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Program ID: Innovation Anthology #912
Program Date: 11/09/2017
Program Category: Alberta, Atmospheric Sciences, Climate Change, Energy, Engineering, Environment, Innovation

SPARK 2017: Thomas Homer-Dixon on Electric Cars

PROGRAM #912   INTERVIEW WITH THOMAS HOMER-DIXON, PhD

MP3:   9.0 MB
TIME:  9:22  MINUTES

Intro:    Thomas Homer-Dixon, PhD, holds the CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada. He is also a Professor at the University of Waterloo in the Faculty of Environment, with a cross-appointment to the Political Science Department in the Faculty of Arts.  He was also a founding director of the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation. Homer Dixon has written several books including The Ingenuity Gap, The Upside of Down, and Environment, Scarcity and Violence.

THOMAS HOMER-DIXON, PhD

CC:   THOMAS, YOU TALKED ABOUT THE RATE OF CHANGE, THAT IT’S GOING TO BE MUCH FASTER BOTH IN CLIMATE AND THE ADOPTION OR THE TRANSITION AWAY FROM FOSSIL FUELS TO ELECTRIC CARS, THAT SORT OF THING.  WHY DO YOU SAY THAT AND HOW IS IT GOING TO HAPPEN?

THD:  The rate of change is going to be high because if we look at climate change, the rate of forcing of the atmosphere is very high.  So we’re now adding about 2 to 3 parts per million of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere every year as a species.  So we have already increased the amount since preindustrial times, we have already increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by about 40 percent.   

There’s an interesting sidebar to this that most folks don’t realize is that 40 percent of the carbon in their own bodies now comes from fossil fuels.  Because it goes through from the atmosphere to plants, we eat the plants or we eat the animals that eat the plants, and that carbon ends up in our bodies.   So that carbon has already permeated the entire biosphere.  

But they’ve change now the rate at which the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere is extremely high.  This last year, 2016, saw the largest jump in carbon dioxide concentrations in recorded history.   

So that means that we are increasing global warming very fast.  And everything else falls in the wake of that.  The extreme weather events.  Droughts and storms. And forest fires.  Population displacements. Potential effects on our food output.  And it’s those impacts that will drive our policy responses.   

Increasingly people around the world and leaders will say, we have to do something.    And this is happening as fast or faster than even most experts expected as recently as a few years go.  

CC:  YOU MENTIONED THE ADOPTION OF ELECTRIC CARS.  WHAT IS GOING TO MAKE THAT HAPPEN ON A RAPID BASIS?  

THD:  Electrical vehicle technology is advancing really quite quickly, thanks in part to people like Elon Musk.  The key factors are range and cost of the vehicles.  What we’re seeing is that the range is steadily increasing and the cost is steadily decreasing.

And I showed a slide today in my presentation that indicated that for an electrical vehicle with a range of 200 miles, we are now pretty close to the average cost of a vehicle in the American vehicle fleet.  And over a period of probably not more than 20 years, those vehicles will become cheaper than the cheapest vehicle in the American vehicle fleet.   

And once people see that they can get one of these things, they hardly have to pay anything to run it, it doesn’t require very much maintenance at all, you can run your house potentially from it by using the battery as a standby power system for your house, and they are actually really fun to drive, then they are going to start buying electric vehicles.   

If you add on top of that various government incentives which I think are very necessary to really drive the process, because governments are going to be under pressure to do something about carbon emissions, then I think that this transition could happen very fast.     

My expectation would be that we will see pretty close to 100 percent of the vehicle fleet be electric by 2035 to  2040.   

CC:  THIS IS THE SAME SORT OF THING THAT HAS HAPPENED WITH SOLAR, IN THAT THE PRICE HAS REALLY COME DOWN. SO WHAT IS THE ROLE OF SOLAR AT THIS TIME?  WHERE DOES IT FIT IN?

THD:  So solar is an interesting analog and complement to this story about electrical vehicles.  First of all on the innovation side, solar has seen a dramatic collapse in prices over the last 15 years or so, in terms of the cost per watt of photo-voltaic solar.   

That wasn’t expected, but it happened through a whole series of incremental improvements in manufacturing that ramped costs down.  I think we would expect the same with electrical vehicles.   

People forget that electrical vehicles actually are very simple.  You have a battery and an engine and some gears to drive the drive train.  The internal combustion engine is enormously complicated.  So that simplicity allows for economies of scale and advances in cost.  So these vehicles are going to have a cost advantage over internal combustion vehicles pretty soon.

Now in terms of providing power, solar will be one of the things that is part of the electrical generating capacity for our societies in the future.  

I was pretty clear today that what I call proximate solar power, that is generated more or less directly from the sun, would include PV solar panels, wind, perhaps biomass, where the solar energy falls on the surface of the planet, and is quickly converted into electrical energy, those technologies for a variety of reasons don’t have the power density that allow us to run our whole societies.   

We’re going to need something else for electrical generation.  I have some ideas of where we should go.  One is ultra deep geothermal, but solar will be part of the mix, there’s no doubt about it.   

We aren’t going to have enough solar power though to run our electrical fleet.  I don’t think that’s the case.  We need other sources of electrical energy.   

CC:  NOW YOU’VE SUGGESTED THAT CARBON SEQUESTRATION AND THE USE OF ENHANCED GEO THERMAL, THAT WE REALLY SHOULD BE GIVING THESE A SERIOUS LOOK.  WHY?

THD:  Well most folks who are serious about, on the technical side, understand the technical challenge we face with climate change, and the kind of energy transition we have to undertake, say that it’s pretty impossible to do without carbon capture and storage.  

That there will be a period of time when we will still be using substantial fossil fuel resources.  And we have to put that carbon underground.  Or we are going to be using fossil fuel resources to generate say a feedstock of hydrogen as an energy source, and then we have to take the carbon and put it somewhere.  

So one of the technologies I suggested today is deep underground coal gasification where you create a synthetic gas, syngas, underground, deep underground, bring it up to the surface, strip out the carbon dioxide, use the hydrogen, and then pump the carbon dioxide back underground.   

It could be an enormous source of carbon free energy, but you have to do something with the carbon.  So ust about everybody in the business says we can’t get to where we need to go without CCS as they say it, carbon capture and storage. 

The problem is, that its very expensive.  It has an energetic cost.  It has a capital cost.  And private companies have not been willing to bear the burden of pushing through the development process. And so this is a place where unfortunately government is absolutely essential in driving us down the cost curve.  But it has to be done.  Every serious analysis has a CCS component to it.  

CC:  WELL WHAT ROLE DOES ALBERTA HAVE TO PLAY IN THAT?  WE HAVE LOTS OF COAL UNDERGROUND AND IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE GOOD QUALITY.  BUT WE ALSO HAVE PEOPLE WHO HAVE SPENT THE LAST SEVERAL DECADES LEARNING HOW TO DRILL INTO THE GROUND IN ORDER TO TAKE OIL OUT.  

THD:  Well I think that Alberta’s expertise IN drilling is actually a huge asset.  In fact its geo technical and heavy engineering expertise, as I said today, are enormous assets in this new world.  Because wherever we are going in a zero carbon economy, we’re still going to be extracting energy resources from underground.  It could in the form of heat from deep geothermal, where you have to go down 10 kilometers or more.   

It could be in the form of deep coal seams that you gasify underground, leave the carbon dioxide there.  These are technologies that are viable and potentially scalable around the world.   

But Alberta has an enormous capacity to move in these areas, if the province recognizes the urgency of the situation.   

And I think that this conference is a good recognition that people are starting to recognize the urgency. And I could tell afterwards there were all these people coming up afterwards with all these ideas of what they are doing, which is very exciting and it’s great.    I mean people are very serious and they are figuring things out.    
So it’s a question of figuring out what the value added or the comparative advantage of Alberta is. What can the province bring to the table?  Well it’s got some of the best drillers in the world.  And if ultra deep geothermal is a part of our energy mix in a major way in the future for human kind, then Alberta can be at the forefront of that.    

CC:  WHO IS DOING IT NOW?

THD:  There’s a firm in the UK called Strata Energy I talked about today, that has mastered a percussion drilling mechanism where they can get through granite which is an incredibly hard rock, at 20 meters an hour, which is an extraordinary rate of progress.   

I’m really distressed that this technology has been developed outside of Canada.  I’m sure the Chinese are working on it, too.  There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be at the leading edge of this.   

CC:  GIVEN THAT WE’RE FACING THIS CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE, WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE FOR ALBERTA INNOVATORS?

THD:  I think this is an opportunity, an enormous opportunity, for the province.  This is an energy province.  It’s been at the leading edge, the frontier, with some extraordinary technologies for extraction of heavy oil, for example.  There’s no reason why it can’t be at the leading edge in the future.   

So instead of seeing it as a threat, it needs to be seen as an opportunity.  And understand the importance of harnessing the province’s entrepreneurship to seize that opportunity.

CC:  THANK YOU VERY MUCH, THOMAS.  

THD:  Good.  Thank you. 

Thomas Homer-Dixon, PhD, is an author and academic at the University of Waterloo. 








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