New Energy Sources on Horizon

Chances are you've heard of hybrids and biofuels, but what about oil-producing yeast and turbinelike buoys that transform ocean waves into electricity? Those are just a couple of the alternative-energy sources that may power the future according to Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund and coauthor, with Miriam Horn, of the new book "Earth: The Sequel" (Norton).

"Everyone knows the current story of melting glaciers, rising sea levels, worsening hurricanes, dying coral reefs," said Krupp. "'The Sequel' is the story of what happens next. We are just on the threshold of a great race." While he says oft-cited solar power technology is our best bet for now, Krupp emphasizes that quirkier projects, like algae concoctions that eat up carbon emissions, are essential elements of a smart, diversified energy strategy. NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul talked with Krupp about why he thinks the next industrial revolution looks bright green. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: You seem to be a big fan of solar energy. Why do you think there's so much promise to it?
Fred Krupp: We have two chapters on solar energy at the beginning of the book because we think there's tremendous potential there. Every hour, the sun provides the earth with as much energy as all of human civilization uses in an entire year. So, if you could capture just 10 percent of it on a piece of 100-mile square piece of land, you could power the entire United States.

Previous attempts to harness solar power haven't been popular or cheap. What's changed?
Conrad Burke at InnovaLight figured out a way to take cheap silicon and liquefy it and then paint it onto metal. So instead of solar cells installed on the roof, these sheets of metal with thin solar cells actually become the roof, taking the price of solar electricity down substantially. Also, with solar thermal energy, capturing heat instead of immediately going to electricity, one advantage is that you can store hot water much more cheaply than you can store electricity. There is tremendous potential there, even before advanced batteries are developed, and reason to think solar energy can compete. For those who think this is a long way off, I would point out that First Solar Inc., which the late John Walton [a son of Wal-Mart's founder] invested a few million dollars in a few years ago, now has a market cap of about $16 billion, and the Walton estate's stock is worth about $5 billion. So there is tremendous wealth already being made in this area.

And besides solar? How are they addressing some of the negatives associated with biofuels?
I think we've come to understand that the current generation of biofuels has problems and that we need a whole new generation. In the short-term, turning sugar into fuels other than ethanol would have many advantages, given the infrastructure problems ethanol creates. In the long-term, we are much better off when entrepreneurs develop ways to turn wood and fiber, not food, into energy.

Which researchers are closest to finding cleaner energy sources?
We don't know who is going to win. It could be neurobiologist Michael Trachtenberg who studies the way the brain gets rid of CO2 and found a way to [harness] that enzyme that's in our blood. That could be the invention that allows us to burn cheap coal, or do so cleanly. Or it might be an idea being developed at Arizona Public Service, of bubbling gases from smokestacks through pipes to grow algae—the fastest-growing plant on earth—and then turn them into biofuels. Or it could be Eli Gal in the coal arena, who figured out a way to capture carbon dioxide in chilled ammonia. So the possibilities are endless once we set up that level playing field.

How viable do you expect these new technologies will be in actually making a dent in emissions?
Scientists tell us we need to reduce greenhouse gases 50 percent worldwide and maybe 80 percent in the United States over the next four decades. And many of the technologies [I've mentioned] have great capacity. But the book isn't to say maybe this company will win or that company will win. It provides a guidebook if you want to participate as an inventor, investor or informed citizen.

Still, how do you go about measuring success? What kind of benchmarks are being set for emissions reductions, and how close will these technologies get us to meeting them?
The Lieberman-Warner bill is the first global-warming bill ever to pass the Senate Environment Committee, and it will come up on the floor of the Senate in a couple of months. It sets a benchmark of 20 percent reduction in America's global-warming pollution by 2020. That is a good first step, but over time we'll find we can achieve these reductions far more cheaply than anyone believes.

With acid rain, the Clean Air Act passed in 1990 using a cap-and-trade system. We achieved 50 percent reductions nationwide at about 10 percent the cost predicted. So in 2005, in a little-known story, President Bush ordered another 70 percent cut in sulfur-dioxide emissions because ingenuity had made it so cheap to reduce sulfur that we could ratchet it down to levels scientists tell us will solve the problem. I think that's what we'll see once we get on this path.

The Bush administration supports investment in alternative-energy technologies as the best way to address climate change. How does what you're calling for differ?
The president has not yet supported capping global-warming pollution and putting a mandatory limit in place. The reason that is so important is that we have never solved any air pollution problem anywhere in the world without a legal limit on the amount of waste that can be spewed into air. So while the president has been favorably inclined to business having a role, he has not yet taken the leadership step of creating the level playing field that will allow these alternative-energy investments to flourish.

If you want to inspire the inventors, offer them a prize. But instead of offering just one prize of a million or even a billion dollars, a cap-and-trade system offers a stream of megaprizes to people who figure out how we can innovate our way out of the fix we find ourselves. That's the power of a policy that puts a limit on greenhouse gases.

New Energy Sources on Horizon | Tech & Science