Interview. Daniel Kammen, a physicist at Berkeley, guides us through the latest innovations in carbon reduction, from "prosumers" to mini-networks to molten salt batteries.

Berkeley lab explores ‘the science of solutions’ on climate change

The 23rd U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP23) is happening right now in Bonn. Since climate change is one of the most complex and dangerous global challenges facing humanity, it’s an important event even if this year’s conference hasn’t garnered the same media fanfare as last year’s.

Il manifesto spoke with Daniel Kammen, of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of Berkeley, California, who was in Rome last week to participate in the great international conference “Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility,” organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The name of your laboratory is interesting.

For 20 years we have been labeled as dealing with renewable energy, but we actually work on integrated energy systems, what we call “the science of solutions” — i.e. how to arrive at decarbonization and promote a transition to clean energy. And this large-scale transition will occur through small-scale steps, such as systems in homes, villages, mini-grids [networks that connect local groups of users]. I am a physicist, but in my laboratory one finds mathematicians, physicists, economists: the motivation that drives us is environmental justice, social justice. The name comes from all this.

A law that is about to be passed sets a target for California to use 100 percent clean energy by 2045. Is that possible?

Yes, absolutely. And, even more, not counting either nuclear or hydroelectric power. California is already a leader in the reduction of carbon emissions in the United States. By 2030, we will arrive at 50 percent. Currently we are focusing on solar. Then, wind and sustainable biomass [organic matter which is combustible, or which is to be transformed into biofuel], if available. As of today, the technology which is key to the transformation is natural gas.

But natural gas is not clean energy.

It is not. It is, in fact, a short-term solution, but gas costs little, plants are quick and inexpensive to build, and it produces less CO2. It is an intermediate step. And moreover, California focuses significantly on energy storage.

To use the sun and wind, you need good batteries.

Precisely. And since hydropower is not part of the plans, we cannot use it to store energy by letting the water reach a high level when there is excess energy available and letting it out when we need it. There are companies that use the same concept but with rocks: They are designing monorail frictionless trains, using new technologies, which would carry rocks up and down with minimal energy loss. But the real technology is lithium-ion batteries, vanadium flow batteries, molten salt batteries. My lab is working on many of these leading technologies. We must encourage them. California now requires that energy providers must store 2 percent of their peak production using new storage technologies. We are also working on the electrification of the vehicle fleet: It is a way to build widespread mobile storage in a way that the cost would be borne by individuals and not the state. At the end of the process, we estimate that 20-30 percent of peak energy demand will be fulfilled from some form of storage.

Sounds easy. But the batteries still have problems.

Not many problems. They are too expensive, it’s true. But the technology is improving much faster than solar. The goal is that they would reach the price of $100 for every kWh of storage capacity. Today we are at around $350, but this will come down, as happened for solar. And, furthermore, it will be very important to diversify the technology. A very promising type is the flywheel battery, a sort of wheel that accumulates kinetic energy, not chemical. Among other things, this avoids the problem that, for example, there aren’t enough lithium mines.

You work as consultants for various countries to help them achieve this energy transition. What are the most important steps?

The first is to have good planning tools to assess the possible scenarios. We have developed a model called “Switch” for the energy network. We used it in California, Mexico, Nicaragua, Chile, China, Kenya, Bangladesh, Kosovo and Albania. We work with universities to apply it to the local situation. The second important element is the commitment by countries to make the network a market and not a monopoly, and this is much more complicated. Not only because of the problems with corruption, or the suppliers’ old, deep-rooted ways of working, but also because of the more or less hidden subsidies. In my opinion, we should build a market similar to eBay, where you can buy and sell energy. But this requires rules and transparency, and it’s not easy. We must stop thinking that on one hand there are the big power plants and on the other hand the individual consumers. Today people are using an ugly neologism, “prosumers,” meaning consumer-producers.

So I consume power, but I can also produce it, for example with solar.

Precisely. But I’m imagining an actual market, where if I buy or sell energy at peak times, I pay, or get paid, more for it. And a market where the units of reference are not only money, but also carbon. It is very complicated, I know. Not so much technically — it is technically feasible in all the countries we have studied — but politically.

The last question is about the conference in Rome last week. You spoke there about the right of access to energy for the poorest.

It was a conference centered on the Papal encyclical “Laudato si,” and how to put it into practice. I explained how we could give access to energy to a billion and a half people around the world who do not have electricity. We can do this with a combination of improving the technologies for cooking and for domestic energy distribution, solar technology, LED lights, introducing renewable mini-grids and cleaning up the larger networks. Pope Francis is a world leader on climate, and in general on social issues. We have an important ongoing dialogue with the Pope, who believes, to quote his own words, that you cannot be a good Catholic if you don’t take care of the environment. He is very active regarding many poor countries in Latin America, where we work as well. His message reaches the poorest from church pulpits, and it helps explain how it is possible to escape poverty with the help of clean energy.

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