You are here


The key to the climate-energy-carbon problem is in discovering how to accommodate the energy and material requirements of the human population while reducing the environmental impact of civilization’s needs. The challenge lies in finding pathways to achieve this goal while stabilizing the climate and protecting Earth’s critical life support systems – all for generations to come. This is a significant challenge, but there are many underutilized existing solutions with more emerging every day.

The Energy Tool is an interactive simulation tool that provides an introduction to the global energy system and allows the user to manipulate the system in a four step process. As if by magic wand you can set energy efficiency in each energy sector, alter the amount of electrification and set the relative proportion of primary sources (fossil, nuclear, biomass, wind, solar, hydro). In each step the resulting total energy, carbon emissions, and cost are tabulated resulting in a new world energy system and how the new system fares in achieving the climate goals of the Paris Accord.

The AGCI Interactive Energy Table is an easy to navigate matrix of primary energy data for renewable and non-renewable energy sources. The table contains attributes and quantities of each energy type such as installed capacity, capacity factor, levelized cost, and resource availability along with short videos by energy experts on many of the major energy technologies.

Quarterly Research Reviews: Every quarter, AGCI writes a Quarterly Research Review on groundbreaking topics in science, technology and policy with a primary focus on climate change, analysis and solutions.

Energy Solutions
Chapter I – Overview

I. Energy Overview

One of the Expedition 40 crew members aboard the International Space Station photographed this nighttime image showing city lights in at least half a dozen southern states from some 225 miles above the home planet. Lights from areas in the Gulf Coast states of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, as well as some of the states that border them on the north, are visible. Image Credit: NASA

Civilization relies upon access to energy. Since the Industrial Revolution that energy has largely been supplied by fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas). The emissions of greenhouse gases from energy production is the primary driver of climate change. Climate change poses a daunting and long-term challenge. Many institutions, including most recently the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in the Paris Agreement, have set a goal of limiting global warming to 2°C (3.6°F) to avert the worst of the risks associated with climate change under a business-as-usual scenario. The grand challenge of our time is how to keep supplying energy to the world, while remaining within the bounds of a 2°C rise in average global temperatures. To achieve that goal, we’ll have to revolutionize the global energy system.

Action is being taken. While the Paris Agreement outlines how to achieve emission reductions (nationally determined contributions, NDCs) — it is only a start on the path to achieve the goal. No single plan has all the answers, but increasingly solutions are mounting and their utilization accelerating—in some cases at exponential rates. There are many opportunities to engage with the global energy transition, on scales ranging from what you can do individually in your own life, to what policies can encourage clean energy on national and international scale. We offer here a collection of solution recommendations from respected sources, including recommendations from top researchers who have attended our workshops.

Learn More

Chapter II – Individual

II. Individual Energy Solutions

Artist's rendition of the courtyard area for NASA’s Sustainability Base. On August 25, 2009 NASA held a ceremonial groundbreaking and dedication event for what would become the highest-performing building in the federal government. The building was completed in 2011.

It’s easy to think that what you do personally doesn’t really change the big picture, but in aggregate the big picture is you along with 7 billion of your compatriots on planet Earth. Consumer choice and behavior are a huge factor -- particularly for the wealthier countries -- where consumers have a large footprint. What we buy and eat, how we get around, how we heat or cool our homes are all factors where behavior, choice, efficiency and design are key. There are many resource available about what individuals can do to decrease the environmental impact energy usage.

As an Individual or Family, Assess Your Energy Use.

  • Energy Star’s Home Energy Yardstick - EPA's Home Energy Yardstick provides a simple assessment of your home's annual energy use compared to similar homes.

  • Stanford’s Commute Cost & Carbon Emissions Calculator - Use this calculator to quantify the financial and environmental costs (or savings) of your commute.

Know the Carbon Footprint of Your Energy Use Emissions.

  • CoolClimate Network Calculator - Determine the carbon footprint of your travel, housing, food, and shopping, as well as build an emissions reduction plan.

  • Global Footprint Network Calculator - Calculate your lifestyle's ecological footprint, and see how many Earths would be needed to support your lifestyle if everyone on Earth had the same footprint.

Devise a ‘systems approach’ for reducing emissions starting with your major energy uses.

  • DOE's Whole-House Systems Approach - A whole-house systems approach helps homeowners, architects, and builders develop successful strategies for optimizing home energy efficiency. This approach considers the house as an energy system with interdependent parts, each of which affects the performance of the entire system.

Implement the most cost saving approaches first, consider costlier changes next.

  • Tips on Saving Money and Energy at Home from the Energy Saver Guide from the Department of Energy - This guide features the latest information on energy-saving, efficient technologies, including tips for using clean, renewable energy to power your home.

  • Energy Star’s Energy Savings at Home - This site features advice, tools, resources, and inspriation to help you save energy and money.

Learn about 100 Practical Solutions by the Drawdown Project, and think about which ones apply to your energy consumption. Project Drawdown facilitates a broad coalition of researchers, scientists, graduate students, PhDs, post-docs, policy makers, business leaders and activists to assemble and present the best available information on climate solutions in order to describe their beneficial financial, social and environmental impact over the next thirty years.

Find out what groups in your community can help, share ideas, and tell your story.

  • Get Involved with Your City’s Climate Action Plan - The ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability serves the movement of local governments pursuing deep reductions in carbon pollution and tangible improvements in sustainability and resilience. For more than 25 years, they have achieved results that have helped communities reduce emissions and become healthier, stronger, more equitable, and more prepared.

  • Get involved with Your State’s Climate Action Plan - The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions features state climate action plans from across the U.S. These plans identify cost-effective opportunities to reduce GHG emissions based on individual characteristics of each state’s economy, resource base, and political structure.
Chapter III – Technology

III. Energy Technology Solutions

An example of a grid-scale solar energy project. Thousands of mirrors, called heliostats, direct the sun’s energy onto a receiver, which was built using expertise gained from constructing the space shuttle main engine. The NASA spinoff receiver sits on top of a 550-foot tower. Image Credit:  SolarReserve

Technology in the clean energy arena is rapidly changing.  As more devices like photovoltaic panels are manufactured in large quantity, efficiencies have improved while prices have plummeted.  Systems thinking that integrates new devices with sectoral requirements are being experimented with from new modes of transportation to innovative electric grids.

Consider the energy footprint of a technology in its intended application.

  • What is its embodied energy (ie. the energy used to make in a device or product) and what is its operational energy use and carbon footprint over its lifetime? Researchers are reviewing at what point do energy technologies “break even” between their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions?

    • Energy Payback of Wind is now as low as 6 months (Haapala and Prempreeda, 2014).

    • Re-assessment of Net Energy Production and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Avoidance after 40 years of Photovoltaics Development (Nature Communications, 2016).

    • Energy Payback of Solar, in the last decade, has decreased from 3.5 years (NREL, 2004) to less than 1 year in some areas (Fraunhofer, 2016) due to more efficient production of solar panels using fewer materials. 

The Energy ‘Pay-Back’ Time (EPBT) of Silicon PV Rooftop Systems varies across geographical areas in Europe depending on latitude and climatic conditions (Fraunhofer, 2016). These factors partially account for variations in how much solar radiation a given area is able to receive over a given time (that area’s irradiation). Irradiation in this case is measured in kilowatt-hours per square meter per year (kWh/m2/a).

Track Global Clean Energy Progress from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

  • The IEA’s annual ‌Tracking Clean Energy Progress (TCEP) report highlights the development and deployment of key clean energy technologies year on year.

Consider the lifecycle of materials utilized in the technology. Learn more about life cycle thinking and approaches at UNEP's Life Cycle Initiative.

A typical product lifecycle diagram. (Life Cycle Initiative)

Ideas for Innovation from AGCI’s workshop ‘Getting Near Zero: Decarbonizing the Last 20%

In 2016, top researchers from around the world attended an AGCI Workshop on ‘Getting Near Zero: Decarbonizing the Last 20%’ to focus on the technical feasibility of achieving a global energy system with near-zero emissions. Cognizant that achieving the first 80% of carbon emission reduction was no simple task, participants were asked to consider the potentially more difficult task of eliminating the last 20 percent of emissions. Workshop participants assessed the technological feasibility and barriers of decarbonizing the most difficult-to-eliminate, portion of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

Chapter IV – Design

IV. Energy Solutions through Design

In an effort to improve fuel efficiency, NASA and the aircraft industry are rethinking aircraft design. Inside the 8’ x 6’ wind tunnel at NASA Glenn, engineers recently tested a fan and inlet design, commonly called a propulsor, which could use four to eight percent less fuel than today’s advanced aircraft. Image credit: NASA

Increasingly, smart design is entering into how we think about energy services, devices, and systems. Consider the attributes you seek in good design: Is it function, beauty, sustainability, performance, affordability, simplicity, elegance, material quality? The potential for improved efficiency through advanced design is also shaped by advances in materials science and technology. Flexible, nimble designs can accommodate a broader spectrum of present and future needs with less material waste and required energy.

Consider how to shift the role of design in your own choices from being an afterthought to the first step to achieve your needs -- from mobility, dwellings, to commerce and communication.

Consider the Embodied Energy and Operation Energy in Different Designs.

Get Involved!

  • Seek out what your city, county, state offices offer consumers regarding energy advice and guides to best practices. Support the adoption of high performance standards -- from transportation systems to building codes to hand held devices.

  • Get Involved with Your City’s Climate Action Plan

  • Get involved with Your State’s Climate Action Plan

Smart Energy Design Resources from Energy Innovation:

Ideas for Innovation AGCI’s workshop ‘Getting Near Zero: Decarbonizing the Last 20%:

Chapter V – Development

V. Development and Energy Solutions

In the 1970s Shenzhen was a small fishing village in China. The transformation to a modern cityscape was rapid and widespread. Evidence of urbanization is evident in these two images from 1999 acquired by the Landsat Thematic Mapper, and from 2008 acquired by ASTER. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

All people require energy to achieve an acceptable quality of life.  Access to clean, reliable, and sustainable energy sources is an important goal in development.  The UN estimates 2.8 billion people do not have adequate energy access and 1.2 billion are without electricity (UN-Energy 2014). As the world population moves from 7 to 9 billion or more this century, achieving a clean energy transition will have multiple benefits in human health, the environment, and climate stabilization.

Energy use is increasingly decoupled from economic development and carbon emissions as a result of efficiency, behavioral shifts, and clean energy sources.

Greater electrification of energy supply and demand requires energy development taking a systems approach to better match supply and demand.

Trends in urbanization create new opportunities via density, but also new challenges.

Climate Vulnerable Forum Vision from Marrakech

  • At the COP22 meeting in Marrakech in 2016, 48 of the world’s most vulnerable countries committed to supplying 100 percent of their domestic energy from renewable sources between 2030 and 2050.  The group, part of the Climate Vulnerable Forum, called on a peaking of global emissions by 2020, and carbon neutrality by the 2050s.  This movement recognizes that even under a 1.5°C scenario, disadvantaged populations will be dangerously vulnerable to climate change impacts.  Their commitment to promoting green economies was extended as additional encouragement to other nations to increase their Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs). Edgar Gutierrez of Costa Rica proclaimed, “We don’t know what countries are still waiting for to move towards net carbon neutrality and 100 percent renewable energy.”

Ideas for Innovation from AGCI’s workshop ‘Getting Near Zero: Decarbonizing the Last 20%:

Chapter VI – Policy

VI. Energy Solutions through Policy

Wind farm visible along US Highway 50 in Nevada. Photo Credit: Emily Jack-Scott

International policy is the means to address issues of accountability and desired actions among nations across time and space.  For commons such as the Earth’s ocean or atmosphere, international agreements have led to the resolution of problems such as the control of ozone harming chemicals. The 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change created an international goal of ...stabilization of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system...”.  Earlier, the UN created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to assess the scientific and technical literature for nations to consider, not only the science of climate change and its impacts, but also solution oriented mitigation and adaptation measures -- all codified in reports issued approximately every 5 years over the last 27 years.

While international agreements can create a framework toward greenhouse gas emission goals such as achieved in the Paris Accord of 2015, individual nations or states can choose through internal policies their own pace and approach to solutions affecting environmental health.  Protecting a commons such as the atmosphere offers a unique challenge to the world’s nations in that no one country can solve the problem by themselves.

Clean energy policies at all jurisdictional levels can be very effective including informal agreements, neighborhood and homeowners associations on up to city, state, and international agreements, industry standards and goals.

Adopt policies that promote a more life-cycle based assessment of any product or service.

Match policies to applicable timeframes of environmental problems and their solutions.

  • The Climate Scoreboard shows the progress that national plans submitted to the UN climate negotiations will make in mitigating climate change, and how that compares to the international goal to stay “well below” 2°C. Analysis shows that the national contributions to date, with no further progress post-pledge period, result in expected warming in 2100 of 3.3°C (with a range of uncertainty of 1.9 – 4.4°C). This tool uses the C-ROADS Climate Change Policy Simulator.

  • Emission pathways consistent with a 2degC global temperature limit (Rogelj et al 2011).

Enact the precautionary principle as a driver of environmental policies that forward sustainable practices for the long haul.

  • The precautionary principle was put forth in the 1992 Declaration on Environment and Development at the United Nations Conference in Rio de Janiero. The princple states “In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities.  Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Include intergenerational obligations and social justice in environmental policy formation.

  • The Social Evaluation of Intergenerational Policies and Its Application to Integrated Assessment Models of Climate Change (Kaplow et al 2010).

  • Everybody’s Movement: Environmental Justice and Climate Change by Angela Park

Energy Policy Resources from Energy Innovation:

Ideas for Innovation from AGCI’s workshop ‘Getting Near Zero: Decarbonizing the Last 20%: