TOPICS > Science

Professor Touts Fossil Fuel Alternatives

May 10, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The latest international assessment of climate change came up with a roadmap to stem global warming. Panel chair Rajendra Pachauri.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI, Panel Chair: You can look at technology, you can look at policies, but what is an extremely powerful message in this report is the need for human society, as a whole, to start looking at changes in lifestyles and consumption patterns.

RAY SUAREZ: The report, drafted by a United Nations network of 2,000 scientists last week in Bangkok, said the world must act quickly between now and 2050 to make significant cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. If countries continue with business as usual, gases will rise between 25 percent and 90 percent over the next 25 years, according to the report.

Scientists said cuts could be achieved without significantly harming the world’s economy. They recommended greater use of renewable fuels, nuclear power, fuel efficiency, and changing farming practices.

In the end, all nations agreed that emissions could be curbed or sustained for a reasonable cost. The authors estimated that to achieve the sharpest reductions would cost less than 3 percent of the total global gross domestic product by 2030.

Before the panel released its report, I spoke with Marty Hoffert, a physicist at New York University and advocate of alternative energy sources.

Professor, if the goal is not just stopping the increase of the emitting of greenhouse gases, but eventually cutting what’s in the atmosphere, give us your best shot, your best proposal for getting that daunting task done.

MARTY HOFFERT, New York University: The most important thing is to focus on three classes of carbon-neutral power, which together — or perhaps even individually, we don’t really know yet — could do the job of stabilizing the world’s climate, even as the GDP of the world grows about 3 percent a year.

Those three areas are coal gasification, where the CO-2 carbon dioxide collected and buried underground. The second category is nuclear power, but nuclear power that’s based on a fuel that’s efficiently long-lived, that it could be a stainable energy source. And the third, of course, is renewable energy, primarily solar and wind power.

And we need to be building an infrastructure that would be adequate to run the world on those three sources. I would say that’s the highest priority, because, if we don’t do that, we’re already building the wrong infrastructure for the second half of the 21st century because of the enormous investments that are made in energy power.

Renewable energy

RAY SUAREZ: Let's talk a little bit more about renewables, because even people who say that they're fans of renewables wonder if they can be scaled up, whether they can actually, at a cost that's relevant, produce one-third of the energy need that you're talking about.

MARTY HOFFERT: The biggest problem with renewables ultimately providing a major fraction of the energy market is the transmission and storage of the power. Renewable energies tend to be distributed and low in power density and intermittent. They're the very opposite of the centralized power that the electrical grids of the world have been designed for.

And so I would say that we really need to restructure the grids of countries, of our country and the world, to make them friendly for renewable energy. Eventually, I'm convinced that the costs of the conversion themselves are going to come down. Wind power already is cost-effective, and I believe eventually solar is going to have an even greater potential.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, getting it to be cost-effective means that its costs -- it produces energy at a cost that makes it rival those dirtier forms of energy, oil or coal. Can you get it that low?

MARTY HOFFERT: Well, obviously, there are many subsidies involved in fossil energy that we're not paying the true costs of. But, basically, I think it's a matter of operating and doing the research on a sufficiently large scale, so that economies of scale will eventually come in.

This is not an easy problem, and it may be that we will never get back to the inexpensive sources of energy that we've had in the past. But I think that it's the challenge that -- it's the real challenge that we have to approach, and I believe that it's doable.

'An engineering problem'

RAY SUAREZ: Isn't the hunger for power around the world rising at a pretty rapid clip? And don't we need standards of living around the world to keep rising quickly, too? Doesn't this run right up against your efforts to try to use less energy?

MARTY HOFFERT: Look, the problem of the century, the technological problem of the century is to find a way to power our high-tech civilization, which is growing at rates of about 3 percent a year, which we want to grow at those rates, and where developing countries want to have higher standards of living, at the same time that we phase out emissions from fossil fuels.

Those are two opposite trends, and it's not going to be easy. It's like operating on a beating heart. You have to make that transition at the same time that the system is functioning.

I believe that fundamentally, though, this is an engineering and a technical problem. And I think that we may misguidedly, perhaps, be dealing with it as if it's an economic problem that we can solve by perhaps introducing carbon taxes or cap-and-trade schemes.

I think those are fine, and it's a given that we're going to need some way of financing this transition. But let's face it: We already spend hundreds of billions of dollars for efforts that we largely abandon in many areas. The important thing is to clearly identify what the problem is and to objectively try to solve that problem.

I think we can solve it, particularly because the United States, for 200 years, has been a world leader in science and technology and technical innovation. In World War II, we started the Second World War with practically no Air Force. And, by 1944, we were producing over 50,000 airplanes a year. One factory, the Willow Run factory, was producing a B-24 bomber every two hours.

I believe that the climate energy problem is comparable in scope to the problem that we had to face in dealing with the Second World War. And I think that we're up to it. But we have to be able to approach the problem and understand the nature of it accurately.

Future of energy production

RAY SUAREZ: Well, let's look a decade, two, three down the road. If we were to take a helicopter ride over a mid-sized American city, how would it look different from the way it looks today?

MARTY HOFFERT: Well, I think one thing that we have to still resolve -- and this is one of the reasons that I and colleagues advocate a Powell-like, a Manhattan Project-like research and development programs, is that we still have unresolved issues, let's say, with renewable energy, of whether we want to develop the energy in remote places, for example, the Great Plains, and route the energy by high-voltage electric power lines across the country and even around the world, or to develop decentralized electrical power from solar energy.

They're two completely different models. In one, everyone has a fuel cell in their house, and they have P.V. cells on the roof, photovoltaic cells, or solar cells. In the other, we take advantage of distance sources, where the power levels will be much higher and we transmit them.

Those sources may be far, indeed; they may even in be space, in geostationary orbit, where the sun shines eight times more intensely than on the Earth. And at some point, we might be able to beam that power to the Earth.

These solutions may sound very far out, but the truth of the matter is we really do not, in my view, have on-the-shelf technology ready to go to supply the level of energy. So that's one of the things that we might be looking at that would look rather different.

RAY SUAREZ: So we're looking at a future where either there are farms capturing these renewable forms, far away from where people live, or people becoming, in effect, their own energy factories?

MARTY HOFFERT: And those are two different models, and we need to understand and characterize those two different models.

I think we have some specific jobs that we need to take care of right now. One thing which I believe could be very helpful in this country is to re-task the Department of Energy to have the job of developing alternative sources of carbon-neutral energy.

Many people think that's what the Energy Department is in business for already, but that's not the case. Their job is actually stockpile stewardship, to make sure the nuclear weapons and the pipeline really work, and toxic waste disposal. I think their job ought to be to develop a sustainable source of power for the United States and for the civilization of the world in general.

And I think that can inspire a whole new generation of young people to study science and engineering. I mean, Bob Samuelson, in a recent editorial in the Washington Post, observed that one of the inconvenient truths about climate change is that it's really an engineering problem.

It may be a moral imperative; it may have political dimensions; it may have ideological dimensions. But if we can't solve the engineering problem, we're not going to solve this problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Marty Hoffert from NYU, thanks for talking to us.