New Report on Gigaton Technologies

As lawmakers continue to make headway on climate change legislation, and as the EPA weighs inon the likely costs and implications of a cap-and-trade system asoutlined by the American Clean Energy and Security Act, a newclean-energy initiative has recently crossed onto my radar. The“Gigaton Throwdown,” as its called, is a group of leading CEOs, venturecapitalists and academics who have come together to identify scalableclean-energy technologies. Specifically, their new reportcenters on technologies that are each believed capable of delivering by2020 a billion tons — or, a gigaton — in greenhouse gas emissionsreductions. Members of the initiative were in Washington, DC yesterdayto brief policymakers on their findings.

Researchers identified seven technologies/measures that could bescaled up over the next decade to achieve “gigaton” status: biofuels,building effeciency, concentrating solar power, contruction materials,nuclear, solar photovoltaics (PV) and wind. The group identified aneighth technology — geothermal — that “could scale up after additionalresearch and development and deployment of enhanced geothermal systems(EGS).” As noted on the Gigaton Throwdown website, “[o]f the 8technologies, only one, wind power, is currently growing fast enough toachieve gigaton scale.” Finally, researchers noted that, while plug-inhybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) show promise, ten years is not arealistic time frame over which to deploy such technologies inmeaningful numbers.

Now, it’s clear these technologies won’t just crop up overnight.Nor, for that matter, will they be free — a LOT of investment (read:cash) will be needed. As outlined by the Gigaton report, “[a]nnualprivate investment must grow by more than three times in the next 10years to scale up renewable energy technologies to meet climatestabilization goals. This level of growth is feasible, but policyaction is needed immediately to support it.” Currently, the cleantechindustry is expected to attract about $4 trillion in such investmentover the next decade, about $4 trillion short of what the group viewsas necessary to have chance at stabilizing atmospheric CO2concentrations around 450 million parts per million, a level advocatedby many climate scientists.

The timing of the report is interesting, especially given the EPA’snew analysis of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (see linkabove). As reported on WSJ Environmental Capital,

According to page 27 of the analysis, published Tuesday,the legislation, sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman, a CaliforniaDemocrat, and Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, would actuallyresult in slightly less new renewable energy generation capacity by theyear 2020 than if the U.S. continued on a business-as-usual path withno emissions caps. The reason for this, the EPA says, is twofold.

First, the bill’s efficiency measures – such as those that requiringmore efficient buildings and appliances – would reduce overallelectricity demand “significantly.” Less demand means less need for newgeneration, including power from the wind, sun and biomass.

The bill also won’t sufficiently drive up the price of dirty fossilfuels to encourage a big switch to renewables, the analysis says.(Here’s how that sounds in untranslated EPA-speak: “Allowances pricesare not high enough to drive a significant amount of additional low orzero-carbon energy . . . in the shorter term.”)

There’s some irony in here somewhere… to avoid run-away costs andconvince stakeholders to get on board, lawmakers are doling out freeemissions allowances. In doing so, however, they may be eroding one ofthe main incentives to invest in clean-energy technologies — namelythat of pricey fossil fuels.

Anyway, check out the Gigaton Throwdown — it’s founded on the kindof public-private thinking and funding that, in my opinion, isdesperately needed to tackle the challenges posed by climate change.