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Energy summit unveils blueprint for change

Posted on behalf of Nicola Jones.

Is there feasible road to a low-carbon future? According to a group of scientists, policy experts and young environmental leaders the answer is a qualified yes — if national governments and industry get busy developing and implementing transformative technologies to achieve a more sustainable supply of electricity.

The Equinox ‘blueprint’, released on 19 February at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, British Columbia, is a summary of findings from the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, a summit conference held last June in Waterloo, Ontario.

Participants in the Equinox Summit spent four days “grilling” scientists about possible game-changing electricity technologies. “It was a very learned tire-kicking,” says Wilson da Silva, editor of Cosmos magazine and a facilitator for the group.

Summit participants settled on five pathways for action: large-scale storage for renewable energy, enhanced geothermal power, advanced nuclear power, off-grid electricity access and smart urbanization (including transportation solutions).

In the storage department, the group has thrown is support behind vanadium redox flow batteries — a kind of halfway technology between conventional batteries and fuel cells — for storing intermittent renewable-energy supplies and powering electric vehicles. These are more complex and bulky than standard batteries, but they have a greater capacity the larger they are, and don’t lose their charge over time.

For off-grid electricity access, the group picked organic photovoltaics as a probable winner — devices that are flexible, light and resilient, but that, so far, produce electricity at an efficiency of only about 8%, compared to about 15% for off-the-shelf silicon photovoltaic panels. Although these might be more expensive than diesel generators, they offer the huge benefit of ongoing power without effort or expense for, say, isolated villages in Africa.

For base-load power, the group threw a spotlight on geothermal power (they are calling for ten commercial-scale 50-megawatt demonstration projects to be built around the world), and advanced nuclear power (specifically, they hope for a demonstration Integral Fast Reactor to be built by 2020, and a thorium-accelerator-driven system by 2030).

Now the report has been released, the group is switching to implementation mode, trying to convince policy makers to take action. “Watch this space,” says Blackstock.

Some of the youth leaders have already taken the ideas back to their communities to make a difference, they note. Lauren Riga, just 27 years old, has been appointed director of environmental affairs and green urbanism for her city of Gary, Indiana, where she also now has a radio show on sustainability issues and advises the local power company. “It has been a life-changing experience,” she says of the Equinox summit and report.

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    Ralph Torrie said:

    The Equinox report is a positive contribution to the conversation about how we can make a transition to a low carbon, sustainable energy future. It is obvious from the report that the meeting generated enthusiasm and momentum, and it was a worthwhile exercise for Equinox participants to try and pick winning technologies that will help decarbonizes the economy through 2030, and beyond. The decision to include some of tomorrow’s energy policy leaders among the participants was inspired, and it’s exciting to read that at least one of those leaders is already in a job where she can be a part of the drive for low-carbon energy futures at the community level.

    The report is not really a blueprint, but it is a solid first step in grappling with the complexities on the road to a low-carbon energy future. The next crucial step is to place the conference’s concluding list of “possible game-changing electricity technologies” into a unifying, quantitative framework. The context matters, and without t further analysis, it will be difficult to attach appropriate weightings to the simultaneous calls in this report for more bike lanes, more geothermal power, more smart grid, more light rail, more photovoltaics, more superconductors, more nuclear. Some of those options will deliver greater carbon reductions, energy security, and economic benefit than others. Not all of them will withstand more rigorous technical assessment. Without looking at the energy system as a whole, including how it relates to the wider economy (where the demand for energy services is generated), it will be very difficult to chart a credible, reliable course to a low-carbon future.

    The Equinox exercise also gives limited attention to energy efficiency. Every comprehensive analysis of what a low carbon future might look like has concluded that aggressive efficiency gains are essential to setting the stage for decarbonization of supply.

    The Trottier Energy Futures Project (www.trottierenergyfutures.ca) is modelling a set of seed scenarios to bring together the economic factors and energy options that could lead to an 80% reduction in Canada’s energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. It’s a startlingly tough target, and the research is leading toward a dialogue with a far wider group of stakeholders and communities than have normally been at the table to discuss the country’s energy future. The Equinox report is a great contribution to those conversations, but it also points to the additional details that will be needed to make a low-carbon energy future a reality.

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