The extent to which we support energy innovation today will determine the world our children and grandchildren inherit in 2050. It takes 30 years or more to successfully commercialize and deploy transformative new energy technologies at scale, so the investments we choose to make over just the next 5 years – or indeed those we don’t - will determine their fate.
The year 2050 sounds pretty far away, doesn’t it? But in terms of the world our children and grandchildren will inherit, 2050 is today: it’s right around the corner.
In 2050, I will be in my 70s and my daughter and son will be in their mid-30s, entering the prime of their lives. And with a little luck – they will be blessed with children of their own, my grandchildren. Most people reading this can probably say something similar about their own children and grandchildren in that time frame.
By 2050, there will be almost 10 billion people on Earth, one-third more than there are today, with essentially all of this population growth predicted to be in currently less-wealthy nations around the world. And the approximately 9 billion people living in these nations in 2050 will be hungry to consume more energy, requiring an almost doubling of energy usage per person to achieve a good standard of living by some estimates.
At the same time, the world’s best scientists have determined that we must simultaneously reduce our global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, relative to today’s levels, in order to avoid the most devastating impacts of climate change.
We face a stark choice: we can envision one of two futures for these 10 billion people
- A world with a dangerous climate, choking pollution, and widespread geopolitical strife
- A wealthier, healthier, and more secure world powered by clean energy
Access to energy - affordable, widely available, and clean energy - is what will likely tip the scales one way or the other.
We Need an Energy Innovation Revolution, and We Need It Now
Scaling and improving today’s clean energy technologies can take us part of the way to the future we all want. Technologies like wind power, solar power, LEDs, electric vehicle batteries, and many others are already rapidly approaching widespread cost-competitiveness with traditional forms of energy.
But these technologies alone will not be enough: it has become clear now that to provide universal energy access around the world while simultaneously achieving required emissions reductions, we must unleash an unprecedented Energy Innovation Revolution today - and over the next few years – to develop the transformative new energy technologies that will be needed to close the gap between the 2050 we are headed for and the 2050 we want for our children and grandchildren.
Again, 2050 feels far away, distant – even to me. But if you do the simple math, even when everything goes just right, it takes about 10 years to successfully commercialize a transformative new energy technology and at least another 20 years for it to be deployed at a meaningful scale globally. So even in the best case, the new energy technologies that we begin to commercialize today will take 30 years or more to have the kind of impact we need by 2050.
The upshot is that between now and 2020 we must launch more new transformative energy technology ventures than we ever have before.
Wanted: A New Global Energy Innovation Ecosystem
However, successfully investing in the commercialization and deployment of these new energy technologies has proven to be hard. So hard, indeed, that it is becoming clear that it is easier for early-stage investors to make money or fail fast and cheaply by investing in more traditional innovation spaces like IT and software, which has reduced early-stage investment into new breakthrough energy startups to a trickle today.
So what do we need to do?
One the one hand, we need to double down on filling the very beginning of the energy innovation pipeline by significantly increasing – or at very least maintaining – government funding into basic energy research. This is where breakthrough technologies are born. This can clearly be achieved if the 22 countries and the European Union who signed onto the “Mission Innovation” pledge in November 2015 faithfully follow through on their commitment to collectively double their energy R&D to $30 billion a year by 2021.
Perhaps even more urgently, over the next 5 years, the world’s leading institutions, innovators, and most influential individuals around the world must rally together to dramatically increase funding support to an unprecedented new generation of breakthrough energy technology ventures - to commercialize the most promising new energy ideas in the world’s labs today into real-world technologies that can be deployed at a global scale.
Fortunately, a few global leaders have already begun to raise their hands and take bold action.
For example, just last October, MIT launched a first-of-a-kind major innovation initiative – “The Engine” – that will provide more than $150 million in initial funding for transformative new companies developing breakthrough technologies in energy and other globally important areas.
General Electric, through the expansion of its highly successful Ecomagination Initiative, is doubling down as well, committing to $10 billion in additional energy R&D investment between 2016 and 2020, having already invested $17 billion in energy R&D since Ecomagination’s inception in 2005.
And last December, Bill Gates and 20 other highly successful individuals launched Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a new $1 billion investment fund that will focus on backing transformative energy technology companies that are too risky for today’s traditional venture capitalists.
Together, groups like these and others are leading the charge towards a 2050 for our children and grandchildren that we can all be proud of.
But even these highly influential organizations and individuals can’t do it alone. Success will require dozens and hundreds more to step forward, make strong commitments, and take concerted action to launch the Energy Innovation Revolution we need over next five years.
There is simply no more time to waste. Tomorrow is today. There is such a thing as being too late.
(Top image: Courtesy Getty Images.)
David Danielson is a Managing Director at Breakthrough Energy Ventures and is a board member for GE Ecomagination.
All views expressed are those of the author.