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Matthew Stepp: Solving Climate Change Through Energy Innovation

By Matthew Stepp January 28, 2013

A senior analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Stepp notes that solving climate change is one of the greatest technology innovation problems.

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations…The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it.”- President Barack Obama, 2013 Inaugural Speech

For climate change and clean energy advocates, these words are a cause for celebration no matter how brief. After two years of policy inaction, the President dedicated 13 lines – more than any other issue – on the need to address climate change. But responding to climate change – as any scientist will tell you – is easier said than done because at its most basic level, it’s the “mother of all” technology innovation problems.

Let’s put this into perspective. Largely because of policy inaction and the rapid growth in global fossil fuel consumption, the world must cut its carbon emissions to near zero by 2050. The world currently generates roughly 4 terawatts of energy from renewable sources, including hydro power, nuclear, solar, wind, and biomass. If you add up global energy demand in 2012 — driving cars, heating/cooling, powering industry, and electrifying homes – the world consumes about 16 terawatts of energy. If you factor in modest population and economic growth, the world will consume about 30 terawatts of energy by 2050. If you factor in providing every human on the planet access to cheap energy – which the world currently does not — tack on another 10 terawatts.

The end result: responding to climate change is equivalent to the world going from 4 terawatts of clean energy to 40 terawatts in 40 years — a complete transformation of the global energy system. Without a doubt, as soon-to-be Secretary of State John Kerry said at his confirmation hearing, “the solution to climate change is energy policy.”

Unfortunately, clean energy policy is at a crossroads. Thanks to public investments during the last five years by the United States, Europe, and China, among others, zero-carbon technologies like solar, wind, and electric vehicles have improved significantly and become cheaper, but still not as cheap as fossil fuels. In fact, in most cases clean energy requires significant regulatory and subsidy support for large-scale deployment, such as Germany’s feed-in tariff, America’s production tax credit for wind, and China’s heavily subsidized, state-owned solar manufacturers.

It raises the question of whether we have all of the cheap, high-performing zero-carbon technologies necessary to meet 40 terawatts of demand by mid-century.

Providing clarity to this question – and how it should influence U.S. climate and clean energy policy – is the main topic of a half-day discussion in Washington, D.C. hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Breakthrough Institute entitled, Energy Innovation 2013: Clean Energy, Ready for Prime-time?

The goal is to advance a clear-eyed assessment of the state and future of clean energy technologies. Leading energy technologists and thought-leaders will discuss what innovations are needed to move clean energy from niche markets to global leaders.  What are the needed breakthroughs to make electric vehicles the most common transportation technology in the world? What is needed to develop affordable utility-scale storage that allows high-penetrations of solar and wind? Are new solar and wind technologies needed to expand the deployment? What is the role of nuclear energy and carbon capture and sequestration?

The conference will conclude with a timely debate among leading energy policy experts, including Fred Krupp of the Environmental Defense Fund, Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, and Matt Baker of the Hewlett Foundation, on what America’s energy policy should be, given the technological imperative we face.

As President Obama noted, there has never been a more important time to take a cold, hard look at the realities of existing clean energy technologies and the global climate challenge.

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy.