Synopsis of a Commonwealth Club Speech given on July 21, 2005
Sunday, July 17, 2005
We live in a truly magical time. With the flick of a finger, the power of 10 horses flow out of a wire in the wall of our homes cleans our carpets. We go to the local market under the pull of hundreds of horses and fly across our continent with a hundred thousand horses. Our homes are warm in the winter, cool in the summer and lit at night. We have the technology and the economic possibility to elevate the living conditions of much of humanity to heights well beyond the dreams of Roman emperors. We never had it so good.
What has made all this possible is our ability to exploit abundant sources of energy. We have become very good at this: from the modest beginnings of the industrial revolution, we have developed the means to find and use energy with ever increasing dexterity. The worldwide consumption of energy has nearly doubled between 1970 and 2001. By 2025, it is expected to triple. The extraction of oil, our most precious energy source (and our source of plastics!), is predicted to peak sometime between 5 to 30 years, and most of it will be gone by the end of this century.
It took nature hundreds of millions of years to create the oil, and we will have consumed the vast majority of it in less than 200 years. Natural gas will follow a similar fate. Other forms of fossil fuel (coal, shale oil, tar sands and methane hydrides) could last for another several hundred of years.
However, there is a catch. The cost of keeping the equivalent of a billion horses working for the world 24/7, 365 days a year has a modern-day equivalent of keeping the horse stables clean. That modern day equivalent is carbon emissions and Global Warming.
The overwhelming consensus among atmospheric scientists is that the earth is warming up, and the mostly likely cause is our emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. In the last 140 years, the average temperature of the Globe has warmed up by ~ 1.2° F. Since 1860, 19 of the 20 warmest years have all occurred since 1980; the 11 warmest years occurred all since 1990. 1998 was the warmest year in the instrumental record, and probably the warmest in 1,000 years. 2002 was the second warmest year.
What have been some of the consequences of Global Warming?
We are currently witnessing the melting of Antarctica and Greenland icepacks. The sea level is rising. Glaciers are retreating; Glacier National Park will soon have to be renamed “Non-Glacier National Park”. Evaporation and rainfall are increasing, and more of the rainfall is occurring in violent storms. “Second insurers,” companies that insure insurance companies that insure against major disasters such as hurricanes are raising their premiums. (The world's second-largest re-insurer, Swiss Re, issued a warning in March 2005 that the costs of natural disasters, aggravated by global warming, threatened to spiral out of control.) Corals around the world are bleaching as the increased temperatures kill the living organisms that comprise the coral. Wildfires are increasing.
What are the predictions of continued Global warming? First, to quote arguably the greatest American Philosopher of the 20th Century, Yogi Berra, “Predictions are hard to make, especially about the future.” With that caveat, here are some of the predictions:
An increase in average temperature is not the only consequence. The extremes of hot and cold will increase. Average precipitation will increase, and so will storms, floods, and wildfires. There will be property losses from sea-level rise as well as new beach front property. Productivity of farms, forests, & fisheries will be affected. For example, the temperature rise will not be even and most of it will occur on land masses. With a 2x increases in CO2 from the pre-industrial level of 275 ppm of CO2 to 550 ppm (the goal of the Kyoto Protocol) the temperature of the Midwest of the United States, our grain belt is predicted to rise 6-8° F, with a 20 - 30% decrease in soil moisture in the months June to August. The wonderful agricultural engine of the Midwest will be jeopardized.
Deaths due to heat spells in the summer can dramatically increase. As an example, in August 2003, France attributed over 3,000 deaths to a two week heat wave. World wide human health is at risk and so is the diversity of the rest of the species on our planet.
The melting of polar ice caps is causing the oceans to become less salty. There is growing concern – and this “prediction” is much less certain - that the Gulf Stream will be affected and might go southward. The Gulf Stream keeps Northern Europe warm. Recall that London has the same latitude as Calgary, Canada, where temperatures reach −35°C in the dead of winter .
The predictions of Global Warming carry serious economic consequences, and these costs have not yet entered into the economics of our currently energy usage. I will be the first to recognize that the full economic costs of using carbon emitting sources of energy are difficult to estimate, but we have to begin to do this analysis.
Among America’s most serious concerns are national security (intimately tied to our energy security), long-term economic competitiveness and the dangers of global warming. I believe that energy is at the center of all of these concerns, and thus is the single most important problem that science and technology must solve in the coming decades.
How focused have we been on the energy problem? To paraphrase what is often said about the weather, “Everybody talks about the climate, but nobody does anything about it.”
Unfortunately, there appear to be no magic bullets to solve the energy problem. While efficiencies play a huge role in defining how much energy we consume, we must also develop a diversified portfolio of investments to develop sustainable, CO2-neutral sources of energy.
Because of global warming, I stress that we have to find sources that do not add more CO 2 into the atmosphere. Because of this requirement, I have great concern over new investments in conventional coal-burning plants. There is a potential that carbon sequestration will allow us to convert coal into syngas (mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen) and then capture and sequester CO 2 by-products under ground, but this technology is not yet proven. While we investigate the feasibility of this approach, we should look at other alternatives.
What are our other options for investments in carbon neutral sources of energy?
Fusion research must continue, but the commercially viable fusion is at leasat 35 years away and is not a certainty. Fission energy has significant issues: long term waste storage and the potential proliferation of nuclear weapons materials. Despite these issues, it needs a second look, especially if radioactive waste can be greatly reduced by recycling and burning down long-lived radioactive products into shorter-lived waste without the separation of plutonium. People are now beginning to talk about reducing the amount of waste by a factor of at least a factor of 10- 20 and reducing the storage time to 1000 years instead of several hundred thousand years.
Beyond nuclear energy, our most likely option is solar energy, such as solar cells and wind. Modern wind generation is becoming economically competitive, but it cannot supply the majority of our energy needs. Photovoltaic generation needs improvement in cost and/or efficiency by a factor of 5 -10 before large-scale deployment can occur. If generation of electricity via wind or photovoltaics is to become major fraction of our energy portfolio, it will be essential to develop efficient methods to convert electricity into stored energy that we can use on demand. We must do more research into the conversion of electrical energy into chemical energy so that we can produce electricity on demand.
There is another approach. For billions of years, photosynthesis has turned the sun’s energy into chemical energy. Learning to mimic biological systems may provide an eventual solution. In the meantime, advances in molecular biology may offer a shorter-term answer. We should develop faster growing, self-fertilizing plants that convert CO2, sunlight, water and modest amounts of nutrients into biomass, such as cellulose. Simultaneously, we need to develop more efficient means to convert the bio-mass and bio-waste into useable forms of energy. Nature has found ways convert cellulose within the stomach of a termite and at the bottom of a swamp. A promising avenue of research is to improve upon these microorganism communities or develop biology-inspired enzymes that can replace existing, less efficient processes.
Having told you all of this, I can now tell you why I could decide to leave a wonderful (and rich!) university, Stanford, to become the Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The reason, in part, has to do with the opportunity to help solve the problem I have been talking about.
The Berkeley Lab, on a hill over looking UC Berkeley, is run by the University of California for the Department of Energy. It has roughly 3,800 employees, of which approximately 1/3 are undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and professors. It is a very distinguished lab with 10 Nobel Prizes awarded to Lab employees over its 74 years history, and an 11th on the way. Currently there are 59 employees in the National Academy of Sciences, roughly 3% of the entire membership of the US, 18 members in the National Academy of Engineering and 2 in the Institute of Medicine. The Berkeley Lab is a national treasure.
At the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, the energy challenge has captured the imagination of some of our very best scientists, and we are mounting a major, multidisciplinary initiative to create sustainable, carbon-neutral sources of energy.
We are designing an new initiative to develop sustainable, CO 2– neutral sources of energy that will draw upon many of the core strengths of our Lab. Berkeley Lab is uniquely positioned to tackle this challenge, with its strengths in the physics, biology, chemistry, and the computational sciences. We have world-class facilities like the Advanced Light Source, one of the most productive synchrotron storage rings in the world, the National Center for Electron Microscopy, and the largest non-classified DOE supercomputer in the US. A new nano-technology facilities is under construction and we what I believe is the best materials science laboratory in the National Lab complex. This is collectively an incredible scientific resource.
I believe the Berkeley Lab is capable of attacking this problem reminiscent of Bell Laboratory’s development of a solid state electronic switch (the transistor) to replace the vacuum tube. In the late 1930’s AT&T realized that the future of the telephone switching network would need a new technology to replace the vacuum tube. Bell Laboratories decided to develop a compact, solid sate switch with much lower power consumption and higher reliability than any future vacuum could be expected to achieve. To solve this challenge, progress on many fronts were needed. Materials scientists had to invent methods to make highly pure germanium and silicon. Theoretical and experimental physicists had to work in close collaboration to understand the electronic properties of semiconductors doped with known impurities, the physics of interfaces between positive and negatively doped materials, and the surface states of these materials. By coordinating a large scale assault on this problem, Bell Labs was able to “invent” the transistor in less than a decade; much shorter than would have occurred in a university setting. Along the way, the physics foundation of much of what we now use to design semiconductor devices was developed.
One of my hopes is that Lawrence Berkeley National Lab can combine some of the most rapidly advancing areas in science, such as nanotechnology and synthetic biology to create new technologies that can transform the way we produce energy, especially the conversion of solar energy into chemical energy that can be tapped on demand.
I also urge our federal and state governments, industry, and private foundations to increase investments in a nation-wide quest to secure our energy future.