For me, energy literacy means having a debate on energy that’s based on solid data and an understanding of what is possible and realistic as the world strives to build a more sustainable energy future.

Choosing the right energy pathway is complex because energy, water and land are intertwined. To help inform such a debate, BP has funded a consortium of experts from 13 universities around the world to provide scientific evidence to underpin policy making and business planning. The programme is called the Energy Sustainability Challenge (ESC).

As one part of this programme, work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has revealed how volumes of water used in power stations and fuel production plants worldwide could be reduced. For example, ten-fold reductions in water used by power plants can come from using cooling towers where water is recycled, rather than ‘once-through’ systems where water is extracted from oceans, lakes or other sources each time it is needed.

Researchers at Beijing’s Tsinghua University went one step further. They calculated that the amount of freshwater used by Chinese industry could be reduced over the next two decades – instead of doubling as currently expected – through improved technical approaches such as water recycling in coal mining and washing coal before it’s burned for power.

In another part of the ESC, academics at the Universities of Berkeley and Illinois at Urbana-Champaign looked at the potential for producing biofuels in the United States from perennial energy cane, which can be grown on land less suitable for conventional arable crops. They found significant areas of such land, with the potential to more than double current bio-ethanol production in the US without competing with food and feed crops.

These examples show the power of research to identify the areas where there is the greatest potential for progress over different timeframes.

It’s an approach we should also apply to the debate on climate change. For example, while renewable energy is growing rapidly – and BP invested $1.6 billion last year in low carbon energy (on track to meet our commitment of investing $8 billion by 2015) – it is starting from a low base. We expect renewable energy will contribute only about 6% of global supply by 2030 . In the meantime we should consider that bigger gains could be made quickly through improving energy efficiency and displacing coal with gas on a large scale in power generation.

The innovation required for lowering carbon intensity can most efficiently be incentivized by pricing carbon – and because we expect that this will become more common, we require investment appraisals and engineering designs for larger BP projects to apply a standard carbon cost to the projected GHG emissions over their lifetime.

Meanwhile, the emerging findings from the ESC are available on BP’s website – we offer them as one contribution towards a more energy-literate world.

Author: Bob Dudley is Group Chief Executive of BP plc.

Photo: A man rides his bike past a cooling tower in Beijing. REUTERS/David Gray