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Equinox Summit: developing a modular approach for low-carbon electricity

equinox.bmpParticipants at the Equinox Summit in Waterloo, Ontario, received their mandate on Sunday, and it was a whopper: produce a plan for advancing low-carbon electricity over the next two decades.

It is not the first such attempt (for some background, see our earlier analysis of the technical issues here) nor will it be the last. But the event does present a unique model. Sponsored by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, a partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the Equinox Summit will attempt to game out a viable roadmap through interactions among scientists, policy advisers and an international collection of young thinkers who might well occupy positions of leadership around the world come 2030.

The goal is to “reboot” the global dialogue, and in his opening address Canada’s governor general, David Johnston, underscored the need for new ideas that will allow humanity to advance in the face of massive energy and environmental challenges. “The world needs this summit,” Johnston said. “Our well being will hinge upon our ability to innovate.”

Things kicked off with an afternoon session intended to set a baseline for the week’s activities. Panelists discussed four videos covering the basic climate challenge as well as the challenges in electricity generation, distribution and storage. Beginning Monday and running through Thursday, the summit will break into an iterative process that begins with scientific recommendations and then hashes through policy implications.

The goal is to develop a communiqué that will be released on Thursday followed by a more detailed set of recommendations that will come out in the coming months. Although most of the discussions will take place using behind closed doors, public sessions and other coverage can be watched live or on demand here.

The process features three primary groups of participants. First is a quorum of scientists who will present their ideas on how to move forward in the coming decades. The second is a forum of young leaders, selected from a global pool of applicants, who will take the lead on establishing recommendations in concert with a third group of policy advisers. The question is whether putting the science first and then running it through clever young minds (with the help of some seasoned veterans) will produce any novel insights or recommendations that could help break the gridlock over climate policy.

To do that participants will need to address a suite of challenges that range from technical and economic to political and social, but the conference isn’t aiming for broad scenarios that would reduce global emissions by some percentage. Rather the goal is to produce recommendations that could result in more manageable 10-gigawatt chunks of fully integrated low-carbon electricity by 2030. Those modules, roughly equal to 10 large coal-fired power plants, are big enough to be meaningful but could be replicated more broadly in order to scale things up.

This approach is intended to engage science and focus the mind on real outcomes, says Jatin Nathwani, director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo and science adviser for the summit. “We need to create a credible path forward,” Nathwani says. “This is science and technology’s moment to shine.”


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