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Pathways for Climate Solutions: Assessing Energy Technology and Policy Innovation

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Session Description: 

This was a meeting of experts in energy generation, efficiency, and other enabling technologies. A relatively broad range of technologies were represented, each with a realistic chance of contributing to carbon reductions in the near term. This excluded, for example, space-based power systems, room-temperature superconductors, etc. Technologies that do not contribute to a genuine (e.g. long-term, sustainable) solution were also excluded, even if they reduce emissions relative to business-as-usual (e.g. natural gas). Each technology was represented by at least one expert (but not necessarily a dedicated expert, as some experts may represent more than one technology).

Primary Energy Technologies Represented included:
Renewable electricity generation
Wind (onshore and offshore)
Solar (PV, CSP)
Renewable thermal generation
Solar thermal
Waste heat recovery and thermoelectrics
Co-generation/combined heat and power
Renewable/alternative fuels
GM plants for efficient production of traditional (starch-based) ethanol
Cellulosic ethanol
Direct production of fuel molecules from photosynthetic microorganisms
Electrofuels (fuels produced by microorganisms without photosynthesis)
Alternative transportation fuels (electricity, fuel cells, maybe hydrogen)
Nuclear fission
Enabling Technologies

Energy efficiency:
Building technologies (windows, envelope, HVAC, appliances)
Cars and trucks
Other vehicles (ships, airplanes, etc.)
Industry (boilers, process heat, machine drive, etc.)
System energy efficiency, system optimization (including “Internet of Things”)
Carbon capture and storage
CO2 from concentrated streams

Energy storage:
Pumped hydro
Compressed air
Chemical batteries (dedicated and distributed via an electric car fleet)

Grid management:
Demand response
Any sufficiently important grid control (e.g. “smart grid”) technologies
Pre-Meeting “Homework”

In preparation for the meeting, each participant was asked to prepare a contribution for the workshop discussion.

Discussion Overview

The meeting had three sections. The meeting started with a discussion to define the nature of the “climate challenge,” in terms of global annual or cumulative emissions of CO2e. The second section, which took up up the majority of the conference, was devoted to discussion of which technologies are best positioned to help reduce emissions at a scale and in a timeframe compatible with meeting this challenge. (Mechanisms that do not reduce anthropogenic CO2e emissions are out of scope for this meeting.) The final portion of the discussion focused on policies to hurry these technologies along their development paths, from the laboratory, to demonstration projects, to the marketplace and widespread adoption. Each of these sections is described in greater detail below.

Defining the Climate Challenge

Allotted Discussion Time: ¼ of a day

The first focus of the meeting was examining the climate challenge to pinpoint the requisite scale and timeline for technology solutions. The goal was to identify a specific objective (target level of emissions, by what year) that can be met through plausible technology pathways. This section was informed by contributions from experts in scenario development, climate impacts, and achievable rates of economic decarbonization. Two scenarios were used to help with this re-framing:

“Smart start” scenario: prompt but realistic deployment of carbon-cutting technologies and policies leads to a near-term halt to rising global CO2 emissions and sets the foundation for progressive declines in carbon emissions. This scenario limits likely atmospheric GHG concentrations to a level that is tight but achievable without heroic R&D advances or large-scale economic mobilization.

“Late start” scenario: further lags in deployment of carbon–cutting technologies and policies lead to continuing increase in CO2 emissions globally. In the near to medium term, clean energy technologies and industries continue to develop slowly and struggle to achieve price parity with fossil fuels. Over time, the onset of climate impacts and concern about additional future impacts mobilize policy to effect an aggressive transition away from carbon-based energy sources. Emissions are reduced, and atmospheric concentration of CO2 peaks above the threshold established for the “smart start” scenario.
The purpose of this conversation is to set the stage for discussion of technology and policy in the later parts of the meeting. In the next section, experts will be asked to indicate if their preferred technology can be sufficiently mature, market-ready, and scalable to help achieve the “smart start” scenario, or if the technology is still far enough from widespread use that it could only be useful in the “late start” scenario. (In other words, this is not an assessment of a technology’s eventual promise, but its utility in achieving specific, meaningful climate futures.)

It is important to note that neither scenario represents a continuation of business-as-usual technologies and policies, which would fail to achieve a peak in atmospheric CO2 concentration. A technology that is useful only in the “late start” scenario may nonetheless be promising and worth pursuing, as long as people understand that that it likely will not be helpful in achieving substantial emissions reductions on a short time scale. That is, people must be aware that such a technology is a long-term bet, but not necessarily a bad bet.

Technologies: Feasibility, Scale, and Cost

Allotted Discussion Time: 2 and ¼ days

The second focus of the meeting was on the energy technologies that can help to lower emissions and reduce the magnitude of climate change. Each technology was discussed in the context of the “smart start” and “late start” scenarios, to identify which are the most promising and what research directions should be pursued to further each technology. Participants shared their findings from their pre-meeting “homework,” locating each technology on its development path and their predictions for where it will go in the future. Uncertainty in these predictions were also discussed.

Learning curve

Finally, important obstacles to the success of each technology was noted. Obstacles could be technological (e.g. the need to develop a new type of material with particular properties), natural (the potential for strengthened hurricanes to damage offshore turbines), geopolitical (the need for social and political stability in sunny parts of North Africa), social/psychological (the strongly negative perception most people hold of nuclear power), economic (the need for very high investment to innovate in nuclear or CCS technologies), etc.

Policies: Barriers, Opportunities, and Surprises

Allotted discussion time: 1 day

The third focus of the meeting was the policies that will drive technology development and improvement. The process of successful technological change were divided into three stages: Research, Engineering, and Commercialization (see Figure 1). Each phase is necessary for success, but each requires its own unique skills, programs, funding approaches, and connections between the public and private sector. Tools that work for one will not always work for the others. Additionally, different political and economic environments may require different tools. Furthermore, it’s understood that additional factors beyond cost per unit and production quantity shape the pathway of technological progress for energy technologies and thus their climate mitigation potential.

For each promising technology identified in the previous section, meeting participants discussed which policy tools would be effective, indicating of these technology development tools will make the most impact and highlighting any “valleys of death” that need to be overcome. The discussion sought realistic (e.g. politically feasible) policies that should be expected to move technologies through these three phases, including demonstration and commercial deployment on a scale that meaningfully impacts energy use or emissions. (This is defined as a minimum of a 2% reduction in nation-wide energy use or emissions from a given technology, but preferably much more.)

The policy discussion was confined to policies that advance these particular technologies along their development pathways and help them achieve widespread market deployment. More general policy discussion (such as the merits of a carbon tax) was out of scope for this meeting. We acknowledge that there is a gray area between these two extremes, and general policies might have the effect of helping technologies develop based on demand signals or pricing changes. Moderators helped to keep discussion focused on ways in which policies benefit technological advancement (rather than their other effects) and ensured that no one policy dominated the discussion.

Meeting Report

Following the meeting, staff will produce two documents: a technical report and a shorter paper aimed at lay-people. The technical report will attempt to reflect the majority viewpoint on each topic while noting objections and contrary viewpoints if such views are held by more than one or two experts present. The short paper will be a summary that hits the highlights and refers readers to the technical report for details.
Complementing these papers, we may encourage journalists to write articles about the meeting or the written products produced from the meeting.

Statements from individuals and direct quotes will be attributed to individual speakers where useful and when permission is granted, but the meeting was operated under Chatham House rules.

A public relations and outreach effort will help to promote the technical report and the lay-person paper, getting them into the hands of people who are in the best position to make use of the information they contain.