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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.