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Sustainable Energy

2014 in Energy: Dire Warnings, Slow Progress, and a Fusion Boast

The year saw a major new report on climate change—and modest movement on renewables, carbon burial, and emissions agreements.

In 2014, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued stark warnings in its latest assessment of climate science, projecting potentially catastrophic outcomes if greenhouse-gas emissions are not brought in check.

The IPCC found, among other things, that crops could be hard hit, something that is prompting nations like China to turn to genetically modified crops, including wheat, rice, and corn.

The U.N. also found that the cost of limiting greenhouse-gas concentrations to a level that would keep global warming under 2 °C could more than double if carbon capture and storage (CCS) isn’t deployed. The pronouncement was followed by the news that the first commercial coal plant with CCS had gone online, a project in Saskatchewan shown here. But that achievement also served to show how far away from mass implementation the technology remains.

With the U.N. warnings as a backdrop, renewable energy technologies continued progressing, albeit too slowly to make much difference. New projects included the commercialization of one of the most efficient solar panels yet made and the testing of turbines that capture strong winds at 1,000 feet.

Solar City, the installation company chaired by billionaire Elon Musk, acquired a solar-panel maker and announced plans for a big factory. But not all solar technologies fared well. A solar thermal plant in California—which uses concentrated heat from the sun to power a conventional turbine—proved less economical than predicted, even as conventional photovoltaic technologies plunged in price.

Energy from intermittent sources like sun and wind must be stored to be useful, and 2014 saw the emergence of a cheap, nontoxic battery for storing electricity produced by wind and solar technologies­—a technology that was subsequently commercialized. Grid storage advances included other battery technologies and a promising step toward more cheaply splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen.

On the nuclear front, there was little progress, though Lockheed Martin claimed to have developed a promising fusion reactor  while a U.S. company announced plans to test an energy-boosting fuel rod design that could increase the output of many existing nuclear power plants.

In September, the World Meteorological Society found that greenhouse-gas emissions had increased dramatically from 2012 to 2013. In better news toward the end of the year, the United States and China agreed to reduce emissions—a first for China.

But by the end of the year, the dominant energy story was quite different: oil prices plummeted, threatening to kill off efforts at making renewable liquid fuels. The new affordability of oil could stimulate even more energy use, further increasing emissions.

In the closing weeks of the year, a United Nations summit in Lima, Peru, produced a broad-based agreement by 190 nations to start making their own emissions-reducing plans. This preliminary effort could evolve into something substantive by the time of the next U.N. climate summit, scheduled for late 2015 in Paris.

Hear more about climate change at EmTech MIT 2017.

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