Moderator: David Roberts (Grist.org)
Speakers: Stewart Brand (Long Now Foundation), Joe Fargione (The Nature Conservancy), Jesse Jenkins (Breakthrough Institute), Arne Jungjohann (Heinrich Boell Foundation), and Jeff Opperman (The Nature Conservancy)Presented by Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy
Reported by Kelly Lombardo | Posted April 4, 2012
According to the International Energy Agency, global energy use is expected to increase by 50% over the next 2 decades, in part because of the expanding global population. In conjunction with this substantial surge in demand, global temperatures are increasing because of elevated greenhouse gas emissions produced by inexpensive methods of energy production, such as the burning of coal. This situation introduces the tremendous challenge of simultaneously meeting the world's expanding energy needs while reducing carbon emissions to prevent devastation of the global environment. As the first installment of a four-part series exploring the relationship between conservation and our increasingly urban existence, the New York Academy of Sciences hosted Energy for the Next 20 years: Protecting the Environment and Meeting Our Demands on Thursday, January 12, 2012. The presenting partners for this symposium included Hot Topics in Green Science and Sustainability and The Nature Conservancy. Click here to view the eBriefing of part two of the series, Creating the Next Conservation Movement – Or Do We Even Need One?.
David Roberts, who covers energy politics for Grist.org, moderated the symposium and began by detailing the situation. As hundreds of millions of people in developing countries are becoming less impoverished, the demand for energy is escalating, leading to a depletion of natural materials such as coal, rare earth metals, and oil. Concomitantly, our environment is in jeopardy if we continue emitting greenhouse gases at the current rate. Robert posed this conundrum to the panel of conservationists, energy researchers, and energy policy experts, inviting them to discuss the difficulties as well as the potential opportunities.
Jesse Jenkins, the Director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Breakthrough Institute, elaborated on the current state of energy poverty and its relationship to climate change. Energy poverty refers to the use of polluting fuels and inefficient methods of energy production to meet basic energy needs. Globally, more than 1 billion people lack access to electricity, with 2.5 billion burning dung and wood for their primary energy needs. Among this group, 2 million die annually because of indoor air pollution, half of which are children under the age of 5, as reported by the World Heath Organization. Jenkins emphasized that introducing electricity into these impoverished regions is essential to alleviating this humanitarian crisis.
Given the compounding burden on our energy resources, Jenkins emphasized the urgency for innovative energy production techniques to prevent further degradation of our environment. To mitigate global warming, carbon emissions need to be reduced by 50% over the next 40 years, according to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). For this reduction to occur in conjunction with the expanding energy demand, Jenkins believes that by mid-century all of our energy must be derived from sources free of greenhouse gas emissions. Achieving this goal will require innovative solutions to improve the performance of clean energy options as well as to create affordable energy solutions for developing countries.
The world's demand for energy is increasing because of the expanding global population and the modernization of developing countries. The development of innovative, low-carbon emitting methods of energy production are in need to meet the growing demand, while preventing further devastation to the environment. (Image courtesy of Stewart Brand)
Discussion among the panel transitioned to the current methods being employed to meet the burgeoning energy demand, as well as the future opportunities in clean energy technology. Jeff Opperman, the Nature Conservancy's Senior Advisor for Sustainable Hydropower and Water Management, discussed the role of hydropower, energy derived from the power of flowing or falling water. Hydropower provides 20% of the world's electricity, though Opperman explained that the type of power it provides is far more valuable than the amount of energy produced. Hydroelectric dams provide a continuous source of power, which can be rapidly accessed when demand for electricity peaks. This load following, or peaking, power is crucial during times of peak demand, such as hot summer afternoons when many air conditioners are activated at once. The consistent and reliable power it provides helps to supplement intermittent renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power. During periods of calm winds or cloudy skies, for example, hydropower can serve as backup source of power.
While hydropower is a viable alternative energy solution, Opperman described the limitations associated with the installation of hydroelectric dams. Dams can serve as barriers within rivers, altering the behavioral patterns of animals within the water. They also modify river height and flow patterns both upstream and downstream of the structures. Upstream, riverside communities may flood, forcing a displacement of the residents. Downstream, those who rely on natural flooding as a method of irrigation for agricultural production will no longer have this periodic water resource. Therefore, with hydroelectricity use predicted to double globally, Opperman believes that future projects must be planned to fit into the natural ecosystem, limiting the impact on surrounding resources.
Developing alternative energy sources to power our vehicles poses a unique challenge that cannot be solved by resources like wind and hydropower, said Joe Fargione, Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy's North American Region. The transportation sector can be divided into two main groups: passenger cars and larger industrial transportation vehicles (i.e., long-haul trucking, airplanes). Fargione explained that passenger vehicles that travel less than 40 miles per day and return to the same location every evening are good candidates for reengineering to use batteries as a power source. However, advancements in battery technology are required for the development of electrically powered, large industrial vehicles. As an alternative, liquid fuels derived from biological materials are being developed to replace diesel, though Fargione described the current methods as inefficient. Converting one-third of the country's yearly harvested corn into the biofuel corn ethanol yields only 6% of the energy demanded by the transportation sector. More efficient forms of biofuel are being developed from other types of biomass, such as dedicated energy crops and waste from forest products, though these options are not yet economically feasible. Fargione emphasized that innovation is necessary to reduce the cost of these liquid alternatives to diesel.
Stewart Brand, co-founder and president of The Long Now Foundation as well as co-founder of Global Business Network, discussed the benefits of meeting our expanding energy needs using nuclear reactors. To generate 1 gigawatt of electricity per year, 250 square miles of wind turbine-covered land or 50 square miles of solar panels are needed. Stewart explained that relying solely on these dilute energy sources requires a tremendous amount of space and contributes to the degradation of the landscape. Stewart argued that energy production through more concentrated methods, such as nuclear reactors, should be integrated into our future vision of energy solutions. As with hydroelectricity, nuclear power provides a continuous source of base load electricity, necessary to supplement other forms of intermittent energy, such as solar and wind power. Stewart explained that minimal nuclear-spent fuel, the byproduct from nuclear reactions, is produced, which can be safely contained for centuries in dry cast storage. Once in storage, the spent fuel can be buried underground in areas like New Mexico, where the salty, dry ground limits the danger of ground water contamination. The spent fuel may also be retained for future reprocessing in more efficient, technologically superior next-generation reactors. Stewart concluded by highlighting the advancements in nuclear fusion, the generation of energy through the fusion of hydrogen atoms. Though this technology is still being developed, the eventual inclusion of fusion as an energy resource will drastically alter the future of energy production by providing a virtually unlimited energy supply with no potential for meltdown.
Arne Jungjohann, the Director for the Environment and Global Dialogue Program of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, provided the opposite perspective on nuclear energy and discussed how Germany is currently phasing out all nuclear energy facilities, aiming to meet that demand with renewable energy. Germany's energy needs are substantial because of its sizeable population of 80 million residents as well as its strong economic dependence on industry. In 2000, 95% of Germany's electricity was derived from fossil fuel combustion and nuclear reactions, with only 5% generated through renewable methods. By 2011, this percentage increased to 20%, as a result of a surge in wind and solar power initiatives. Jungjohann portrayed the modern landscape of Germany as having windmills visible on the northern landscape and photovoltaic cells, or solar panels, on the rooftops of structures throughout the south.
Jungjohann described this evolution as the outcome of the common understanding on the importance of clean energy throughout the country. Strategies were developed to attract foreign investors interested in advancing solar and wind technology, with the support of the German government. German citizens view the expansion of the renewable sector as economically advantageous, in part because of increased employment opportunities, and perceive renewable energy as an integral source of electricity on the power grid to replace fossil fuel imports. Among German political parties, there exists a strong consensus on climate change. Different governments have implemented long-term policies, such as energy and environmental taxes, to mitigate the potential devastation to the environment. The ruling center-right coalition’s goal is to increase the share of renewables in the power sector to 80% by mid-century, while the Green Party envision 100% renewable energies by 2040 the latest. Jungjohann emphasized that this understanding of an industrial strategy for ecological modernization has made Germany a world leader in renewable technologies. Though there are still challenges to overcome, Jungjohann thinks that Germany will have an advantage as the first to transition towards a flexible, decentralized renewable system.
Use the tab above to find multimedia from this event.
Media available from panel discussion featuring:
Stewart Brand (Long Now Foundation)
Joe Fargione, PhD (The Nature Conservancy)
Jesse Jenkins (Breakthrough Institute)
Arne Jungjohann (Heinrich Boell Foundation)
Jeff Opperman, PhD (Nature Conservancy)
Moderator: David Roberts (Grist.org)