Butting Heads: A Year’s Review of Research in the Context of the Global Energy Paradox

[This is the third in a four-part series of guest posts by first year students in Columbia's Sustainable Development program]

Butting Heads: A Year’s Review of Research in the Context of the Global Energy Paradox
By: Aaron Baum, Pablo Egaña and Erin McNally.

Today, the energy sector emits around two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions; yet, around one-quarter of the world's population has basic energy needs that are not being met and are rising.  There is a paradox in the pursuit of the dual goal to curb emissions by meeting demand via technology, which was impressively discerned by William S. Jevons more than a hundred years ago: technological progress that achieves higher levels of efficiency and decreased negative environmental effects tends to be accompanied by a decrease in the price of the resource, with a consequent increase in consumption rates.  Jevons’s paradox obliges us to scrutinize the view that the dual problem of rising emissions and demand can be simply resolved through the increased efficiency that technological progress yields.

In what direction is the research into viability – in terms of costs and feasibility – of carbon capture as well as generation and storage of sustainable energy headed?  In the following, we briefly explore answers to this question from selected investigations in leading scientific journals (Nature, Science and PNAS), focusing on the role that technology can play in sustainable development and the role of natural disasters in investment.

Carbon capture is a promising mitigation strategy in the face of accelerating global emissions, but recent evidence shows that its high cost may suggest that it is not an omnipotent crutch by which to offset accelerating emissions.  In an interesting paper that appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S. (PNAS), House et al. showed that it is common that the cost of capturing CO2 is underestimated in the literature.[i] They considered the thermodynamic efficiencies of commercial separation systems as well as trace gas removal systems to figure out the costs, and conclude that the cost is around $1,000 USD per tone of CO2—an amount significantly higher than the typical estimates in the range of a few hundred dollars.

Rather than capturing and sequestering CO2, perhaps a more natural solution to the dual problem of rising emissions and rising demand is to develop low-cost, low or no emission energy technology that can easily be rolled out in remote areas. Indeed, the UNDP, is honing in on the severe shortage of energy in rural, low-resource settings and has suggested applying a decentralized energy strategy that increases cost-efficiency in a responsible fashion[ii].

Solar power is a ubiquitous option for such a strategy.  It is well known that the amount of solar energy that reaches the Earth each day is abundant relative to global demand, yet the current high cost of photovoltaic solar cells is inhibiting the widespread adoption of this renewable energy technology.  Research conducted by Young et al. has resulted in the development of a new method for slicing Silicon (Si), the key material in solar cell production.  This method has the potential to reduce Si waste in solar cell production from the current level of 50% down to almost zero[iii].  This reduction in waste will drive down the cost of solar cells making solar affordable for those in the developing world and thus a competitive global alternative to fossil fuels.

The viability of solar energy is not limited to overcoming cost barriers.  Primary issues that plague the electricity industry include reliable supply, and the integration of intermittent, renewable energy into the grid and overall global energy mix.  Energy storage can be employed to cope with these problems.  In Science, Dunn et al. reviewed various electric energy storage systems and noted that storage has been considered the “Holy Grail” of the electric utility industry[iv]. The review cites the most important characteristics of a successful energy storage technology to be “low installed cost, high durability and reliability, long life, and high round-trip efficiency.” 

In this context, we looked at two research papers that Nature highlighted about advances in state-of-the art energy storage technology.  A paper by Yu et al. discusses a device they developed using Graphene/MnO2 nanostructured textiles for high-performance electrochemical capacitors.  The device developed can be used for large-scale energy storage and is low cost and manufactured using “abundant”, “environmentally friendly” materials[v].  Other research published this year by Xie et al. discusses the development of a new type of energy storage technology: a membrane that can store a charge when “simply sandwiched between two metal plates[vi].”  The paper suggests that the technology could be a game changer for energy storage because it is a simple, scalable technology that can be implemented at low cost.

In addition to solar power, there is consensus about the benefits from wind farms, but there is uncertainty about the scalability. In order to not be rival with valuable agricultural land, many wind farms have been installed offshore around the world, exposing infrastructure to increased risk of catastrophic weather events.  In a recent article, Rose et al. estimate the potential risk to offshore turbines due to hurricanes. They conclude that reasonable mitigation procedures such as increasing the design reference wind load, ensuring that the nacelle can be turned into rapidly changing winds, and building most wind plants in the areas with lower risk, can strongly diminish the destruction risk of those turbines[vii].  These will likely increase installation costs of the technology, increasing its price.

Similar to wind farms, the high initial costs of nuclear power plants are compounded by the need to hedge enormous economic and public health risks of nuclear energy in the face of low-probability natural or man-made disasters.  Nuclear power plants suffer from large upfront costs driven by construction, but also by risk and waste management expenditures, which act as a major constraint to scalable adoption despite nuclear power offering an alternative approach to coal-based energy generation at competitive operating costs. Macfarlane, writing in Science[viii], notes that the Fukushima nuclear disaster was a clear and tragic demonstration of the problems that arise due to early underinvestment in supply chain management for both waste and spent fuel.  Mitigation of this risk, driven by increased regulation, is likely to drive initial costs even higher to ensure building of offsite geologic repositories at the time of plant construction, along with appropriate, potentially offsite infrastructure for safe management of spent fuel. 

In addition to traditional nuclear power, this past year had its share of stirring articles on the viability of nuclear fusion (fusing of two or more atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus and release energy).   In Science, reporting by Daniel Clery discussed both positive and negative trends in “a dark-horse technique” (because it is less proven than its counterpart magnetic fusion) known as inertial confinement fusion, wherein a shell filled with a specific gas mixture is fired upon by hundreds of intense lasers to induce fusion of light nuclei.  Researchers claim they can develop a “live pilot plant” within 12 years using only “non-advanced” materials, and are in fact working with end-users (e.g. electrical utility companies) to determine the quickest route[ix].  Clery tempers this ambitious projection in a separate report that is based on internal memos from the $3.5 billion National Ignition Facility laser center, which houses the highest energy laser in the world.  The memos reveal significant changes to the Facility’s pre-set time-bound goals, which may undermine confidence and investment in the high-cost endeavor.[x]

We can infer from this brief survey of recent scientific developments in the energy sector that research does not typically cross sectors.  If we agree that sustainable development is by definition a complex and interdisciplinary problem, which needs to take into account agriculture, health, potable water, infrastructure and so forth, moving towards an integrated research agenda in the energy field is therefore a necessity. One promising study we looked at does just this: Mendu et al. show positive evidence from integrated, dual use farming for sustained food security and agro-bioenergy development[xi] The authors indicate that there is substantial energy gain from local biomass combustion of waste such as coconut shells, which neither contributes to soil fertility nor for livestock feed, especially in poor areas in developing countries where energy allocation, is biased based on income. 

A holistic approach is necessary in order to tackle goals that will undoubtedly continue to butt heads: reducing emissions and meeting rising energy demand while keeping costs at a reasonable level.  We will leave the institutional issues for someone else to take a shot at, as there is a ubiquitous necessity for an institutional infrastructure that is capable of managing the paradoxical elements of the global energy landscape.

[i] House, Kurt Zenz , Antonio C. Baclig, Manya Ranjan, Ernst A. van Nierop Jennifer
Wilcox, and Howard J. Herzog (2011) Economic and energetic analysis of capturing CO2 from ambient air ¨PNAS  108 (51) 20428-20433. Web. 18 April 2012.  http://www.pnas.org/content/108/51/20428

[ii]“Decentralized Energy Access and the Millenium Development Goals.”  UNDP.  Web.  19 April 2012. http://www.undp.org/content/dam/undp/library/Environment%20and%20Energy/Sustainable%20Energy/UNDP-Decentralized-Energy-Access-and-MDGs-book.pdf

[iii] Young et al.  “Magnetically Guided Nano–Micro Shaping and Slicing of Silicon.”  Nano Letters 2012 12 (4), 2045-2050.  Web.18 April 2012.  http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl300141k.

[iv] Bruce Dunn et al. “Electrical Energy Storage for the Grid: A Battery of Choices.” Science 18 November 2011.  Web.  19 April 2012. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6058/928.short.

[v] Yu et al.  “Solution-Processed Graphene/MnO2 Nanostructure Textiles for High-Performance Electrochemical Capacitors.” Nano Letters 2011 11(7), 2905-2911.  Web. 18 April 2012. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/nl2013828.

[vi] Xie et al. “Polarizable energy-storage membrane based on ionic condensation and decondensation.”  Energy and Environmental Science Issue 10, 2011.  Web. 18 April 2012.  http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2011/EE/c1ee01841h .

[vii] Rose, Stephen, Jaramillo, J. Small, Iris Grossmann and Jay Apt (2012). “Quantifying the hurricane risk to offshore wind turbines.¨ Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S. (PNAS), 109 (9) 3247-3252.  Web. 18 April 2012. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2012/02/06/1111769109.abstract.

[viii] Macfarlane, Allison. “The Overlooked Back End of the Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Science, 2 September 2011: 333 (6047), 1225-1226.” Web. 18 April 2012. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/333/6047/1225.summary.

[ix] Clery, Daniel. “Fusion Power's Road Not Yet Taken.” Science, 28 October 2011: 334 (6055), 445-448. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/334/6055/445.short.

[x] Clery, Daniel. “Laser Fusion Project Alters Goals, Fueling Concern Over Its Strategy.” Science, 6 January 2012: 335 (6064), 23. Web. 18 April 2012. http://www.sciencemag.org/content/335/6064/23.

[xi] Mendu, Venugopal, Tom Shearin,J.,  Elliott Campbell, Jr, Jozsef Stork, Jungho Jae, Mark Crocker, George Huber and Seth DeBolt (2012) “Global bioenergy potential from high lignin agricultural residue” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the U.S. (PNAS), 109 (10) 4014-4019. Web. 18 April 2012. http://www.pnas.org/content/109/10/4014.abstract.

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