Moniz: ‘A 100% renewable system is not realistic’

Source: Peter Behr and Christa Marshall, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, February 7, 2019

Driving deep reductions in U.S. carbon emissions by midcentury requires accelerated investment in a wide range of advanced energy technologies, from battery storage to new nuclear reactors and photosynthetic fuels, according to a study led by former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and energy historian Daniel Yergin.

The study, released today, was commissioned by the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group of private investors and global corporations organized by Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates. It was prepared by Moniz’s research nonprofit, the Energy Futures Initiative, and the IHS Markit Ltd. consulting group, of which Yergin is vice chairman.

The study concludes that “the need to address climate change is the challenge that calls most urgently for accelerating the pace of clean energy innovation.”

There are strategic and economic reasons as well for pushing energy research and development, the study said. “The long-held preeminence of the U.S. in energy technology is challenged, for example, by China’s growing investment in clean energy innovation, which already surpasses the U.S. investment in several critical areas.”

If China doubles its clean energy R&D investment, as its government has committed to do, its spending in 2022 will exceed that of the U.S., “even assuming that the U.S. maintains the current level of clean energy R&D, which is in doubt,” the study said.

Arriving at the outset of a new debate over climate policy in the Democratic-controlled House, the report’s “all of the above” technology agenda stands in contrast to both the Trump administration’s rejection of clean energy goals and a primary reliance on renewable energy, proposed by progressives’ “Green New Deal” agenda.

It also conflicts with more than 600 groups including the Sunrise Movement and Friends of the Earth that urged Congress in a letter last month to exclude nuclear, biomass, and carbon capture and other technologies when formulating a “Green New Deal” plan.

Yergin said the study wasn’t addressing “Green New Deal” goals explicitly, but he sees the embedded assets of the nation’s current energy infrastructure as a fact of life. “We have a $20 trillion economy that rests on an energy foundation that’s been developed over a century. It doesn’t go away overnight,” he told E&E News.

“The idea we’re going to have by 2050 … a 100 percent renewable system is not realistic, straightforwardly, certainly at a reasonable cost,” Moniz said in an interview, referring to one version of a “Green New Deal” target. “It doesn’t violate the laws of physics to do it. But that doesn’t mean it is politically or economically implementable, and I think that is the issue.”

Moniz said the reality is that natural gas will have “a fairly long run” in the drive to decarbonize the U.S. economy, “because as more and more variable resources are brought into the electricity system, the more you are going to need natural gas for the balancing of that system.”

But that role for natural gas means that in order to reach an 80 percent reduction in economywide carbon dioxide emissions by the middle of the century, new strategies are essential for underground storage of huge quantities of CO2 from gas combustion, he continued. Coupled with CO2 storage is the need for new processes to absorb carbon by developing crops with greater photosynthetic efficiency, direct capture of CO2 from the atmosphere and other carbon-reduction technologies, the report says.

‘Bang for the buck’

The request for the study came from Gates and the Breakthrough partners, “who really wanted to understand how different parts of the system interact” and how something goes from an idea to the marketplace, Yergin said.

“And they wanted us to try and point to the areas that seemed to be most productive for investment” and “where you get the biggest bang for the buck and the effort,” Yergin added.

Since 2016, Gates has been leading a more than $1 billion fund to support new technologies that can slash carbon emissions, including through investments this year in fusion, battery and geothermal startups (Greenwire, Sept. 26, 2018).

“Breakthrough Energy was created to help build the markets and policy environment necessary for an energy transition that addresses the real drivers of climate change,” said Jonah Goldman, senior adviser to Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the fund created to carry out the Breakthrough program.

“We sponsored this report to evaluate the range of opportunities for U.S. public and private investment. The goal is to offer a roadmap for developing and delivering reliable, low-emission energy technologies to market. We hope this sends a signal to policymakers and innovators that there is great opportunity for energy startups and innovation in the U.S.”

The report highlights 10 priority areas for investment and dissects the funding of energy innovation through the stages of development from basic research to commercial production, and the places along the way where the risk of failure is most acute.

The innovation targets also include the electrification of vehicles and development of “smart” buildings with advanced energy conservation systems, building blocks for “smart cities.”

“We have to recognize that for the next decade or so, a transformation is going to be based primarily on what we see today in terms of technologies,” Moniz said. There is no script for what follows, he said. “The uncertainties going out to midcentury are incredible. They are uncertain in terms of what will happen in innovation and cost reduction of very different technologies.”

Beyond the electric power sector, new technology is needed to reduce the carbon emissions from industry by reducing energy demand. That could include 3D “printing” of complex parts, automation enabled by artificial intelligence and machine learning, or carbon-free sources of process heat, including higher-temperature nuclear reactor fuel-cycle technologies, the study said.

The study did not consider another strategy advanced by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory and other analysts — the construction of an overlay of long-distance, high-voltage transmission lines spanning the United States. With more of those lines, excess wind power could be shared with distant cities, and strong, midafternoon solar energy could be dispatched eastward into time zones when evening arrives, NREL scientists say (Energywire, July 27, 2018).

The study adopts goals of the Mission Innovation initiative created ahead of the 2015 global climate talks in Paris, in a joint effort by Gates and Moniz. In that agreement, the U.S. and 19 other nations promised to double their clean energy R&D in five years. “I’ve had no substantive direct discussions with Bill about the report,” Moniz said. “But of course we had extensive discussion about the innovation agenda and Breakthrough Energy in 2015.”

Moniz drafted a plan to accomplish the research agenda that the White House issued in 2106 (E&E Daily, Feb. 8, 2016).

By then, however, with a polarizing presidential campaign underway, Moniz’s ambitious plan faded. He is trying again now.

“I sure as hell hope that not only the Breakthrough Energy Coalition but all the other players gain from this report,” Moniz said, “because a key message of this report is, if we are to stay — and one can argue whether it’s stay or regain — pre-eminence in clean energy innovation, it’s going to take a rejuvenated alignment of a whole bunch of players in the innovation system, including governments at various levels, as well as the private sector, the investor community, the energy incumbents [and] the disrupters in the market.”