Professor Lars Josefsson from Brandenburg University of Technology talks to us about the energy sources that will help decarbonize our world as part of an interview series for our Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi.
Technology, regulation, markets – what gives us the best hope of reducing greenhouse gases?
Technology is by far the most important factor to decarbonize the energy system: a sustainable future is only possible with commercialized, competitive products accessible on all markets.
This is not to downplay the importance of regulation, which is also important, but if you want to regulate a fossil-free car fleet, for example, you better make sure that the technology is available first.
In this way, regulation has produced fantastic results for wind power and solar photovoltaic. Costs have been reduced and the technology is readily available. This really shows what can be done when political will is in place. This has, on the other hand, been achieved through massive subsidies and brought about market distortions and unforeseen energy system costs.
Which technologies have the most potential today, and which are you tipping for the future?
The highest potential today lies within solar photovoltaic, especially if it can be combined with storage. Among other things, I believe that this can be the key to enabling decarbonized energy access to all people in the world. Technology for increased energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and industrial processes is at hand, but far from used to its potential.
Longer term, I believe that advanced nuclear, advanced storage and carbon scrubbing technologies will be most important.
Advanced nuclear is a term referring to the next generation of nuclear power that addresses the problems that plague the present generation, such as costs, safety and waste. Advanced storage is badly needed to make electricity in transport the dominating technology, as well as to make the use of intermittent renewables more useful.
Furthermore, it is difficult to see that we will be able to reduce the use of fossil fuels in power generation quickly enough, hence carbon scrubbing technologies – which capture waste CO2 emissions – will be needed. The key to success will be technologies to commercialize the use of CO2.
Without doubt the next generation of biofuels, especially for heavy vehicles, will be needed as electrification will take a relatively long time.
On a personal note I would like to mention the use of sustainable biomass – normally wood fibre that is produced sustainably with no negative environmental or social implications (for example on being grown on land otherwise used for food) for electricity generation. This is readily available and has huge potential. It will mostly require policymakers to acknowledge its potential.
What are the biggest obstacles for low carbon energy and how can they be overcome?
This is mostly a question of regulation. Often there are counterproductive policies in place, such as fossil fuel subsidies, or too much regulation. This is the case in the EU, where renewable regulations differ from state to state, and where different renewable subsidies are impacting on the Union’s Emmission Trading System. This becomes mutually destructive, leading to low credibility for the stability of regulation. Often awareness of the available options makes adoption more difficult. Many markets show large differences, however the use of performance standards very often seem to work well.
What is the most exciting thing to have happened in this space in the past twelve years?
The tremendous development of solar is really exciting. The other thing I like to mention is that China has recognized its environmental problem and also its global responsibility to contribute to global sustainability.
What would you like to see happen in Abu Dhabi?
I would like to see mobilization around two important issues in particular. These are to help accelerate the commercialization of advanced nuclear, and another is an action plan to decarbonize energy access in low income households around the world.
Author: Lars Josefsson, Professor, Brandenburg University of Technology, Germany. Member of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Decarbonizing Energy.
Image: Solar panels installed in the “eco-neighbourhood” Clichy-Batignolles, one of several new ecological housing developments with low energy use and carbon emissions, in Paris, France, October 22, 2015. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier