Research is necessary to accelerate our transition to a zero-carbon world

By ENGIE - 15 September 2020 - 12:14

An op-ed by Michael E. Webber, Chief Science & Technology Officer at ENGIE.


Michael WebberBy classical definition from the early industrial era, energy is the capacity to do work.  But in the modern context, that seems very limited compared with what energy actually offers society.


Taking a broader and updated view, energy is the ability to do interesting and useful things. Energy quietly brings illumination, information, heat, clean water, abundant food, motion, comfort, and much more to our homes and factories with the flick of a switch or the touch of a button.  It is the potential to harvest a crop, refrigerate it, and fly around the world. The corollary is thus that a lack of energy is the inability to do work. 


Access to energy enables our civilization. An absence of energy inhibits it. 


Energy is also conserved: it is inherently a finite resource. We cannot make more of it; we can only move it around or transform it. At its heart, our relationship with energy is about harnessing the benefits and containing the environmental impacts of those transformations. Bringing the benefits of energy to everyone without heating the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, or denuding land will require new thinking and new solutions.


In the modern world, everyone uses energy with a mixture of elation and guilt: it’s the energy-lover’s dilemma. How do we get all the benefits we enjoy from consuming energy without the downside impacts of pollution, price volatility and national security risks? 


The answer is to recognize that each fuel and technology has its upside benefits and downside risks. Worldwide energy use is a complex system with many parts. The energy sector is intertwined with society in many obvious and non-obvious ways.


If there is one lesson we should keep in mind for our energy challenges, it is that there are no universal, immediate solutions. We need a suite of solutions because no single option can get us all the way to our zero-carbon future without a critical drawback such a high cost, insufficient scale, or poor reliability. 


That means we need innovative thinkers to develop more options, lower the cost of existing options, and to optimize how they all fit together. The world’s research ecosystem of industrial facilities, national labs, and universities in many countries must step up with high levels of internal and governmental support to accelerate the pace of our innovation. And because the challenge is complex and too big for any one company or government to solve, we must collaborate across sectors, academic disciplines, and borders.


The way to solve this conundrum is not by hashing out old clichés of fossil fuels versus renewables, electricity versus gas, or other tired battles. We need a more refined view. The same thinking that got us into these problems—drill more, pave more, consume more—will not get us out of them. Tired techno-enthusiasm that just says we can use smarter gadgets won’t be enough, either. And reducing our consumption to the levels of energy poverty won’t be very satisfying or humane.


The fastest, cheapest and most reliable way to reach zero-carbon gases includes a mixture of low-carbon electricity and low-carbon gases.


We need cleaner forms of energy and we need to clean up conventional forms with carbon capture and scrubbers so that we can maintain and expand energy access without scorching the planet.


The areas that need rapid attention are low-carbon power generation (such as wind, solar, and geothermal energy), low-carbon gases (such as biomethane, synthetic methane, hydrogen and hydrogen carriers such as ammonia, formic acid and methanol), technologies that reverse the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere (through carbon capture, direct air capture, and soil carbon sequestration), cross-cutting tools (such as drones, robots, sensors, and artificial intelligence), and smart and efficient uses of energy (including energy storage, smart appliances, and user education to change our behaviors and habits).


ENGIE’s corporate research program is organized around these themes, and our benchmarking with the world’s largest national laboratories and energy and technology companies indicates that we are not alone with our view of the future. Indeed, most of us are tackling similar problems. We just need to move more quickly collectively.


Adopting a cleaner suite of options while increasing energy access and letting go of our dirtier past is our critical path forward. Change is good, so we should go for it. But change is slow, so we better get started. This is where we need research: to accelerate the transition. It usually takes decades or centuries to transition from one dominant fuel or technology to another. In the United States, coal became the most popular energy source in 1885 and was only surpassed 65 years later by petroleum in 1950. 


Petroleum still leads today, but might be overtaken by natural gas in the next decade, meaning it will have ruled for 80 years.  While natural gas provides some important environmental and performance benefits, we don’t have another 80 years to wait to replace it with cleaner options such as zero-carbon electricity or other gases with lower carbon footprints. That means the race is on and our task in the research world is to increase the scale and decrease the cost of those alternatives so they can be adopted widely sooner. 


Our mission is clear. Now we just need to pick up the pace. The world is counting on us.