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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.

To help steer the planet's climate back on track, we'll have to revolutionize the global energy system. This interactive Energy Tool allows you to "wave a magic wand" and create your own global energy scenario within technologically feasible approaches.

The AGCI Interactive Energy Table is a free, comprehensive, one-stop-shop for global energy statistics. Detailed information is provided on the availability, installed scale and production, growth, and costs of current energy sources, as well as on energy storage technologies.

AGCI's Quarterly Research Reviews explore the latest scientific research on climate change drivers, impacts, 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.

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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.

  • Use the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's PVWatts Calculator to learn more about the performance and cost of installing a grid-connected solar installation in your area. 

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.

Justice Considerations

Knowing how important individual action is, it is also vital to note that not all consumers have equal access to energy efficiency products and solutions. In a 2018 study published by researchers at the University of Michigan, it was found that the access to efficient lighting (CFLs and LEDs) are quite different by the affluence of the location. The prices were found to be significantly different too. The study focused on Wayne County in the US state of Michigan and explored four strata of poverty. The analysis showed that while halogen lamps and CFLs were available in majority of the stores, only 30% of the stores in the lower poverty strata carried LED lamps. The researchers also found a statistically significant difference in the prices of LEDs and CFLs in locations where the lower poverty strata lived, as compared to the national average. The economic burden imposed on low-income residents owing to the price disparities can have grave consequences on quality of life. This vast difference in access to and prices of energy efficient fittings need to be factored in, when scripting energy transition decisions and policies.

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 like southern Europe (Fraunhofer, 2019) 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, 2019). 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.

Explore What 100% Clean Energy Would Look Like Where You Live, according to The Solutions Project at Stanford, as well as National Geographic in these useful interactive blueprints.

Clean Energy Requires Energy Storage. Track the deployment of energy storage worldwide on DOE's Global Energy Storage Database:


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

Stabalizing the climate will require extensive carbon sequestration. Learn about how carbon can be removed from the atmosphere, from AGCI workshop participant Klaus Lackner

Justice Considerations

While the increasing installations of rooftop and commercial scale solar energy is extremely encouraging, it is also important to note some social justice issues that emerge alongside.

The rooftop solar sector has experienced massive growth in the US, growing by as much as 50% since 2012. Increased adoption of rooftop solar energy, however, has come with several challenges. In a 2019 study published in Nature, severe racial disparities are seen in the installation of rooftop solar PV. On average, the study found that census tracts with a black or Hispanic population majority saw significantly lower PV installations. Specifically, tracts with no discernable racial majority was seen to have installed 61% and 45% more solar PV than majority black and Hispanic neighborhoods, respectively.

Racial segregation and inherent differences in affordability can have further complications as this National Electric Utility Affordability Coalition (NEUAC) report points out. As more affluent early adopters commission on-site solar energy and reduce their electricity consumption from the grid, the less wealthy customers and customers who are not in or near clean energy networks stand to lose. Utilities would now have a smaller rate-base to recover their costs and would be forced to increase energy prices to recover their investments. This additional burden would be crippling for consumers struggling to pay electric bills and would erode their quality of life further.

The awareness of the lack of equity in how different people experience the energy transition is necessary, as it creates opportunities to combat these differences. To learn more on this, we recommend AGCI's Quarterly Research Review entitled Energy Justice: a complex but vital piece to a clean energy transiiton

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.

Consider the Embodied Energy and Operational Energy in Different Designs.

  • Different urban designs and layouts have drastically different embodied and operational energy. (Waldron et al, 2013)

  • Buildings can be designed so that they're not only efficient to operate, but also to minimize their structural embodied energy. (MIT News)

Consider how systems thinking can close loops in the design of global production and consumption pathways.

  • A circular economy can create a new relationship with our goods and materials, while saving resources and energy and creating local jobs (Stahel 2016). 

From Stahel 2016 in Nature. ©Nature

Smart Energy Design Resources from Energy Innovation:

Justice Considerations

When considering design and retrofits to improve energy use efficiency, it is important to note the stark variation in the condition of homes across socio-economic classes. In two sperate studies conducted in 2016 and 2017 by researchers at the Urban Energy Justice Lab in Michigan, significant disparities were observed in home energy efficiency by affluence and by racial make-up. The studies conducted in Kansas City and Detroit, brought to light that homes in neighborhoods with low income residents and a majority black or Hispanic population had higher home energy use intensity (EUI) as compared to neighborhoods with predominantly white populations. Several of the study neighborhoods with higher EUIs also had a larger number of renters than homeowners, making energy efficient home upgrades very difficult. The studies stress on the need to target energy efficiency programs to race, class and location. 

Ideas for Efficient Design from 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.

  • Decoupling of Global Emissions and Economic Growth Confirmed (IEA 2016). Global emissions have essentially plateaued for the first time in post-industrial history since 2013, while the global economy continued to grow by more than 3%, offering evidence that the link between economic growth and emissions growth is weakening.

  • The Roads to Decoupling: 21 Countries Are Reducing Carbon Emissions While Growing GDP (World Resources Institute, 2016). The debates on growth and resources are complex, fractious and centuries old, and while they won’t be resolved in the immediate future, recent developments show that global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stayed flat in 2014 and 2015 while GDP continued to grow.

  • Can We Reduce CO2 Emissions and Grow the Global Economy? (Yale E360, 2016) Surprising new statistics show that the world economy is expanding while global carbon emissions remain at the same level. Is it possible that the elusive “decoupling” of emissions and economic growth could be happening?

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.

Build on what works - there are many environmental policies and mechanisms with proven track records, from performance based standards and feebates to renewable energy portfolios.

  • Read Designing Climate Solutions - by Hal Harvey, Robbie Orvis, and Jeffrey Rissman. A small set of energy policies, designed and implemented well, can put us on the path to a low carbon future. Energy systems are large and complex, so energy policy must be focused and cost-effective. One-size-fits-all approaches simply won’t get the job done. Policymakers need a clear, comprehensive resource that outlines the energy policies that will have the biggest impact on our climate future, and describes how to design these policies well.

  • Explore how different policies can cut U.S. at the pace and scale needed to curb the worst of climate change impacts through this Energy Policy Simulator, and its accompanying interactive feature in the New York Times. 

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

  • As resources dwindle and waste piles up, the ‘take, make and dispose’ linear model of economics is in need of a rethink. In a special issue, the journal Nature examines how governments, industries and designers are looking to close the loop through a Circular Economy. In a circular economy, waste materials and energy are redefined as inputs by breaking down and repurposing goods or supplying them as services. It is more sustainable; it creates jobs. So, what research is needed?

  • Making Sustainable Consumption and Production a Reality: A Guide for Business and Policy Makers to Life Cycle Thinking and Assessment. This guide shows how a life cycle approach can be used to identify and reduce the environmental and health impacts of the products we use. It underlines the importance of considering these issues across the entire life cycle of a product and sets them within the context of policy development, business design and innovation.

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.

  • The Energy Transitions Commission sets out achievable pathways to limit global warming to well below 2˚C while stimulating economic development and social progress in their report on Better Energy, Greater Prosperity

  • Rogelj et al. (2011) analyze in their paper Emission pathways consistent with a 2˚C global temperature limit the technical and economic implications of reducing emissions, as well as the timeline of emissions peaking and reductions necessary to meet  the 2 °C target.

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 by Kaplow et al. (2010). Assessment of climate change policies requires aggregation of costs and benefits over time and across generations, a process ordinarily done through discounting. Choosing the correct discount rate has proved to be controversial and highly consequential.

  • Everybody’s Movement: Environmental Justice and Climate Change by Angela Park. The success of the movement for implementing climate solutions and decreasing the concentration of carbon dioxide to 350 parts per million is far from assured. For climate change to become a priority for U.S. voters and households, a stronger connection must be made between global warming and people’s daily lives. The broad and vibrant response necessary to address climate change requires the engagement of more people, from a wider array of society.

Energy Policy Resources from Energy Innovation:

  • Policies that Work: Policies that Build a Low-Emissions Economy by Hal Harvey and Laura Segafredo

  • Energy Policy Solutions for global electricity, industry, transportation systems, buildings, and land use.
  • Designing Smart Energy Policies: Energy Policy Solutions SimulatorThe simulator allows users to control more than 50 different policies (such as a carbon tax, fuel economy standards for vehicles, reducing methane leakage from industry, and accelerated R&D advancement of various technologies) that affect energy use and emissions in various sectors of the economy. The Energy Policy Simulator operates at the national scale and includes every major sector of the economy: transportation, electricity supply, buildings, industry (including agriculture), and land use.

  • America’s Power Plan assembles information on policies, markets, and regulations to maximize the grid’s affordability, reliability/resilience, and environmental performance.

Justice Considerations

It is relieving to note that social justice is being prioritized in policy decisions by several US states. Some key policy decisions with specific focus on uplifting communities and ensuring equity are presented.

The Environmental Defense Fund in a 2018 report identifies suitable strategies to ensure equity in home energy efficiency measures. Some key strategies identified include: a state-wide mandate on utilities to secure energy savings with a low-income community investment rider, better financing for low-income residents such as a ‘Pay As You Save’ measure, attracting investments in improving home structural health to ensure eligibility for enrollment in state and federal energy efficiency plans etc. The key benefits of such inclusive measures are identified to be the large energy savings, related economic savings, carbon emission abatement and human and ecosystem health improvements. The report offers examples from existing policies and mandates that seek to narrow the access and affordability gap. The state of Illinois in the US has in 2017, passed the Future Energy Jobs Act which carries a mandate on minimum utility spending towards energy efficiency in low income neighborhoods with penalties defined for non-compliance. The US state of Connecticut has joined forces with PosiGen, a private firm, to deliver community solar energy and energy efficiency to low and moderate income (LMI) residents by leveraging RGGI proceeds and rate surcharges. Such private-public collaborations are a sign of serious remediation.

The financial, environmental and health benefits associated with increased adoption of solar energy has largely eluded low and moderate income (LMI) citizens. However, several states in the US are now funding low-income community solar programs with no upfront costs to residents and with solar credit rebates on their monthly energy bill. The state of Colorado’s Energy Office (EO) has in 2017 set up a successful LMI community solar program. Large parts of the project costs are offset by state and federal grants and the remaining is borne by utilities. The utilities operate the PV systems and pass-on fuel and O&M savings to LMI subscribers through solar credits on their energy bills. In addition, the NAACP announced a Solar Equity Initiative in early 2018 to collaborate with private organizations such as GRID Alternatives, Sunrun etc., to ensure community solar installations, solar installation job training and good financing options for LMI residents. The initiative which has seen its genesis in California seeks to expand similar measures to a total of at least five US states and would continue support for one full year.

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