Ross Koningstein and David Fork worked on Google’s defunct RE<C project, “which aimed to develop renewable energy sources that would generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants do.” Their reflections on the failure of RE<C are worth reading in full, but here is one of their more alarming findings:
We decided to combine our energy innovation study’s best-case scenario results with [climate change expert James] Hansen’s climate model to see whether a 55 percent emission cut by 2050 would bring the world back below that 350-ppm threshold. Our calculations revealed otherwise. Even if every renewable energy technology advanced as quickly as imagined and they were all applied globally, atmospheric CO2 levels wouldn’t just remain above 350 ppm; they would continue to rise exponentially due to continued fossil fuel use.
So our best-case scenario, which was based on our most optimistic forecasts for renewable energy, would still result in severe climate change, with all its dire consequences: shifting climatic zones, freshwater shortages, eroding coasts, and ocean acidification, among others. Our reckoning showed that reversing the trend would require both radical technological advances in cheap zero-carbon energy, as well as a method of extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and sequestering the carbon.
Those calculations cast our work at Google’s RE<C program in a sobering new light. Suppose for a moment that it had achieved the most extraordinary success possible, and that we had found cheap renewable energy technologies that could gradually replace all the world’s coal plants—a situation roughly equivalent to the energy innovation study’s best-case scenario. Even if that dream had come to pass, it still wouldn’t have solved climate change. This realization was frankly shocking: Not only had RE<C failed to reach its goal of creating energy cheaper than coal, but that goal had not been ambitious enough to reverse climate change.
What they recommend going forward:
Consider Google’s approach to innovation, which is summed up in the 70-20-10 rule espoused by executive chairman Eric Schmidt. The approach suggests that 70 percent of employee time be spent working on core business tasks, 20 percent on side projects related to core business, and the final 10 percent on strange new ideas that have the potential to be truly disruptive.
Wouldn’t it be great if governments and energy companies adopted a similar approach in their technology R&D investments? The result could be energy innovation at Google speed. Adopting the 70-20-10 rubric could lead to a portfolio of projects. The bulk of R&D resources could go to existing energy technologies that industry knows how to build and profitably deploy. These technologies probably won’t save us, but they can reduce the scale of the problem that needs fixing. The next 20 percent could be dedicated to cutting-edge technologies that are on the path to economic viability. Most crucially, the final 10 percent could be dedicated to ideas that may seem crazy but might have huge impact.
Our society needs to fund scientists and engineers to propose and test new ideas, fail quickly, and share what they learn. Today, the energy innovation cycle is measured in decades, in large part because so little money is spent on critical types of R&D.
(Video: NASA shows “exactly how carbon pollution travels across the planet over the course of a year, moving away from the largest polluters and across the atmosphere.”)