, the Equinox group calls for scaling up cheap solar photovoltaic films that can be easily rolled up and laid across a roof of a building, and for smart, small power grids that allow electricity to be produced and stored locally. Poor people would need access to microfinancing to create such systems, but then “the challenge of energy access could be overcome," Nathwani said.
“What I like about their approach is that they tried to see how we can interest not just the public but the business community and policymakers,” said Hélène LeBlanc, a member of the Canadian Parliament from LaSalle, Quebec, who attended the session and who’s the lead official on science and technology for the opposition New Democratic Party. “I think they have been very realistic about what can be done in the short term versus the long term. I think it’s very positive.”
Correction: This article originally stated that fossil fuels provide 85% of the world's base-load power. It now states that they provide more than 68% of the world's base load power, a more conservative estimate by the International Energy Agency. It also stated that the Equinox Summit was held at the University of Waterloo. Instead, it was held at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, an independent research institute in Waterloo, Canada.