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March 01, 2014

A Lunch BIT from Unlocking Energy Innovation by Richard K. Lester and David M. Hart

Posted by: Susan Mai

Climate change, worldwide concern over energy supplies, and rapidly growing energy demand are arguably some of the most daunting problems we face today. In Unlocking Energy Innovation, Richard Lester and David Hart put forth a minute-to-minute plan for overhauling America's energy innovation system by tapping into the country's entrepreneurial strengths and regional diversity in both the public and private sectors. The following excerpt from Low-Carbon Electricity: A BIT of Unlocking Energy Innovation introduces the authors' blueprint for innovation that enables low-carbon technologies to supplant natural gas and other fossil fuels for power generation:

Unlocking energy efficiency...in transportation and industry—will be the first wave of low-carbon energy innovation. However…the nation’s energy and climate goals cannot be achieved through efficiency improvements alone. America’s need for energy is too great, and the existing energy system too carbon-intensive, for an efficiency-only approach to work. Nor is natural gas-fired electric power a permanent solution, even though it emits substantially less carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour than coal. While welcome at the moment, an excessive focus on gas could be unhelpful over the longer term if it deters investment in even lower-carbon alternatives. As a recent MIT study on the future of natural gas concluded, “though gas is frequently touted as a ‘bridge’ to the future, continuing effort is needed to prepare for that future, lest the gift of greater domestic gas resources turns out to be a bridge without no landing point on the far bank.”

In the medium and long term we must unlock a second wave of innovation that enables low-carbon technologies to supplant natural gas and other fossil fuels for power generation. A central goal of this effort must be to improve the performance and lower the unit costs of electricity production from low-carbon generation technologies whose basic scientific and engineering characteristics are already well known. The options include solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies, wind (including offshore wind installations), advanced nuclear reactor and fuel cycle technologies, carbon capture and storage technologies for both coal and gas-fired power plants, geothermal, and biomass. Large-scale deployment of second-wave innovations that prove to be viable should begin about a decade from now and continue for several decades.

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