The Coming Clean Energy Space Race
One of the seminal achievements of the last century was the Space Race and its successful culmination in putting a man on the moon. What must have seemed like a wildly audacious plan when it was first announced, ushered in a new era of satellites and space shuttles, and positioned America at the forefront of a technological revolution. Now a new program, backed by a number of notable British scientists and business luminaries, is seeking to capture the same spirit of perseverance and use it to address another huge challenge – climate change.
The Global Apollo Programme is setting out to make the cost of clean electricity around the world lower than the cost of coal within 10 years. The plan calls for spending roughly $23 billion annually on research and development in green energy and storage in an effort to spur the creation of cheaper green power. The basic idea is that if coal power is more expensive than alternative green energy sources, then it will lead to a rapid shift away from coal use in the same way that natural gas has rapidly taken market share in the U.S.
Solar costs are already falling rapidly of course, and that’s likely to continue, but solar is only effective in certain areas of the globe and it requires enormous amounts of land (or rooftops) for the placement of solar panels. To the extent that the plan could lead to new methods of production for other forms of clean energy, that would certainly be a big deal. Wind, hydroelectric, and other forms of clean energy have largely taken a back seat as funding and media attention has poured into solar.
The other key piece of the plan is that nations which agree to take part in the Apollo Global Programe get a place on a council that coordinates and directs research dollars to avoid duplication of effort. That commission is modeled on an existing commission that coordinates R&D on semiconductors which have seen continuous falling chip costs for years.
Of course, there is no guarantee of success with the Global Apollo Programme. In fact, the analogy to the space race is somewhat strained in certain respects. Most importantly, the space race had a defined goal and was really about achieving a milestone which required technological developments. In contrast, the current plan is more about funding R&D to try and develop more efficient manufacturing processes. That type of end point is much harder to achieve and the path to get there is less clear.
At this point clean energy is growing rapidly and the amount of power generated by clean energy is starting to become significant. For instance, renewable energy now generates roughly 20 percent of power in the UK, surpassing nuclear generation. And therein lies the other problem with the clean energy space race; the level of funding that is being requested – 0.02% of GDP for each nation – is reasonable, but it’s unclear if that funding is enough, too much, or about right.
Without a clear set of plans for how to achieve the Global Apollo mission’s objectives, it’s not clear how much money is actually needed to get there. Countries and their citizens are much more likely to back big funding efforts if they understand the process and the steps that the program is hoping to take to develop future clean energy. It’s not clear right now, for instance, if corporations are going to play a major role in this research or if it will be done mainly through universities, or government agencies.
All of these are important questions that the programme’s backers need to address to make it more credible and move it to the next level.