Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Apr 1, 2012
Published on: Cosmos Magazine
6 min read

Can we really shift the world completely away from fossil fuels in the next 20 years? A brave band of scientists, engineers and young people believe so. Wilson da Silva watched them develop this bold new blueprint for the future of energy.

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.”

Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario
Canada's Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario

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.

Discussion among participants – aged 25 to 75, from 17 countries and across a range of disciplines – reviewed and evaluated promising new technologies
Discussion among participants – aged 25 to 75, from 17 countries and across a range of disciplines – reviewed and evaluated promising new technologies

“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 metierresearching 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.

One of the breakout sessions of the five-day Equinox Summit: Energy 2030
One of the breakout sessions of the five-day Equinox Summit: Energy 2030

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.

SHORT-TERM HORIZON – TIMELINE: 2015-2022

Solar energy and wind energy technology has been around for decades. The major barrier to implementation, however, has been storing that energy.

IT’S LONG BEEN KNOWN that wind and solar energy have great potential for low-emissions electricity. But their variability and intermittency make them difficult to integrate into existing power systems. Currently, when the energy generated is not used immediately, it is discarded, or ‘spilled’ – leading to large losses because there is no adequate storage. Large-scale batteries, meeting the energy and power requirements of the grid – installed near the source of electricity generation or close to the end users – could help turn clean and abundant, yet intermittent, energy sources into reliable, steady forms of baseload power for cities and industry and avoid wastage.

Among storage technology innovations that are currently at small scale or in pilot plants, Equinox participants identified electrochemical batteries as a key technology. Electrochemical batteries can be sited anywhere, are modular and their rapid response times may be used concurrently with other advanced energy management applications. Their low environmental impact means they can be placed near residential areas. Within this group of innovations, participants judged ‘flow batteries’ as among the most advanced, with vanadium redox flow batteries showing particular promise.

Vanadium redox flow batteries are a type of rechargeable, large-scale battery that uses vanadium ions in different oxidation states to store chemical potential energy. Over the past 25 years, a design based on vanadium and using sulphuric acid electrolytes – developed at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, by Maria Skyllas-Kazacos – has been under investigation with testing and evaluations at several institutions in Australia, Europe, Japan and North America.

Hokkaido Electric Power Corp's 60 MWh vanadium flow battery
Hokkaido Electric Power Corp's 60 MWh vanadium flow battery

Several features make the vanadium redox battery particularly exciting. It can offer almost unlimited capacity simply by using larger and larger storage tanks and be left completely discharged for long periods, with no ill effects. It can be recharged by simply replacing the electrolytes if no power source is available and, if the electrolytes are accidentally mixed, the battery suffers no permanent damage.

There are, however, barriers to full commercialisation. These specifically include: achieving a higher electric current density; increasing stack module sizes; and the development of inexpensive, chemically stable ion exchange membranes not subject to fouling by impurities in the electrolyte medium. The scale-up, capital and cycle-life costs and optimisation also need to be improved.

The pathway to implement this technology highlights the need to dramatically expand existing research and grid-scale battery demonstration projects already under way. The reliability and scope of renewable energy combined with storage should be a priority focus. Large-scale demonstration projects are needed to establish the economic viability of storage technologies, requiring partnerships between existing utilities and technology developers to help with commercialisation and wider implementation. Appropriate policy interventions are needed to encourage storage from renewable energy sources and discourage spillage.

MEDIUM-TERM HORIZON – TIMELINE: 2015-2035

Enhanced geothermal systems is a new technique, and with adequately deep drilling, every country could potentially access an almost unlimited energy resource.

GEOTHERMAL ENERGY is an attractive source of abundant baseload electricity with low emissions. To date, however, geothermal facilities have been deployed only where naturally occurring heat, water and rock permeability allow easy energy extraction.

Enhanced geothermal systems is a new approach: with adequately deep drilling, every country could potentially access an almost unlimited energy resource. Enhanced geothermal systems allow the use of the heat within the Earth in a wider range of locations than existing geothermal resources – where there is insufficient naturally occurring steam or hot water and where the permeability of the Earth’s crust is low.

Enhanced geothermal systems don’t require natural convective hydrothermal resources but seeks to enhance or create geothermal power from hot dry rock sites through ‘hydraulic stimulation’, pumping high-pressure cold water down an injection well into the rock.

This increases fluid pressure in the naturally fractured rock, mobilising shear events that enhance permeability – a process known as hydro-shearing, which is very different from hydraulic tensile fracturing used in the oil and gas industries. Geothermal power could be extracted in a larger number of locations that could be developed to function as baseload stations producing 24-hour-a-day power, much like conventional power plants.

THE EARTH’S INNATE heat offers an essentially inexhaustible energy supply, if it could be tapped for electricity production. The estimated enhanced geothermal resource base in the United States alone is some 13,000 times the current annual consumption of primary energy. Using reasonable assumptions regarding how heat would be mined from stimulated enhanced geothermal reservoirs, the extractable portion still amounts to 2,000 times the annual consumption, according to a study led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy (The Future of Geothermal Energy , January 2007).

A 2011 report by the International Energy Agency estimated that geothermal generation could reach 1,400 terawatt hours per year – as much as 3.5% of worldwide electricity – within four decades, replacing the creation of almost 800 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.

While some technical challenges need to be overcome to make enhanced geothermal systems a common alternative energy source globally, most of the difficulty stems from a lack of sufficient engagement by business and government to make a significant impact. Instead, recent efforts have focussed on small-scale projects.

Major barriers to the technology’s expansion have been the high front-end capital costs of geothermal projects, and a lack of investor confidence due to the paucity of available drilling data – only a small number of wells have been drilled worldwide to date. The technology needs to be sufficiently de-risked to overcome the natural conservatism of private capital. Until this occurs, exploration of the resource will be limited to isolated, government-supported development. Engagement by major financial and energy players will be needed to make cost projections attractive to investors.

Uncertainty in geothermal projects mostly centres on the lack of understanding of the size and characteristics of individual resources before drilling begins. Some questions around the local environmental impacts of engineered geothermal systems also need to be studied and better understood. Technical issues are largely around the ability to create a closed water circuit, the avoidance of mineralisation and channelling (leading to localised cooling) and the integrity of rock fracturing. All these problems, however, are considered surmountable over time.

The Equinox participants were extremely enthusiastic about the potential of enhanced geothermal systems. To reduce the technical and financial risks of large-scale engineered geothermal technology, they called for the establishment of a public-private partnership that would roll out up to 10 commercial-scale, 50 megawatt demonstration projects worldwide. These would be internationally collaborative efforts, marrying industry and government partners.

These projects would help reduce risks and uncertainties for drilling by bringing down the learning curve. Drilling into larger amounts of the geothermal resource base would likely result in greater economies of scale for delivered power. And that would translate into lower average costs per well – not only for wells per field, but wells drilled regionally. This learning-curve approach has been applied successfully for oil and gas drilling technologies. It may also lower prospecting and surveying costs by sharing information. If all data derived from the projects were to be made publicly available to facilitate transfer of drilling technologies and expertise internationally, it would build confidence between government and private investors.

Large-scale demonstration projects are a potentially powerful means of building confidence and improving technological understanding to encourage the uptake of new technology. These would not only establish whether projects are technically feasible, but also de-risk the construction and operation of ‘commercial-scale’ facilities.

LONG-TERM HORIZON – TIMELINE: 2020-2070

Nuclear energy divides people: for some, it is the only sensible path to a low-carbon world; for others, it spells inevitable disaster. Could new nuclear technology help make the decision?

THE SHEER SCALE OF shifting to low-carbon energy sources necessitates a third low-carbon baseload option. Even if the intermittency of renewables is addressed with large-scale storage, the substantially lower power density and the uneven distribution of renewable and geothermal energy resources leave a gap that would see power demand outstrip supply as the developing world becomes more industrialised. This third pathway centres around advanced nuclear energy technologies and seeks to address the spike in energy demand coming beyond 2030.

Nuclear energy currently provides 14% of all generated electricity. The 439 reactors now operating in 31 countries provide reliable baseload supplies with almost zero emissions during operation. But there are continuing public concerns: firstly about the creation of long-term radioactive wastes; and secondly about the need for reactor cores to be maintained at a high pressure in order to keep their coolant – water – liquid at high temperatures.

Design schematic of advanced liquid metal reactor
Design schematic of advanced liquid metal reactor

New reactor designs (Generation III, IV and V) offer an increased level of inherent safety. Designs such as that for the Integral Fast Reactor (IFR) also raise the promise of closing the nuclear fuel cycle because they can ‘burn’ most of the high-level nuclear waste, such as reactor-grade plutonium and minor actinides. The system also allows reuse of the waste from earlier generation plants, turning waste from a liability into an energy asset.

A SMALL AMOUNT of non-reprocessable waste would still be generated by an IFR. But the scope of the waste management challenge would be substantially reduced to decades rather than tens of thousands of years as currently stands with traditional reactors. To address this, summit participants also reviewed ideas for Generation V reactors such as Thorium-fuelled Accelerator Driven Systems (TADS). These could allow the generation of energy while ‘burning’ or destroying longer-lived waste.

In addition, the reactor remains sub-critical, or unable to sustain a chain reaction without a proton beam activated. Were an accident to occur, the beam could be turned off and the reactor’s core would cease operating immediately.

Both designs use metal coolants that can disperse heat via natural convection; allow the nuclear fuel cycle to be closed and waste to be recycled; and rely on resources – thorium and uranium – that have a high energy density and are abundant on the Earth’s crust. The two reactor technologies are also unsuitable for the development of the fissile material for nuclear weapons, addressing proliferation concerns.

Participants believed Generation IV and V reactors are transformative technologies that could meet the Equinox challenge while allowing an existing problem – nuclear waste – to become a low-carbon energy resource for future generations.

Although both reactor designs have enormous potential, projects to further demonstrate full-scale implementation of these technologies are moving ahead at a snail’s pace. The summit highlighted the need to accelerate progress, pursue whole-system demonstrations and move more rapidly to commercial deployment.

Evolving regulations that foster safety design innovation in next-generation reactors would be essential to realise the potential of advanced nuclear options. In order to leverage the nuclear industry’s innovation capacity, regulations should be reviewed to provide industry incentives for innovation while maintaining strict safety and security standards.

The potential of these reactor designs seems indisputable. But there is a high degree of public scepticism towards nuclear energy that has existed for years and has been exacerbated by the 2011 Fukushima tragedy. Communicating the inherent safety and sustainability of IFR and TADS technologies is challenging. But the Equinox participants didn’t consider this to be insurmountable.

The summiteers proposed a large-scale international collaboration focussed on the development and demonstration of IFR and TADS technologies to demonstrate the benefits of both. This will also require a mobilisation of funding to help address public perceptions.

The world’s ‘energy poor’

ELECTRICITY ACCESS FOSTERS education, an increase in food and wealth production and a higher quality of life. For these reasons, a third pathway sought to directly address the 1.5 billion people currently living without reliable access to electricity, to the detriment of their health, education and livelihood. Some 85% of these people live in rural areas. Economic development will address the problem to some extent, but by 2030, it’s estimated, this number will have dropped only marginally to 1.2 billion, with most of these living in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some 1.2 billion people have no access to power
Some 1.2 billion people have no access to power

The summit participants looked at a number of technologies that might provide inexpensive, portable and durable solutions to generating even limited amounts of electricity. By providing for basic lighting, cooking and refrigeration, such technologies would lay the foundations for expanded education and economic development.

Among promising solar technologies, summit participants identified organic photovoltaic cells, currently in development, as part of a suite of electricity generating technologies with potential to make transformative changes – if applied research and early-stage uptake by niche markets reduce costs to affordable levels. These cells rely on polymers or small organic molecules for light absorption and charge transport. Their overall plastic nature, flexibility and durability offer potentially low production costs in high volumes.

A KEY EQUINOX REALISATION was that the 1.5 billion ‘energy poor’ is an enormous market for products that improve livelihood and productivity, and yet these people are rarely considered viable consumers of high technology. Flexible solar technologies such as organic photovoltaic cells offer the opportunity to bridge the gap. Electricity from these cells will initially cost more per watt than energy produced by large-scale centralised generation, but for those living far from reliable electrical grids, access to even a small amount of reliable, self-generated electricity can dramatically improve quality of life.

Such changes are so highly valued that even the poorest of the poor are willing to pay for them. In fact, they have some capacity to do so, as they already pay more for kerosene and other fuels. Generally, organic photovoltaic cells are an example of emerging technologies that might allow delivery of usable electricity to the energy poor in a way that will often be faster, considerably cheaper and result in fewer greenhouse gas emissions than extending grid-based energy.

Equinox Summit participants converged on a dual-track pathway to pursue this. First, an accelerated R&D program is needed for organic photovoltaic cells to boost current low efficiencies, increase the lifetime of the material to more than 10 years and explore alternative materials that are part of the thin-film flexible solar technologies.

This should coincide with the development of manufacturing approaches for high-throughput production. The second track involved the adoption and deployment of emerging thin-film solar technologies, such as photovoltaic cells, by aid agencies, the military and other groups involved with humanitarian and emergency situations, where the need for energy is high but solutions are cumbersome.

These two pathways could serve as a springboard to accelerate the acceptance of the technology, stimulate demand and drive commercial opportunity for development.

Smart ways to increase efficiency and decrease carbon footprints 

THE WORLD IS undergoing the largest wave of urban growth in history. More than half of the Earth’s people now live in urban centres. By 2030, this is expected to swell to 60% – almost eight billion – with urban growth concentrated in Africa and Asia. While mega-cities will account for a substantial part of this, most of the new growth will take place in smaller towns and cities that have fewer resources to respond to the magnitude of such change.

The final pathway detailed in the summit involves applying a number of existing information and communication technologies and the larger-scale use of smart grids and superconductors for transmission and distribution in dense urban settings, to make cities more efficient and reduce their overall carbon footprints.

The coming expansion of cities provides an unparalleled urban planning opportunity to pre-address social and environmental problems, including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Combined with the retrofitting and upgrading of facilities and networks in existing urban centres, as well as good planning and enlightened governance, many cities could deliver education, healthcare and high-quality energy services more efficiently and with less emissions than less densely settled regions, simply because of their advantages of scale, proximity and lower geographic footprints.

Concept of a networked 'smart city'
Concept of a networked 'smart city'

Summit participants proposed high-level integration of existing technologies to deliver a smart, information-rich energy network that uses superconductors for enhanced electricity transmission capacity and allows transportation needs to be met by multiple approaches not reliant on private vehicles. Widespread adoption of such technologies will make it easier to manage the unfolding urbanisation, and could have much positive impact on energy use and consumption.

Building cities sustainably from the outset provides an opportunity to avoid future sources of greenhouse emissions, while developing more liveable and efficient urban centres. Well-planned dense urban areas could also alleviate population pressure on natural habitats and biodiversity.

Policy interventions and government investment decisions will be needed to create the infrastructure for new information and communication technologies, integrated and enabled through smart grids, to help reduce demand for electricity, manage loads and improve public mass transit. Summit participants developed a list of these and a timetable for deployment.

The application of smart-grid technologies, high-capacity superconductors and information systems as part of an integrated technology focus were suggested for key ‘pilot cities’ in the developing world, including the Lembang district of West Java, Indonesia. It was recommended that this be done by accessing existing funding sources and programs such as the Asian Development Bank, Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and GIZ (the German Agency for International Cooperation).

Weaving science and policy into action

EQUINOX SUMMIT PARTICIPANTS briefed local policy makers and business people who attended the summit, before presenting their ideas in a studio finale streamed on the Internet and televised on Canada’s TVO network to a wider audience.

“This is about demonstrating how science and policy can blend to generate and spark ideas,” said Jason Blackstock, the energy and climate expert who helped steer discussions. “There are lots of meetings of eminent scientists and experts. Equinox was meant to be a different beast – one that’s more oriented toward thinking about the actions that can be taken.”

Each evening, Equinox Summit particpants discussed the ideas being developed on TVO's The Agenda, which broadcast live from the venue
Each evening, Equinox Summit particpants discussed the ideas being developed on TVO's The Agenda, which broadcast live from the venue

Participant Jay Apt, executive director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Electricity Industry Centre, in Pittsburgh, and a former shuttle astronaut, had been fascinated watching how people of different backgrounds interacted. “The biggest output might be a cadre of people who know how to think about these issues,” he says.

By 2030, many younger participants will be in positions where “they can get major things implemented and done,” observed Blackstock. “Now they are equipped with an incredibly powerful network, including connections to the eminent scientists, so they can shape their careers around the idea of being able to lead on these issues.”

Can the world change? The eclectic mix of personalities and expertise, coupled with a unique process that emphasised science and critical thinking first, delivered a fresh new way of addressing global energy issues. It showed that approaching complex issues from a scientific perspective first can deliver powerful new ideas. Ultimately, it’s up to society and its policy makers to drive the changes needed.

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS and a former president of the World Federation of Science Journalists. He was moderator of the Equinox Summit: Energy 2030, and served as editor-in-chief of the resulting report, Equinox Blueprint: Energy 2030.