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Want to Save the World? Make Clean Energy Cheap.

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By Teryn Norris & Jesse Jenkins

Over 12,000 young adults attended the recent Power Shift 2009 summit in Washington, DC. Their goal? Building the largest youth movement in decades to save the world from global warming.

Largely missing from Power Shift, however, was a critical group: young scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs. Maybe it was mid-terms. Perhaps the event seemed too political. Or maybe the summit recruited too many traditionally-defined "activists."

Whatever the cause, we have very little chance of overcoming climate change without enlisting young innovators at a drastically greater scale. Simply put, they represent one of the most important catalysts for creating a clean energy economy and achieving long-term prosperity.

The reason is this: at its core, climate change is a challenge of technology innovation. Over the next four decades, global energy demand will approximately double. Most of this growth will happen in developing nations as they continue lifting their citizens out of poverty and building modern societies. But over the same period, global greenhouse gas emissions must fall dramatically to avert the worst consequences of climate change.

Shortly before his untimely death in 2005, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Smalley coined this the "Terawatt Challenge": increasing global energy production from roughly 15 terawatts in 2005 to 60 terawatts annually by 2100 in a way that simultaneously confronts the challenges of global warming, poverty alleviation, and resource depletion.

The single greatest obstacle to meeting the Terawatt Challenge is the "technology gap" between dirty and clean energy sources. Low-carbon energy technologies remain significantly more expensive than fossil fuels. For example, solar photovoltaic electricity costs up to three to five times that of coal electricity, and plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles can be twice as expensive as their gasoline-fueled competitors.

Unless this technology gap is bridged and clean energy technologies become affordable and scalable, poor and rich nations alike will continue opposing significant prices on their carbon emissions and will continue relying primarily upon coal and other fossil fuels to power their development. This will virtually assure massive climate destabilization.

So the task is clear: to avoid climate catastrophe and create a new energy economy, we must unleash our forces of innovation - namely, scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs- to invent a new portfolio of truly scalable clean energy technologies, chart new paths to bring these technologies to market, and ensure they are affordable enough to deploy throughout the world.

In short, to save the world we must make clean energy cheap.

Making clean energy cheap and transforming the world's energy systems will require a long-term, herculean effort - or as Secretary of Energy Steven Chu recently described it, a "second industrial revolution" - and an entire generation of the world's best and brightest young engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs. Just like the "Sputnik" generation committed itself to the Cold War and led the information technology revolution, today's generation must commit itself to the Terawatt Challenge and lead the global energy revolution.

So where do we start? An innovation-centric approach to climate and energy calls for several things. First, if you're an aspiring engineer or scientist, consider focusing your education and career on energy technology and science. If you're a budding entrepreneur hatching business schemes, direct your creativity toward smart ways to make clean energy profitable. If you're going into policymaking, learn everything you can about technology policy. If you're passionate about economics, become a pioneer in the emerging field of innovation economics. The list goes on, but the central point is that we need to become the "innovation generation" to tackle the Terawatt Challenge.

Second, students should demand far greater educational resources related to energy technology and policy at their schools, including new professors, curriculum, career development opportunities and research. Every significant institution of higher education in the country should have an energy-related institute that incubates cutting-edge thinking, research and innovation. Indeed, the greatest contribution our nation's universities, colleges and vocational schools can make is educating and preparing tomorrow's leaders and promoting energy innovation. If you're a student activist looking to make an impact, consider organizing a campus campaign to launch a university-wide energy institute for new education and research.

Finally, if our central goal is to make clean energy cheap, as young people we need to focus our advocacy on policies that will drive technology innovation as rapidly as possible. Yes, we need new regulations and a price on carbon. But consider this: the United States did not invent the Internet by implementing a cap and trade system on fax machines. We didn't invent microchips by taxing the slide rule, nor did we create the personal computer by regulating typewriters. Rather, your computer, your cell phone, your iPod -- all of these revolutionary and now ubiquitous technologies were originally invented by direct federal investments supporting the relentless innovation of scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs just like yourself.

Thus the policy model isn't so much past environmental regulations, but past federal investments in technology - like those in airplanes, microchips, the internet, and biotechnology. This requires public investments along each stage of the "innovation pipeline," from R&D to demonstration and deployment. Moreover, just like the federal government rose to the Sputnik Challenge with the National Defense Education Act, we need to confront the Terawatt Challenge with a National Energy Education Act. Obama's stimulus took a step in this direction, but as Secretary Chu put it last week: "Our previous investments in science that led to the birth of the semiconductor, computer and biotechnology industry added greatly to economic prosperity. And now we need similar breakthroughs in energy today. We're already taking steps forward, but we need to do more."

So, you want to save the world? Make clean energy cheap.

Teryn Norris & Jesse Jenkins are leaders in the youth climate movement and work at the Breakthrough Institute to advance large-scale federal investments in clean energy technology.

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