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Climate change

The world can’t afford to wait for an energy miracle

The cost of shifting to clean energy will skyrocket unless we begin making investments and long-term plans to deploy advanced technologies now, according to a new study.

The findings: The paper, published today in Nature Energy by researchers at the Imperial College London, explored a range of simulated scenarios for the British power system. The authors found that transitioning to zero-carbon electricity will cost 61 percent more by 2050 if we rely only on short-term strategies and existing clean technologies, like wind, solar, and nuclear.

Why? Such an approach would lock in a less-than-optimal mix of energy sources over time, ultimately requiring far more energy-generating capacity and supporting infrastructure.

On the other hand: Coupling “unicorn technologies” that have been demonstrated but not widely commercialized with long-term, systems-wide planning could reduce total costs 13 percent by midcentury (see “Praying for an energy miracle”). Those technologies could include tools to capture and store carbon dioxide, small modular nuclear reactors that can adjust plant output to match shifting demand, and battery storage with the capacity and durability to meet the daily needs of the grid.

Getting there will require public-sector investment and support on a level we’ve not yet seen. But we’ll need it soon if we don’t want our clean-energy future to cost us dearly.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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