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Energy for a living future — we still have options

Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy | August 17, 2010

The forecasts of a world changed by a warming and variable climate are grim: floods; droughts; changed agricultural zones and dramatically changed oceans and vulnerable poor populations most immediately at risk.  If we suffer this fate, it will only be because we have ignored ample scientific lessons about the impacts of climate change, and because we ignore the lessons that a clean, less wasteful economy, can be better for national security and human equality.

climate summit cartoonThere are two key features of the energy system we will need to put in place over the coming decade to lay the foundation and to create an economy and energy system that will sustain the planet and its people.  First, it must be driven by policies that reflect the global imperative to clean up our energy system.  Second, it needs to be based on technologies that can scale to become major players in a world where while we need low-carbon solutions, but also where the incumbent technologies have a tremendous advantage.  Put simply, we will need not just green energy, but energy systems that outperform status quo.

As dynamic as our energy innovation system can become, policy will ultimately be the key.  The reason for this is the dangerous resource of increasingly dirty fossil fuels that we could exploit.  While we have used – very roughly – half of the resource of light, sweet, crude oil (the “Peak Oil” story), what lies beyond is dangerous in both quantity and quality.

Tar sands is only one of the vast heavy oil/unconventional oil resources that we could exploit.  Oil from enhanced oil recovery, from shale rock, and from turning coal into oil via the FischerTropsch process all increase the known resource dramatically.  In fact, the resource is an estimated 30 – 40 times larger than the oil resource we have exploited to date.  And, this resource comes with an increasingly larger energy and climate penalty per barrel: if a barrel of conventional crude has a climate impact of “1”, then tar sands are about 1.3 times as bad per barrel, shale oil is more than 1.7 times as bad, and oil derived from coal more than twice as bad in life-cycle per barrel.  The trend toward dirtier fuels per unit energy as we mine and refine the ‘bottom of the barrel’ is indeed worrisome.

Rising prices thus will bring us more and more dirty fuels unless policy intervenes.

tar sands refining facility near Fort McMurray, Canada

A tar-sands refining facility near Fort McMurray, Canada. The piles of waste sulfur are from impurity removal from the bitumen. The settling pond is at top left. There is more oil in the form of bitumen in Alberta than there was in Saudi Arabia before pumping began. Photo: DM Kammen

In fact, this story of increasingly dirty fuels is reflected in ‘accidents’, as well.  The BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill is, sadly, more of an occupational hazard than an ‘accident’.  As we mine more of the dirty fuels, we also explore more and more extreme environments.  The BP spill took place under 5.000 feet of water and then another 2 – 3 miles of sub-seabed drilling.  This is heroic and impressive engineering, but these situations mean less and less options and redundancy in dealing with accidents.  As any analysis of effort and extraction (e.g. fishing effort versus catch) attest, more an more effort correlates with greater chance of failure/disaster.  The BP sill, thus, is more a harbinger of things to come as we mine the bottom of the barrel, as it is as surprising occurrence.

What is to be done?  We do have options, thankfully.

A price on carbon is essential, and I see little doubt that we will achieve this – via a carbon cap and trade system or more simply but politically more challenging, through a carbon tax.  With this in place a great deal can happen even if the carbon price starts out rather low.  Additional policies will be needed, such as a decoupling of electricity sales and revenues as is in place in California.  Second, financing will be needed to make clean energy purchases zero-cost up front, such as providing loans for energy efficiency and renewable that can be repaid over the period of use.  We have launched this in several locations, but it must spread (Fuller, Portis, and Kammen, 2009).  Steady government funding of research is a must (Nemet and Kammen, 2007).

In this policy environment a number of technologies are ready for explosive growth. First and foremost, energy efficiency needs to be put on a fast-track innovation and deployment.  Distributed and central-station solar energy, with storage is #1 on my list because it can address needs in rich and poor nations and communities worldwide (Jacobson and Kammen, 2005).  Space-based solar power and high-altitude wind are both technologies that are literally base-load clean energy options.  Nuclear power has a challenging regulatory road, but could be a vital component if proliferation and capital cost barriers can be addressed.

I see a ‘rule’ of clean energy fifths as entirely possible.

Energy Source

Role in our Energy Future

Challenges / Opportunities

Energy efficiency

Energy efficiency could meet a very large part of our future, certainly balancing future demand growth, and going well beyond that.  Energy efficiency is already the cheapest form of new supply.  Education and standards are needed for deployment

Wind power


Wind is already 20% or more in several nations, and the U. S. has embraced a 20% wind energy roadmap by 2030.  Wind will need specific grid/planning decisions, and storage, but it is already on price par with natural gas.

Solar power


As with wind, 20% roadmaps by 2030 are already emerging in nations, including the U. S.  Price barriers are the main issue.

Nuclear power


This is already the case in the U. S., and nations such as France are beyond this target.  Rising prices and security are major issues.

Geothermal, ocean power, and biomass


Together these could be 20%, with estimates of which leads, and which lags, hotly debated.  How ‘green; biofuels will be remains an issue.

Fossil fuels


Fossil fuels with carbon capture.  Cost is a barrier.


100% + efficiency

Planning and commitment are needed, but so far are absent.

Table: A clean energy vision to achieve a zero-carbon (emissions) economy.  This view is for stationary fuels.  To achieve a zero-carbon system with transportation, highly efficient vehicles and electrified transportation must play central roles.


Farrell, A. E. and Brandt, A. R. (2006) “Risks of the oil transition”, Environmental Research Letters, 1, 1 – 6.

Fuller, M, Portis, S. and Kammen, D. M. (2009) “Towards a low-carbon economy: municipal financing for energy efficiency and solar power”, Environment, 51 (1), 22 – 32.

Jacobson, Arne and Kammen, Daniel M. (2005) “ Science and engineering research that values the planet”, The Bridge: Journal of the National Academy of Engineering, Winter, 11 – 17.

Nemet, Greg F. and D. M. Kammen (2007). “U.S. energy research and   development: Declining investment, increasing need, and the feasibility of expansion.” Energy Policy 35(1): 746-755.

Comments to “Energy for a living future — we still have options

  1. Thank you for your article and your insights into renewable and sustainable energy for the future. Without it, we will not survive.


  2. Yes, solar power for residential and small business customers is one of the increasingly best solutions as the technology continues to improve, especially where there is enough sunlight to give it a cost/benefit advantage.
    Zero point power for all, can be the only viable solution,at every level
    Also, a rapid move to reindustrialization with the environment pined as
    salvation to our destiny [Water is omnipotent clean water may be the next
    flash point of conflict,physics teaches us nothing leaves the planet.

    Either UC scholars immediately dedicate themselves to achieving the half century old controlled fusion energy dream of Edward Teller at last or humanity can be considered in extremis because no one really cared to make the right things happen with the required sense of urgency at UC.

  3. Dr. Kammen,

    QUESTION: What is your forecast for returning to a level of 350 ppm CO2, or even reducing CO2 to a level that prevents calamitous tipping points from toppling, based on the current rates of implementation of the stabilization wedges you recommended in this post?

  4. Prof. Kammen, why have you stopped expediting immediate implementation of long-term solutions to global warming to avoid calamity on or about 2050?

    This makes me most concerned that there really are no large scale power generation solutions that can be implemented immediately to prevent the continuation of increasingly unacceptable climate change consequences we are already experiencing, and the impossible dream of “350 or Bust” has already gone bust. I hope and pray I am wrong about this conclusion.

    Is it the reality, that other Cal professors are documenting in the meantime, that leaders of our political and economic institutions really do not care to do anything that will jeopardize short-term maximization of distribution of wealth to the richest people who control Washington today, regardless of long-term threats to the human race?

  5. Conventional and small scale hydropower is totally absent from your table of power sources and opportunities!

  6. Did you try some heat pump especially some heat recovery heat pump? It is really energy saving and cost saving even better than solar system if considering the preset cost.

    • Thanks Carl. I have not given up, the imperative to prevent global destruction of our environment is one of the most important goals we must succeed in today.

      I am trying to find a better way to open Tower windows and lower the drawbridge to achieve cooperative academic-public problem solving if that is at all possible in this era where the forces of destruction dominate our way of life.

  7. This is probably my last comment because this blog has turned out to be the most monumentally disappointing intellectual experience I have had since graduating from Cal in 1963.

    I had specifically been given to understand that several “Berkeley Blog” goals are to open the closed windows in the Ivory Tower, give voice to faculty who have ideas and insights that could help society at large, and to try and start conversations.

    Instead, “conversations” never happen for almost all posts, with the communications being only one-way as if faculty posts are “from on high” which is a suffocating experience to be sure with the Tower windows remaining closed and the drawbridge at the public entrance permanently drawn up with disdain.

    Thus, the Berkeley Wall of arrogance turned out to be like the Berlin Wall, and I have even had some comments deleted after I tried to post them even though my rhetorical style was no more critical than some of the posts by faculty.

    Most sadly, during the time I posted comments on this blog, I discovered by reading other literature “QUOTES ON WHY CULTURAL FAILURES HAVE FAILED TO PREVENT GLOBAL WARMING CALAMITIES” (posted September 09, 2010, 12:46 pm below) that are applicable to the Berkeley faculty culture today, a culture that is totally different from the faculty culture I enjoyed learning from in the 60s as the greatest learning experience of my life.

  8. Greg Yuhas:
    I elect you to make this study for a solution to all of Modalities and rationals for the best and most efficient means of meeting the needs of the worlds energy consumption.It is a good guess that the worlds best scientist wont touch this challenge,for all of the other remarks made on the many posts.We the lay thinkers are the only posters here were
    are the PHD’S. Oh I forgot grant work for BP,publishing for scientific American and staying in touch with their student teachers who are teaching their classes while working towards their Masters,enbetween submitting resumes to corporations who brought down the Greatest Participating Democracy in the world{I think bankruptcy should qualify as bringing something down]It is a sad fact that morality,ethics,interpretude,are not being the main course served to the leaders of the future.Everyone weigh in on solutions be proactive or lose your voice to propaganda.

  9. why would our leaders want to meet the challenges of change when their is no reward beyond altruistic saticfaction

  10. Mr.ST John
    Do not disspair in all likely hood the scientists that you think are receiving Government wellfair and grants, are doing so for the weapons research programs that offer them untraceable money and great fame if the technology turns out to be militarily dominating.This simple rule has dominated all facets of scientific indever post WII.Many of our esteemed scollars find grant work and publishing more interesting than solutions to out of control global warming,the answers to making clean water a priority or solving hunger in third world countries.Thirty four million people died of hunger in Africa last year.To my dismay it would seem the scientists and professors are more interested in the approval and acknowledgement of their Peers than the benevolence that is expected of them,and for the example they are not providing to our impressionable youth.Perhaps finding ways to help BP,Union oil,Dupont,and their ilk more rewarding.


    PRESIDENT EISENHOWER’s 1961 grave warning to scholars in his “Farewell Address”: “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.”

    FREEMAN DYSON’s 1997 documentation of consequences due to failures to heed Ike’s warnings in his book “Imagined Worlds” chapter on Ethics: “The main social benefit provided by pure science in esoteric fields is to serve as a welfare program for scientists and engineers. — The failure of science to produce benefits for the poor in recent decades is due to two factors working in combination: the pure scientists have become more detached from the mundane needs of humanity, and the applied scientists have become more attached to immediate profitability.”

    SIR JOHN MADDOX’s 1998 characterization of scientific culture that continues to fail in his book “What Remains to be Discovered” chapter on Avoidance of Calamity:
    “— the rhetoric of survival is not matched by resolution.”

    COREY POWELL’s 2007 “Edge” publication conclusion on one paramount reason why our scientific culture is failing to protect humanity: “Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope John Paul II or, say, the late Carl Sagan. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures. Surely there is a better way, and the future will be all the better for it.”

    E. O. WILSON’s quote in Sept/Oct 2006“California Magazine” that gives an explanation for IPCC’s continuing failures: “— far-off catastrophes engineered by our own species, are simply out of the range of human capacity for planning and action.”

    WILL & ARIEL DURANT’s most important 1968 “Lessons of History” conclusion that still threatens the future of humanity today: “When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.”

  12. Thank you for your continuing insights Carl, the powers that be in the UC aristocracy don’t really care anymore.

    For even more insights, there is a most excellent paper published by the Berkeley Alumni Association “California Magazine” that explains why their cultural failures are destroying our civilization:

    Global Warming: Can We Adapt in Time?

    Note statements by Paul Ehrlich, E.O. Wilson et al. that say it all, such as one conclusion “Although we are evolving, our mental machinery will not change biologically in time to help us solve our problems” a fact of life which UC intellectuals are proving by their failures to even protect the California environment from calamities we are already experiencing.

    Most tragically, not even Kammen wants to make the right things happen by focusing all UC and UC National Labs scientific resources on implementing hybrid fusion generation-desalination plants even with the latest catastrophes occurring and continuing this year in Pakistan, Russia, China, America, California, etc.

  13. Professor Kammen:
    The letter to your students is prophetic zero point energy something like Nicola Tesla envisioned should be explored more seriously.And to note: I was not criticizing you for lack of participation at this post but your colleges.The most important facet of energy is it must be inexpensive.I do not hear a cry for cheap energy coming from those who must know the importance of abundant cheap energy.Hence they are ignorant or just apathetic,contemplate 20 dollars a gallon gas how much would loaf of bread be? Chaos.

  14. Mr St.John:
    Thank you for so eloquently stating one of the rights provided to us by the constitution.Our right to be heard is being shut out by the culture of righteous intellectual arrogance,to these purveyors of academic wisdom we are far to wanting to enter the debate”insipid” is what they consider us to be.I don’t think so I have fielded more pertinent solutions to modern issues than many of the ivory tower types,who it would seem are more interested in the validation of their salaries than offering solutions. Let me remind you who pays your salaries you pompous non position taking,takers.Make a difference dare to be controversial.What do you make a year 200,000 G’S maybe we can find some hungry Idealist to fill intellectual vacuum the past 65 years has created.

  15. It would help very much if UC professors who post on this blog would make some effort to reply to comments by the general public who are equally concerned about the same issues.

    Shutting out We The People is still not a very good idea if you really wish to help us solve our problems, We didn’t like it when the British shut us out, and We still don’t like being ignored, especially since a culture of arrogance defeats your efforts.

    Global warming is far too important an issue to allow your efforts to be self-defeating.

  16. It is a very sad fact that the lack of comments to this extremely urgent post by Professor Kammen indicate that not nearly enough professors and scholars really have a sense of urgency about Global Warming, especially when compared to the huge number of responses to Professor O’Hare’s “A letter to my students” post on 8/24/10.

    Obviously the failure of the Copenhagen Conference continues to metastasize and the rhetoric of survival by Professor Kammen’s IPCC continues to fail to be matched by resolution.

    This proves once again that Corey Power, executive editor of Discover magazine is correct when he said:
    “Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope John Paul II or, say, the late Carl Sagan. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures. Surely there is a better way, and the future will be all the better for it.”

    Too bad this post didn’t establish Professor Kammen as that spokesperson, at least at Berkeley.

  17. The biggest problem is that we are already experiencing out of control Global Warming destruction of the environment, and we are rapidly running out of time.

    That’s why it is imperative that UC take the lead and start the design and implementation of fast track solutions today. UC has UC National Labs under your control, especially with UC Professor Chu in the Obama’s cabinet as SecEne to expedite this action.

    No other institution in the world has the scientific resources and expertise that UC has to take immediate action to make the right things happen at this time.

    Along with UC National Labs they are their own “Manhattan Project” similar to the position they were in from 1942 to 1945 during WWII when they made the Atomic Bomb happen, and again when they made the Hydrogen Bomb happen in 1952.

    UC must make the right things happen, if there really is the sense of urgency that Professor Kammen and the IPCC claim, because there is no other alternative to turn back the Keeling Curve to “360 or Bust” in the time we have left.

  18. Individuals have known to change the world historically, unless the push comes from the bottom, things will not move.

    To set the change reaction in people’s mind, they need to be educated on what impacts they make – in absolute terms. Their footprint and what are they saving if they choose an alternative path.

    Corporates are rising to this challenge already, came across atleast one website that beats all others in this respect is Green N Brown (

  19. In response to Mr.St Johns suggestion,that arrogance,Greed,immorality,
    lack of intellectual vision.A failed grade for all,who roam the beltway
    posing as caring representatives,of us.Well every civilization has failed
    when the weight of government employees reaches more than 51% I think we are close?

  20. #1 Cause of Failure of our civilization is arrogance, greed and immorality of our political and intellectual leaders.

    We have failed to protect quality of life and our environment for humanity, the same root cause of failure as that of basically all other failed civilizations.

  21. Carbon tax is a must. Rethinking zoning and land sue practices can be another source of reduced emissions- urban sprawl is a costly addiction damaging to the environment. I will rather have no “safe” nuclear power ( and nuclear proliferation it may entail) and more reliance on highly productive plants providing us with energy. Photosynthesis is a efficient source of solar energy we need to perfect. Do not give up on biomass and biofuels and green chemistry. The utilization of biological knowledge is in its infancy – the trick is careful risk taking, smart regulations – and the rewards will come.

  22. Fusion energy doesn’t make the money,that Pg&E,Edison,Duke etc make
    our economic system is based in things that keep the status Quo reaping the huge profits from antiquated old tec ball bearings of the post war era
    I for one think it is past the tipping point ecologically,nothing less than miracle can save us.We must for physics reasons move away from global electrical transmission lines due to the heat emitted by the shear volume
    Zero point power for all, can be the only viable solution,at every level
    Also, a rapid move to reindustrialization with the environment pined as
    salvation to our destiny [Water is omnipotent clean water may be the next
    flash point of conflict,physics teaches us nothing leaves the planet.silent spring may be our epitaph.

  23. Mr St.John, I love your passion for the fix to human problems, solar
    power as a way to reduce green house gasses, is and may be the true way
    to solve all the power needs of planet earth but, to achieve this we need the equivalent of a Manhattan project, which Obama alluded to in one of his election speeches.[ it could only happen were the project faced on a Manhattan level scale ] Anything less than that could only face failure.
    The greatest and sadist of all,This small and not so noticeable planet may be such an aboration in the cosmosis.What utopia we all could have were not for a few Power made monsters who only acknowledge the continuation of there power.The saudi’s and all the oil producing countries are as I pen this pitiful and all but unnoticed set of perceptions lobbying our bogus leaders for,a do nothing to solve the energy issues we face,water,air,food,nationalism,racism,education, the power elite most and reprehensible agenda is the dumbing down of the population of western countries to justify social intervention were none is needed also low wages.

    • Thanks again for your comments Carl.

      The key fact is that UC was totally dedicated to saving humanity during WWII with their participation in the Manhattan Project, but that spirit was lost after WWII was won.

      UC could have done the same thing again using UC National Labs to save humanity from the calamities predicted by the Keeling Curve when it went logarithmic half a century ago, but the powers that be decided not to care.

      So today, as John Maddox said: “the thetoric of survival is not matched by resolution” which is why Copenhagen and Earth Day failed in 2010, so Washington has not had any sense of urgency either.

  24. Energy at the point of service offers so many more advantages. A building that has its own solar array and wind power provides zero emissions energy and bypasses many of the issues a power grid brings to the table. There was an article today (I think I saw it on google news) where a company plans to provide solar to the average homeowner for around $600 – $800 per unit. This completely takes care of the prohibitive cost of entry for most people yet is a real solution to individual power requirements while improving the environment.

    • Yes, solar power for residential and small business customers is one of the increasingly best solutions as the technology continues to improve, especially where there is enough sunlight to give it a cost/benefit advantage. Also large solar power farms help, but we need a great deal more than that to meet the increasing needs of humanity.

      As Sir John Maddox said in his 1998 book “What Remains to be Discovered”:
      “Unconventional sources of energy, although free from CO2 emission, are physically incapable in the next (21st) century of substituting for any but a small part of present energy consumption.”

      Thus we must build large scale, non-CO2 producing power plants ASAP, especially in combination with water desalination plants because of rapidly declining availability of clean water, especially in California along with the increasing dust bowlization of the Central Valley where we depend so much on agriculture to help feed humanity, etc.

      Maddox also went on to conclude:
      “— small armies of scientists will be required to remove persisting uncertainties and to devise effective strategies for the avoidance of calamity” That’s why UC must act today as I recommended in my August 17, 2010, 12:03 pm comment below.

      One more point as Corey Power, executive editor of Discover magazine said:
      “Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope John Paul II or, say, the late Carl Saga. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures. Surely there is a better way, and the future will be all the better for it.”

      Congress is failing to act with a sense of urgency today because of these failures by the scientific and academic institutions.

      Most sadly, if not increasingly calamitous considering 2010 problems in Pakistan, Russia and China, it took about half a century for the scientific establishment to stop marginalizing the grave warnings of the Keeling Curve after it went exponential, so it is no wonder that congress finds it so easy to marginalize the scientific community today.

  25. For me to accept a carbon tax, I’d like to see a carbon cost spread sheet. The sheet should list: hydro,solar, wind, coal, oil, natural gas, fission, fusion, solar space and solar wind on one axis. The other axis could list the carbon cost to produce one megaWatt of electric as a function of the cost to: manufacture, install, operate, fuel, dispose of the waste and decommission the device over the next 50 years. The spread sheet should also include the results of a risk assessment in the context of anticipated loss of human life as a result of each generation devices’ life cycle of routine operation, expected loss of life as a result of the maximun credible accident, expected impact on local meteorolgy, amount of reject heat and loss of habitat. With this information we might be able to understand how to optimize our mix of energy resources.

    • Doesn’t really matter, not enough scientists and scholars really care enough to actually do what it takes to save humanity.

      Plus, in 2010 so far, Copenhagen failed, Earth Day failed, and UC still doesn’t give a damn about anything besides making money from building and maintaining hydrogen bombs that threaten the survival of humanity in addition to global warming, selling out our scientific integrity to powerful BP type military industrial special interests, making UC Regent Feinstein-Blum’s diploma mills as profitable as possible at the expense of the quality and availability of UC education to the children of California taxpayers, etc.

      Actually, stabilization wedges like those mentioned here have been declared ineffective by the late Nature Magazine editor Sir John Maddox.

      Either UC scholars immediately dedicate themselves to achieving the half century old controlled fusion energy dream of Edward Teller at last or humanity can be considered in extremis because no one really cared to make the right things happen with the required sense of urgency at UC.

  26. The ultimate answer to protect the long term future of humanity is fusion energy.

    California and UC must lead the world in putting large scale combination hybrid fusion/desalination plants on line within the next 10 years to meet our most urgent clean energy and clean water needs with the same dedication, sense of urgency and organization as the Manhattan Project.

    UC National Labs must be immediately and totally dedicated to that effort.

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