Energy

From the Foundation's 1994 Annual Report


Renewable energy sources available on a global scale dwarf the current energy needs of human society. They are underutilized today because of economic and related technological barriers, because of subsidies granted current energy paradigms, and because traditional supplies avoid a host of external costs -- to health, environment and security -- and thus evade market discipline. Yet increasingly, renewable sources are becoming economically competitive with traditional solutions. New approaches that decrease the carbon-intensive nature of fossil fuel use are also emerging.

Finding and implementing these new solutions poses a central challenge in the quest to redirect human activities toward sustainable practices. The current course cannot endure. Today's energy supplies already place large burdens upon society; they erode our health and degrade the environment. Solving tomorrow's energy needs (likely to be much greater because of growth in the human population and higher living standards per capita worldwide) using today's approaches will only make the problems more acute. The long-term impacts, especially if they include severe climate disruption, will be catastrophic.

Fortunately, new technologies are emerging that will help shape a radically different energy economy for the future, one that is likely to be far more environment-friendly. Hydrogen fuel cells offer highly efficient sources of power capable of using fuels from diverse, renewable sources and of being deployed in many settings. Fuel cells are electrochemical devices that convert the chemical energy of hydrogen and oxygen into air. Because they do not involve burning fuels, they avoid emitting nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide or hydrocarbons. Their cleanest forms, fueled by hydrogen made using solar energy, emit only water as a byproduct. Current versions, competitive in today's energy market for specific applications, use hydrocarbon fuels at much greater efficiency than internal combustion engines with vastly reduced emissions, excellent power characteristics and much higher energy efficiency.

Three factors block the rapid acceptance of fuel cells. First, the current petrochemical supply system is rife with economic subsidies that make the competitive playing field uneven. Second, current production costs will remain high without introducing the economies of mass production. Third, the infrastructure necessary to support a distributed energy system based on fuel cells is lacking.

In 1994 the Foundation intensified its commitment to advancing zero-emission vehicles and through them, an energy economy based on "solar hydrogen" deployed in hydrogen fuel cells. While deeply aware of the risks of betting on a particular technology, the Foundation has continued this commitment because the benefits appear palpable, near, and large.

The zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandates passed by California in 1990 and also pursued by states in the northeast represent a singular opportunity to advance beyond these barriers. Fuel-cell cars will be competitive in performance -- acceleration, distance -- with cars and buses running on gasoline or diesel. Mechanical reliability of fuel-cell powered applications is likely to be superior to internal combustion engines because of the simplicity of the power source: no moving parts. The immediate impact of replacing a city's fleet of buses or cars with a new one powered by fuel cells will be magnificent.

The Foundation's effort on fuel cells in 1994 has concentrated upon two approaches. One is to support public education and advocacy advancing the ZEV mandate. Grants have contributed to establishing a network of ZEV advocates in California and the Northeast composed of health and energy experts knowledgeable about the impacts of air pollution and the opportunities created by ZEVs. A second approach has entailed support for technical analyses of fuel cell applications and of the economics of air quality regulations.

In 1994 the Foundation's work on energy also continued in two other areas, sustainable energy in developing countries and international negotiations to address global climate change. Scientific news about the climate began to worsen in 1994, and diplomatic progress toward strengthening the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change moved forward haltingly. New scientific evidence on the interplay between carbon-dioxide-caused warming vs. sulfate-particle cooling gave added credibility to the predictions that human activities are disrupting the climate. Redoubled efforts by advocates and scientists encouraged governments to ratify the framework convention,; but strong lobbying by certain industrial sectors, especially oil and coal interests, continue to inhibit international consensus to take the actions necessary to achieve atmospheric stabilization.

The Foundation's grantees labored prodigiously on these issues, developing analyses of the economic costs of climate stabilization, examining practical methods for verifying climate measures taken by individual countries, and conducting public education on the need for climate protection.
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