Ramping up renewables

There may be conflicting reports as to whether renewable energy can replace fossil fuels in time to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and there are still plenty of people in positions of authority, like our own Energy Minister, who see little reason to hurry the process. The heavy lobbying influence of big oil and coal interests remains powerful. But it’s heartening to be reminded from time to time that transition is nevertheless under way in many parts of the world and that it’s gathering pace. An Earth Policy Institute article has arrived in my inbox offering just such a reminder. It refreshes what Lester Brown had to say about the shift to renewable energy in his book Plan B 4.0.


I reviewed the book on Hot Topic last year, but at the risk of repeating myself I’ll report some of the points which he now reiterates and updates. The first is that the transition to energy powered by wind, solar and geothermal sources is moving worldwide at a pace and on a scale we could not have imagined even two years ago. Texas, the oil state, is a prime example. It has 9,700 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 370 more in construction, and a huge amount in the development stage. When all of these wind farms are completed, Texas will have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity—the equivalent of 53 coal-fired power plants. This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 25 million people, enabling Texas to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.

South Dakota has begun development on a vast 5050-megawatt farm that when completed will produce nearly five times as much electricity as the state needs. It will become an exporter, as some ten American states and several Canadian provinces are planning to be.

Brown then moves across the Atlantic to point to the hopes of the Scottish government for the development of an enormous off-shore wind generating capacity of some 60,000 megawatts. I reported  on Hot Topic a few months ago on a major survey which has identified North Sea potential from wind and wave of even larger potential, capable of producing six times as much electricity as is currently used in the UK. If joined to a northern super-grid it could enable access to a single European electricity market and export opportunity.

Algeria plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable

It’s not only the developed world that is embracing renewable energy on a rapidly growing scale. Brown instances Algeria’s plans to build 6000 megawatts of solar thermal generating power for export to Europe via undersea cable. He points to their awareness that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their vast deserts to power the entire world economy. Solar energy is clearly of enormous potential not only in the Mediterranean region but also in the south-west US and the Indian desert and China, and there is regular news of new developments in all of these areas.

Brown touches on Turkey where construction  permits are being issued for 7,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, in response to bids to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts. In Indonesia the state oil company Pertamina is responsible for developing most of a planned 6,900 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity.

“These are only a few of the visionary initiatives to tap the earth’s renewable energy. The resources are vast. In the United States, three states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy. In China, wind will likely become the dominant power source. Indonesia could one day get all its power from geothermal energy alone. Europe will be powered largely by wind farms in the North Sea and solar thermal power plants in the North African desert.”

The 20th century saw the globalisation of the world energy economy as countries everywhere turned to oil, much of it from the Middle East. This century, says Brown, will see the localisation of energy production as the world turns to wind, solar and geothermal energy. It will also see the electrification of the economy.

“The transport sector will shift from gasoline-powered automobiles to plug-in gas-electric hybrids, all-electric cars, light rail transit, and high-speed intercity rail. And for long-distance freight, the shift will be from diesel-powered trucks to electrically powered rail freight systems. The movement of people and goods will be powered largely by electricity. In this new energy economy, buildings will rely on renewable electricity almost exclusively for heating, cooling, and lighting.”

Can renewable energy be expanded fast enough? Brown thinks so, encouraged by the phenomenon of the extraordinary growth of the communications and information economies in only the last thirty years. Others don’t. Barry Brook in Australia is one, with his views summed up in this recent article and much more on his Brave New Climate website. Not that he’s arguing for fossil fuels – in his view nuclear power is the only technology that can get us there fast enough and economically enough.

Lester Brown falls back on the analogy of the Second World War when the American economy changed direction with extraordinary speed and prospered in doing so. He’s not alone in sounding this theme, but he was an early proponent of it. The difficulty with this concept is that our societies are hardly yet ready to see climate change in the stark terms which obtained in 1939 and 1941.

Whether renewables will be ratcheted up quickly enough or not they certainly represent one of our best hopes of containing climate change impacts. Don’t forget to tell Gerry Brownlee so before September 2, when submissions on the new draft energy strategy close. I’ve said elsewhere on Hot Topic what I see as wrong with the draft.  Simon Boxer of Greenpeace has put it succinctly:

“It’s a document that lacks vision and goals. It shows that the Energy and Resources Minister Gerry Brownlee is ignoring the climate crisis. It’s a route map to a dead end.

“The Government’s energy strategy prioritises drilling and mining for more oil and coal, while providing virtually no stimulation for the development of renewable energy and clean technology. It fails to acknowledge the seriousness of climate change and makes no attempt to set measurable emissions reduction targets.”

If you’d like some suggestions the Greens offer a thoughtful submission guide.  If you’re lacking time a shortcut is offered by Greenpeace or WWF . Many of the 40,000 submissions received by the government on Brownlee’s proposals to mine conservation land no doubt used form statements provided by organisations. They still count, so use one of the offered quick responses rather than pass the opportunity by.

Lester Brown: Russian heat hits world grain supplies

One of the things that persuaded Gwynne Dyer that it was time to write his book Climate Wars was the realisation that “the first and most important impact of climate change on human civilization will be an acute and permanent crisis of food supply”. He’s not the only one to recognise that. Many of us hearing about what the Russian heat wave is doing to crops have no doubt been wondering what the effect of so much loss might be on global supplies. Right on cue Lester Brown, whose Plan B books always lays great stress on food reserves, has produced  an updateon what the failed harvest in Russia might mean.


“Russia’s grain harvest, which was 94 million tons last year, could drop to 65 million tons or even less. West of the Ural Mountains, where most of its grain is grown, Russia is parched beyond belief. An estimated one fifth of its grainland is not worth harvesting. In addition, Ukraine’s harvest could be down 20 percent from last year. And Kazakhstan anticipates a harvest 34 percent below that of 2009. (See data.)”

He notes that the heat and drought are also reducing grass and hay growth, meaning that farmers will have to feed more grain during the long winter. Moscow has already released 3 million tons of grain from government stocks for this purpose. Supplementing hay with grain is costly, but the alternative is reduction of herd size by slaughtering, which means higher meat and milk prices.

The Russian ban on grain exports and possible restrictions on exports from Ukraine and Kazakhstan could cause panic in food-importing countries, leading to a run on exportable grain supplies. Beyond this year, there could be some drought spillover into next year if there is not enough soil moisture by late August to plant Russia’s new winter wheat crop.

The grain-importing countries have in recent times seen China added to their list. In recent months China has imported over half a million tons of wheat from both Australia and Canada and a million tons of corn from the US. A Chinese consulting firm projects China’s corn imports climbing to 15 million tons in 2015. China’s potential role as an importer could put additional pressure on exportable supplies of grain.

The bottom line indicator of food security, Brown explains, is the amount of grain in the bin when the new harvest begins. When world carryover stocks of grain dropped to 62 days of consumption in 2006 and 64 days in 2007, it set the stage for the 2007–08 price run-up. World grain carryover stocks at the end of the current crop year have been estimated at 76 days of consumption, somewhat above the widely recommended 70-day minimum. A new US Department of Agriculture estimate is due very soon, which will give some idea of how much carryover stocks will be estimated to drop as a result of the Russian failure.

We don’t know what all this will mean for world prices. The prices of wheat, corn, and soybeans are actually somewhat higher in early August 2010 than they were in early August 2007, when the record-breaking 2007–08 run-up in grain prices began. Whether prices will reach the 2008 peak again remains to be seen.

Brown performs the obligatory ritual of acknowledging that no  single event can be attributed to global warming, though I would have thought that by now that proviso could be taken as read. It’s surely more important to affirm, as of course he does, that extreme events are an expected manifestation of human-caused climate change, and their effect on food production must be a major concern.

“That intense heat waves shrink harvests is not surprising. The rule of thumb used by crop ecologists is that for each 1 degree Celsius rise in temperature above the optimum we can expect a reduction in grain yields of 10 percent. With global temperature projected to rise by up to 6 degrees Celsius during this century, this effect on yields is an obvious matter of concern.”

Demand isn’t going down to match the reduction:

“Each year the world demand for grain climbs. Each year the world’s farmers must feed 80 million more people. In addition, some 3 billion people are trying to move up the food chain and consume more grain-intensive livestock products. And this year some 120 million tons of the 415-million-ton U.S. grain harvest will go to ethanol distilleries to produce fuel for cars.”

And the obvious conclusion:

“Surging annual growth in grain demand at a time when the earth is heating up, when climate events are becoming more extreme, and when water shortages are spreading makes it difficult for the world’s farmers to keep up. This situation underlines the urgency of cutting carbon emissions quickly—before climate change spins out of control.”

There’s a podcast in which Lester Brown speaks at greater length, elaborating the matters covered in his written update, and amongst other things commenting on how we might be thankful, from a global grain harvest perspective, that it was Moscow and not Chicago or Beijing which experienced temperatures so far above the norm. The grain loss would have been much higher in either case.

It’s worth adding that while the Russian event is dramatic in terms of its obvious impact on exports of grain globally, there are plenty of other places where food production is threatened by extreme events or by other  trends which are in line with climate change predictions. It is impossible to look at the vast flooding of land in Pakistan and not wonder how they will cope with the washing away of millions of hectares of crops — there have been “huge losses” according to the BBC.

“We need to cut carbon emissions and cut them fast.”

Lester Brown: US falling out of love with cars

Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0, places more hope for climate stabilisation on shifts that he sees taking place in society and the economy than in internationally negotiated agreements. Not that he rejects such agreements, but he regards them as somewhat obsolete, for two reasons: first, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed; second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify the agreements, we may simply run out of time.

He’s just issued a Plan B update which illustrates the kind of positive changes he sees taking place without the stimulus of global agreements. He announces that America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces. He sees no reason why the trend of scrappage exceeding new car sales should not continue through to 2020.

The forces at work?

Market saturation for one. The US has five vehicles for every four drivers.  “When is enough enough?”  Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent.

Ongoing urbanisation is having an effect. “The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered. But with four out of five Americans now living in cities, the growth in urban car numbers at some point provides just the opposite: immobility.” Public transport schemes are being expanded and improved in almost every US city, and attention being given to more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets. Car use in cities is being discouraged.

Economic uncertainty and reluctance to undertake long-term debt is affecting household choices. “Families are living with two cars instead of three, or one car instead of two. Some are dispensing with the car altogether. In Washington, D.C., with a well-developed transit system, only 63 percent of households own a car.”

A more specific uncertainty is the future price of gasoline. Motorists have seen gas prices climb to $4 a gallon, and they worry that it could go even higher in the future.

Finally, Brown points to a declining interest in cars among young people as perhaps the most fundamental cultural trend affecting the future of the automobile. Half a century ago getting a driver’s license and a car or a pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime.

“In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars. Many do not even bother to get a driver’s license. This helps explain why, despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million. If this trend continues, the number of potential young car-buyers will continue to decline.”

If his expectation of shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet is sustained it also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways. Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.

“The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.”

Brown is ever the optimist, but he seeks to be well grounded.  Has he been too quick to discern a trend, or has close attention to emerging possibilities alerted him to something of real promise?

Plan B (not from outer space)

Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization

I hadn’t expected to be doing a Hot Topic review of Lester Brown’s book Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization, since he writes about a variety of sustainability issues. However the 90 pages or so he devotes to climate change were irresistible for their sensible optimism and I report them here.

The Plan B books have been appearing in updated form since 2003. They are no light undertaking. Intended to influence, they have translators into 22 languages and achieve worldwide circulation. Several thousand individuals purchase five or more copies for distribution to friends, colleagues and opinion leaders. Ted Turner does so on a large scale, distributing copies of each Plan B to heads of state and their key cabinet ministers, the Fortune 500 CEOs, and members of Congress. A film version of Plan B 4.0 is in progress.

Brown is a generalist. His work is to pull together scattered information and communicate it to the public. The results are scary on the reality of the problems and upbeat on the solutions. On climate change he is unflinching. He reports recent studies projecting a sea level rise of up to two metres by the end of the century. Up to a third of all plant and animal species could be lost. The chorus of urgency from the scientific community intensifies by the year. Higher temperatures diminish crop yields, increase the severity of storms, flooding, drought and wildfires, and alter eco-systems everywhere. The effects of melting glaciers on irrigation is a massive threat to food production.

Selecting items like this doesn’t do justice to the overall organisation of the chapter in which he sets out the threat. In 20 pages he presents a valuable summary reminder of what a continuance of anthropogenic global warming will result in for human life. It’s chapter 3 of the book, which by the way is available for free download here on the Earth Policy Institute website. The chapter can be recommended for anyone who wants to know in short compass what it all adds up to and why it matters supremely.

Always positive in the face of threat, Brown sets out his Plan B response. He stands with James Hansen and others on the necessity to reduce CO2 levels to 350 parts per million concentration. Plan B envisages cutting emissions 80 percent by 2020 in order to keep levels from exceeding 400 ppm before starting to reduce them. This will be challenging, “but how can we face the next generation if we do not try?” And it’s feasible.

Two steps are needed. The first is an energy efficiency revolution, the beginnings of which are already under way. The revolution in lighting technology is a good start, and one which many countries are joining (while New Zealand is pulling back by decision of our benighted Minister of Energy). Compact fluorescents (CFLs), using 75 percent less electricity than incandescents are the first step. The light-emitting diode (LED), using up to 85 percent less is the ultimate. Lighting is not a small matter. It currently uses 19 percent of the world share of electricity. This would be cut to 7 percent with a move to CFLs in homes, advanced linear fluorescents in offices, shops and factories, and LEDs in traffic lights.  The lighting efficiency gains would be even greater if LEDs reduce in cost and can be used more widely.

Energy-efficient appliances are already lowering considerably their electricity requirement. A worldwide set of appliance efficiency standards keyed to the most efficient models on the market would offer as much or more than the 12 percent of world electricity savings from more efficient lighting.

Low energy use buildings are already being built in some countries.  There is enormous potential for reducing energy use in buildings. Even energy retrofits on older inefficient buildings can cut usage by 20-50 percent.  Brown discusses the LEED certification offered by the US Green Building Council in interesting detail. New buildings can easily be designed with half the energy requirements of existing ones.

The overall electrification of transport will mean much greater energy efficiency, especially as the power comes increasingly from renewable sources. New technologies have opened the way for hybrid plug-ins and all-electric cars and all major car makers have plans, as Brown details, to bring them to market. The future of intercity travel lies with high-speed trains, which under Plan B will be powered almost entirely by renewable electricity. Japan has set the standard, but many countries are now participating. Public transport has a significant role to play; shifting public funds from highway construction to public transport would reduce the number of cars needed. (A point lost on our Transport Minister, who shares the Energy Minister’s preference for outdated practice.)

A striking section on metal recycling demonstrates that it requires only a fraction of the energy needed to produce the metals from virgin ore. Design of products so that they can be easily disassembled for reuse or recycling carries economic benefit, as do reusable containers. Waste reduction is central. In summary, there is a vast worldwide potential for cutting carbon emissions by reducing materials use, and beginnings have been made.

There follows an illuminating account of what a smart grid combined with smart meters can add to energy efficiency and how moves in that direction are already under way in various parts of the world. He concludes the chapter (4) by expressing his confidence that the energy-saving measures identified and proposed will more than offset the nearly 30 percent growth in global energy demand projected by the IEA between 2006 and 2020.

The second major step is the shift to renewable energy.

“…this energy transition [to wind, solar and geothermal energy] is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago. And it is a worldwide phenomenon.”

He instances Texas which is looking to have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, which will more than satisfy the state’s residential needs and enable it to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil.  Some 70 countries are now using wind power. A Stanford University study concluded that harnessing one fifth of the world’s available wind energy would provide seven times as much electricity as the world currently uses. Plan B involves a crash programme to develop 3000 gigawatts (3 million megawatts) of wind generating capacity by 2020, enough to satisfy 40 percent of world electricity needs. That’s 1.5 million 2-megawatt wind turbines over the period. Intimidating? Compare it with 70 million cars per year.

Solar energy is the second source undergoing dramatic expansion. Photovoltaic installations are increasing rapidly, by 45 percent annually, and production costs are falling fast. Solar thermal electricity, which uses reflectors to concentrate sunlight on a closed vessel containing water or some other liquid, is on the move, with big plans mooted for the southwest US and Algeria and the Indian Desert. Solar water heating, now seen in many countries, is another obvious benefit.

There is more. Geothermal energy in a variety of forms is a barely tapped source, with very large  potential.  Hydro power from the movement of tides and waves is starting to be developed. Biomass offers a small but worthwhile contribution. Brown doesn’t rule out nuclear, but thinks it is expensive by comparison and unlikely to reach a level of new development which would do much more than replace current aging plants.  Carbon capture and storage doesn’t figure, at least at this stage, for reasons of expense and lack of investor interest.

The chapter (5) is full of facts and figures to support his sense that movement on renewable energy is strongly under way and that the resource is more than adequate to our need to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2020. It won’t just happen. Strategic government intervention is needed to put a price on carbon, to offer appropriate assistance to desirable developments, sometimes to mandate changes. He frequently turns to the analogy of wartime mobilisation. But he clearly looks to the vigour of enterprise and innovation in business and industry to see the job through. Indeed there is a strong sense of that vigour already present and poised like a wave ready to be caught. If we do catch it it will take us safely to shore.

[Dexys Midnight Runners]

US should aim for 80% by 2020

Renowned American environmentalist Lester Brown offers measured optimism in an article published in the Washington Post on Sunday. He claims a surprisingly dramatic 9 percent drop in US carbon emissions over the past two years and the promise of further huge reductions.  Part of this decline, he acknowledges, was caused by the recession and higher petrol prices but part of it came from gains in energy efficiency and shifts to carbon-free sources of energy, including record amounts of new wind-generating capacity. He looks ahead to the prospect of further reductions.  

Continue reading “US should aim for 80% by 2020”