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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Climate Research - From Science to Society

Wanted: The right technologies at the right price

The Earth's average temperature is rising. So is the level of carbon dioxide, CO2, in Earth's atmosphere. Blame it—in part—on human beings. Fossil fuel emissions from energy production are considered the greatest contributor to rising CO2 in the atmosphere and, ultimately, global climate change.

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory are developing a technology strategy to address the risks of increasing CO2 concentrations and their effect on global climate change as well as the costs associated with limiting CO2 concentrations.

One of the most important greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide has increased more than 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and is expected to double or even triple its pre-industrial concentration by the end of the 21st century. The buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere is mainly a result of burning fossil fuels for energy production.

"The need to develop a portfolio of energy technologies is the first and most enduring lesson that comes out of this work," said Jae Edmonds, who manages the Global Energy Technology Strategy Program at PNNL's Joint Global Climate Research Institute. "And the broader the portfolio is, the lower the cost will be."

Energy plays a critical role in how we live as well as in climate change. "The economic welfare of society is tied to its ability to use energy to provide the standard of living we have been accustomed to and the rest of the world would like to become accustomed to," Edmonds said. "Energy is needed to transform materials into goods and services."

Because energy from fossil fuels is inexpensive, there is not yet an incentive to stop using it. Edmonds and his colleagues at JGCRI are looking at technologies for producing energy that can be competitive with fossil fuels or technologies that can reduce the CO2 in our current energy system.

JGCRI researchers have developed a unique integrated modeling framework for evaluating the interactions between technology and market forces under different scenarios of economic growth and a variety of policy and institutional settings.

This work suggests that developing a portfolio of technologies could have a dramatic effect on the cost of addressing climate change. The portfolio would include improved versions of more familiar technologies such as fossil fuels as well as economically competitive versions of less-familiar technologies such as advanced biotechnology.

This portfolio approach helps manage the uncertainties associated with an evolving understanding of the science of climate change as well as the variety of regional technology needs, and the uncertainty inherent in research and development.

Edmonds and his colleagues are conducting in-depth research on technologies that are critical to achieving an energy system with net-zero carbon emissions. These technologies include carbon dioxide capture and storage, a technology that captures CO2 from the smokestacks of power plants and deposits it deep underground; renewables, such as wind and solar; and specialty crops, such as switch grass. Like other plants, switch grass takes CO2 out of the air during photosynthesis, but it can be burned to produce energy. This results in a recycling of atmospheric CO2 instead of releasing fossil CO2.

Some exciting new technologies may come from the biological sciences. "By mapping the human and other genomes, scientists are starting to understand how organisms function," Edmonds said. "Science may soon be able to design organisms, removing undesirable traits and adding desirable traits without the time-consuming process of trial and error. For example, scientists might design a microorganism that spends its entire life producing hydrogen and lives off the waste heat from a power plant. It sounds like a science fiction story, but it is a possibility."

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