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Profound transformation in clean energy technology seen outpacing U.S. political will in SVES keynote

Former Secretary of State George Shultz and NREL Director Dan Arvizu opened SVES 2015.
July 2, 2015

The world’s energy systems are undergoing a renewable revolution thanks to technological advances despite a lack of commitment from the United States and some other countries, according to Dan Arvizu, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Globally, new additions of renewable electricity generation are about equal to additions of fossil fuel-fired generation, and by 2020 clean energy is forecast to outpace new, fossil fuel-based generation by two to one, Arvizu said at the Silicon Valley Energy Summit.

“We’re in a profound transformation,” Arvizu said. “In most developing countries that are building new energy infrastructure, they’re going more with clean energy, and especially with a tremendous amount of solar power.”

A host of ongoing technological advances and better economics have enabled this transformation, he said, but the United States and some other developed countries are not moving quickly enough to combat the intensity of carbon in the atmosphere.

“We don’t have a sense of urgency,” Arvizu said in the summit’s opening keynote address. “In Europe and Asia they aren’t having the debate. There are fewer countries debating this today, but the United State is one.”

Former Secretary of State George Shultz, however, conveyed in his introductory remarks “a sense of careful optimism” about the growing political will to deal with climate change.

“The basic problem is broadly being realized,” said Shultz. “The consequences are becoming clear, so that even if you doubt the reason you might be willing to take out an insurance policy, and we know the cost of an insurance policy won’t be outrageous.”

Shultz has long promoted of a revenue-neutral tax on carbon as the primary policy needed to fight global warming, and one that could gain bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress. British Columbia, Shultz noted, has such a tax and it restrained the province’s economic growth only a little below the rest of Canada.

“We can see the path that we’re on and feel reasonably confident that it’s going to work,” he said.

Arvizu’s confidence about advances in clean energy technology was less tempered. Efficiency and cost continue to improve for every type of photovoltaic solar technology—from crystalline silicon cells to modules using nanostructured plastic semiconductors—NREL’s research shows.

“The materials in laboratories across the country today are phenomenal,” Arvizu said. “They blow away anything we were working on years ago when I was a researcher in a lab.”

Arvizu generally did not try to pick what the winning technologies will be, but he outlined the attributes of a sustainable energy systems. Consumers will demand a range of supply options rather than just accept standard products from oil companies and regulated utilities. The future energy system will be more reliable than today’s system, prices will be more stable, and energy will be carbon neutral, he said.

Clean energy research must focus on developing materials that meet these attributes, he added. “Previously, we would invent the material and then ask what it can be used for,” he explained. “We have to go the other way: define the function and then synthesize the best material to accomplish that goal.”

However, Arvizu did predict that the next generation of photovoltaic technologies, like high-efficiency thin films, will beat the conventional modules that dominate today’s market.

“Adapting silicon from electronics to photovoltaics is like driving a Model T when sports cars are on the horizon,” he said.

Progress in the transportation sector has been much tougher than in electricity, especially when it comes to good biofuels to replace gasoline and diesel fuel, said Arvizu, hinting that cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells may win out over electric vehicles.

As for policy, Shultz concluded that the United States needs to stop talking about what it will do by 2050 and instead look at what we can do now. “What we can do today starts looking pretty good,” he said. “But we have to get busy as doers.”

Silicon Valley Energy Summit participants come from the world’s largest IT companies, Silicon Valley startups, investment funds, utilities, government, environmental organizations and research institutions. SVES explores the latest energy technologies, corporate practices, market trends and emerging government policies, while also building a community focused on sustainable business.

Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629, mark.golden@stanford.edu