Whether cars or energy storage, let’s be enthusiastic for portfolios

Guest Author

Many people concerned with reducing greenhouse gas emissions have become enthusiasts about a particular technology (wind, solar, nuclear, etc.) and argue that technology alone could address most of our climate challenge.

While enthusiasm for particular technologies can be helpful, it has become increasingly clear that there won’t be a single “silver bullet” technology that will clean up our electricity grid and provide affordable reliability. Some have argued that instead of thinking in terms of a “silver bullet” we need to be thinking in terms of “silver buckshot”—a broad portfolio of energy technologies for the clean energy transition that can serve multiple functional roles and overcome different types of challenges, as U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm says.

Indeed, whether for energy supply or energy use, broad portfolios often better meet needs at lower cost and with less risk.

Consider the transportation sector. People can travel to their destinations in various ways—planes, trains, buses, boats, cars, bikes. Zoom in further to the car industry: there is no “one size fits all” type of car for everyone. Some prefer large cars for high-clearance mountain driving, and others prefer small cars to zip around the city. Different types of cars are successful in the market because they fill different functional roles.

What is true of transportation is also true of most of the rest of the energy system.

In our electricity system, wind turbines and solar panels can provide cheap bulk electrical power when the wind blows and the sun shines, but other generation technologies may be better suited to reliably meet peaks in electricity demand. Some energy storage technologies cost more and are more efficient, while others cost less but are less efficient.

As with cars, this doesn’t mean that every energy technology will be successful in the market. A broad portfolio does not mean an undiscerning portfolio. A broad range of concepts needs support at early stages of development, but critical analysis will be needed to assess which early-stage technologies might be able to compete in a future marketplace.

Different clean energy technologies perform different functions, and they each have their pros and cons. Considerations may include technology performance, cost or constraints due to geographic requirements, the rarity of materials, social needs or unintended consequences.

While enthusiasm for particular technologies can make a positive contribution, we need enthusiasm for developing a broad portfolio of technologies that can potentially compete in future marketplaces, and which—taken collectively—could successfully address our climate challenge.

Editor’s note: Dowling’s advisor is Caltech chemistry Professor Nathan S. Lewis, and they collaborate closely with Ken Caldeira. Caldeira is a senior scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science and Breakthrough Energy, which supports Cipher.