Moving to a Clean Energy Economy

Moving to a clean energy economy, and away from polluting fossil fuels, is essential for the continued thriving our species

Moving to a clean energy economy, and away from polluting fossil fuels, is essential for the continued thriving our species

by Ryan Allis

As we learned in the last section on The Science of Climate Change, it is essential that we move to a clean energy economy and away from fossil fuels this decade. 

I have a dream that someday, we will be living in a carbon-neutral world in which all of our children globally have access to food, water, shelter, education, and medicine. This world of sustainable prosperity, actually, is quite possible. Let me share how we can get there from the energy side.

Here are six key policies changes that you can advocate for in your country.

1. Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuels

Each year in the United States, our government, using taxpayer dollars, provides $11.5 billion in subsidies to the oil industry. Those are 2010 figures from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This needs to stop immediately. It is counter-productive to the future stability of our civilization to subsidize fossil fuel polluters.

2. Price in the Cost of CO2 Pollution

We need a carbon pricing system that charges carbon polluters the full cost of the pollution. If we had such a price mechanism, we could use a true market economy to provide market prices instead of the current subsidized economy that is artificially keeping fossil fuel prices low. One of the reason fossil fuels are cheaper than they would be otherwise is because the external cost (which is called an externality in economics) is not included in the price of the fossil fuels that create CO2 pollution.

3. Support the Movement to Divest from Fossil Fuel Stocks

There is a substantial movement within college campuses and pension funds to divest their endowments from fossil fuels.  You can learn more at This movement, similar to the South African apartheid divestment campaign of the 1990s, has been successful in raising awareness of the issue of how damaging it is for our species to continue to use fossil fuels.

4. Invest in Renewable Energy Research

We need to invest in renewables research. Wind, solar biofuels, nuclear fusion, and nuclear fusion have great promise and we need to be funding more research in these areas.

Amazingly the sun provides enough energy in one minute to power the Earth for a year. We have a nearly unlimited source of power out there, at least for the next 4-4.5 billion years until the sun goes away. We have billions of years of renewable energy right there. What we simply need are better solar technologies that can take in that energy, store that energy, and distribute that energy.

Algae also have the potential to be the world’s future renewable fuel source. In fact, biofuels produced from synthetic algae are showing great promise right now for renewable fuel production. Algae, by their very nature as an organic living substance, consume carbon dioxide and produce fuel and they only require one-seventh the land of corn-based ethanol. That’s an exciting field that we should be funneling research dollars into.

5. Subsidize Renewable Energy Use

The U.S. Government has been subsidizing fossil fuel production for probably the last 100 years, ever since the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859. But in order to increase market investment and renewables in the next few years during the critical phase when R&D is conducted, we need to subsidize the cost of renewable energy and use incentive structures to enable the price of renewable fuels  to be lower than the price of fuels that destroy the world.

Today, humans are using 14 terawatts of power annually. Humans are expected to need 40 terawatts of power per year by 2050, about a 3x increase. As of 2011, fossil fuels provide 86% of global energy; nuclear at 6.5%; hydropower, water power at 6.5%; and solar, wind, and biofuels are still under 1%. We have to re-architect these figures so that renewables are providing more than 80% of our power.

Let’s compare how much the United States spends annually on R&D renewables research as a government compared to how much we spend annually on defense. Each year the United States (2010 figures) spends $706 billion on defense. Most recently, it was closer to $650 billion for the upcoming 2013 budget. According to the US Energy Information Administration, we spend just $1.4 billion on renewables R&D, almost 1/500th of the amount that we spend on defense.

Investing in renewables research and development is directly aligned with our national security. We will see a world that is very unstable if we don’t rapidly move away from carbon dioxide producing fossil fuels in the next couple of decades.

So the United States spends $706B per year on defense, $11.5B on fossil fuel subsidies, and $1.4 billion on renewables R&D. Something is out of whack with those figures. We should increase our annual investment at least tenfold in renewables R&D, if not more, and eliminate our fossil fuel subsidies immediately.

6. Require Increases in Energy Efficiency

Lastly, we need to increase energy efficiency. There are architectural designs now that create efficient buildings that use one-tenth of the energy that the average building uses. We need to have a two-way grid in which we not only can produce power at the power point level but can actually produce a limited small amount of power at local residences and put the extra power back into the grid so that it can better regulate supply and demand. We need smart appliances that turn themselves off when they’re not being used and use energy effectively and efficiently. I believe that our best bet is investing in clean energy from renewable sources to reduce and greatly reduce the likelihood of the damage that is expected from climate change.

Moving to Clean Energy is The “Moon Landing” of Our Generation

The move to renewable energy is effectively President Obama’s moon landing opportunity. In the State of the Union speech in 2011 he said,

“We’re issuing a challenge. We’re telling America’s scientists and engineers that if they assemble teams with the best minds in their fields and focus on the hardest problems in clean energy, we’ll fund the Apollo projects of our time. At the California Institute of Technology, they’re developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars. In Oak Ridge National Laboratory, they’re using supercomputers to get a lot more power out of our nuclear facilities. With more research and incentives, we can break our dependence on oil.” –President Obama

The great news is that solar power can produce a lot of the world’s energy needs. Solar power is greatly reducing in cost every year. We’re currently seeing a Moore’s Law-like effect where the cost of solar power is being cut in half nearly every 18 months.

By 2020, solar power will be less expensive than grid power, which is often coming from fossil fuels. That is when we, as a society, reach the critical tipping point. When the solar grid parity effect is achieved, when the cost of solar in terms of the retail cost per kilowatt hour is lower than the cost of grid power, tremendous things can happen. Right now it’s about $0.30 per kilowatt hour of solar at retail and $0.04 per kilowatt hour for grid power from natural gas.

By 2020, it’s projected that those two numbers will meet and the cost per kilowatt hour from renewable sources will be under $0.04 for the first time. We will see soon thereafter a lower cost of renewable power than the cost of fossil fuel power. That point is called grid parity, and when that happens, we will see tremendous market forces move as investment shifts.

Our goal, as a society and as taxpayers, must be to demand that we invest our corporate R&D and our governmental funds to be able to speed up this market effect. It’s a race to grid parity. This opportunity is just as important as—if not more important than—the race to the moon in the 1960s.

In summary, we must quickly reduce our carbon output this decade or face a true human disaster. We must stop fossil fuel subsidies, price in the cost of CO2 pollution cleanup, invest in renewable energy research, subsidize renewable energy use, and increase energy efficiency. If we don’t, we will face the consequences. But truly, this is an opportunity. We in the United States can lead the world.

While the end of fossil fuels will almost certainly be seen in the next 50 years, it won’t happen without technology, innovation, investment, and smart public policy. Thanks for doing all you can to help bring about this new world.

The Top 25 New Fields for Millennials

One word. Plastics.

“One word. Plastics.” Career advice from the 1967 movie The Graduate.

by Ryan Allis

In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Mr. McGuire advises young Benjamin to go into the field of plastics for his career.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it.

If plastics was the hot area to work in during 1967, what career fields should the young people of Gen Y (those born since 1980) pursue? What are the biggest opportunities of the next 40 years?

Well, here’s a list of 25 new technologies we will see blossom during The Innovation Age from 2015-2050. Especially if you’re part of the Millennial Generation, learn as much as you can about these new fields. Staying up to date with them will be essential to both your future and your ability to contribute to creating a better world.

Here’s the list…

  1. Clean Energy – The biggest challenge of Generation Y is creating a world that is both environmentally sustainable and prosperous for all human beings. Energy sectors including solar, wind, biofuels, bioenergy and carbon capture, fusion power, and battery storage (including plutonium & strontium batteries) will be big from 2015-2050. If you want to make a huge impact in the world, dedicate your life to the science and commercialization of renewable energy.
  2. Nanotechnology – Nanotechnology (a subset of the field of materials sciences) is enabling substantial innovations in areas ranging from carbon nanotubes to graphene-based water desalination to 3D printing with claytronics. To learn more about nanotech, check out MIT Professor Jeffrey Grossman’s nanotechnology videos within the course Understanding the Science for Tomorrow.
  3. Cloud Education – Companies like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity, CodeAcademy, and SkillShare and non-profits like Khan Academy and EDx are enabling anyone around the world with self-motivation and a cloud connection to receive a Harvard, Stanford, or MIT-quality education.
  4. Water Desalination – Recent research at MIT from The Grossman Group has used graphene to create a highly energy-efficient manner of removing salt from water. As the human population grows, ensuring access to clean water for all of us is critically important to enabling both human health and geopolitical stability.
  5. Converged Phones & Desktops – Wonderfully, your smartphone will soon also be your desktop PC. You’ll simply plug your phone into an HDMI monitor to turn it into a full desktop computer. Once smartphones are powerful enough to run Excel, there will be no reason to have a separate computer unit for the larger monitor. The Ubuntu Edge Project is perhaps the best example so far of this concept of “frames” and desktop-ready phones.
  6. Quantum Computing  – In 2013, Google purchased a DWAVE II Quantum Computer and in partnership with the NASA Ames Research Center, created the Quantum Artificial Research Center (QUAIL). Unlike binary computers, in which bits must be in either the 1 state or the 0 state, quantum computers use superposition to enable all states between 0 and 1, enabling faster computation of some key computer processes.
  7. Cloud-Connected Devices – In the future, cloud-connected chips and sensors will be in everyday devices. These devices will be interlinked, creating an “Internet of Things.” It won’t just be your television, tablet, and phone that are connected. Also connected will be your thermostat, car, fridge, pacemaker, and teddy bear. Field-of-vision smart phones may someday even be able to be installed non-invasively through our capillaries and connect into our optic nerve.
  8. Contact Lens Smartphones – Dr. Babak Parviz is in charge of Project Glass at Google. Before Project Glass, Dr. Parviz was working on contact lens smartphones at the University of Washington. Someday, you’ll be able to surf the internet and communicate with your friends with an electronic contact lens. Companies like Innovega are working hard on creating a communication device that can be worn directly in your eyes.
  9. Data Storage – Recent work at Harvard has enabled the storing of data within DNA, storing 700 terabytes on data into a single gram of DNA. In 2012, IBM announced it could store a bit of data on just 12 atoms. Data storage is being revolutionized nearly yearly as more and more data is able to be stored and analyzed and as more people and more devices join the cloud.
  10. Humans and Technology Combining – Pacemakers, cochlear implants, bionic eyes, and synthetic organs already exist. Electronic devices and synthetic materials have already begun to merge with the human body. This trend will accelerate in the years ahead, enabling rapid advances in human health while also bringing up both critical ethical issues and human rights issues. To learn more, check out The Singularity is Near and The Transcendent Man.
  11. Artificial Intelligence – In 2011 IBM Watson beat prior champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy. Now, IBM is using the Watson technology to help doctors diagnose patients. In the next forty years, AI-enabled machine-learning robots and devices will have many applications as humans and technology continue to merge.
  12. Synthetic Biology – Biology once was solely the domain of nature. Now, humans have learned how to edit the code of life, with applications ranging from synthetic algae smartfuels, to synthetic food that can feed billions, to altered stem cells that can extend life. To learn more, check out the book Re-Genesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves by Ed Regis.
  13. Climate Engineering – David Keith & Andy Parker at Harvard are making substantial progress within the field climate of engineering. For an interesting take on the possible future effects of climate engineering gone wrong see  “The Fate of An Engineered Planet” in the Scientific American, January 2013. One promising option for removing CO2 from the atmosphere is Bioenergy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS). The Swedish firm Biorecro is one of the leaders in this new field of BECCS.
  14. Brain Connectome – We are now beginning to understand how the neurons of the brain connect and work together to enable learning and memory. Take a look at the research from The Connectome Project, a $38.5M project. In 2013, the U.S. government announced $100M in funds for brain mapping research in a new effort called The BRAIN Initiative. Young genius David Dalrymple, while at MIT and Harvard, has worked on unraveling the neuron connections for the nematode worm. To learn more about this field of both mapping the human brain and recreating the human brain see the book How to Create a Mind by Ray Kurzweil.
  15. Brain Aging – 2011 research from Dr. Gary Lynch at UC-Irvine has explored the connection between Ampakines and amplifying the electricity between neurons to enable you to think like you were young again.
  16. Clean Transportation – Elon Musk’s Tesla has been a pioneer in the field of electric cars, creating the first new profitable American car company in decades. Elon’s new idea of the Hyperloop could enable fast, clean transportation that takes you from San Francisco to LA in under 30 minutes (or SF to NYC in 1 hour) at speeds of up to 4,000 mph using magnetic levitation.
  17. Personalized Medicine & Gene Sequencing – Following the completion of the Human Genome Project and the full sequencing of human DNA, companies like 23&Me have advanced the field of personal gene sequencing. For just $99, you can get your DNA partially sequenced, enabling you to better understand your ancestry and risk of diseases.
  18. Robotics – Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro has created a robot twin called Geminoid. Geminoid uses motion capture sensors and sophisticated actuators to replicate every move down to the smallest twitch. The company Boston Dynamics has also created a number of advanced robots in partnership with DARPA.
  19. Self-Driving Cars – Both Tesla and Google are working on building a self-driving car. In Masdar, UAE (the “City of the Future”) electronic automated transport cars (called Podcars) are used underground to enable rapid transport as part of their initiative to build a zero-carbon city.
  20. 3D Printing – Five years ago, 3D printers were out of reach except for large companies. Today anyone with $1300 can purchase a Cubify 3D printer and print thousands of objects on-demand, ranging from forks, to artwork, to iPhone cases, to jewelry. Companies like 3D Systems and Bespoke System are even 3D printing artficial limbs and jaws.
  21. Private Space Exploration – Companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are working hard on enabling commercial space travel. By 2025, anyone with $100,000 will be able to go into space. By 2050, anyone with $5,000 will be able to take the trip. According to my friends at the Mars Climate Modeling Group at NASA Ames, we’ll embark on our first human mission to Mars around 2025 and be an interplanetary species within our lifetime.
  22. Natural User Interfaces (NUI) – Natural user interfaces include touch, voice, hand gesture, and thought. The iPhone brought multi-touch interaction to the masses beginning in 2007. Siri brought voice interaction to the masses in 2010. LeapMotion is bringing hand gesture interaction to the masses now in 2013. Finally, Emotiv is bringing thought control to computer interfaces now in 2013. The NUI revolution in computing is just beginning, and will be as big of a shift in human-computer interaction as the move to Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) in the 1980s.
  23. Wearable Computers & HUDs – Wearable devices and Heads-Up Displays are becoming more and more common. Entrants range from Basis and Pebble watches, to the self-quantifying JawBone Up and Nike’s FuelBand, to the cloud-connected HUDs like Google GlassGlassUp, and Oakley’s Airwaves.
  24. Cybersecurity – In a world of Government-driven cyberattacks (like the U.S. Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2010), the world of cybersecurity will be a very, very large market in the decades ahead.
  25. Government 2.0 – Imagine every Federal Government agency having a real-time Geckoboard dashboard in its lobby, enabling transparency and a focus on results and efficiency in government. Imagine a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in which you submit your digital birth certificate, a picture, and digital social security card via an iPhone app and then have your new license FedEx’d to you overnight. These changes will be coming to Washington in the next two decades. The work that U.S. CTO Todd Park and U.S. CIO Steve VanRoekel are doing to open up access to data and create accountability and transparency in government is just the beginning.

Technology is accelerating. Understand it. Prepare yourself. And be sure to position your life’s work within a field that has the promise to bring great benefit to humanity.

If you know of any additional new areas of science and technology that you think we should add to this article, please let us know in the comments below. Thanks for reading and sharing!