Between worries over climate change caused by fossil fuels and soaring gasoline prices, no one doubts that the world needs new sources of energy. Marty Hoffert, professor emeritus of physics at New York University – who has been conducting research in atmospheric science and alternative energy technologies for three decades – argues that only a radical and disruptive Manhattan Project- or Apollo Program-style approach will work.
Technology Review: Why not let the markets work things out?
Marty Hoffert: Business as usual means we’ll actually be emitting far more CO2, because we’re increasingly turning to coal-burning for our energy. The historical de-carbonization – which went from coal, to oil, to gas, which emit progressively less carbon – will be reversed. Natural gas and oil are hitting their peaks. The shift to coal is already happening in China and India. The United States has reached an inflection point. And there’s little sign right now that this use of coal will be accompanied by CO2 sequestration. Something else has to take up the slack – and it’s a mind-boggling slack. In 2050, we will need between 100 and 300 percent of all the energy we use right now – from totally non-CO2-emitting sources. Consider that today 85 percent of our energy comes from CO2-emitting fossil sources.
TR: How should we address the problem?
MH: Entirely new innovations – potentially disruptive to existing industries – are needed to wean us from oil and natural gas addiction and to zero out CO2 emissions by midcentury. But we can do it – there are precedents. Little more than 60 years separate the Wright Flyer from Neil Armstrong’s “giant step for mankind.” Mere decades elapsed from Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s Apple II to today’s lightning-fast laptops, cell phones, and the Internet. John von Neumann, father of the modern computer, believed in the 1950s that only nation-states would be able to afford computers. He would be stunned by our reality.
TR: What’s your solution?
MH: There’s no silver bullet, but there are promising alternate-energy technology options capable of supplying needed levels of primary power in three general categories. The first is coal-gasification power plants producing electricity and hydrogen – but with the CO2 sequestered underground.
The second is new generations of proliferation-resistant nuclear reactors burning fuel bred from U-238 and thorium (and eventually fusion). Because emission-free power needed is so massive in scale, the most important factor to be faced early for nuclear is the need for breeder reactors before commitments are made to “once-through” reactors that will run out of fuel prematurely.
And the third is renewable energy, primarily solar and wind, with innovative transmission and storage technologies deployed at the needed global scale – including space-based solar power.