The advancement and deployment of technology can solve climate change, said Dan Reicher, director for climate-change and energy initiatives at Google.org, Google's philanthropic arm, Wednesday.
"The good news is the technologies are maturing rapidly," he said, as part of his keynote address titled "A Convenient Truth," at the Strategic Research Institute's Energy Tech Investor Forum.
High oil and natural-gas prices, as well as energy-security concerns, have shifted expectations in favor of sustainable energy, said Reicher, former assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the U.S. Department of Energy. "The future isn't what it used to be," he said. "Renewable energy has arrived."
And a resurgence of coal makes the need for these technologies more important than ever, he said, but new policies are needed to support their growth.
"I do think incentives are still essential," he said, adding that states with good incentives have seen strong solar installations and those without good incentives haven't. "It's very clear."
He pointed to the climate-change proposals being considered in Congress.
"It's not going to happen soon; it's not going to happen while President Bush is in office; it's not going to happen probably in the first year after that," he said, adding that even after policies are put into place, they are likely to take years to take full effect.
Reicher then named the technologies he sees as the most promising, starting with energy-efficiency.
U.S. refrigerators and air conditioners require far less energy today than they did 30 years ago, to the benefit of the economy, he said. And California's per-capita energy use has remained flat while the rest of the country's use has grown.
Reicher showed a slide comparing electricity consumption of red and blue states, which showed that red states use more, per capita, than blue states, with California's per-capita use falling below either average.
He also said he's a big believer in biomass. "Almost anything we can do with fossil fuels, we can do with biomass," he said.
Reicher pointed to a slide showing that 1999 projections from the U.S. Department of Energy expected the production of cellulosic ethanol - ethanol from non-food crops such as switchgrass and wood chips - to exceed corn-based ethanol production between 2008 and 2010.
That's unlikely, as cellulosic ethanol is still in the demonstration phase, he said.
"I'm a big fan of cellulosic ethanol, but it's very much still in the pre-commercial phase," Reicher said. "I think it's going to be a long time before competitive deployment is going to be a reality."
Other investment opportunities include solar-thermal; geothermal; raw materials such as silicon, steel and corn; and engineering, procurement and construction, he said.
Tapping Into the Power of Plugs
And of course, Reicher didn't leave out plug-in hybrids. Plug-in hybrids are gasoline-electric cars with extra batteries and plugs, which allow their drivers to recharge them at wall outlets and supplement gasoline with electricity to get greater mileage.
Under its RechargeIt program, Google.org last month began accepting investment proposals for plug-in-hybrid and electric-car technologies, along with technologies to transfer electricity from these vehicles to the grid (see Google Leaves Out Clean Diesel, Hydrogen). The organization plans to invest $10 million in these technologies.
"We just want to try something different … and look beyond the usual players," he said, adding that he had met with each of the Big Three in Detroit and that they were "very intrigued" by the program and interested in seeing the applications.
Reicher said plug-in hybrids could help utilities avoid outages and regulate frequency on the grid by enabling them to pay plug-in hybrid owners to stop charging, or to deliver power back into the grid, when the grid is strained, he said.
"The idea is, if you plug in at work, you've been charging since the morning, but all of a sudden 2 p.m. hits and the utility says 'Uh oh, we need a little power, what if we buy a little power from you?' and [the vehicle] goes from charging to discharging," he said.
Utilities already pay significant sums for voltage and frequency regulation, he said. By paying plug-in-hybrid owners for the same services, drivers could earn hundreds or thousands of dollars per year that could quickly pay back the additional cost of extra batteries, he said.
Jason Rottenberg, managing director with OnPoint Technologies, said he liked Reicher's presentation because it showed that investing in cleantech businesses makes economic sense. "The consequences on the economy as a whole represent a boom [comparable] to the Internet," he said. "The question is when."
Reicher isn't the only one to advocate the idea. Among others, Lester Brown, president of Earth Policy Institute, also believes it's the way to go (see Ethanol Shmethanol) and Reicher referenced U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Jon Wellinghoff's concept of the "cash-back hybrid" when explaining the idea.
But Neal Dikeman, a founding partner at Jane Capital Partners, said using vehicles to store energy for the grid isn't as easy as it sounds.
"There are technology challenges and industry challenges, and they're a lot more complex than people believe," he said.
While scientists and entrepreneurs have been talking about the potential to use batteries to store energy for the grid, so that electricity could be collected during times of surplus and tapped into during times of high demand, it hasn't happened so far - in part, because of batteries' high cost.
A number of issues would need to be solved before plug-in vehicles could be used as backup power for the grid, including concerns about battery life, missing links in the monitoring and managing of electric charging and discharging and - not least of all - a lack of plug-in cars and sensor-equipped charging stations on the roads.
And will drivers be willing to pay thousands of dollars above the price of a hybrid without a guarantee that their cars will always recharge when they plug it in?
Reicher thinks so.
"I think people are going to respond well to having two power sources," he said, adding that they will get significant fuel-economy improvements.
Drivers wouldn't get stranded because they'd have between 10 to 15 gallons of gasoline in their tanks, he said. And the presumption is they would be able to charge up most of the time.
"It's going to be a rare instance that someone is going to be denied access to the grid, except in an emergency," he said. "It's more about where and at what time to charge."
While these vehicle-to-grid agreements are still years off, Reicher said the idea is you might make a deal with a utility to allow it to deplete a certain percent of your battery at a certain price. "It's not going to be a situation where the utility would have a free license to drain your battery," he said.
Still, Dikeman, who said he loves plug-in hybrids, said the potential benefits of storage are "way overstated" by plug-in proponents.
To make so-called vehicle-to-grid technologies worthwhile for drivers, the extra cost of plug-in hybrids must be made up by the difference between the electricity rates when demand is at its highest and when it's at its lowest, he said.
"That's not that big a difference," he said. "I don't think the business case is quite as high as people would like it to be."
He puts mainstream vehicle-to-grid use from plug-in hybrids some 40 to 50 years away. "We don't even have the cars yet," he said. "We don't even have a fleet of 1,000 cars right now."
Google's RechargeIt initiative is important because it gets pilot testing started, which is an essential step in bringing plug-in hybrids into the mainstream.
"If you can get mainstream plug-in cars out there, that would allow end users to switch from gasoline to wind or solar power," he said. "That's huge. Electricity could compete with gasoline for the first time."