Published online 10 June 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.362


Summit plots route to clean electricity

Interdisciplinary talks call for investment in nuclear and geothermal power.

windmillsFinding ways of advancing low-carbon electricity, such as wind power, over the next two decades was the focus of the Equinox Summit.Michael Betts/ Getty Images

Harnessing the potential of geothermal energy and advanced nuclear reactors that burn nuclear waste could be part of a broader plan to create a low-carbon electricity system by 2030, a global group of scientists, policy experts and young environmental leaders concluded this week.

Released on 9 June, the communique from the Equinox Summit, held in Waterloo, Canada, endorses geothermal energy, renewables and advanced nuclear power while calling for batteries and grid technologies to help decarbonize urban electricity use. The document also emphasizes the role of new flexible and lightweight organic solar cells in bringing 'first light' to roughly 2.5 billion people currently without access to mains electricity.

"We focused on what science and technology can do to help reboot this conversation around how to decarbonize the global energy system," says the summit's science adviser, Jatin Nathwani, executive director of the Institute for Sustainable Energy at the University of Waterloo.

Sponsored by the Waterloo Global Science Initiative, a partnership between the University of Waterloo and the Waterloo-based Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, the summit was designed to bring together scientists and young people working on the issue with advisers who could map out the policy terrain. After the initial science and technology presentations, the 36 participants split up into groups for meetings to assess the various technologies and develop a list of priorities.

Bright sparks

Jason Blackstock, an energy and climate expert at the Centre for International Governance and Innovation in Waterloo who helped organize the summit, says the technology road map produced at the summit presents some "exemplar pathways" but is not intended to be all-inclusive: "This is about demonstrating how science and policy can blend to generate and spark ideas." Blackstock says the goal is to use the networks formed at the conference to push these ideas in the coming months.

Jay Apt, a summit participant and executive director of Carnegie Mellon University's Electricity Industry Center in Pittsburgh, says it was interesting to watch people of different backgrounds interacting. "The biggest output might be a cadre of people who know how to think about these issues," he says.

"It was a very good exercise in trying to convene scientists and non-specialists," says Yacine Kadi, a physicist at CERN, Europe's particle physics lab in Geneva, Switzerland. "The feedback was tremendous."

Kadi pitched accelerator-driven nuclear reactors that run on thorium – a plentiful element present in sand – and nuclear waste, an old idea that has struggled to gain traction. As well as providing an alternative to uranium and plutonium and thus reducing proliferation concerns, he says, these reactors would shut down when the particle accelerator turns off, addressing safety questions that have arisen following the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Dig for electricity

The Equinox communique called for a multinational initiative to advance thorium reactor research and development as well as the commercial demonstration of an 'integral fast reactor' that runs on reprocessed nuclear waste. "The allure of these technologies is simply too great to ignore," says Jakob Nygard, a summit participant from Denmark who is pursuing a master's degree in political science.


The communique endorsed traditional renewable energy coupled with batteries and called for $1 billion to be spent on 10-20 demonstration projects in geothermal energy. Tapping the heat of rocks several kilometres below ground could provide 10% of the world's baseline power requirements by 2030. Other initiatives targeted grid and communications technologies that could be used to make urban electric systems more efficient.

The recommendations were presented to officials and scientists representing the Canadian government and civil society.

But some said the conference might have focused too much on individual hi-tech solutions. "A lot of scientists have this superhero dream and say 'My technology is going to solve the world's problems,' but it's not that simple," says Ding Jianhua, an engineer who works on green development issues for the Center of Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development in Beijing. She is already pushing for a follow-up conference next year that will focus on her own core interests of energy efficiency and conservation. "The superhero is the public, working together," Ding says. 

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