Any discussion of energy must be viewed and framed from the perspective of three securities: national, economic, and environmental, said Arunava Majumdar, Jay Precourt Professor at Stanford University and founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E). The growth of gross domestic product per capita and the growth of energy use have been closely correlated. “Without the use of energy, there is no modern economy,” said Majumdar. “We are back in the medieval ages.”
National security and economic security have been long-term concerns for energy; environmental concerns related to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming are more recent. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the average global temperature has gone up by about 1 degree. At any geographical location, some years are warmer and some years are cooler than average and it is hard to precisely predict the impact of global warming. But there is no question that globally the distribution of temperatures has shifted toward the warm end of the spectrum. As this shift continues, the tails of the distribution could have “a disproportionate effect on our economy [and] on our lives… . We don’t understand all the details of climate change, but we know [the Earth] is warming, and the consequences of that could be severe.”
The average carbon dioxide molecule emitted into the atmosphere stays in the atmosphere hundreds of years, so much of the carbon dioxide emitted since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is still there. Over that time, the burning of fossil fuels has put about 1 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If all the known reserves of fossil fuels (which today have a value of about $10 trillion) were burned, the
result would be an additional 3 trillion tonnes of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
ENGINEERING A SOLUTION
The choice facing society is often posed as a dilemma, Majumdar observed. Should society ignore the threat to the environment and pursue economic growth, or should it keep $10 trillion worth of fossil fuels in the ground to save the environment? That is a “false choice,” said Majumdar, “because it does not account for the human mind to engineer things.”
The Stone Age did not come to an end because humans ran out of stones. Rather, they found better solutions to their problems. “If the Industrial Revolution was all about energy, we need to create a new Industrial Revolution,” to address all three securities. Engineering will give us technological options, our insurance policy for a secure future.
The abundance of new local shale sources has separated the domestic price of natural gas from the international price of oil and thus helped
bring down both carbon emissions and electricity generation costs by shifting electricity production toward the use of natural gas. Furthermore, our dependence on imported petroleum from unstable regions of the world has decreased, which has enhanced national security.
At the same time, the cost of new technologies has dropped. Within the next decade, the cost of LEDs should be competitive with the cost of compact fluorescent lamps, said Majumdar. The cost of wind energy is declining, with a resulting growth in capacity. The price of solar panels has come down dramatically, with corresponding increases in uptake. “Is this part of the new Industrial Revolution?” he asked. “Maybe.”
Energy storage is another part of the equation. The cost of lithium-ion battery systems has fallen from $1,000 to $400 per kilowatt-hour in just five years, and is continuing to drop through research that focuses on increasing the energy density of battery electrodes. Once the cost gets below $200 per kilowatt-hour, electric cars will be cost-competitive with gasoline cars, without subsidies, and will have roughly the same range. Research on the large-scale stationary storage of energy, which could be a game changer for the grid, is rapidly progressing. Further research to reduce the cost of biofuels could also be part of the solution, Majumdar said.
Nuclear power is likely to be an important source of energy, especially for base load capacity, Majumdar added in response to a question. “I can’t imagine us addressing climate change in any focused and substantive way without having nuclear.” The cost of building and financing nuclear energy has to come down so it can compete in the marketplace. Furthermore, we need to overcome some political and institutional challenges in managing nuclear wastes.
The development of a new paradigm for the design and operation of the electricity grid is critical. The architecture of the current electrical grid is still essentially the one developed at the beginning of the 20th century, with centralized generation, long-distance transmission, and local distribution. A new grid must be optimized for both centralized and distributed resources, with dynamical control and balancing of load, generation, and storage in order to maximize the use of intermittent resources such as wind and solar, reduce overall system cost and carbon emissions, and increase resilience against security and natural threats. We need engineering to design, build, and operate such a complex networked system. This is an important challenge that will require not only new technologies but also new business and financing models. “It
is absolutely critical to manage this transition in the most cost-effective and reliable way.”
BRINGING THE WORLD ONLINE
These technologies will be even more important as the world continues to develop. Today, about 3 billion people still have no or very limited access to electricity, and by 2050 another 2 billion people will be added to the same regions that do not have full access to electricity today. “The question is, Do we extrapolate the 20th century grid for them, or do we create a new grid?”
The current level of paralysis in the political system would argue against much getting done, but Majumdar said that he is optimistic. Even during the Civil War, the political process got things done—such as creating the National Academy of Sciences. In “the long term, I think the process has worked. I would not give up.”
Enrico Fermi on the Gulf Oil Spill
Majumdar spoke briefly about his experiences with the April 20, 2010, oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico caused by the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. During the 87 days that oil flowed into the Gulf, some people speculated about the possibility of detonating a nuclear weapon to seal the well.
In an email written at 2:18 AM on June 25, Richard Garwin, an Academy member who helped developed the hydrogen bomb, wrote to the science team that was considering what to do: “This is a topic I know a good deal about… . Here are 7 pages in Enrico Fermi’s hand from my July 1950 Los Alamos notebook—an early calculation of such containment.”
As Majumdar wrote in a subsequent email: “I never thought I would encounter a historical connection between the oil spill and Enrico Fermi spanning 60 years. I am awed that Dick had his lab notebook from 60 years ago. And even more so that he remembers where things are in it!”