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Environmental technologies

"What five technologies are most important to protecting the environment and how do we develop them?" 

When: There are so many that are near term or medium term (i.e., under 5 or 10 years), there's no point going out further into the future.

What:  Mostly less fossil fuels, and fewer toxics. 

  1. Solar cells:
    • medium term: starting in 4 to 10 years at $1.50 or less per watt for raw cells (currently $3)
    • profound effect, esp where power use is low today (ie, newly industrializing and developing countries); cells will be installed at appropriate scale where economic return is highest without having to invest in (and wait for) an electric grid
    • rapid uptake likely in japan first, then US, as "home improvement" and roof replacement with home equity financing
  2. Wind power: 
    • near term impact, already started now to 10 years
    • already competitive after externalities, still progressing
    • fits in with today's grid and electric industries
    • european examples show how to set policies and mobilize local capital sources to hit 25-50% generation
    • in the ideal environmental scenario, wind power replaces coal power plants (many wind farms in aggregate substituting for the 24-hour generation of coal plants)
  3. Flexible fuel pluggable hybrid cars (PHEV): 
    • near term impact, small start now across 10 years
    • with or without fuel cells, future cars will combine electric drive train, buffer batteries, and fuel-powered electric source
    • with more capacity in the buffer battery, you could "plug it in" to charge at home at night or in any parking lot
    • with 20 miles of battery power instead of today's 1-4, and charging only at night, half of all miles would be non-fuel
    • night time power is largely unused, very efficient to add, and likely to grow as wind power grows
    • UCS estimates tripling fleet efficiency (from 20 to 60 mpg) in 10-15 years with PHEV
    • if the motors or fuel cells take biofuels, as many car engines do today, a further reduction of 3x in net ghg emissions could be achieved
  4. Biofuels
    • medium term, ramping up in next 5 years
    • microbes and nanoparticles offer many promising ways to convert agricultural waste to fuel (rice husks to ethanol, manure to biodiesel, wood waste to hydrogen, etc)
    • disposal of the agricultural wastes are an environmental problem today anyway (ash from burned rice waste, runoff from animal wastes)
    • eventually a combination of new materials and new plant varieties may allow energy crops that also fix an excess of carbon, either in the field or as a byproduct of the fuel production (eg, as calcium carbonate)
  5. Efficient new materials
    • high-performance materials (strength, weight, using thin coatings instead of pure materials, etc) cut other resource use & pollution dramatically
    • non-toxic processes with biologically based materials cut resource use & pollution
    • novel nanoparticle materials absorb or deactivate toxics already released, and substitute for toxics in the first place
    • more efficient lights, motors, and heat pumps, are all coming thanks to new materials
    • desalination of sea water, and purification of other water sources for re-use of water, are also in the pipeline from nano-engineered membranes

How:  [an old saw: the future is already here, it's just unevenly distributed]

  1. Nanotech: specifically, nano-engineered materials
    • Many applications, in rough order
      • Solar energy
      • Power storage (esp, batteries for transport)
      • Toxic reduction
      • Biomass/biofuel
      • Desalination and water quality
      • Waste heat conversion
      • Industrial and transportation efficiency
    • Of all nanotechnologies, nano-engineered materials are the nearest term, already being commercialized
    • Already significant federal funds in the just-increased NNI
    • Give NREL and EPA influence over significant funds
  2. An upgraded electric grid
    • Much more efficient (and resilient, too)
    • More adaptive to be receptive to wind power and distributed generation
    • Supports real-time pricing to encourage end-use efficiency
  3. Production incentives and federal markets for near term technologies
    • support early adopters and correct for subsidies and externalities most efficiently with production incentives (hopefully ones that are better than the PTC, ie are predictable and don't require the incented company to have a hefty tax bill to offset)
    • make the federal government an early adopter, and possibly incent state governments too, especially for clean cars and efficient buildings with distributed clean generation (fuel cells, solar cells, small scale wind, and/or purchasing green power certificates)
    • DoD has major functional (supply chain) reasons to push efficient transport technologies beyond the civilian sector

Other contenders:

  • no-till and other carbon-fixing and pesticide-limiting agricultural practices are surely important, but i don't know how they qualify as technology
  • green building standards and incentives are key, since many onsite renewables make sense for buildings only after they're made efficient, and if the incentives are right; but i'm not sure how that's a technology
  • certification systems and other info tech applications can make markets and government incentives more efficient all round
  • technology for desalination and water treatment (both purifcation and sterilization) could be important, but I don't know enough about the environmental issues here to tell.  in any event, the technology is medium to long term.  turning coastal cities from water consumers and water polluters into water sources would be important; but we're still not sure what to do with the leftover salt and wastes.
  • the "hydrogen economy" will come eventually, but  by itself it's got more benefits to national security and economic growth than to the environment.  it will take a lot of technological refinement in storage, etc., which is already being made; and it will take large centralized investment, for which the industries involved will ask federal help.  nothing wrong with that; it will probably facilitate conversion to renewables -- but it's the renewables that matter, not the hydrogen.  if the hydrogen comes from fossil fuels (most likely) or nuclear power (god help us), or if we remain inefficient in use of energy, it's still on net a good thing, but much less of an environmental good thing.
  • carbon sequestration is a good thing, but from what i can tell, the best options are just pumping power plant output into wells.  one exciting speculation concerns converstion of methane to hydrogen, while capturing the carbon as nanotubes for nanotech applications (i.e., a high-value form of carbon), but I have no idea whether that would scale up.
  • i wish i knew of technologies that directly impacted wildlife and habitats, or air quality, but i can't think of any.  of course, agricultural efficiency (through geneticically improved crops or otherwise) matters, but like hydrogen, the main benefits and drivers are non-environmental (food security, economic productivity).
  • i wish i saw more direct applications of information technology, but they seem to be mostly in science rather than applications (rfid tags for tracking wildlife? sensors and dna sequencing for understanding ecologies?).  info tech, possibly including rfid tagging, may help compliance with certification, but that technology will be shaped primarily by its commercial application (in supply chain management)

International issues:

  • many countries, especially newly industrializing ones, will adopt the cleaner technologies that we develop.  the faster we commercialize them for our use, the earlier such adoption takes place, and the smaller the environmental issues they will face.
  • renewable energy will be adopted rapidly in most industrializing countries, once it's commercialized here, because most of those countries have to import fossil fuels today and they would rather not.
  • Europe and Japan are much more serious than the US on these issues, for different reasons (global warming is a serious issue in the EC, oil substitution is a serious matter in Japan).  we risk falling behind in important technolgies that drive large overseas markets.

TBA:

  • Universities and Small Business Innovation Research Program to do applied research

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Last update: 11/25/2005; 12:18:17 AM.
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