A sustainable energy plan for the US


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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. 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 no longer think about where the energy comes from. 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 facts
The rate at which we are discovering new oil will soon fall below the rate at which we are using it. As soon as it does, oil prices will shoot up as demand starts to outstrip supply. There’s plenty of coal in the ground, but it’s a pernicious fuel. Aside from carbon dioxide, burning coal releases nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, which contribute to smog, asthma, acid rain, and poisoned lakes and rivers.

The world’s climate is responding to the increase in atmospheric CO2, methane, and nitrogen oxides caused by burning fossil fuels. All three gases trap heat. Before the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 was around 280 parts per million. Today, it is 373 ppm, the highest it has been for 20 million years. The Arctic summer icepack, normally three meters thick, has dwindled by 40 percent since 1970. At this rate, it could be gone entirely by 2050. Polar bears, which depend on the ice to hunt, will become extinct. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that we need an immediate 60 percent reduction in emissions to stabilize the climate at a safe level. In our book, Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, Patrick Mazza and I call for an 80 percent reduction by 2025.

Natural gas is not a cleaner alternative or a “bridge to the future” as many people would have us believe. Natural gas produces lower CO2 emissions than coal or oil, but 85 percent of natural gas is methane, some of which escapes during production and distribution. In a sustainable energy plan, reliance on natural gas would be excluded along with coal and oil.

Nuclear power should also be avoided because of the risk of catastrophic accidents. The idea of a bunch of terrorists flying a jet into a nuclear power plant is not comforting; and no one knows how to deal with the radioactive wastes.

How much do we need?
The challenge for a sustainable energy plan is to meet America’s reasonable energy needs using energy from the sun, wind, biomass, geothermal, microhydro, waves, and tides.

The good news is that the transition to a sustainable energy future is well underway. All that is needed is for the kind of support Washington gives to the coal, oil, and gas industries to be given to the sustainable energy industry instead.

So how much energy do we need? Let’s crunch some numbers. In the year 2002, the US consumed 97 quadrillion BTUs of primary energy—the energy used to generate electricity, fuel vehicles, heat buildings and run factories. Industry used 38 percent, transport 32 percent, residential buildings 19 percent, and commercial buildings 16 percent. US electrical generating capacity in 2001 was 813 gigawatts; in that year, US power plants produced 3,836 terawatt hours of electricity—52 percent from coal, 21 percent from nuclear, 16 percent from natural gas, 7 percent from hydro, 2 percent from oil, and 1 percent from non-hydro renewables. A terawatt [TW] is 1,000 gigawatts, or a million megawatts (MW).

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 the current “business as usual,” profligate North American energy use levels.

What might we do instead? European countries get by on half as much energy per capita and per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Using today’s technologies, buildings, appliances, factories, and vehicles in North America could be twice as efficient. Using tomorrow’s technologies, they could be four to ten times as efficient.

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 one- to four-star energy efficiency rating to appliances, houses, and vehicles, and give big tax credits for the purchase of four-star items. Award annual “achievement” tax credits to the companies that produce the most efficient appliances and technologies.

  • Strengthen the national energy code for buildings, and then build on San Francisco’s example: make compliance mandatory for all buildings, new and existing. For nonconforming buildings, make the code kick in whenever a building is sold, a lease renewed, or an owner applies for a building permit for work worth more than $10,000.

  • Establish a national electricity efficiency tax, or public benefit charge, as several states have done. This increases the price of electricity, but returns all the revenue in energy efficiency incentives.

    Transportation inefficiencies
    In 2002, America’s vehicles consumed three billion barrels of oil. Four-fifths of that oil could be saved through a combination of smarter travel, greater fuel efficiency, and a switch to sustainably derived hydrogen, bioethanol, and biodiesel.

    First, let’s aim for a 25 percent reduction in motor traffic by investing in bicycle trails, mass transit, and telecommuting. We should also use smart-growth planning principles for new settlements, and retrofit America’s suburbs to create small village centers where people can work, shop, and relax.

    Next, we need to make our vehicles far more efficient. There are cars on the road today that can get 50 mpg. We should upgrade the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard so that new cars are required to increase their efficiency 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.

    Fuels for cars, trucks, and planes of the future will be hydrogen, bioethanol, and biodiesel—and carbohydrate oils from sewage and garbage, should a promising technology known as “thermal depolymerization” work out.

    America’s bioethanol potential comes from harvesting existing agricultural wastes and low-cost cellulose 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. If our vehicles were four times as efficient—easily achievable under more rigorous CAFE standards—bioethanol and biodiesel from agricultural wastes could provide 40 percent of the fuel they’d need.

    Clean electricity
    A reasonable goal for sustainable US electricity consumption is 1,360 TWh by 2025, of which 80 percent must come from clean energy. Since hydrogen will be needed for most of our transportation needs, and the cleanest way to obtain hydrogen is by using renewable energy to split water, we should increase the goal to 4,000 TWh.

    Can it be done? No problem. The steps below, taken together, could provide the US with 24,000 TWh, six times more than we need if we gain the efficiencies described above. Producing so much extra energy would give us some options among the most cost-effective, environmentally benign routes. By linking many renewable energy sources together through a smart electronic energy network, or distributed grid, we would gain further efficiencies in production and in price.

    A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund shows that the lower 48 states have 14,244 TWh of wind energy potential. The best land areas are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, and South Dakota, which have a potential of 4,500 TWh, 17 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. The southern and southeastern coastlines also have excellent offshore wind potential, and Alaska has superb on-land and offshore potential. Together, these could produce an additional 4,000 TWh. Around the world, wind power sells at a very competitive 3-6 cents/kWh, and is among the fastest-growing segments of the energy market. And modern turbine design and judicious siting nearly eliminate the well-publicized risk to birds.

    There are 39 countries that could meet all of their energy needs from hot underground water. In Britain, a proposal has been floated to drill two miles deep into Cornwall and tap enough geothermal energy to supply the entire British grid. A similar proposal is being explored in the Charleville area of Australia, which could meet Australia’s power needs for hundreds of years. In the US, the 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 geothermal 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. Our estimate of the potential energy generated by US geothermal projects is 190 TWh.

    Every year, the sun pours 220 million TWh of solar energy onto the Earth’s surface, 1,864 times the world’s entire energy consumption. At current levels of solar photovoltaic (PV) efficiency, and allowing for cloudier conditions in the north, the entire current US electricity demand (3,836 TWh) could be met from 10,000 square miles of PV, an area equivalent to 9 percent of Arizona. America’s rooftops could generate 964 TWh (24 percent of our sustainable electricity needs) if solar shingles were used to roof 540 square feet per dwelling. Many open-air car parks could also be covered, providing welcome shade for the vehicles.

    What about the argument that photovoltaic cells require more energy to make than they generate? A 1997 study by Siemens (now Shell Solar) 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. Move to solar shingles, which have no aluminum, and that cost disappears.

    The biggest obstacle to PV is cost. Currently at around $3.50 per installed watt, a 3kW system on your roof might cost $24,750. If you include an assumed 5 percent interest rate, it will take 70 years to pay for itself. With mass production, however, the price falls to $1 per watt, and the payback falls to 17 years. When you add the income from the sale of surplus solar energy on a hot summer’s afternoon, the payback could fall to 10 years or lower, and your solar shingles become a money-making machine that will save the planet’s atmosphere at the same time.

    Early computers and cell phones were expensive - now they’re cheap. PV production is growing by 35 percent a year. The Japanese electronics company Sharp plans to open a factory in 2005 that will build 500 MW of PV panels each year. The plan is supported by a consistent set of programs from the Japanese government, which plans to install 4,600 MW of solar in Japan by 2010. With the price of solar at $1 a watt, the solar revolution will take off.

    For our Sustainable Energy Plan, we will assume that all south-facing sloping roofs can be covered with solar shingles, and we will use 10,000 square miles of other surface areas (chiefly flat commercial and industrial roofs) to collect solar energy. As the technical efficiency of PV increases, the area needed decreases. We estimate the potential solar energy thus generated at 5,000 TWh.

    Wind, sun, and geothermal energy take us well over our goal. In addition, we can probably assume another 1,000 TWh from micro-hydro, tidal and wave energy, biomass, and methane gas from landfills. With this much energy, we can afford to close down the nuclear plants and remove many of the dams that block wild rivers.

    A hydrogen network
    Although the new White House initiative assumes that the hydrogen to fuel the next century will come from coal, sustainable hydrogen must come from the surplus of clean energy, and from biomass such as sewage and algae.

    We then have to distribute the hydrogen. The macro-solution is for the government to step in and build a national “hydrogen backbone” to collect, store, and distribute hydrogen, financed by taxes on carbon emissions. The micro-solution is for every gas station to have its own hydrogen conversion plant. The fuel will likely cost four to five times what it does today, but it should, if we are to restore any kind of sanity to our car-crazed city planning.

    There is plenty of renewable energy to meet basic needs without creating greenhouse gas emissions. The task is to craft a detailed sustainable energy plan that will take us there. Luckily, the models already exist.

    We need four basic policies to launch a sustainable energy revolution: energy efficiency standards, renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, and tax and subsidy shifts. We have already covered the efficiency policies, so we’ll move right on.

    Renewable portfolio standards (RPS) require that a percentage of a state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by a certain date. Fifteen states have enacted RPSs, led by Nevada, which requires that 15 percent of all energy be generated from renewable sources by 2013 (5 percent from solar), and then increases that by 2 percent each subsequent year. A federal RPS could require that 10 percent of all US energy come from renewable sources by 2010, and 80 percent by 2025. The policy will drive investment, and give industry plenty of time to act. We saw a similar process in 1990, when California required that 4 percent of all new vehicles in California be zero emission by 2003, prompting investment in fuel cell companies.

    Carbon taxes are taxes on all fuels that release CO2 emissions, driving up the price of oil, coal, and natural gas relative to non-carbon energy such as solar, wind, and bioethanol—which does release carbon when burned, but recaptures it when the new feedstock is grown on the farm. Carbon rebates would allow people to reduce their overall energy bills by reducing emissions. Businesses that invest in innovations would benefit as the world shifts to non-fossil fuels. New jobs would be generated, far more than those lost by closing the coalmines and capping the oil and gas wells.

    The final policy—a tax and subsidy shift—would transfer the subsidies, programs, and tax breaks supporting fossil fuels to efficiency measures, renewable energy, and hydrogen. Those subsidies range from $20-$46 billion a year, depending on which estimate you accept. If you include the costs of fossil fuel-related health and environmental damage, the total might reach $228 billion a year.

    Remember, oil and gas are going to increase in price as the energy becomes scarce or is manipulated by the power corporations. Renewable energy is free, once you have installed the technology, so the prices can only fall as the technology improves.

    To those who argue that market mechanisms must always take precedence, imagine President Roosevelt in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, saying, “We’re sorry, we can’t afford to build any more battleships; we’ll have to wait until the price comes down.” Polls show that the majority of Americans want definite action to tackle global warming.

    The first step toward enacting a sustainable energy plan is to produce a plan that will stand up to the closest scrutiny, and package it in a clear, elegant manner.

    The second step is to reach out to solar, wind, energy efficiency, environmental, health, and citizens’ organizations all across America, and to cities, towns, businesses, labor unions, schools, colleges, churches, and businesses, inviting them to support the plan. Labor unions have taken the initiative by calling for a 10-year, $300 billion New Apollo Project to develop high-speed rail, hybrid and hydrogen cars, energy efficiency, and wind and solar energy.

    The final step is to build a campaign that everyone can engage in, with a message as strong and simple as “Votes for Women” or “Stop the War.” All across America, we must promote the plan in our communities, involving our politicians and leaders from businesses, school boards and city halls to Congress and the White House. It’s do-able. It’s sensible. It’s sustainable. And we need to get on with it, urgently.

    - Guy Dauncey is co-author with Patrick Mazza of Stormy Weather:
    101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, 2001). He lives in Victoria, BC, Canada. See his Web site at www.earthfuture.com
    Adapted from an article first printed in
    YES! Magazine, Fall 2001.
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