The first two days of the conference featured several of the leading scientific experts on climate change, including NASA’s James Hansen and NCAR’s Warren Washington. The uniform view was that it was basically too late to avoid climate change – it’s already here and happening at a frighteningly accelerating pace – and that it was getting close to being too late to avoid catastrophic planetary damage. The best we can hope for is containing future impact to modest levels, and even this would require a massive and rapid shift to much lower carbon energy. To prevent widespread loss of species and coastal areas, it is suggested that the U.S. will need to reduce the absolute quantity of annual CO2 emissions by 60-80% from today’s levels by 2050 – which frankly seems beyond reach. Failing that, all we can do is become more adaptable as a species to the sweeping global climatic changes that are inevitably forthcoming.
All of which was terribly depressing, seemingly hopeless. Fortunately, the last two days of the conference were a little more inspiring.
The Chair of the conference, NREL’s Chuck Kutscher, asked experts from each of the segments of renewable energy and energy efficiency to quantify the economically/technically plausible deployments of these technologies in the U.S. by 2030, to see if we could get onto a path of 60-80% CO2 reduction by 2050. When each of these independent analyses was added together, the overall conclusion at the closing session was that it was indeed viable for the U.S. to achieve the dramatic emission reductions that are estimated to be necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change.
In seeing the summary results of this broad integrative effort, I found some questionable assumptions, and certainly additional analytic refinement through a robust peer review process is required to make the conclusion unassailable by critics. And, the analysis was silent on the undoubtedly large economic costs of making such a huge transition in the energy system. But, there was undeniably some comfort that the energy path required in the U.S. to avoid really bad global damage is probably doable, though it certainly will require huge and immediate political will that sadly seems lacking.
The conclusion of this initial scoping study also made sense in that it requires intensive effort on all dimensions of alternative energy – renewable supply and demand reduction – to achieve the overall goal. In other words, there is no one single “silver bullet” solution to our energy/environmental challenges. Solar alone can’t do it, neither can wind, nor can biomass, nor efficient building technologies. All of the tools that we have available to us must be used thoroughly if we’re going to get to where we need to go.
Next year, the theme of the annual ASES conference will be “Solar Energy Puts America to Work” – discussing solar energy as an economic development vehicle, in addition to an environmental savior. Hopefully, this message will be less threatening to those in denial about climate change, thereby generating stronger political impetus for alternative energy. We hope to see you in Cleveland next July for Solar 2007.