Researchers urge federal moonshot for clean energy

Source: By David Iaconangelo, E&E News reporter • Posted: Thursday, September 17, 2020

Columbia University researchers are urging the winner of this year’s presidential election to launch a moonshot-style mission to develop new clean energy technologies, a critical step on the path to net-zero carbon emissions.

The group, which includes two former Obama energy officials and staff from the nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, this week unveiled a road map of policies that would allow “the next administration and Congress to hit the ground running” on clean-tech development.

The document cites the International Energy Agency’s July warning that of the 46 energy technologies needed to forestall catastrophic climate change, only six are being developed at sufficient speed.

Federal research put a man on the moon and led to the invention of the internet, but “[by] comparison, the federal government has neglected energy innovation,” the Columbia and ITIF researchers wrote, posing risks to the climate and the future of U.S. global leadership.

The United States has also failed to live up to its 2015 promises for increased energy-tech funding made alongside 23 other nations, having fallen billions of dollars short, they noted.

Some of the document’s recommendations, like increasing research and development of technologies like carbon capture and hydrogen, have gotten broad bipartisan support in Congress, the authors told E&E News.

“We’ve seen some surprising commonality,” said Julio Friedmann, a former deputy assistant secretary in the Energy Department’s Office of Fossil Energy and a current senior research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy. “We think there’s appetite to grow those budgets.”

Congress should triple funding for energy research, development and demonstration over the next five years to $25 billion, or about 0.1% of the nation’s gross domestic product — a move that would open “a new chapter in the storied history of US innovation,” he and other authors wrote.

But other policies listed in the report, like programs to attract capital and support demonstrations of early-stage technologies, have proved contentious among Republicans, who say they give the government undue power to pick winners.

The group’s 2021 recommendations are also unlikely to appeal to President Trump, although the authors said their report wasn’t commissioned by the campaign of Trump’s Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Immediately after taking office, the next president should issue an order establishing a “national energy innovation mission” and organizing an interagency task force to implement it, the group argued.

“I do think this would be easier under a Biden administration,” said Varun Sivaram, a senior research scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy.

To hedge or not to hedge?

Among the early-stage technologies highlighted in the road map as deserving of ramped-up funding are carbon dioxide removal strategies.

Through 2022, those would see a nearly 200% increase in funding — the largest of any technology, more than clean agriculture systems, carbon capture and industrial decarbonization, which would get the second-, third- and fourth-biggest increases, respectively.

CO2 removal research could range from direct air capture to bioenergy paired with carbon capture or carbon mineralization, the researchers said, providing a “hedge” in case clean energy technologies don’t advance as fast as necessary.

In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in a landmark assessment that “negative emissions” tech would be necessary to keep global warming within 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

But a separate report laying out decarbonization pathways for the next decade, published yesterday by an international coalition known as the Energy Transitions Commission, downplayed the importance of those technologies, while emphasizing forms of clean energy that are “either already available or close to being brought to market.”

Zero-carbon electrification of buildings, transportation and other sectors, combined with the development of hydrogen solutions, would serve as the main key for net-zero emissions, they said, with limited roles for carbon capture-equipped fossil fuels and bioenergy.

Public policies should focus on rapid development of those “next wave” technologies throughout the next decade, they wrote.

“The main challenge of the next decade is to massively scale up clean energy provision and expand its use to all sectors of the economy,” wrote Laëtitia de Villepin, an associate at energy advisory firm Systemiq and project manager on the Energy Transitions Commission’s report, in an email to E&E News.

Doing so would make reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — by around 2050 in the developed world and by 2060 in emerging economies — “undoubtedly technically possible,” without relying heavily on negative emissions technologies, concluded the Energy Transitions Commission.

The coalition includes oil and gas majors like BP PLC and Royal Dutch Shell PLC, European utilities Iberdrola SA and National Grid PLC, mining company Rio Tinto PLC, Volvo AB, Bank of America Corp. and clean energy research groups like the Rocky Mountain Institute.

The groups called on governments to commit about $1 trillion to $2 trillion in additional investment per year to hit the net-zero goal.

Beyond 2050, negative-emissions tech would need to provide no more than 2 to 4 metric gigatons of CO2 per year, mainly to offset residual emissions from agriculture and carbon capture systems that don’t work at 100% effectiveness, they wrote. By contrast, global CO2 emissions were about 33 metric gigatons in 2019.

“There is no doubt that it is technically and economically possible to reach the zero-carbon economy, which we need by 2050; and zero must mean zero, not a plan which relies on the permanent and large-scale use of ‘offsets,'” Energy Transitions Commission co-chair Adair Turner said. “But action in the next decade is crucial — otherwise it will be too late.”