“You just can’t burn in one night, a million years of buried sunlight, and think you got it all for free.” — from lyrics of Long Has the Earth by Doug Hendren
Discouraged by the demise of democracy and the rise of oligarchy? Incensed that our “leaders” don’t lead and won’t even follow the will of the vast majority, so beholden are they to the 1%? Demoralized that, as the earth’s climate spins out of control, Americans pretend to debate science that’s been settled for two decades?
For a booster shot of hope, read Lester Brown’s The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy (W. W. Norton, 2015).
Modern industrialized civilization exists because of a Faustian bargain with fossil fuels. As vested interests desperately maneuver to keep us addicted to fossils, carbon pollution jeopardizes the earth’s life-support systems.
And yet, despite the Merchants of Doubt and the climate disinformation campaigns of the fossil-fueled Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, and Heartland Institute, something extraordinary is taking place. The world is shifting from fossils to renewables, and the shift is happening faster than anyone anticipated.
“Energy transitions are not new,” begins The Great Transition. The world shifted from wood to coal a few centuries ago. It then tacked toward oil just 150 years ago. But with 7.5 billion people populating the earth, this will be the mother of all transitions: The Great Transition.
Lester Brown — a MacArthur Fellow and founder of both the Worldwatch and Earth Policy Institutes — has been called an “environmental Paul Revere.” In this, the latest of his 50 books, Brown documents in wonky detail the energy revolution that is taking the world by storm.
Here’s the story. All quotations are from The Great Transition unless indicated otherwise.
The sun is our primary source of energy. The world has long been dependent on fossilized sunlight in the form of coal, oil, and natural gas — the result of millions of years of heat and pressure on ancient organic material. On the one hand, these are exceptional fuels … [y]et they are incredibly dirty, climate-disruptive, and ultimately exhaustible. Our descendents will one day shake their heads in wonder at how we could so quickly extract and burn up this inheritance.
Climate models predict that business as usual — continued heavy reliance on fossil fuels – could increase global average temperature “by nearly 11 degrees Fahrenheit (up to 6 degrees Celsius) by the year 2100.”
Even 4 degrees Celsius of warming is “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community,” according to Kevin Anderson, former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
But the economic ground has tilted: as extreme methods of extracting fossil energy become ever more expensive, renewables are plummeting in cost.
The economics tipped in 2013, when “the world added 143 gigawatts of renewable electricity capacity compared with 141 gigawatts in new plants that burn fossil fuels.” (Bloomberg Business, April 14)
OIL: The earth’s cheap oil has long since been extracted. The Financial Times reports that many new ventures such as deep-water drilling need “at least $100 a barrel to be commercially viable.”
COAL: Although coal currently “accounts for some 40 percent of global electricity generation,” coal too is faring badly. “[W]ith world solar generating capacity growing in recent years at a phenomenal 60 percent annually and wind by more than 20 percent, use of the black rock that led the world into the industrial age may decline even faster than many in the energy field expect.”
Moreover, “coal indirectly costs the U.S. economy an astounding $345 billion per year, largely because of the associated health care burden from air pollution and because of climate change impacts. This massive value exceeds the market value of the coal itself.”
In many places around the world it’s cheaper to replace coal-fired electrical generation with solar or wind energy than to retrofit the outmoded and inefficient coal plants. For example, “in a growing number of places in Australia, coal-fired power would not be able to compete with solar even if the coal itself were free.”
Meanwhile, solar and wind power are going gangbusters.
SOLAR: “In May 2014, Austin Energy, a publicly owned utility in Texas, signed a 150-megawatt power purchase agreement with solar developer Recurrent Energy for just 5 cents per kilowatt hour (kWH). Thus the electricity produced by the PV (photovoltaic) installation, which will be the largest in Texas when completed in 2016, greatly undercuts the local utility’s gas-generated electricity at 7 cents, its coal-fired at 10 cents, and it nuclear at 13 cents.”
Halfway across the world, China has installed “2.8 billion square feet of rooftop solar water heaters …, enough to supply 170 million Chinese households with hot water.”
The International Energy Agency in Paris now projects, conservatively, that by 2018 the world’s solar total will be 326,000 megawatts.
We’ve only scratched the surface. “The sunlight striking the earth … in just one hour delivers enough energy to power the world economy for one year.”
WIND: “Wind energy yield is off the charts. By early 2014, global wind generating capacity totaled 318,000 megawatts, enough to power more than 80 million U.S. homes.”
“In January 2014, wind supplied a whopping 62 percent of [Denmark’s] electricity.” In the States, “Iowa and South Dakota are each generating 26 percent of their electricity from wind farms.”
A farmer in northern Iowa could plant an acre in corn to earn about $1,000 annually for fuel-grade ethanol, or that same farmer “could put on that same acre a turbine that generates $300,000 of electricity per year.”
The national average for grid-generated electricity is 10 to 12 per kWH. In the Midwestern U.S., wind-energy contracts are now being signed at 2.5 cents per kWH, one-fourth the conventional going rate or less.
“The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the shallow waters off the East Coast are capable of hosting 530,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, enough to satisfy 40 percent of the country’s electricity needs.”
And China is on target for meeting its ambitious goal of 200,000 megawatts in wind energy by 2020. “For perspective, that would be enough to satisfy the annual electricity needs of Brazil.”
STRANDED ASSETS: Fossil fuels are no longer wise investments. “Throughout history, economic transitions have left stranded assets in their wake.”
Deutsche Bank’s chief asset manager observes: “Coal is a dead man walkin.’ … Banks won’t finance [coal-fired power plants]. Insurance companies won’t insure them.”
“Large investment institutions, such as Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are channeling tens of billions of dollars into renewable energy.” And by 2014, Warren Buffet had invested some $15 billion in the development of solar and wind.
The top five green power firms as of late 2014 were Intel, Kohl’s Department Stores, Microsoft, Google, and Walmart. These were among 600 corporate “entities that generated or purchased enough electricity from renewable sources to satisfy all of their electricity needs.” Why? “It’s a business decision,” says Walmart’s CEO. The renewable energy we buy meets or beats the prices from the grid.”
THE FUTURE: The Great Transition is well underway and unstoppable. Still, a haunting question remains: “Will the energy transition proceed fast enough for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change?”
Sanity requires that humanity both embrace and accelerate the Great Transition. Better yet, let’s engineer a Just Transition, smoothing the way for those economically displaced as the fossil-fueled economy collapses and the new, renewable-based economy soars.