The New York Times, Nov. 1, 2002Meeting the world's rising energy needs without increasing global warming will require a research effort as ambitious as the Apollo project to put a man on the moon, a diverse group of scientists and engineers is reporting today.
To supply energy needs 50 years from now without further influencing the climate, up to three times the total amount of energy now generated using coal, oil, and other fossil fuels will have to be produced using methods that generate no heat-trapping greenhouse gases, the scientists said in today's issue of the journal Science. In addition, they said, the use of fossil fuels will have to decline, and to achieve these goals research will have to begin immediately.
Without prompt action, the atmosphere's concentration of greenhouse gases, mainly carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, is expected to double from pre-industrial levels by the end of this century, the scientists said.
"A broad range of intensive research and development is urgently needed to produce technological options that can allow both climate stabilization and economic development,"the team said.
The researchers called for intensive new efforts to improve existing technologies and develop others like fusion reactors or space-based solar power plants. They did not estimate how much such a research effort would cost, but it is considered likely to run into tens of billions of dollars in government and private funds.
The researchers, a team of 18 scientists from an array of academic, federal, and private research centers, said many options should be explored because some were bound to fail and success, somewhere, was essential.
The researchers all work at institutions that might themselves benefit from increased energy research spending, but other experts not involved in the work said the new analysis was an important, and sobering, refinement of earlier projections.
As they now exist, most energy technologies, the scientists said, "have severe deficiencies." Solar panels, new nuclear power options, windmills, filters for fossil fuel emissions and other options are either inadequate or require vastly more research and development than is currently planned in the United States or elsewhere, they said.
The assessment contrasts with an analysis of climate-friendly energy options made last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international panel of experts that works under United Nations auspices. That analysis concluded that existing technologies, diligently applied, would solve much of the problem.
One author of the new analysis, Dr. Haroon S. Kheshgi, is a chemical engineer for Exxon Mobil, whose primary focus remains oil, which along with coal generates most of the carbon dioxide accumulating in the air from human activities.
Still, Dr. Kheshgi said on Thursday that "climate change is a serious risk" requiring a shift away from fossil fuels. "You need a quantum jump in technology," he said. "What we're talking about here is a 50- to 100-year time scale."
Dr. Martin I. Hoffert, the lead author and a New York University physics professor, said he was convinced the technological hurdles could be overcome, but worried that the public and elected officials may not see the urgency.
In interviews, several of the authors and other experts said there were few signs that major industrial nations were ready to engage in an ambitious quest for clean energy.
Prof. Richard L. Schmalensee, a climate-policy expert and the dean of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, said the issue of climate change remained too complex and contentious to generate the requisite focus. "There is no substitute for political will," he said.
The Bush administration has resisted sharp shifts in energy policy while Europe and Japan have accepted a climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, that includes binding deadlines for modest cuts in gas emissions. At international climate talks that end today in New Delhi, leaders of developing countries rejected limits on their fast-growing use of fossil fuels, saying rich countries should act first.
President Bush has called for more research, led by the Energy Department, on many of the technologies examined in the new analysis. But some energy and climate experts said the extent of the challenge would likely require far more focus and money than now exists.
Among the possibilities are space-based arrays of solar panels that might beam energy to earth using microwaves. The panel described various nuclear options, including the still-distant fusion option and new designs for fission-based power plants that might overcome limits on uranium and other fuels.
Planting forests, which absorb carbon dioxide, cannot possibly keep up with the anticipated growth in energy use as developing countries become industrialized and as global population rises toward nine billion or more, the panel said.
Some environmental campaigners criticized the study's focus on still-distant technologies, saying it could distract from the need to do what is possible now to reduce emissions of warming gases.
"Techno-fixes are pipe dreams in many cases," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace, which has been conducting a broad campaign against Exxon Mobil. "The real solution," he said, "is cutting the use of fossil fuels by any means necessary."
Experts Question New Energy Sources
WASHINGTON -- None of the known alternate energy sources are technically
ready to take the place of fossil fuels, suggesting the need for a crash energy
development program if the world is to avoid the threat of global warming,
experts say in a new study.
The study by 18 scientists and engineers in university, government and private labs evaluated technologies that would make energy without burning oil, coal or natural gas and found that no single system or combination of systems could replace these fossil fuels, based on the present level of development. The study appears Friday in the journal Science.
A few centuries from now society will have to wean itself from fossil fuels because the supply will run out, said Martin I. Hoffert, a professor of physics at New York University.
But because burning the fuels at an increasing rate is putting enough carbon
dioxide into the atmosphere to cause global warming, the nations of the world
must confront the issue of developing clean, renewable energy sources in this
century or face a climate disaster, he said.
"What our research clearly shows is that scientific innovation can only reverse this trend if we adopt an aggressive, global strategy for developing alternative fuel sources that can produce up to three times the amount of power we use today," said Hoffert, first author of the study. "Currently, these technologies simply don't exist."
Hoffert said U.S. government policy favors increased domestic oil production and shortchanges energy technology research that might lead ultimately and economically to replacing fossil fuels.
He said a combination of renewable energy sources -- such as wind and solar power generation, or electrical power beamed from orbiting solar satellites, and nuclear fusion power plants -- "are theoretically capable of keeping our civilization going into the future, but the problem is that we haven't taken the challenge seriously enough to do research in it. We are putting practically nothing into really, seriously studying the problem."
Joel Darmstadter, an energy researcher at Resources for the Future, an energy think tank, said the study by Hoffert and others is a useful review of the technical status of the world's alternate energy systems. The study, he said, could prompt policy discussions because it gives an evaluation of what is possible to replace fossil fuels.
But Darmstadter said the study failed to draw a clear picture of which of the alternative systems should have the highest priority and bases some of the discussion on "far out and highly speculative" technologies, such as the power satellite.
Currently, the world's power consumption is about 12 trillion watts, with 85 percent of it produced by burning fossil fuels. To stabilize the amount of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere by the middle of the century while still permitting the current level of global economic expansion would require production of about 30 trillion watts of power worldwide using power systems that do not emit carbon dioxide, the study found.
For that to happen, said Hoffert, the United States and other countries need a crash program of alternate energy technology development.
The study surveyed the entire field of alternate energy and found most systems have serious technical problems still unsolved. Among them:
* Nuclear fission: It is not the final answer because of a shortage of uranium fuel. The proven reserves of uranium would last less than 30 years if nuclear fission was used to make 10 trillion watts of power, about a third of what will be needed by the end of the century, the study found.
* Solar power: To meet the current U.S. needs with solar power would require sun collectors covering some 1,000 square miles. To make the equivalent of 10 trillion watts of added power would require surface arrays covering almost 85,000 square miles, an area larger than the state of Kansas, the study found.
* Wind power: These systems must operate from remote areas and the current power grids could not manage the load, the study found. New grids, perhaps using cooled superconducting cables, might be needed to harvest power from wind and solar systems.
* Solar power satellites: Orbiting solar arrays could make electricity, convert it to microwaves and then beam that energy to a ground antenna where it would be converted back to electricity. But to make 10 trillion watts of power would require about 660 space solar power arrays, each about the size of Manhattan, in orbit about 22,000 miles above the Earth.
* Hydrogen energy: Hydrogen does not exist in pure, natural reservoirs and has to be extracted from natural gas or water. The study found that more carbon dioxide and less energy is produced by the extraction of hydrogen than by burning natural gas directly. Extracting hydrogen from water using solar or wind power is not now "cost effective," the study found.
* Nuclear fusion: After decades of study, science still has not learned how to extract power from the fusion of atoms. The study said additional research could lead to breakthroughs, but it would require political resolve and heavy investment.
Copyright © 2002, The Associated Press