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Ramez Naam. Renewables are cheap and can save us from climate change

We met computer scientist Ramez Naam at the Singularity University summit 2017 in Milan. His words on the potential of renewables and technological innovation are encouraging.

After working 13 years at Microsoft, leader company in the information technology industry, and contributing to developing “cult” programmes including Outlook and Internet Explorer, Ramez Naam, born in Cairo, Egypt but raised in the US, has dedicated his work as computer scientist to communicate the potentialities linked to technological innovation.

Naam is a speaker specialised in Energy and Environmental Systems for the Singularity University (SU). Indeed, we talked to him during a SU summit held in Milan, Italy on 27 and 28 September. His words are crystal clear: “Clean energy, more than anything else, is the solution that has the biggest impact on climate change”.

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In your book The Infinite Resource you raised the question “Can innovation save the Planet?”. What innovations in the technological and scientific field can help win the fight to protect the environment from climate change?
More than anything else, clean energy is the solution that has the biggest impact on climate change and it’s an incredibly rapid innovation. The price of solar panels has dropped 250 folds in the last 40 years, the price of wind power has dropped 15 fold since 1980, the price of batteries has dropped 5 fold just since 2010, and the price of electric vehicles has come down enormously. So this allows us to keep using energy, to live rich lives (the way that we wanted to live), but do so while being clean, and sparing the Planet.

You said Italy is a good place for renewables…
Italy is one of the sunniest parts of Europe. The sunnier it is, the cheaper solar power will be. So Italy is a great place to develop solar. We’ve seen the cost of solar drop in Italy, a big surge of solar building solar from 2010 to 2013 and a slow down for a few years. But it looks to me that it will take off again in the next year or two as the price keeps coming down.

Why are there big companies, like ENI, that claim that natural gas and coal are still an option?
Fossil fuels are still dominant. Today people mostly buy the cheapest energy that satisfies their need. And until very recently it was clear that gas, oil and coal were the cheapest ways to provide heat, electricity and transportation. But that has changed in these couple of years. Two years ago we had the first case of solar being cheaper than coal and gas in the world. And that now happens in other countries. Two years ago if you wanted a nice electric car you had a model S by Tesla that was 80,000 dollars, now you can buy a 30,000 dollar Tesla model 3. So it’s changing so rapidly and hitting the point right now that the cheapest option in most parts of the world is solar or wind or electric vehicles.

The price of solar power is competitive, more than fossil fuels. Why aren’t we investing in this technology alone, rather than wasting billions on fossil fuels?
Investors are going to lose massive amounts of money – hundreds of billions of dollars. And sometimes the State, and taxpayers, will lose that money. If you build a new coal plant or oil pipeline today, you have to operate for 30 or 40 years to pay it off. You might think it’s still 10 per cent cheaper to use natural than solar today, but it’s not going to be the same two years from now. This is called a sunk cost or stranded assets, i.e. the things you build that in 5 or 10 years will be junk. And who’s going to pay for that? Stakeholders. So investors should be angry at the criminal behaviour of the leadership of the companies that have subjected them to massive losses. Or they’re going to expect the public to pay all them out. In that case the public should be angry.

ramez naam
Ramez Naam, speaker of the Singularity Uniiversity, has talked during the summit in Milan on 27 and 28 September 2017

What do you think of the Paris Agreement as for the energy sector?
The Paris Accord is a step. Let’s say your car is heading for a cliff. You’re turning the wheel, you have to turn it more than once and spin it around and around to turn the tires to one side and not go over the edge. Is the first turn of the wheel enough? No. But you had to do it. So the Paris Accord is one step but if things go well and clean energy will keep getting cheaper – which it will – then in 5 or 10 years we will come back to the table and we will make a Paris Accord that is more stringent. We’ll lower those numbers and tighten the targets. And we’ll be able to do so because countries see that clean energy is becoming such an option that’s economical.

In this sense, do you think American companies can help change the stance taken by the Trump administration?
I think that the Trump administration will have minimum impact on climate change because now we are in a mode where economics drive the deployment of clean energy and policies still matter. In the US most of those policies are made at the level of individual states – two thirds of US states have clean energy mandates. All around the world, in Europe and Asia, we have the price of clean energies dropping and people are still pushing on policies front.

You said Italy is one of the most expendive countries(28 cents per kWh). Will it be possible to lower costs thanks to renewables?
Italy made a big push for renewables early on when renewables were expensive and, then, passed that cost on to the consumers. But now we have this inversion that new renewables are the cheapest thing. So yes, it should possible to lower that cost. With solar and wind and batteries Italy should be able to lower its cost of energy at the same time that it goes green.

Is there a technology that could soon triumph over fossil fuels and make the energy transition happen?
There’s no magic potion. This idea of a single breakthrough technology is a myth. The way that it happens is that we build the technology and we deploy it. And the technology gets cheaper the more you deploy it. We have technologies that can do it but even with the rapid price plunge of solar, wind and batteries we’re still at danger. We still look like we’ll go over 2 degrees and so we need to push harder with policies. And if we do then we will both stave off climate change and create lower-cost renewable energy for all of us.

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