Now is the Time to Invent Cleaner Technology

Improving today’s energy technologies can provide a healthier and more secure future.

David Danielson | Breakthrough Energy Ventures

The extent to which we support energy innovation today will determine the world our children and grandchildren inherit in 2050.

It takes 30 years or more to successfully commercialize and deploy transformative new energy technologies at scale, so the investments we choose to make over just the next five years – or indeed those we don’t – will determine their fate.

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By 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people on Earth.

The year 2050 sounds pretty far away, doesn’t it? But in terms of the world our children and grandchildren will inherit, 2050 is today: It’s right around the corner.

In 2050, I will be in my 70s and my daughter and son will be in their mid-30s, entering the prime of their lives. And with a little luck, they will be blessed with children of their own, my grandchildren. Most people reading this can probably say something similar about their own children and grandchildren in that time frame.

Alta Wind Energy Center (AWEC) in Tehachapi, Kern County, California, is the largest wind farm in the world. Its operational capacity is 1,020 MW.

By 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people on Earth. That is one-third more than today, with essentially all of this population growth predicted to come from less wealthy nations around the world. And the approximately 9 billion people living in these nations in 2050 will be hungry to consume more energy, requiring an almost doubling of energy usage per person to achieve a good standard of living by some estimates.

At the same time, the world’s best scientists have determined we must simultaneously reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, relative to today’s levels, to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change.

We face a stark choice. We can envision one of two futures for these 10 billion people:

  • A world with a dangerous climate, choking pollution and widespread geopolitical strife.

Or

  • A wealthier, healthier and more secure world powered by clean energy.

Access to energy – affordable, widely available and clean energy – is what will likely tip the scales – one way or another.

We need an innovation revolution

Scaling and improving today’s clean energy technologies can take us part of the way to the future we all want.

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Access to energy – affordable, widely available and clean energy – is what will likely tip the scales.

Technologies like wind power, solar power, LEDs, electric vehicle batteries and many others are already rapidly approaching widespread cost-competitiveness with traditional forms of energy.

But these technologies alone will not be enough: It has become clear now that to provide universal energy access around the world while simultaneously achieving required emissions reductions, we must unleash an unprecedented energy innovation revolution today to develop technologies needed to close the gap between the 2050 we are headed for and the 2050 we want for our children and grandchildren.

Again, 2050 feels far away, distant – even to me. But if you do the simple math, even when everything goes just right, it takes about 10 years to successfully commercialize a transformative new energy technology and at least another 20 years to deploy it at a meaningful scale globally.

So even in the best case, new energy technologies we begin to commercialize today will take 30 years or more to have the desired impact by 2050.

The upshot is that between now and 2020, we must launch more transformative energy technology ventures than ever before.

A new energy ecosystem

However, successfully investing in the commercialization and deployment of these new energy technologies has proven difficult. So hard, indeed, that it’s easier for early-stage investors to make money, or fail fast and cheaply, by investing in more traditional innovation spaces like IT and software. This has reduced early-stage investment in new breakthrough energy startups to a trickle today.

So what do we need to do?

On the one hand, we need to double down on filling the very beginning of the energy innovation pipeline by significantly increasing – or at the very least maintaining – government funding into basic energy research.

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This is where breakthrough technologies are born.

This can clearly be achieved if the 22 countries and the European Union, who signed onto the “Mission Innovation” pledge in November 2015, faithfully follow through on their commitment to collectively double their energy R&D to $30 billion a year by 2021.

Perhaps even more urgently, over the next five years, the world’s leading institutions, innovators and most influential individuals around the world must rally together to dramatically increase funding for an unprecedented new generation of breakthrough energy technology ventures. This is where breakthrough technologies are born.

Fortunately, a few global leaders have already begun to raise their hands and take bold action.

For example, just last October, MIT launched a first-of-a-kind major innovation initiative – “The Engine” – that will provide more than $150 million in initial funding for transformative new companies developing breakthrough technologies in energy and other globally important areas.

General Electric, through the expansion of its highly successful Ecomagination Initiative, is doubling down as well, committing $10 billion in additional energy R&D investment between 2016 and 2020, having already invested $17 billion in energy R&D since Ecomagination’s inception in 2005.

And last December, Bill Gates and 20 other highly successful individuals launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a new $1 billion investment fund that will focus on backing transformative energy technology companies that are too risky for today’s traditional venture capitalists.

Together, groups like these and others are leading the charge towards a 2050 for our children and grandchildren we can all be proud of.

But even these highly influential organizations and individuals can’t do it alone. Success will require dozens and hundreds more to step forward, make strong commitments and take concerted action to launch the energy innovation revolution we need during the next five years.

There is simply no more time to waste. Tomorrow is today. There is such a thing as being too late.

See the world’s largest solar power plant in Tamil Nadu, India.

This article first appeared on GE Reports and was republished with permission.

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David Danielson is managing director at Breakthrough Energy Ventures and a board member for GE Ecomagination.

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