Nobel Laureate and Energy Secretary Steven Chu noted recently that we need "Nobel-level breakthroughs" to address our climate crisis in the areas of solar power, electric batteries, and the development of new crops to turn into fuel. Is it really that difficult? A look at the developments already underway in these three fields indicates that common sense is the real need here.
A good example of a common sense way to produce renewable energy is the second area mentioned above, solar power. Advances in just the past few years show that US research and development is up to the task, whether people win Nobels or not. Ever more efficient solar cells (14-18% is the current range of efficiency) are being developed to harness the sun's energy, and new ways of utilizing them promise greater efficiency at lower cost. Recent developments include: plastic solar cells that can be used on a wide variety of sunlit surfaces; organic solar concentrators that allow sunlight to be directed towards window edges, where far fewer of the costly solar cells are needed to absorb it; roof systems that include venting ambient heat energy for household use, in addition to the solar electricity created; and most recently, the development of a liquid battery, far cheaper and more durable than other batteries, that could store solar energy overnight. Both wind and solar derived electricity are showing the most practical promise in terms of production efficiency and cost for renewable energy. Once again, common sense dictates that these should receive most of the governmental funding focused on promoting clean renewable energy. A feasible and common sense goal here is to provide the economic incentives that encourage photovoltaic installations on every appropriate US roof.
Electric batteries for automobiles are already developed enough to enable the Chinese BYD (Build Your Dreams) F3DM to travel up to 60 miles on an electric battery, which is enough for most daily trips by US commuters. Yes, much more work needs to be and is being done on developing better batteries. Just the development so far, though, indicates that it's a feasible, not extraordinary goal. The real goal, of course, is energy efficiency, and Aptera Motors is banking that energy efficiency can be significantly increased via improvements in structural design. Nonetheless, common sense dictates that research and development of even better electric auto batteries should be a funding focus for the Obama administration.
In contrast, common sense also means that less promising technologies should not take up significant resources or time. Carbon sequestration, which only addresses one facet of "clean" in "clean coal technology," holds some promise, but not on the horizon anytime soon. Given that track record and the practical options we already have for clean energy, we should be devoting any coal industry related funding towards training coal workers in green energy jobs in the production, installation or maintenance of infrastructures that generate, store and distribute solar and wind based electricity. The US does not have the money to chase "clean coal technology" dreams, or the time, as the latest increases in atmospheric greenhouse gases and their re-assessed impacts show.
Biofuels have already been shown to be far less efficient than solar or wind electricity, especially when the true costs are folded in. Under ideal conditions, the conversion efficiency of sunlight into stored plant energy is 1%, as compared to the minimum 10% efficiency of solar farms and even more efficient solar cells. Then there is the energy devoted to harvesting the plant matter and converting it into electricity. Finally, competition for cropland translates into the loss of Amazonian rainforest, one of our best means of storing carbon on earth, when Amazonian farmers clear it to plant newly valuable energy crops, or food crops that North American farmers have forsaken for energy crops. When these true costs are folded in, biofuels often are shown to worsen not help the climate crisis overall, and you don't need Nobel prize-winning research to figure that out, as our recent book shows. Common sense here dictates that we should be including the true costs of biofuels in our budget, which should result in massively paring back funding for such a relatively inefficient and potentially damaging source of renewable energy.
Solving the climate crisis does not require rocket science, or earth-shaking technological breakthroughs. It does require common sense to recognize what is most effective and can be deployed fastest, and the political courage to cut out what isn't. Our free online book, "Cool the Earth, Save the Economy" is a primer for understanding and assessing the technologies and policies that already exist, and understanding the climate crisis in general.