The “Economist” debate involves journalists, industry gurus, investors, bureaucrats, and of course economists who have all long been involved in renewable energy. The question:
“Can we solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations?”
This is the defining question of our time.
New innovations, improvements, or breakthroughs are happening all the time in clean tech, especially among renewable energy technologies. Yet technological limitations still plague the various industries. These hurdles include energy storage, energy efficiency, transmission infrastructure and technology, hydrogen power, CO2 capture and sequestration, and producing bio-fuels at an industrial scale. Economics is also a potent issue that both hampers and launches these technologies, hence the host of this debate.
The Scale of the Energy Problem
Both sides agree that meeting energy demand is a central issue. We don’t just generate a lot of electricity on fossil fuels, we thirst for a lot more. They agree that renewables can do the job today, despite issues with transmission and intermittent supply/ energy storage. Yet even those issues will probably be overcome within the next few years or decades. Where they differ is on strategy and focus.
The problem is time and scale. According to Joseph J. Romm on the Proposition’s side, we’ll need at least 1,600 gigawatts peak power of CSP within 30 years. That’s about 53GW per year, and that’s just CSP; there are other renewables and technologies included in his estimates as well. Compare that with projected estimates of 28GW of CSP to be installed by 2020. That’s a lot of clean tech construction in the near future, and a lot of policy decisions that will be required to make it possible.
Peter Meisen on the Opposition’s side is concerned that the technology exists, but our existing infrastructure is not designed to make best use of it. He argues that without a “design revolution” and expansion and improvements in transmission technologies, renewable energy can’t reach the places where it’s needed when it’s needed. Some major infrastructure construction and renovation, to share energy across political boundaries, would eventually solve this problem. He’s also a big fan of hydrogen cars. Naturally, policy and social change are also necessary to make it happen.
I was surprised to find that both sides agree on the problem. The urgency and scale of climate change is not the topic under debate. I was also surprised that they agreed upon the present day: technologies that can revolutionize our energy industry exist today, if even in imperfect forms. Both sides agree that deploying them now, rather than waiting for “the next big tech” is vital.
Rather, where do we begin to act? Do we begin the task of remaking our current infrastructure, which is part of this problem? Or do we start with renewable and sustainable technology deployed on a massive scale?
Voice your opinion below, and on the “Economist” webpage.
The debate will continue through this week, so I’ll update again next week.