Paris climate talks: US energy chief says solution lies in innovation

In an exclusive chat with The Christian Science Monitor on Sunday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz stressed the importance of innovation in driving down the cost of clean energy and enabling countries to make bolder climate pledges.

Heinz-Peter Bader/Reuters/File
US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz addresses a news conference during the International Atomic Energy Agency general assembly in Vienna, Austria September 14, 2015.

Click here to read this interview and other Monitor coverage from the Paris climate talks on The Summit, our special feature on ongoing negotiations.

Global climate agreements are built on the back of energy innovation. Without the technology needed to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, it is impossible for world leaders to follow through on the bold pledges they make in speeches and declarations. Deals may be cut in the negotiating room, but the real progress happens in the laboratory and on the factory floor.

US Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz knows this well. The nuclear physicist and former head of the MIT Energy Initiative is in Paris this week as the 2015 UN climate summit enters its final, high-level segment in suburban Le Bourget. He's here largely to promote Mission Innovation, an initiative launched last Monday by the US and 19 other countries aiming to accelerate the development of cleaner energy technologies. These countries, including China, France, and Saudi Arabia, have pledged to double public investment in clean energy innovation, collaborate on research, and share technology information across borders.

Additionally, the Mission Innovation nations will partner with the private sector via the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, also announced last week. Its operating principle can be distilled to a simple sentence: "Technology will help solve our energy issues."

That's a message Secretary Moniz can get behind. In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor Sunday morning, he discussed how Mission Innovation and his department's work play into what nations put on the table during global climate talks.

The continued cost reduction of clean energy technologies "can be a foundation for increasing ambition as time goes on," Moniz told the Monitor. 

This conversation took place Sunday morning at the secretary's hotel in the 16th arrondissement. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: There's a lot of excitement, interest, and hope surrounding this agreement. What role has technology played in setting the table for that?

A: If you look at 2009, which was [the Copenhagen climate talks], we are now six years later, and, in those six years ... land-based wind, distributed [photovoltaics (PV)], utility-scale PV, electric-vehicle batteries, LEDs, have seen cost reductions of 40, 50, 60, 70, and 90 percent, [respectively]. So that is already a basis for more ambition now in 2015 than we could have seen in 2009. And that's had material impacts.

For example, take the LEDs, with this incredible 90 percent reduction in cost. In the United States, we've had a sixfold deployment, in just two years – up to about 80 million. India has gone out with a 200 million LED mass purchase at a dollar per LED. That is going to transform a lot of people's lives in rural India. So we are seeing these impacts. The idea is to amplify this dramatically globally over the next years, and, by the same token again, give countries hopefully a very optimistic view about what can happen as we get more and more ambitious in the years ahead.

Q: How can the Paris agreement ensure that clean-energy price curve continues downward? Is there enough in there to be supportive of basic research into the next-generation breakthrough technologies?

A: Well I don't think the agreement, per se ... is what's going to establish that. I think it's more the other way around ... After all, we already have 20 countries [in Mission Innovation]. Those countries include essentially all the big players in this space. So we are talking about an increment of perhaps $10 billion a year starting in the fifth year in the innovation pipeline with the investors coming in – the Gates-led [Breakthrough Energy] Coalition. [They're] not simply saying 'we are putting billions on the table,' but saying 'we're going to put it on the table with a real double bottom-line focus' with – by investment standards – extraordinary patience and extraordinary risk tolerance. So I think this is really new on both sides, and they are highly synergistic.

Q: What is DOE or the US in general doing to share these technologies with other countries, particularly the least developed countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change?

A: There's going to be a variety of initiatives in the area of sharing. I think it's very important that these increased R&D portfolios – the shaping of those R&D portfolios – will be at a national level, so this is not like some multilateral 20 countries pooling funds. Each country will do this individually. However, I have certainly in a number of discussions with other countries, emphasized that I can't believe that, as we do this, more collaborations on specific technologies [won't] come together.

The countries in the coalition all have a very different role in the energy world today. They are going to have presumably different portfolios. In Saudi Arabia, a great example of an area ripe for collaboration is resolving the technology issues around air conditioning for extremely hot environments. That is a major climate issue. So, I think there's going to be more of that. And, in those cases, [intellectual property (IP)] arrangements will look just the way they do now, let's say, as we've developed them with China in our clean-energy research center. It's shared IP. So that's one example.

I think we [in the Obama Administration] have shown innovation in how we manage government programs in technology development: the establishment of ARPA-e, the establishment of Energy Frontier Research Centers – two great examples of programs that are being very effective. Take ARPA-e, they do business in a very different way compared to the traditional programs. If you looked at the last data we put together at the end of 2014, 141 projects had been completed. They're typically three-year projects. Of 141, 70 had received substantial follow-on funding from the private sector or from other government programs. Thirty companies [were] established, out of 141 projects. Now, that's only an intermediate milestone, because the real milestone is, five more years down the road, which of those now 30 companies is going to have blossomed, shall we say? But that in itself is important, so we will also be working on innovation ecosystems.

We are also, with the White House ... we've established a whole set of investment relationships with the private sector, including energy investment portals. These are the kinds of things we can share with others. And of course, those investment activities, I would say are focused on major institutional investors, since you want to emphasize it now with the Breakthrough Energy Coalition that's even pushing into another space with more patience and more risk tolerance than the traditional [investor]. So it's going to be multi-dimensional. It will also clearly have a component of transparency in terms of what are investable opportunities with the investors. It's going to be multi-faceted, and, frankly, it's going to require more program design as we go forward, but we anticipate some meetings in the spring to get this going.

Q: When you look across that portfolio of technologies and different programs, what are some of the most promising technological solutions that you see on the horizon? What are you excited about?

A: Well, [laughs] I love all my children. And there are going to be lots of opportunities. I've always said in solar [there are] huge opportunities moving forward. Energy storage is obviously critical. But, let me also emphasize the breakthroughs, with major cost reductions, in carbon capture – huge – and carbon utilization. Up to now, CO2 utilization has been focused on one application: enhanced oil recovery. But now, we already have, especially with China, a program on enhanced water recovery with CO2.

Then if you go farther out, we have supported a big innovation hub around the idea of using CO2 plus sunlight plus water to make hydrocarbon drop-in fuels. It turns out, there's no law of physics against that, but it is a hard and big challenge. But that's an example of the big home run if we can break through on that. It's going to be a whole spectrum, not to mention ... it's not only CO2. For example, this question of hydrofluorocarbon replacement for air conditioning – very, very big deal. These portfolios are going to be shaped in different ways by different countries.

Q: Can you talk about the role nuclear will play, and how we bridge the public concern that sometimes pops up over nuclear?

A: If you go out to the demonstrations, the booths, there is one there on the NuScale modular reactors which is something we are supporting. That's a case where they are moving. It's a 50 megawatt reactor. Great safety features. They are moving to an [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] filing next year. So that's something that with success could be material in the next decade.

Beyond that there are activities that go beyond light water technologies. Those are going to be farther out in terms of potential impact. Today, I would say they are higher risk in the sense that we don't have the kind of foundation as we do for light water reactor technology. But in the United States, there are, now, almost 50 companies – kind of an untold story – with private investors in novel nuclear technologies, both fission and fusion. Now, to link back to Bill Gates, one of those is what Bill Gates is well known to be investing in in the last several years in terms of a novel nuclear technology – the TerraPower initiative.

So, again, we are very committed to the idea that all the pathways to low carbon, low greenhouse-gas emission – even beyond carbon, whether it's methane, or hydrofluorocarbons – all of those are on the table. All of them are important. Not every country is interested in the entire portfolio, but the collection of countries, together, are interested in every part of the portfolio.

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