The idea that scientists will lead humanity through our most daunting challenges is an appealing one. Faced with threats of catastrophic climate change, new global pandemics and a growing food crisis, researchers around the world are pursuing technological advances that would, if fully deployed, allow us to contain those risks. And in the process, sleep easier.
Last June, a high-powered group of scientists and thinkers gathered in Waterloo, Ont., to explore how science and technological innovation could contribute to a more sustainable energy future and avoid the worst impacts of global warming.
The scientists, business people and policy wonks set themselves an ambitious goal: to lay out a visionary but pragmatic blueprint for moving Canada – and indeed, the world – off a dependence on fossil fuels, and onto a low-carbon, electrified energy system.
The gathering was organized by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, a partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, a research centre started by Research in Motion co-founder Michael Lazardis.
On Sunday in Vancouver, the results of their collective effort – the Equinox Blueprint – will be released at the gathering of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an event that has drawn hundreds of top researchers from all over the globe.
It paints a vision of a new society: one in which our battery-powered cars are fuelled by renewable electricity, in some cases generated by the Earth's own thermal power; our cities are designed to maximize energy efficiency, and all global citizens – no matter how remote or poor – have access to clean, affordable electricity.
The Waterloo group is certainly taking on the conventional wisdom when they suggest it is possible, and indeed practicable, to make a major dent in the use of coal, crude oil and natural gas within 20 years.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency – which advises rich countries on energy policy – forecasts that energy demand will grow by 35 per cent between 2010 and 2035, as a result of rising populations and growing economies in China and other developing countries. It expects the consumption of fossil fuels to grow, not decline.
But the agency also warns the world must dramatically – and fairly rapidly – alter its energy production and consumption to avoid "locking in" a climate-change trajectory that will cause havoc to global weather patterns.
It is that gloomy scenario that the Waterloo crowd was seeking to avoid.
"The idea here is to offer a set of real-world implementation strategies for a low-carbon energy future," said Jatin Nathwani, an engineering professor who was a lead author of the report and is executive director of the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy. "It is based on the latest scientific and technological thinking, and is all aimed to really inform and advise and inspire scientists and technology influencers, perhaps governments, and private-sector leaders globally."
Mr. Nathwani said governments have reached an impasse in their efforts to negotiate a high-level and binding treaty to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. So the Equinox group hoped to offer a fresh set of insights for local governments, businesses and researchers to adopt technologies that work for them.
Their report lays out five key areas where technologies need to be advanced and deployed commercially to achieve a low-carbon, electrified future: battery storage, enhanced geothermal, advanced nuclear, off-grid power and smart urbanization.
A breakthrough in battery technology is the Holy Grail of clean energy research. It is critical both to increase the use of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar into the power system, and to extend the range and reduce the costs of electric cars.
Electricity is essentially a delivery system for energy that is generated by a fuel source, be it coal, natural gas, nuclear, wind or solar. Current batteries, though widely employed, are enormously inefficient and therefore impractical for large-scale use.
Most utilities now back up their wind and solar facilities with natural gas power stations that can be fired up when needed – though that is a costly backup system. Hydroelectric facilities pair nicely with wind: When the breeze stops providing power, the water takes over; when the wind is blowing, the water can be stored.
The most promising technology is the electrochemical battery, which is fuelled by electrolytes rather than lithium ions, the Equinox group said. The electrochemical batteries can be sited anywhere, have modular designs that can allow scaling up depending on the use, and the manufacturing of them has a low environmental impact.
But commercialization of the electrochemical battery remains elusive – technical problems most be overcome, and proponents will need to build large-class demonstration projects before the technology gains wide acceptance.
The Equinox group envisions major advances in geothermal power, which could provide a steady supply of renewable power for the electricity grid.
Currently, geothermal producers tap steam from natural fissures in the rock . But with enhanced geothermal, producers inject cold water under high pressure to create fractures in the rock, allowing geothermal power to be extracted.
The potential is virtually limitless, if the cost can be brought down. The Equinox report suggests the extractable portion of the U.S.'s geothermal resource is 2,000 times greater than the country's annual consumption of electricity.
Nuclear energy was once seen as a key component in a non-carbon future, but questions continue about the disposal of waste and safety following the meltdown at Japan's Fukushima reactor after an earthquake and tidal wave last year.
The Equinox group concluded that nuclear energy is still a critical source of zero-emission power need to complement renewable technologies. They focus on the next generation of reactors currently under development that will burn nuclear waste and operate at ambient pressure to reduce the risk of meltdown. The report suggests that support for that new technology should be accelerated to ensure nuclear can play a robust role in a low-carbon world.
But what about the 1.5-billion people in the world who don't have access to an electricity grid? In Canada's North, people get their power from diesel generators; the world's poorest citizens have to make do with kerosene or wood. Such energy sources are not only expensive but incredibly dirty.
The Equinox report argues energy poverty can best be addressed with technologies that are affordable, portable and clean. They describe the development of so-called organic photovoltaics, which offer an alternative to expensive and cumbersome silicon-based panels. With organic processes, solar cells are sprayed or painted onto surfaces, but the drawback is low energy conversion efficiency, and short time life of the cells.
Finally, the Equinox thinkers want to see cities re-engineered for better energy efficiency.
None of this will happen overnight, and the Waterloo authors concede it will be a monumental undertaking to put the world on a low-carbon pathway. But without a blueprint, the house surely won't get built.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the Equinox Blueprint will be released on Saturday. As well, the electrochemical batteries referred to in the report are, more specifically, flow batteries. This version has been corrected.