Aligning Energy Technologies and Climate Change Goals

Using a new approach, MIT researchers evaluate energy technologies against climate goals and find that while the U.S. will need to transition the majority of its energy to carbon-free technologies by mid-century, past technology improvement rates paint an optimistic picture.

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Victoria Ekstrom, MIT Energy Initiative

Assistant Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, Dr. Jessika Trancik. Photo: Justin Knight.

The cost and performance of future energy technologies will largely determine to what degree nations are able to reduce the effects of climate change. In a paper released today in Environmental Science & Technology, MIT researchers demonstrate a new approach to help engineers, policymakers and investors think ahead about the types of technologies needed to meet climate goals.

“To reach climate goals, it is important to determine aspirational performance targets for energy technologies currently in development,” says Jessika Trancik, the lead author of the study and an assistant professor of engineering systems. “These targets can guide efforts and hopefully accelerate technological improvement.”

Trancik says that existing climate change mitigation models aren’t suited to provide this information, noting, “This research fills a gap by focusing on technology performance as a mitigation lever and providing a way to compare the dynamic performance of individual energy technologies to climate goals. This provides meaningful targets for engineers in the lab, as well as policymakers looking to create low-carbon policies and investors who need to know where their money can best be spent.”

The model compares the carbon intensity and costs of technologies to emission reduction goals, and maps the position of the technologies on a cost and carbon trade-off curve to evaluate how that position changes over time.

According to Nathan E. Hultman, director of Environmental and Energy Policy Programs at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, this approach “provides an interesting and useful alternate method of thinking about both the outcomes and the feasibility of a global transition to a low-carbon energy system.” Hultman, who is also a fellow at the Brookings Institution, was not associated with the study.

How do technologies measure up?

According to Trancik, the cost and carbon trade-off curve can be applied to any region and any sector over any period of time to evaluate energy technologies against climate goals.  Along with her co-author, MIT master’s student Daniel Cross-Call, she models the period from 2030 to 2050 and specifically studies the U.S. and China’s electricity sectors.

The researchers find that while major demand-side improvements in energy efficiency will buy some time, the U.S. will need to transition at least 70 percent of its energy to carbon-free technologies by 2050 – even if energy demand is low and the emissions reduction target is high.

Demand-side changes buy more time in China. Efficiency, combined with less stringent emissions allocations, allows for one to two more decades of time to transition to carbon-free technologies. During this time, technologies are expected to improve.

This technology focused perspective, Trancik says, “may help developed and developing countries move past the current impasse in climate negotiations.”

While reaching climate goals is a seemingly formidable task, Trancik says that considering changes to technology performance over time is important. When comparing historical changes in technologies to the future changes needed to meet climate targets, the results paint an optimistic picture.

“Past changes in the cost and carbon curve are comparable to the future changes required to reach carbon intensity targets,” Trancik says. “Along both the cost and carbon axes there is a technology that has changed in the past as much as, or more than, the change needed in the future to reach the carbon intensity and associated cost targets. This is good news.”

The research was partially funded by the MIT Energy Initiative.