President Biden’s Science Advisor Eric Lander Calls for Ferocious Innovation and Deployment of Clean Energy and Climate Solutions – Lays Out a Vision for Evidence-Based GHG Measuring, Monitoring, and Reporting

This week, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and first Cabinet-level Science Advisor to the President, Dr. Eric S. Lander, addressed the 60,000-plus members of the American Geophysical Union community — Earth scientists, ocean scientists, climate scientists, space scientists, computer scientists, and more — at its Fall meeting in New Orleans about essential drivers of the U.S climate and clean energy work ahead to reach net-zero emissions. In his speech, “The Scientific Technological Pathway to 2050: Our Innovation Agenda for Climate and Energy,” Lander:

– reported on the historic action on climate and energy by the Biden-Harris administration and bipartisan majorities in Congress;

– laid out a high-level vision for international scientific collaboration on comprehensive, evidence-based measuring, monitoring, and reporting on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, in the wake of the COP26 Climate Summit; and,

– charged U.S. scientists and engineers with undertaking ferocious deployment on existing technologies and ferocious innovation on potentially game-changing technologies to tackle the climate crisis.

“Where others see limitations and obstacles, Americans see possibilities,” said Lander. “The President knows science and technology can make the impossible possible. That’s why, on everything – from the pandemic to the climate crisis, to so much more – President Biden is leading with science and putting science into action. It is why he has charged us with working to ensure that both the creation of science and technology and the benefits are shared across all communities and among all Americans.”

The Biden Administration and Congress Are Making History on Clean Energy and Climate Resilience, Building a Better America

Lander highlighted history-making investments that President Biden and bipartisan majorities in Congress have made in response to the climate crisis.

Using executive powers, President Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate on day one in office, and set the goals of cutting U.S. emissions in half by the end of the decade, reaching 100% clean electricity by 2035, net-zero emissions by 2050. The Environmental Protection Agency is making rules to lower refrigerant emissions, raise fuel efficiency standards, and curb methane pollution. Last week the President directed the government to use its purchasing power to drive clean energy deployment and innovation, including by only buying zero-emissions cars by 2027. 

Congress is also responding. The already-enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will:

– Rapidly decarbonize and modernize public transit, transitioning to electric buses, ferries, and zero-emissions school buses with an investment of $90 billion.

– Modernize our electrical grid with an investment of $65 billion, because reaching 100% clean energy requires doubling our transmission capacity.

– Invest $50 billion in making our homes and communities more resilient to extreme weather and fire.

– Make $21.5 billion in new investments in clean energy innovation, with potentially game-changing research, development, and demonstration projects in clean hydrogen, carbon removal, long-duration storage, and advanced nuclear.

– Cap orphaned oil and gas wells, reclaim abandoned mine land, and clean up Superfund and brownfield sites with an investment of $21 billion.

– Build the nation’s first-ever network of electric-vehicle (EV) charging stations with an investment of $7.5 billion.

Congress is currently considering the Build Back Better Act, which represents the largest single investment in America’s clean energy economy in history, with over half a trillion dollars for clean energy and climate solutions, jobs, rebates, grants, and tax credits. It will unleash clean energy deployment across buildings, transportation, industry, agriculture, electrification, and coastal restoration and soil conservation.

Taken together, these two pieces of legislation and the executive branch actions will deliver about 1.5 million jobs per year.

A Scientific Revolution on Greenhouse Gas Measuring and Monitoring is Needed

Lander laid out a vision for a science-led, evidence-based, sensor- and satellite-enabled effort to do comprehensive direct measuring, monitoring, and reporting of greenhouse gas emissions around the world, including methane and CO2.

Transparency and accuracy would be transformational in our own ability to understand what is working – and importantly, what is not working – to get the United States and the world to net-zero emissions by 2050. It would also accelerate international collaboration, working with international scientists.

Lander called for the development of better tools to accurately monitor GHG sources and sinks, both industrial and natural. This requires working across federal agencies and with NGOs, private sector companies, and academic institutions, as well as with the international scientific community.

As described by Lander, we need to work with our international science counterparts to launch a revolution in Earth observation and modeling. For example:

– We need more satellites orbiting the Earth that can provide sensitive, frequent, high-resolution data covering the entire planet. On-orbit platforms are flourishing, with existing and planned missions by the United States, the EU, France, Japan, and China, as well as new private-sector platforms. To get the accuracy and timeliness we need in estimating CO2 emissions, however, we will need more tools with greater coverage, sensitivity, and spatial resolution on the ground.

– We will need to connect and calibrate these remote observations with measurements made on the ground and through the troposphere, using aircraft and balloons.

– We need to get better at isolating fossil-fuel emissions from large background natural fluxes.

– And, we will need advances in inverse modeling, machine-learning methods, and high-performance computing to infer sources and sinks — from concentration data blurred by time, space, winds, weather, and background concentrations.

Ferocious Innovation and Ferocious Deployment Needed on Game-Changing Energy Technologies

Lander called on the scientific community to help lead ferocious deployment on existing technologies and ferocious innovation on potentially game-changing technologies, building on the success of U.S. innovation in solar, battery storage, and wind. 

“Ferocious innovation is the opposite of timid innovation. Sometimes in science, we get so worried about why things might fail, that we don’t devote enough imagination to how things might succeed. Ferocious innovation means setting bold goals, overcoming the fear of failure, and focusing on how to succeed, even on really hard problems. We need to open the lens and try many possibilities in parallel.”

~ Dr. Eric S. Lander ~

In 1975, solar energy was 100 times more expensive than it is today. But the U.S. government needed a power source for its satellites, and became the largest purchaser of solar technology. In the following three decades, innovation drove the costs down by 10x, and then just in the last decade, they fell by 10x again. Solar power is 90 percent cheaper than it was a decade ago, on par with or often cheaper than fossil fuels. Battery costs have dropped by 90 percent in the last decade as well, and wind energy is following closely behind. Americans benefit today from the affordable clean energy options enabled by past innovation investments. And Lander stressed how we need to do this again and again.

He highlighted the need for innovation in the hard-to-decarbonize sectors like industry and heavy-duty transport, and technologies to ensure reliable affordable clean electricity. The Department of Energy is pursuing Earthshots in three of the biggest opportunities to address these challenges and accelerate the path to net-zero emissions.

– a Long Duration Storage Shot to reduce the cost of 10-hour grid scale energy storage by 90 percent by the end of the decade.

– a Hydrogen Shot aims to fund demonstration projects to reduce the cost of clean hydrogen by 80%, to $1 per kilogram in a decade.

All these projects could unlock large-scale future solutions, and will help create clean energy jobs across the country, including in rural and economically hard-hit communities. In addition to the Earthshots, Lander highlighted a few of the other technologies where innovation can unlock possibilities:

Next Generation Solar Power – using a new type of solar cell called perovskite – is potentially easier to manufacture, uses abundant materials, and doesn’t suffer from supply chain concerns. While they’re not yet commercially manufactured, the scientists and engineers working on these technologies think perovskite solar cells might be 10-fold cheaper to make. And, ultracheap electricity would make possible many more clean energy innovations.

Electrofuels, which can provide a source of carbon-neutral energy for airplanes and ships by combining captured CO2 and H2O. Electrofuels add no new CO2 to the atmosphere and are easier to store than hydrogen since they are liquids. Right now, electrofuels are two to 10 times more expensive than conventional fuels, but if we could substantially lower the cost, they could be game-changers.

Fusion reactors, which would use the process that powers the sun, have long been recognized to have great potential for zero-carbon, constant electricity, 24/7, using a virtually limitless source of fuel (purified from seawater). They would produce no high-level, long-lived radioactive waste, would not melt down if something went wrong, and could be very inexpensive. In the past several years, the prospect of commercial fusion has become very serious, with significant scientific breakthroughs and remarkable commercial activity. Dozens of companies have been launched – many here in America – and some are projecting that before the decade is over, they will have working reactors, and possibly even commercial products.

As Lander noted, many other opportunities for innovation are available in offshore wind turbines, geothermal energy, advanced nuclear, marine energy, smart and efficient buildings, industrial processes, biofuels, materials, carbon capture and storage, and lots more.

Lander stressed the need for ferocious innovation across all clean technologies — because each new clean energy innovation can unlock possibilities that we can’t even imagine today.

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