Image:  Kris Krüg for PopTech/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Image: Kris Krüg for PopTech/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Clean energy technologies in areas like solar and wind energy often have a long development timeline, and Jessika Trancik wants to cut to the chase. With predictive computer models—not unlike those used by the pharmaceutical industry to accelerate drug development—the clean tech expert evaluates energy technologies for effectiveness and scalability, so the most promising ones can start making a difference sooner.

For example, researchers led by Trancik, the Atlantic Richfield Career Development Assistant Professor in Energy Studies at MIT, recently examined the environmental impacts of methane emissions from natural gas use. Many electric power producers have started replacing coal—which emits CO2—with natural gas due to methane’s short lifespan. Trancik’s group developed a new metric to assess the global warming potential (GWP) of methane and CO2 and discovered that the benefits of natural gas over coal are lost within two decades.

As explained in an Energy Futures article, Trancik’s analysis showed that the standard method used to determine the climate impacts of promising energy technologies may overestimate the benefits to be gained over the next several decades. The problem? The conventional approach doesn’t account for the timing of emissions and as a result doesn’t calculate the full impact of methane emitted by many energy technologies. Using novel “dynamic” metrics in a sample analysis, the researchers found that the current advantage of generating electricity with natural gas rather than coal shrinks in half within three decades, and using compressed natural gas in place of gasoline as a transportation fuel is worse for the climate by 2030. The good news is that investments in reducing methane leaks and tracking and regulating methane emissions can significantly improve those outcomes.

Trancik is performing similar studies to evaluate the effectiveness of various types of solar cells.

She hopes that her research papers she publishes can provide guidance to those whose decisions could make all the difference in the struggle with climate change. In a recent interview with Grist, Trancik noted, “I do see an increasing appetite for research papers among policymakers and also industries, so I think the more we can share those results and explain them and talk them through it, the better.”

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