Per Peterson | University of California, Berkeley
Jan 11, 2016 10:19 PM
Modular nuclear plant construction at capital cost less-than$3/W (levelized cost less-than 7 ¢/kWh)

Nuclear energy is a complex technology, and Arun has accurately distilled the fundamental goal into a single sentence.  Embedded in this economic goal is the requirements to comply with regulations for safety and physical security, and with international safeguards.  

Today, Westinghouse charges ten times as much to convert steel, concrete, copper, and other materials into an AP1000 reactor built in the United States, as Vestas chargest to deliver wind turbines fabricated from the same materials.  

The AP1000 is one of the most affordable reactors available today.  There exist no physics that require reactors to be ten times more expensive to build than wind turbines. I predict that the innovation agenda that brings down these very high current nuclear construction costs will look a lot like the SpaceX model, which today charges $4600 per kg for launches that cost $60,000 per kg with the Space Shuttle.

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Points of Divergence and R&D Priorities

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Dale Simbeck | SFA Pacific
Dec 16, 2015 2:17 PM

Some other areas of potentially useful technology developments that I expect could have a major impact on CO2 mitigation:

1.     Improved higher temperature “superconductor” electric transmission development. This could effectively move excess renewable power in one region (like the US Midwest) to regions with higher costs and higher CO2 emissions electric power generation (like the US Northeast).   Effective use would also require political reforms toward a national electric transmission systems control with better grid connections.  Sadly, this is currently controlled and opposed by State public utility regulators and the big politically powerful regional electric utilities. 

2.     Innovative transfer of electricity to moving vehicles on strategic high vehicle density roadways.  One option is induced current transfer from wires in the roadway, already being tested in several countries.  There are other likely better options.  This would greatly reduce the battery capacity required for electric vehicles (EV) and would be a great enabling technology improvement for more practical plug-in and all liquid fuel hybrid electric vehicles (HEV).

3.     Development of improved fuel cell technologies and alternative fuel cell fuels.  Solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) likely have the biggest potential.  For large scale electric power generation, SOFC can generate electricity from H2 & CO while in the same process producing a high purity CO2 exhaust at moderate pressure.  Thus, this would have much lower costs for CO2 capture and storage (CCS) while at the same time much higher overall efficiency.  SOFC using low carbon emission in manufacturing (like CO2 free H2 reactions with CO2 perhaps from CCS) of liquid methanol fuel is also very interesting for fuel cell vehicles.  The greatest attribute of a transportation fuel is being a liquid at ambient temperature and pressure.

Dale Simbeck | SFA Pacific
Dec 16, 2015 2:16 PM

A low priority for R&D of energy efficiency technologies is very typical, as this area does not have any “sex appeal,” big ribbon cuttings, few radical breakthroughs and worst of all no great hypes of the “great clean, green, cheap technology of the future (forever)" favored for R&D funding.  Nevertheless, efficiency and conservation are likely the only major GHG mitigation options that reduce costs while also reducing energy use and life cycle emissions.  Efficiency just keep giving and giving once instituted.  Review of traditional historic energy projection documents by EIA and IEA shows efficiency improvements were greatly underestimated after the great energy price shocks in 1973 and especially 1980.  High energy prices are efficiency improvements’ best friend.

Another key issue in hurting improved efficiency are institutional barriers.  The best example is that the big traditional regulated electric utilities consider purchasing large amounts of ultra-efficient cogeneration baseload electricity from energy intensive industries at a fair price their worst nightmare.  The problem, this cogen electricity is too clean, too cheap, too large and worse of all, generated by others.  Utilities very effectively marginalize cogen to just “small is beautiful” residential  “distributed generation,” knowing the small size and low annual load factors of residential thermal host make this cogen insignificant.

-Accelerated demonstration and improvement of post-combustion CCS technologies

 I totally agree and specifically more effort on post-combustion CCS than pre-combustion (except if for hydrogen in fuel cell applications) and oxygen combustion.  CCS development is critical for quick and large CO2 reductions.  Post-combustion CCS is ideal for big fossil fuel power generation, both coal and natural gas, as well as new or retrofit of existing power plants.

Next-generation solar chemistries with the potential to achieve very low installed costs (on the order of $0.25/watt)

Also a good choice.  Integration into roofing could further reduce installation costs, but the challenge continues to be wiring when new roofs are installed.  Other solar challenges continue to be low annual load factors, inverters, surface cleaning and especially storage for peak time of day energy needs.

Demonstration and improvement of engineered geothermal energy production methods

Another good choice but a limited resource, thus would be near the bottom of my list. 

Accelerated design and demonstration of next generation nuclear reactor designs

I totally agree, as nuclear is critical for any significant CO2 mitigation because baseload electric power gen is the “big dog” CO2 emissions source.  I specifically like the small modular “cookie cutter” standardized nuclear designs and using ship manufacturing facilities to reduce capex and barge to final locations in developing nations with the high electric growth rates.  Also need institutional changes in standardized, more effective permitting/licensing and especially R&D into advanced nuclear cycles with better fuel utilization and avoiding use for nuclear bomb materials.

Low-cost/high energy density battery chemistries/designs for electrification of transportation

I am not certain that the future is electrification of transportation.   That is unlikely until a major technology breakthrough in battery performance and costs, which could easily be the “great technology of the future (forever).”  Better battery development is the holy grail of better electricity storage for all applications, especially storage for intermittent renewable electric power gen.  However, the fact that the original Edison-invented lead acid battery still dominates after over 100 years and that fuel cells keep failing with improved performance suggests there may be some yet unknown limitations in advanced batteries performance.  This is high risk R&D that may still be the “great energy technology of the future (forever).”

Energy dense, very-low carbon liquid fuels for aviation and other difficult to electrify transportation sectors

The key here is to make existing standardized jet fuel from zero CO2 emissions hydrogen (renewables to hydrogen or fossil fuel to hydrogen with CCS) and any source of carbon, CO or CO2 (but favoring from biomass).  This usually involves H2 and CO reactions over catalysis via the classic Fischer-Tropsch (F-T) technology, which is very un-selective to just jet fuel.  However, another more selective approach could be low carbon sources of H2 & CO via methanol and then methanol to jet fuel, similar to the ExxonMobil methanol to gasoline technology.  A final approach is simply hydrotreating and hydrogen cracking any hydrocarbon carbon liquid (even from biomass) with lots of low carbon hydrogen.  Like F-T this is complex and un-selective to jet fuel, but great fears of any oxygen left in the jet fuel is from biomass liquids.  Finally, liquid hydrogen as a jet fuel has some interesting possibilities that cannot be totally ignored. 

Carbon capture and storage methods for industrial processes that cannot be easily electrified

Almost any energy intensive industrial process can be electrified.  However the fuel cost and overall life cycle efficiency would be terrible. Nevertheless, electricity is the key growth end-use energy of the future, regardless of battery breakthroughs.  Therefore both CCS for fossil fuel power generation (and energy intensive industrial processes) and nuclear electric power generation are essential for a carbon constrained world.


Low-carbon cement production methods

I totally agree and an excellent suggestion that most people overlook.  Limestone based cement is a major source of world CO2 emissions, especially in developing nations with high construction rates. I think there could be great potential for different chemistry plus more recycling of other existing solid waste like coal ash.  I expect the key could be developing cement chemistry based on natural magnesium silicate in place of calcium carbonate (limestone).  Keep in mind a key institutional limitation here is existing building material standards that would have to radically change to performance based standards, not existing chemistry standards. 



Paulina Jaramillo | Carnegie Mellon University
Dec 13, 2015 9:56 AM

I think the biggest challenge we face in the coming decades is the provision of electricity to the global poor. If we do not properly design and operate low carbon electricity systems in developing countries, it is game over for climate change. I thus gave the highest allocation to the electricity research. While there clearly is a need for research on novel technologies (I think advanced nuclear technologies deserve more attention), I think there is also a need to understand how to overcome non-technical barriers. There now seems to be agreement that universal energy access will not occur if we rely only on international aid. We thus need to better understand the mechanisms that have to be in place to spur private investment: What type of business models work? What are effective policy mechanisms to spur private investment? etc. Any research into electrification should also include social and behavioral research. For example, we don't have a lot of knowledge on how demand for electricity develops after first access. 

We can't ignore transportation. In megacities of the developing world, transportation is a major driver of air quality so we need to figure out how to develop cleaner transportation systems. Obviously, future transportation systems could be extremely linked to the electricity sector. In the developing world, however, there is an opportunity to think beyond the personal vehicle. Motorcycles, for example, are a big part of the transportation fleet in many developing cities. These motorcycles are a safety hazard but are also a major source of air emissions. Is there any research we should pursue to make motorcycles better? Another potentially game changer technology for the transportation system is autonomous vehicles. There seems to be a lot of research on the technology aspects of these vehicles, but not as much on the system-level implications of the technology. Should these vehicles be electrified? What kind of infrastructure would be needed? How may they change travel behavior?

Finally, there is increasing awareness of the climate/environmental impacts of agriculture. NSF announced a couple of months ago that their new agency-wide focus area will be food-energy-water. I don't have great ideas about research questions on this issue, but it deserves attention.

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Leena Srivastava | The Energy and Resources Institute
Dec 12, 2015 10:37 PM

I made the highest allocation for storage technologies as economically attractive options here would pave the way for a massive upscaling of renewable energy. This is also important  to provide a push to decentralised energy solutions that could benefit the energy poor beyond a basic provisioning and pave the way for an electrification of economies.

Beyond this, the transport sector will see a massive growth particularly in developing countries because of their current low levels of vehicle ownsership and rising incomes. We urgently need to find economically attractive, stable fuel sources (beyond clean electricity) to meet these demands.

I agree with all others that we do not need major investments in energy efficiency technologies, however, it is as a fact that the best available technologies are not uniformly wide spread and the barriers to scale are many and not properly understood. Recognising this as a low hanging fruit also calls upon us to make the effort to develop the righ policy mechanisms and market conditons to ensure a rapid explotation of all available technologies.

I have provided a reasonable share of the allocation to the industrial sector with a clear focus on the small and medum enteprises that are an essential part of indusrial growth but are technologically challenged. They provide the large part of employment in this sector but are also facing competitive disadvantages on account of high energy costs. There is an urgent need to develop as well as customise clean energy technologies for this sector, accompanied by major training and awareness programmes.



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Arun Majumdar | Stanford University
Dec 12, 2015 12:08 PM

I agree with Nate that the big breakthroughs that we are need are broadly on our electricity grid (which was never designed for high penetration renewables) and converting CO2 into fuel at market competitive costs.  That latter needs really inexpensive renewable energy as a feedstock, and we are now entering an that era.

Let me add that while these two are important, there are many others as well. I generally present a Letterman-style list of Top 10 Game-Change Energy Technology Innovations, which you will find below. Why 10?  Well, its not 1 and its probably not 100. It is on the order of 10, could be 12.  I think others could add to this list as well because I probably have not captured them all.  

Note that this does not include innovations in finance, business models and policy, which are critically important.  The only exceptions I have noted are the need for building standards based on measured performance (beyond design code) and carbon price, which of course would be terrific in multiple dimensions, but there are others that I have not included (e.g. MLP Parity Act).  In fact, what we need is the coherence between innovations in technology, finance, business models and policy, so that they are synergistically pulling each other (and not fighting each other), making the whole bigger than the sum of the parts. 

  1. Ultra-high voltage transmission lines and low-cost approaches (combination of storage, flexible loads, sensing, computation, control) to integration of intermittent renewables at greater-than50% penetration
  2. Use carbon-free energy to transform CO2 into liquid hydrocarbon fuels at $2/gallon
  3. Battery storage at capital cost less-than$100/kWh with greater-than1000 cycles
  4. Photovoltaic systems that are lighter and more efficient, enabling fully-installed capital cost of $0.5/W (levelized cost less-than 2.5 ¢/kWh)
  5. Modular nuclear plant construction at capital cost less-than$3/W (levelized cost less-than 7 ¢/kWh)
  6. Carbon capture from coal-fired power plants at cost less-than$30/tCO2 with a carbon price greater-than$40/tCO2
  7. Genetic engineering that reduces cost and simplifies the conversion of biomass to useful chemicals and fuels
  8. Internal combustion engines with greater-than50% efficiency with multi-fuel mixtures
  9. Building performance standards combined with designs, materials, sensors and control systems that significantly reduce building energy consumption
  10. Deep borehole geothermal energy with levelized cost less-than7-8 ¢/kWh
Per Peterson
Nate Lewis | California Institute of Technology
Dec 11, 2015 2:45 PM

seems like basically this whole thead is in violent mutual agreement

around the edges one might tweak the numbers somewhat, but the underlying rationale seems to have uniform support from the commentaries below and nothing major seems of concern or controversy at least so far

Ken Caldeira | Carnegie Institution for Science
Dec 11, 2015 2:19 PM
There are also challenges in achieving transmission and in technologies for energy efficiency, but no "gaps" of the type that are listed above, which are so significant as to arguably preclude getting to a truly carbon-neutral and affordable clean energy system unless and until they are addressed and solved.  Hence for R&D funding allocation purposes, I preferentially qualitatively down-rated such areas.

If we could truly get an intercontinental superconducting grid, this could allow the world to be powered by solar energy alone. I don't think i would put a huge fraction of overall resource into this, but the idea of a global electric grid should not be abandoned (cf. Hoffert et al., Science, 2002). 

Ken Caldeira | Carnegie Institution for Science
Dec 11, 2015 2:15 PM
-Demonstration and improvement of engineered geothermal energy production methods

 I'm skeptical that geothermal will ever be a major power source for civilization, but some small amount of money might be well applied here.

Ken Caldeira | Carnegie Institution for Science
Dec 11, 2015 2:10 PM
Research into energy efficient technologies should be a relatively low priority,

 Device level efficiency improvements may be driven largely by 'profit and cost-saving incentives' but system level efficiency improvements will not be driven so simply by market forces. For example, mass transit systems, densification of urban centers with elimination of suburban sprawl, etc, could potentially come about through planning but not so much for market forces. So, it might be that R&D dollars into efficiency should be focused on system-level improvements rather than device level.

I would not ignore device level entirely however. For example, at Stanford recently a material was developed that, passively, can be 5 C cooler than ambient air even in direct sunlight because it is radiatively linked to the upper troposphere. A lab-developed material like this might not have an early investor if the material has substantial hurdles that prevent it from being a commercial product within a few years.  This may be an example of 'radical improvements' mentioned by Jesse.

So, overall point well taken, but let's understand that there are some efficiency R&D investments that could be worthwhile.

Jesse Jenkins
Paulina Jaramillo
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Jesse Jenkins | Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dec 10, 2015 12:24 PM

The electric power sector is the linchpin of global decarbonization efforts, expected to cut emissions fastest and furthest in virtually all global decarbonizations scenarios consistent with stabilizing average global temperature increases to ~2C. The sector will need to be virtually entirely decarbonized by roughly mid-century, while expanding significantly to provide energy access to those in need and to electrify as much as possible industry, heating, and transportation sectors, which are comparatively harder to decarbonize. 

At this stage, we would be wise to invest broadly across all scalable low-carbon power generation technologies, including solar, wind energy, nuclear energy, and carbon capture and storage. R&D efforts should focus on both next-generation designs and more incremental improvements to existing technologies. Next-generation work should be more significantly prioritized in the public R&D portfolio, as this is precisely where private sector investment will be least likely, but the public sector can also play an important and collaborative role in accelerating more incremental improvements, such as improved manufacturing methods, higher efficiencies, and accelerated testing and verification of improved designs. 

While electricity may be the linchpin, we cannot afford to focus on electricity alone. Direct emissions from the electric power sector represent only about 1/3 of global GHG emissions, and industry and transport are equally important (followed by agriculture, putting aside net impacts of land-use changes for the moment, which if included, make agriculture a higher priority). While electrification can in many ways shift the decarbonization challenge to the power sector, we cannot count on electrification alone. In particular, several industrial processes, long-haul transport, and aviation are all not well suited to electrification. Zero-carbon, high-density fuels are essential, and thus a key RD&D priority.  Carbon capture for industrial processes is also another critical component, as are low-carbon cement production methods. Finally, electrification of transport and industry itself must also be enabled by several innovation priorities, chiefly improvements in transportation batteries. 

Research into energy efficient technologies should be a relatively low priority, in my view, for two reasons. First, profit and cost-saving incentives already provide strong incentives for incremental improvements in efficiency across the economy. A variety of non-R&D related market failures or policy implementation challenges slow the uptake of efficient technologies, as the literature on efficiency has long discussed, but better technology is not a key part of the solution to these challenges, and assuming these obstacles can be overcome, there is plenty of incentive for firms to steadily improve the efficiency of products and services. This is why global energy intensity has been steadily improving for decades, without any climate-related motivations. Second, where efficiency improvements yield improvements in total factor productivity, they will spur rebound effects, which reduce the efficacy of efficiency measures as a climate mitigation tool. While efficiency yields improvements in overall welfare -- the economy gets stronger, people get more value out of energy use, etc. -- and are worthwhile for these reasons, rebound effects do raise very important implications for the role of efficiency as a climate mitigation tool. Public-sector R&D should focus on radical or next-generation improvements in the efficiency of key industrial or end-use energy consuming processes, which are areas the private sector is likely to under-invest in. But this should be a relatively lower priority for climate-related R&D efforts.

In summary, here are a few discrete priorities:

-Accelerated demonstration and improvement of post-combustion CCS technologies

-Next-generation solar chemistries with the potential to achieve very low installed costs (on the order of $0.25/watt)

-Demonstration and improvement of engineered geothermal energy production methods

-Accelerated design and demonstration of next generation nuclear reactor designs

-Low-cost/high energy density battery chemistries/designs for electrification of transportation

-Energy dense, very-low carbon liquid fuels for aviation and other difficult to electrify transportation sectors

-Carbon capture and storage methods for industrial processes that cannot be easily electrified

-Low-carbon cement production methods

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Nate Lewis | California Institute of Technology
Dec 09, 2015 3:17 PM

In performing a qualitative "gap analysis", I preferentially allocated R&D expenditures to those topics where almost every study about a clean-energy system has identified the major technology gaps at present, which are:

Massive grid-scale energy storage to compensate for the intermittency of renewables

High-energy density carbon-neutral fuels for transportation that can not technologically readily be electrified (heavy duty trucks, ships, and aircraft)

There are also challenges in achieving transmission and in technologies for energy efficiency, but no "gaps" of the type that are listed above, which are so significant as to arguably preclude getting to a truly carbon-neutral and affordable clean energy system unless and until they are addressed and solved.  Hence for R&D funding allocation purposes, I preferentially qualitatively down-rated such areas.

In this assessment, R&D would most beneficially and appropriately be used to enable two types of technologies: radically disruptive technologies that provide much lower costs to do otherwise what we know how to do now (solar paint for example vs solar panels), and to develop enabling technologies that are critically needed and gap bridging to provide optionality to allow us to do things that we simply don't know how to (affordably and/or scalably) do now.

For example, technologies that can directly produce fuel or scalably and effectively convert clean electricity into fuel would fall into both of the above categories and thus are obvious candidates for R&D funding that would allow them to be developed and enabled to be deployed when they are needed in a clean energy system, as opposed to funding that continues to move down the existing learning curve on existing technologies.  Cost reduction is important to be sure but I see that as a secondary role for new R&D funding, which needs to complement deployment by providing optionality to do things that we simply don't know how to scalably and/or cost-effectively do now or in the forseeable future otherwise.



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Topic of Discussion
Michael Mastrandrea | Near Zero / Carnegie Institution for Science
Dec 07, 2015 12:10 PM

With last week's announcements in Paris, governments and the private sector are poised to substantially increase investments in zero-emission energy innovation, with the goal of accelerating the decarbonization of the global energy system.

The question everyone is asking is: How should this money be spent?

We invite you to provide your unique perspective on the opportunities and priorities for these funds.  The first step with this discussion is to get all ideas out on the table without too many constraints, to inform future steps that will be more targeted and quantitative.

What technology pathways present the biggest opportunities for achieving affordable, zero-emission energy at global scale?  What factors should be considered when deciding whether or not to fund a given innovation?  For example, the Breakthrough Energy Coalition has said they are looking for technologies with a credible pathway to scaling up rapidly.

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