The corridors of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Canada, are a network of light and dark spaces that are captured within a series of long, parallel glass walls that define the building. Natural light streams from many angles, contrasting with the interior slate-black metal walls, and the chequerboard of oddly shaped, darkened glass windows against the southern facade.
It’s an imposing black-and-grey building; a concrete-and-glass warped prism overlooking an artificial lake. The two long wings of offices are separated by a glass-roofed atrium, and three bridges span the interior, connecting the building on the second and third levels. Each bridge ends in an informal meeting area with sumptuous leather couches, fireplaces and blackboards. In fact, the whole building is peppered with impromptu meeting spaces and alcoves, each with one or more blackboards. There are hundreds of blackboards.
Here, physicists from around the world work to unravel the code behind space, time, matter and information. They seek to pry open windows of understanding, to build a coherent picture of how the universe works.
As challenging as physics is, it seems at times a walk in the park compared to the intractable task facing the 40 people who came together here in June 2011 for the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030.
Scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and policy makers – they were multinational, interdisciplinary and multigenerational – all sought to tackle a single, overwhelming problem: how to power modern civilisation this century, without warming the planet to catastrophic levels, and to do so using science.
IT’S A SEEMINGLY IMPOSSIBLE task: dramatically reduce global greenhouse gas emissions over the next two decades, but at the same time satisfy the rumbling juggernaut of demand approaching due to the rapid industrialisation of the massively populated China, India and Brazil.
Demand for energy is already booming well ahead of population growth. From 2004 to 2008, world population rose by 5%, while annual carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and gross energy production each jumped 10%. By 2030, global energy demand is expected to rise by 45% and electricity consumption by 75%. Electricity is the world’s fastest-growing form of end-use energy consumption and it’s forecast to grow ahead of other forms, especially as the electrification of transport expands.
We may take it for granted, but electricity is the lifeblood of modern civilisation. Imagine coping without it: no phones, computers or the Internet; factories and offices at a standstill; no refrigeration to keep food from spoiling; no trains running or even cars (as petrol pumps fail); dwindling stocks as processed foods are not made and food deliveries are halted; no water as the networks of thousands of pumps stop working; no schools or universities open; and banks largely useless without electronic transactions. Imagine the mass information production line that feeds our world silenced.
“We think of modern cities as great structures and we marvel at their power and vastness,” Tim Flannery, head of Australia’s Climate Commission and celebrated scientist and author, once told me. “The truth is, cities are very brittle structures. If they are cut off from their supplies of water, food and energy, they quickly collapse, and chaos and deprivation soon follow. Look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.”
The other truth is that the world today is struggling to generate 22 trillion kilowatt hours annually to meet demand, mostly using sources that produce greenhouse gases. By 2030, we’ll need 31 trillion kilowatt hours a year. So how will this demand be met while reducing the use of fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas?
“It’s a diabolical problem,” says Ian Dunlop, a former senior energy executive who chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998 to 2000. “Cheap energy has been the cornerstone of successful societies for centuries. Today, just as economic growth for the bulk of the world’s population is accelerating, the days of cheap fossil-fuel energy are ending. Continuation of business-as-usual in the energy arena is not a realistic option.”
This challenge is increasingly occupying the minds of political leaders, bureaucrats and diplomats. They’ve already come together repeatedly in tortuous negotiations about emission limits and targets only to end mostly in disagreement and even acrimony.
But what if we looked at the problem from a scientific and technological perspective first, and then factored in the economic, social and political dimensions? That, put simply, is exactly what the Equinox Summit sought to achieve.
Forty leading innovators from science, policy, civil society and business joined a selection of young, emerging political leaders from around the world. Delegates were selected because they brought diverse knowledge and creativity to the discussion. They were asked to develop strategies – based on the best available science and technology – that over the next 20 years or more could help shift the global electricity system to a more sustainable trajectory.
Over five days, participants were inducted into a new collaborative process developed by the organisers that sought to mould real-world strategies from new scientific ideas on electrical generation, storage and distribution. Participants – aged 25 to 75, from 17 countries and across a range of disciplines – reviewed and evaluated promising new technologies. They were asked to assess whether each of these – developed logically and with a long-term horizon – could make a transformative contribution to the dual goals of dramatically boosting future energy capacity while reducing emissions.
“It was a very different sort of collaboration, emphasising dialogue between science, policy, industry and young people who are likely to be in leadership positions in the future,” says Jatin Nathwani, an engineering professor and energy specialist from Canada’s University of Waterloo, who acted as the meeting’s lead scientific advisor. “We were aiming for a fresh approach, to step away from political stalemates towards a science-driven, solutions-based strategy. What we hoped is that we would emerge with pragmatic next steps for a global energy transition.”
The participants formed three groups: the scientists and engineers who were proposing new technologies or new approaches; a group of veteran entrepreneurs, policymakers and scientific leaders who challenged the proposals to ensure they had real-world applicability; and a group of men and women in their twenties – emerging leaders in public policy, industry or civil society – who would critically evaluate and champion the technologies they saw as most useful.
Guiding them was a team of organisers that included Nathwani and Jason Blackstock, of the International Institute for Applied Systems, in Austria, a physicist who found his metier researching public policy around climate and energy.
WHEN THE SUMMITEERS began their journey, they thought they would be considering radical new technologies, or re-imagining how existing technologies such as wind and solar power could be reworked to achieve the meeting’s goals. And yes, some amazing transformative technologies were proposed, and some old technologies were re-imagined as well. What was most surprising was how many of the so-called ‘radical new technologies’ had actually been under development for some time, or had been known for decades but ignored or applied on too small a scale to have an impact.
As discussions progressed, it became clear that many of the most promising technologies needed to be further explored, developed, expanded or commercialised to become truly transformational. Some concepts had specific uses that might be niche, but would have a powerful impact. Others were only applicable depending on geography, climate and resource availability.
What emerged were five key solutions, dubbed ‘exemplar pathways’. Each pathway proposes research, development and implementation strategies for a group of technologies that, together, could realistically extricate modern civilisation from its dependence on coal and gas over a 20- to 40-year period.
The first three pathways address the need to provide reliable, long-term supply in the form of baseload power – the backbone of any large-scale electricity system. The next two pathways address smart urbanisation and the supply of electricity to the energy poor.
Access to reliable baseload power and on-demand dispatchable electricity drives the global economy and has become indispensable to billions of people. However, most of this baseload is provided by the burning of coal and gas and that sends tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere daily, leading to harmful climate change.
Dramatically reducing the carbon-intensity of baseload power is extremely difficult. For each of the three promising options examined by the summit participants, a large-scale implementation on a terawatt scale of installed capacity over the next four decades was the benchmark to meet the challenge.
This is part of a series on a blueprint to address the world’s looming energy crisis.