A Sustainable Energy Plan For the US
Whether it's a fatal failure of imagination or a cynical sellout to fossil fuel campaign contributors, the energy policy of the Bush/Cheney administration would take us in exactly the wrong direction.
Every morning when we rise, we flick on the lights and various electrical appliances before we drive or cycle off to work, school, or play on this beautiful planet.
Somewhere, far away, trucks haul coal into the hoppers of giant power plants. Across the oceans, ships bring us oil, which produces the power we need to run our lives.
For most North Americans, the system works just fine. We have grown so used to it. We no longer think about where the energy comes from. California’s energy crisis is just a small glitch. If there’s an energy shortage, all we need to do is burn more coal, drill more oil, and pump more gas. If only it were so simple.
Troublesome fact A: Oil
The rate at which we are discovering new oil will soon fall below the rate at which we are using it. If you believe the geologist Colin Campbell, this will happen in 2005. If you believe the International Energy Agency, it’ll be 2015. As soon as the warning bells ring, oil prices will shoot up. Global demand will start to outstrip supply, and if there is no alternative in place, the result will be chaos.
Troublesome fact B: Coal
There’s plenty of coal in the ground, but it’s a pernicious fuel to use. As well as pouring out carbon dioxide, burning coal releases nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, three of the nastiest pollutants in North America, responsible for smog, acid rain, and poisoned lakes and rivers.
Troublesome fact C: Climate
The world’s climate is responding very badly to the increase in CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions from burning fossil fuels; all three gases trap heat. Before the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 was around 280 parts per million. Today, it is 370 ppm, the highest it has been for 20 million years. The Arctic summer icepack, normally 3 meters thick, has lost 40 percent of its thickness since 1970. At this rate, it will be gone entirely by 2040, and the polar bears, which depend on the ice to hunt, will become extinct. Because of the simple physics of heat, we cannot burn fossil fuels and have polar bears. The Kyoto Protocol is a first step toward reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Back in 1990, the scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that an immediate 60 percent reduction in emissions was needed to stabilize the climate at a safe level. The goal that Patrick Mazza and I adopted in our book, Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, is an 80 percent reduction by 2025.
Troublesome fact D: Natural gas
Natural gas is not a cleaner alternative or a “bridge to the future” as many people, including the Worldwatch Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, would have us believe. Natural gas produces lower emissions of CO2 than coal or oil, but 85 percent of natural gas is methane, some of which escapes during production and distribution. Over 20 years, it is 9 percent worse than oil. It is still 30 percent better than coal over 20 years, but we are building new gas-fired plants in addition to the existing coal-fired plants, not to replace them. In a sustainable, ecologically smart energy plan, natural gas needs to be excluded along with coal and oil.
Nuclear should also be excluded, because no one can guarantee that a catastrophic accident won’t happen, and no one knows how to deal with the wastes.
How much energy do we need?
The challenge for a sustainable energy plan is to show how we can meet America’s energy needs using renewable energy from the sun, wind, biomass, geothermal, microhydro, waves, tides, and hydrogen. Or perhaps we should say the reasonable energy needs, because the North American cultural belief that we are entitled to have it all—from timber and energy to vehicles, ice-cream, burgers, and holidays in the Bahamas—is the biggest barrier of all to the realization of a sustainable world.
The good news—Bush and Cheney notwithstanding—is that the transition to a sustainable energy future is well under way. All that is needed is that the kinds of support Washington gives to the coal, oil, and gas industry be given to the sustainable energy industry instead. That will require smart politics.
So how much energy do we need?
First, let’s crunch some numbers. In the year 2000, the USA consumed 99 quadrillion Btus of primary energy. Industry used 38 percent, transport 32 percent, residential buildings 19 percent, and commercial buildings 16 percent. For electricity, US power plants produced 3,807 terawatt hours of electricity—40 percent from coal, 21 percent from natural gas, 13 percent from hydro, 13 percent from nuclear, 9 percent from oil, 3 percent from non-hydro renewables. (Note: one terawatt [TW] equals 1,000 megawatts.)
The Energy Information Administration estimates that demand for electricity is growing by 1.8 percent per year in the US, and will increase to 5,439 TWh by 2020, requiring 1,300 new power plants to be built—more than one a week. This assumes “business as usual.”
What might we do instead?
Step 1: encourage energy efficiency
European countries get by on half as much energy per unit of GDP (and per capita) while enjoying a perfectly civilized life. Using today’s technologies, every building, appliance, factory process, and vehicle in North America could be twice as efficient. Using tomorrow’s technologies, they could be four to ten times more efficient. The trick is to overcome the barriers that tie us to wasteful technologies instead of smart ones.
Here are some of the policies that could cut our electricity demand by 75 percent by 2020, to 1,360 TWh, without any loss of quality:
• Apply a mandatory 1- to 4-star rating to every appliance, house, and vehicle, so that people can see what is smart and what is stupid, and give big tax credits for the purchase of every 4-star item. Award annual “achievement” tax credits to the companies that produce the most efficient appliances and technologies.
• Ramp up the national energy code for buildings, and then build on San Francisco’s example: make it mandatory for all existing buildings, as well as new ones. Allow buildings to be nonconforming, but make the code kick in whenever a building is sold, whenever a lease is renewed, or whenever an owner applies for a building permit for changes worth more than $10,000. Since the average family moves house every five years, the process will soon take hold.
• Establish a national electricity efficiency tax, or Public Benefit Charge, as California, Oregon, Minnesota, and 18 other states have done. This will increase the price of electricity, but return 100 percent of the revenue as rebates and incentives for energy efficiency upgrades.
Step 2: encourage transport efficiency
In 2000, America’s vehicles consumed 32 quadrillion Btus of energy, mostly in the form of 7 billion barrels of oil. Our goal is to eliminate 80 percent of the fossil fuels involved, through a combination of smarter travel, far greater fuel efficiency, and switching to sustainably derived hydrogen and bioethanol.
First, let’s aim for a 25 percent reduction in traffic by investing in bicycling trails, transit, railways, and telecommuting. We should also use smart growth planning principles for future settlements and retrofit America’s suburbs to create small village centers where people can work, shop, relax, and meet each other.
Next, we need to make our vehicles far more efficient. There are cars on the road today that can get 60 to 90 mpg, so there are no technical problems. We should upgrade the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard so that new cars are required to increase their efficiency from today’s CAFE standard of 27.5 mpg to 45 mpg by 2010, and to 80 mpg by 2025, with an equivalent increase for trucks, buses, and SUVs. Taken together, these policies will create a four-fold reduction in the energy needed for transport.
The fuels that will drive the cars, trucks, and planes of the future will be hydrogen and bioethanol. America’s bioethanol potential comes from harvesting existing agricultural wastes and low–cost cellulosic feedstocks; there is already enough to produce 51 billion gallons a year, equivalent to 40 percent of the current gasoline market, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates. Of this, 10–15 billion gallons could come from agricultural wastes, representing 10 percent of the current gasoline market. If the amount of energy needed to drive our vehicles was reduced by 75 percent, bioethanol and biodiesel from agricultural wastes would cover 40 percent of the fuel needed. Some of this would come from California’s rice fields, where straw cannot be ploughed back into the fields without creating disease problems, and where field-burning is to be banned by 2003. Much of the rest will come from hydrogen.
Step 3: generate clean electricity
The goal we have set for electricity in 2025 is 1,360 TWh of electricity, of which 80 percent (1,080 TWh) needs to come from clean energy. Since hydrogen is going to be needed for most of our transport needs, and the cleanest way to obtain hydrogen is by using renewable energy to split water, we need to increase our goal threefold to 4,000 TWh.
Can it be done? No problem. The steps below, taken together, could provide the US with 18,000 TWh, 4.5 times more than we need if we gain the efficiencies
described above. The benefit of coming up with so much extra is that it gives us some options to choose among the most cost-effective, environmentally benign routes.
Wind – North Dakota alone could produce 1,200 TWh. The lower 48 states have 10,871 TWh of wind energy potential, 2.5 times more than we need. Alaska, which has enormous offshore wind energy potential along the Aleutian Islands, might add another 2,000 TWh.
The best land areas are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, and South Dakota, which have a potential of 4,500 TWh, 20 percent more than America’s current electricity demand. It’s all good news for the farmers, who can form wind-turbine cooperatives and obtain a steady income while farming underneath, as they do in Denmark. Alternatively, they can lease their land to a clean energy company at $2,000 for a quarter acre per year. Around the world, wind is selling at 3–6 cents/kWh, and is among the fastest-growing segments of the energy market.
Total: 13,000 TWh
Geothermal – There are 39 countries that could meet all of their energy needs from hot, underground geothermal water. In Britain, a proposal has been floated to drill two miles deep into Cornwall and access enough geothermal energy from hot rocks (as opposed to hot water) to supply the entire British grid. A similar proposal is being explored in the Charleville area of Australia, which could provide all of Australia’s power needs for hundreds of years. In the US, the government’s GeoPowering the West initiative aims to provide 20 percent of the West’s power from geothermal energy by 2020. We can also use ground-source geo-thermal energy to heat homes, offices, and schools, using off-the-shelf heat pumps to extract heat from the year-round temperature differential six feet down. The energy potential calculated here relies just on geo-thermal hot water; the heat pump and the new technology involving hot rocks would add still more.
Total: 170 TWh
Solar – Every year, the sun pours 220 million TWh of energy onto the Earth’s surface, 2,000 times more than the world’s consumption of primary energy (111,000 TWh). At the current rate of solar efficiency, and allowing for cloudier conditions in the north, today’s entire US electricity demand (3,807 TWh) could be met from 10,000 square miles of solar photovoltaics (PV), equivalent to 9 percent of Arizona. America’s rooftops alone could generate 964 TWh (70 percent of our sustainable electricity needs) if solar shingles were used to roof an average of 540 square feet of every dwelling. Every open-air car park could be covered, providing welcome shade for the vehicles.
But what about the argument that photovoltaic cells require more energy to make than they generate? A 1997 study by the Siemens company showed that the payback for crystalline silicon PV modules varied from two to five years (for sunny and less sunny areas), and was set to improve to one to two years. For amorphous silicon, the payback was one year. For both technologies, most of the energy cost is for the aluminum that holds the PV module; by moving to solar shingles, this disappears.
For the Sustainable Energy Plan, we will assume that all south–facing roofs can be covered with solar shingles, and we will use 10,000 square miles of other surface areas to collect solar energy. As the technical efficiency of PV increases, the area needed decreases.
Total: 4,771 TWh
Wind, sun, and geothermal energy take us well over our goal. This is not counting the potential from micro-hydro, tidal, and wave energy, biomass, and geo-thermal hot rocks. With this much energy, we can afford to close down the nuclear plants and remove many of the dams that block the wild flow of rivers.
Step 4: build a hydrogen highway
Having manufactured the hydrogen for America’s transport needs, we need to carry it around the nation. John Hull, a writer for the Point Reyes Light (www.ptreyeslight.
com), a weekly newspaper in northern California, has also been at work creating a National Energy Plan. He proposes that the government step in and build a
national “Hydrogen Backbone” to collect, store, and distribute hydrogen through a network of pipelines, in the same way that it finances the Interstate Highway system. We could finance it using the income from carbon taxes (see below).
Creating the plan
There is plenty of renewable energy to meet our needs without creating greenhouse gas emissions. The next task is to craft a sustainable energy plan that will take us there. Luckily, the models already exist.
We need three basic policies to launch a sustainable energy revolution: renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, and tax and subsidy shifts.
The first policy—a renewable portfolio standard (RPS)—sets up a requirement that a percentage of a state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by a certain date. Twenty states have already put this in motion, led by Nevada, which requires that 15 percent of all energy be generated from renewable sources by 2013. A federal RPS could require that 10 percent of all US energy come from renewable sources by 2010, and 80 percent by 2025. This policy drives the investment and gives the industry plenty of notice so it can get in motion. We have seen similar dynamics when, in 1990, the California Air Resources Board required that 4 percent of all new vehicles in California be zero emission by 2003. That caused investment to pour into hydrogen fuel companies such as Ballard Power.
The second policy—carbon taxes—would place a tax on all fuel that releases carbon emissions, driving up the price of oil, coal, and natural gas relative to non-carbon energy such as solar, wind, bioethanol, and the other renewables. Individuals and businesses would receive carbon rebates priced at three times the carbon tax, allowing people to reduce their overall energy bills if they reduce their emissions.
The benefits of such a tax include a shift away from the use of fossil fuels, thereby forestalling climate change with its multi-billion dollar price tag. We could also cut the $10–$23 billion spent each year on maintaining a strong military presence in the Persian Gulf. A root cause of the asthma epidemic that is sweeping the land would be eliminated. Lakes and streams could recover from acid rain. Businesses would benefit from investing in the innovations increasingly in demand as the world transitions to non-fossil fuels. A host of new jobs would be generated, far more than would be lost by closing the coal mines and capping the oil and gas wells.
The final policy—a tax and subsidy shift—takes all the subsidies, programs, and tax breaks that support the fossil fuel industry and transfers them to efficiency, renewable energies, and hydrogen. Those subsidies amount to $20 billion a year, according to one widely quoted figure; that tallies out at $55 million a day. Other figures suggest $29–$46 billion a year. If you include the hidden costs to taxpayers for health and environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, the total reaches $68–$228 billion a year, or $247–$829 per person per year in subsidies coming out of our pockets.
One of the delights of these subsidy shifts is that they solve the solar problem. Solar energy now costs 17–52 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on where you live and the interest rate you pay to buy your system. (The average price for electricity is 8 cents per kilowatt hour.) At this price, it typically costs $16,400 to install a 2 kilowatt rooftop system, not including interest.
In 1998, at the request of Greenpeace Holland, the accountancy firm KPMG examined what it would take to make the price of solar competitive. KPMG looked at technical improvements and ruled them out as too slow. They looked at tax credits and incentives, and ruled them out as insufficient. Then they looked at mass production and hit the jackpot.
In 1999, the entire world production of PV cells added up to 201 megawatts (MW) of capacity. If there was sufficient demand for a company to manufacture 500 MW a year, KPMG discovered, the installed price would fall fourfold, to between 5 cents and 15 cents per kilowatt hour.
Now imagine that the price of fossil-fuel electricity increases as the carbon tax and energy efficiency tax kick in; that solar mortgages are instantly available, with rates subsidized by the transferred oil and coal subsidies; that most solar energy systems require no batteries, since excess power is simply sold back to the utility company; and that your solar panels produce the most energy on hot summer afternoons, just when the grid needs it most, and pays you the most. With a pricing system like this, everyone will rush to install solar.
To kickstart the process, what is needed is a federal renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirement that utilities must produce 5 percent of their energy from solar by 2010. This will kickstart mass production, reduce the price, and roll the revolution into motion. Countries like Britain, Germany, Holland, Spain, and Australia could make similar commitments, guaranteeing a solar takeoff. Progressive cities like Chicago, Chattanooga, Oakland, and Los Angeles could put clauses in their building codes stating that all new houses built after 2005 must have 2 kilowatt solar voltaic systems and solar hot water systems.
Remember, oil and gas are both going to increase in price as the energy becomes scarce or is manipulated by the power corporations. Renewable energy such as solar and wind is free, once you have installed the technology, so prices can only fall. Politically, financially, and environmentally, this is a far, far wiser way to go.
So what will it take?
This is not something hypothetical. The urgency of our situation is similar to that faced by Roosevelt in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. To those who would argue that market mechanisms must always take precedence, imagine President Roosevelt saying, “We’re sorry, we can’t afford to build any more ships or planes; we’ll have to wait until the price comes down.”
What is needed is a massive mobilization of 10,000 nonprofit groups and their members around a sane, sustainable energy plan that will phase out fossil fuels and set us on the path to an efficient, solar-hydrogen society.
Polls show that the majority of Americans want definite action to tackle global warming. Until now, however, the environmental movement has been divided between heavyweight organizations, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), that still support natural gas as a “bridge to the future” and others, such as Earth Day, that don’t.
The first step towards building a coalition that everyone can buy into must be to involve as many citizens’ organizations as possible in creating a plan that will stand up to the closest scrutiny, and package it in a clear, elegant manner.
The second step must be to reach out to solar, wind, environmental, health, and other citizens organizations across America, and to cities, towns, businesses, schools, colleges, and churches, inviting them to endorse and support the plan, so that we create a huge choir, all singing from the same songbook.
The final step must be to build a campaign that everyone can engage in, with a message as strong and simple as “Civil Rights for All,” “Votes for Women,” “Stop the War,” “Say No to Nukes,” and “Say No to GMOs.” We then need to start lobbying our politicians at every level, from school boards and city halls to Congress and the White House, demanding that we carry out the plan. It’s doable. It’s sensible. It’s sustainable. And we need to get on with it, urgently.