Two facts make clean energy unbeatable: air pollution and its friend climate change.
Sure there are naysayers. Texas Gov. Rick Perry was quoted as saying, “Scientists are ‘coming forward daily’ to disavow a ‘theory that remains unproven,’” in a tweet by New Hampshire Public Radio.
And James Delingpole on globalclimatescam.comsarcastically says, “It now seems that Mother Gaia may have a deadly new weapon up her sleeve: KILLER MUTANT SHARKS!!!”
Whatever. Delingpole takes issue with a news item that indicates sharks may be adapting to climate change. Good for the sharks.
Here’s the situation — continued and accelerated burning of fossil fuels not only taps the supply of easy-to-extract oil but the proof of its effects mounts. And sure, domestic coal is plentiful. But blacken the skies so that even those who live in the countryside can’t see more than a mile or two, and supporters — even those who hail jobs, jobs, jobs — start to go the way of passenger pigeons.
Corporations are beginning to pay attention, and not just with lip service. Sustainability has taken root in boardrooms across the globe, and investment in practices and technology that prevents destruction of the environment is rocketing upward faster than anybody thought possible.
Cheap oil is great. Canada’s oil sands are amazing. And that Bakken oil shale formation under Parshall, N.D. could be a game changer — if we could somehow export it off-planet and use its rich extracts on recently terra-formed and pristine Earth-like worlds.
But here we’ve got to deal with an environment that’s had more than enough of our rapid technological ascent. If mankind continues to push the devastation thing, not only will the economy collapse, but most of us will get sick and die long before we get old.
GOP contenders Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich sidestep the issue of clean energy on the campaign trail. This, however, contrasts mightily with the mood of many in the private sector, which Newt and Mitt say they support hands-down. Corporations and small businesses are publicly embracing the concept of sustainability, energy efficiency, waste reduction and even green chemistry. It would appear corporate boards and business owners see value in going green.
Romney pokes fun at President Obama’s support of green jobs, saying on his website that the president’s administration “seems to be operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation.” Romney says, “‘Green’ technologies are typically far too expensive to compete in the marketplace, and studies have shown that for every ‘green’ job created there are actually more jobs destroyed.”
Gingrich says he would “finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties,” but then goes on to promote oil shale development and the destruction of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Hardly clean or green.
So yeah, lop off another mountain to extract coal, fire up the power plant and dust the neighborhood. “Fire in the hole,” as Boyd Crowder would say on FX’s “Justified.”
Green sneaks in
Sentiment toward clean energy and sustainable practices is maturing. True believers come from both ends of the U.S. political spectrum. Economic practicality will do that. Not only is solar at or near parity with fossil fuels but wind’s getting closer and innovation is increasingly resulting in more sophisticated smart products that can navigate the new reality of variable power sources, maximize energy and reduce waste in every possible metric.
In fact, technological innovation in clean energy is moving forward so rapidly that by the time industry masters one form of energy capture, another is baked up in the test kitchen and ready for a taste test. For instance, solar’s efficiency is pushing 50 percent, while battery technology is getting so versatile that some companies expect batteries to complement home solar systems. And backyard mechanics are figuring out how to extract hydrogen using solar power and operating their cars off the stuff.
End product? Vapor.
Energy independence gains momentum
There’s value to clean air. It makes a good slogan, true. But more than that it’s an awesome goal. To think that in a relatively short time, the United States could become energy independent with clean skies and wealthier boggles the mind. But it’s possible.
Consumers would have to adapt to electric cars, natural gas-powered fleet vehicles and even hydrogen hot rods. The military would lead the world in production of biodiesel, algae fuel and isobutanol. Markets would spend less time worry about crude oil prices and more about increasing international sales in third world countries now able to produce their own clean energy.
Sounds a little crazy, and maybe it is.
Green in strange places
On the other hand, evidence that a cleaner world is not far-fetched is mounting. Corporate Knights, a self-described company for clean capitalism, has unveiled its eighth annual Global 100 list of the most sustainable large corporations in the world. No. 1 is Danish pharmaceutical giant Novo Nordisk, which had sales of $10.5 billion in 2010.
Also on the list are South African mining giant Anglo American, Japan’s Hitachi, Intel, United Kingdom’s AstraZeneca, Brazil’s Petrobras and Norway’s Statoil ASA. The ratings were based on ratios of sales to energy production, carbon creation, water use and waste. Also included is leadership diversity and CEO-to-average-worker pay.
Says Toby Heaps, chief executive of Corporate Knights: “In a year in which Wall Street was occupied and capitalism became a bad word, the Global 100 companies serve as ambassadors for a better, cleaner kind of capitalism which, it also turns out, is more profitable.”
Something is indeed going on. Anglo American’s website’s main page features this directive: “We recognise the challenge posed by climate change and we are taking action to address its causes and to protect our employees and assets, as well as our communities, against its potential impacts.”
Wall Street embraces sustainability
I must be making this up. I still remember the mining companies in Fairbanks, Alaska dredging anything and everything and the John Birch Society guys in the Golden Days Parade driving their Rocket to Russia truck tossing candy to us kids. My recollection of society is decidedly conservative and resource-driven. So what’s going on?
Evidently the mood is greening. More than two-thirds of companies say sustainability has invaded the boardrooms and a third say the practice is contributing to their profits, according to a study by MIT Sloan Management Review and The Boston Consulting Group.
The study, “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point,” found about 67 percent of companies see sustainability as necessary to being competitive, up from 55 percent the previous year. The survey involved more than 2,800 corporate leaders “representing every major industry and region of the world.”
“The attention and investment we see indicate the here-to-stay nature of sustainability for organizations everywhere,” said David Kiron, executive editor at MIT SMR and a coauthor of the report, in a statement.
Investment up in energy efficiency
A study by the U.S. Department of Energy provides some detail. “The 2010 U.S. Lighting Market Characterization” shows that investment in more efficient technologies, higher efficiency standards and public awareness campaigns “helped shift the market toward more energy-efficient lighting technologies across all sectors.”
That means energy savings and more cash in consumers’ pockets. Lighting is the low-hanging fruit of energy efficiency, and upgrades pay for themselves in a matter of a few years. Changing out lights, however, is like a gateway drug to sustainability.
After making lighting retrofits, the next question always is: “What more can we do?” People like saving money. I would love to put an end to my PG&E power bills with solar panels and a household battery. Of course, I’m nowhere near close to that. But daydreams are an important part of this going-green exercise.
Yet, this shift has surpassed idle thought. It’s based on the cold hard reality that our planet faces something akin to an alien assault by the Covenant from the Halo video-game series.
Marc Gunther of greenbiz.com writes that many in industry see climate change as inevitable and are preparing plans to adapt. “Utilities, the oil and gas industry, agricultural companies and insurers are building assumptions about rising temperatures and extreme weather events into their scenario planning. This is what’s being called climate adaptation or climate preparedness,” Gunther says.
Longer dry spells, wetter rainy season and more powerful storms are forcing the issue. Industries that don’t plan for the worst may end up suffering. Businesses that don’t plan might not be around to post year-end earnings.
Extreme weather forces change
Christian Parenti, author of “Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence,” writes that extreme weather cost agriculture an estimated $5.2 billion in 2011, while Hurricane Irene slapped New York City with $7 billion in estimated damages. He quotes the World Bank’s estimate of damages in Thailand from flooding there at $45 billion.
The solution is straightforward. Basically, we’ve got to clean up the air and stabilize the climate warming trend or prepare for more upheaval. Parenti says government is best equipped to deal with both scenarios, either with the massive task of clean up or through more nuanced approaches related to support of technological advancement through subsidy, research and development.
“Without constant government planning and subsidies, American capitalism simply could not have developed as it did, making ours the world’s largest economy,” Parenti writes in a post for tomdispatch.com. So there’s precedent.
If we pick clean energy as a proactive response, we’re going to need a little bit of help from our friend Uncle Sam, or Big Brother, depending on where you lean. Not bad thing. But it will take a some political willpower, consensus building and a thaw in the red-blue divide.
More property owners in Fresno are using the sun to power their homes, according to a new study.
The number of rooftop solar installations has doubled in the past two years, ranking Fresno fourth in the state in the amount of solar-generated electricity and fifth in the number of installations on residential, commercial and government buildings, an advocacy group, Environment California Research & Policy Center, reported Wednesday.
Fresno’s 2,146 rooftop solar arrays produce 22 megawatts of electricity, enough to supply about 22,000 houses. Each megawatt prevents the emission of an estimated 700 pounds of smog-forming pollution annually.
“Competing with the state’s biggest cities, Fresno has emerged as a real solar-power leader,” said Stephanie Droste-Packham of Environment California. “The Central Valley is growing its solar-power market one roof at a time.”
Rooftop solar is an ideal energy source in the San Joaquin Valley, especially considering how sunny and hot it is here, said Courtney Kalashian, associate director of the Fresno-based nonprofit San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization.
“Incomes are low and power bills are high,” she said. “Why not utilize the region’s most plentiful resource to bring down those power costs and put more money in people’s wallets. We could easily become a solar valley!”
Environment California and city officials announced the study results at Ivan Lopez’s home in the Little Long Cheng housing community in southeast Fresno, where 25 of 41 houses, including Lopez’s, are solar powered. It is estimated that Lopez and the other homeowners there will save a combined $390,000 in energy costs over 30 years.
Grid Alternatives, a nonprofit that installs solar panels in low-income regions, installed the solar systems at Little Long Cheng. KMJ has more here.
San Diego, Los Angeles and San Jose rank higher than Fresno in solar capacity. San Francisco, Bakersfield, Sacramento, Santa Rosa, Oakland and Chico round out the top 10. Clovis is ranked 11th.
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin reaffirmed her commitment to solar power in Fresno on Wednesday, and capacity could continue to expand. Other regions also are gaining solar power. Capacity in Sacramento, for example, tripled over two years to 16 megawatts. Read more here in The Sacramento Bee.
There’s the Big Picture, and then there is the REALLY BIG picture. The Big Picture is California exceeding Gov. Brown’s 33 percent renewables mandate. The REALLY BIG picture is California reaching 100 percent.
We get lots of sun (my late relatives from the freezing East practically weeped when they turned on their TVs and saw the Rose Parade under sunny skies). Wind turbines dot mountain passes in Alameda, Kern and Riverside counties. Geothermal bubbles up in Lake and Imperial counties. And there is the Coast. Wave power, baby!
Dozens of solar projects proposed for Central and Southern California will likely push the state beyond the 33 percent mandate. But why stop there? As my colleague Mike Nemeth noted in this great post, why not apply a Space Race mentality to energy, especially in this state, which is already a leader in renewables? Nemeth is especially fascinated by the prospect of wave power, as he notes in this blog.
As far fetched as it seems, wave power gets a boost in a new report (here’s a link) that cites the astounding opportunities presented by the rolling waves off the coast of Central California, where I grew up. Wave power alone, if fully utilized, could supply energy needs of one-third of the nation. Read more here and here.
The Electric Power Research Institute report is pretty technical. It is full of fancy graphs and mind-numbing data, but suggests that California’s waves are great for creating energy. Maybe this device, which works like a bicycle pump, could be an assist.
Population growth, the effects of climate change and dwindling supply of fossil fuel and the increased cost of extracting it, will only increase the demand for energy. Wave power could go a long way toward satisfying the demand. Over in Europe, officials have announced plans for a “marine energy park” off the coast of England, but who knows if it will come to fruition.
Closer to home, the U.S. Department of Energy is testing designs off the coast of Washington, Oregon and Maine, but this proposal in Southern California isn’t likely to get under way anytime soon.
President Obama is expected to call for action on clean energy in his State of the Union speech. Wave power is ambitious, but so was the Space Race. Harnessing the power of the ocean would be expensive and a technological challenge, but is it any tougher than going to the moon?
When the Soviet Union launched Yuri Gregarin into space on April 12, 1961, the U.S. government and the public felt sucker-punched.
President John F. Kennedy, however, punched back, sinking tremendous resources into the budding space program and taking the Soviets’ accomplishment as a challenge. Kennedy upped the ante, vowing to send a man to the moon.
While he didn’t live to see Neil Armstrong take that first giant step, Kennedy launched what is considered one of the most aggressive drives to overcome huge technological hurdles in the nation’s history. The United States sought to prove convincingly that American know-how can get the job done, whatever it is.
Give clean energy a shot
Give a similar push to clean energy, and the ramifications would prove spectacular. Imagine cheap solar five times more efficient than existing technology or algae fuel easily harvested and refined from simple CO2-fueled stagnant ponds. Perhaps tidal energy devices could harvest the 2,640 terawatts available on U.S. coasts.
Already the country’s national laboratories have come up with amazing results in energy efficiency, biofuels and other renewables. But far more could be done on a regulatory level to encourage research, development and implementation of domestic energy self-reliance. Incentives could be provided through state and local government to implement existing technology, making even the average residential home a net-zero energy user.
After all, energy has become a security issue, and cost on that regard can no longer simply be measured in price per gallon. Yet, fossil fuels and their corporate cheerleaders have powerful lobbies and strong ties to the existing ways of doing business and will likely fight to maintain their part of the status quo. So let them have it. Offer a work-around.
Give oil its due
Sustainability is a big word that can encompass diversified fuel sources. Give oil its due. Petroleum made this country a world leader and rich beyond measure. And coal fuels many regional economies. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency made history with its recent ruling to curb emissions of coal-fired electricity plants, making even the sub-bituminous variety vastly less irritating to the environment.
Surging renewables could decrease upward pressure on oil prices. The full effect on energy markets is something analysts would have to ponder. But they may stabilize gas prices, let’s say at $2.50 per gallon, giving old-world gearheads like me continued access to fuel for our internal combustion engines and leaving the electric hotrods to the younger set.
Another positive development could be declining importance of the Middle East. How about this headline? “Iran abandons nuclear program, cites cash crunch.” Healthy competition from alternative energy sources is unlikely to put many in the oil patch out of business, but it would certainly shift the balance of power.
The funny thing is that other counties appear to be seizing the green opportunity. Germany, for instance, has sidelined its nuclear program and embraced clean energy. No politician there says it’s easy, but the payoff could be amazing. Norway’s also making a push, and China’s not messing around either. Of course, the sleeping dragon of the East is going at every sector like it wants to dominate them all.
The key, at least in this country, is keeping government involvement to a minimum. Most in the clean energy sector would prefer to compete on their own terms, without subsidy. And that means innovation.
To a growing extent, that is already happening. In 2011, international spending in clean energy hit $260 billion, up 5 percent from the previous year and about five times what was spent in 2004, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.
Renewables already play a role
Solar has reached parity or near parity with fossil fuels, and wind is on the cusp. However, both are intermittent: wind dependent on the whims of Mother Nature and solar on the rotation of the Earth. Only geothermal could be argued a constant source, and its capacity to shoulder the energy burden is limited.
In all cases, and this includes biofuels, fuel cells and hydrogen, advances in production that simplify and reduce costs prove invaluable to the green energy movement. That’s why we need some of the best minds focused on solutions. The nation’s universities are primed for the challenge. Many already have taken up the charge. Their fledgling programs just need minimal funding to turn out the next big thing.
Bring on energy efficiency
This can’t be done without efficiency. As Trevor Winnie, senior research analyst for consultant Clean Edge, so succinctly points out “the U.S. could save $1.2 trillion through 2020 by investing $520 billion” in energy efficiency and cut national energy use by more than a fifth by 2020 or 60 percent by 2050. Winnie cites multiple studies.
“Energy efficiency continues to be the cheapest way to get electricity,” he says.
Pair the pursuit of energy efficiency with renewables and a smart grid attuned to a new generation of power sources, and not only would the nation have clean (and hopefully cheap) energy but it would have all the building blocks to fuel its rise to the top of the economic heap once again.
Falter and get dusted
We will have to get moving. In the initial space race, the Russians sent the first man into space, spurring American political leaders to respond. The USSR conquered a previously unimaginable frontier and winning the admiration and acclaim of the world community. Of course, the Nikita Khrushchev-led nation was an arch enemy and Cold War nemesis.
U.S. leaders then feared that control of space could lead to greater geopolitical control. But I tend to believe honor may have had more to do with the space race. The thought of the United States ceding something as monumental as manned flight beyond earth’s atmosphere inspired then Kennedy to funnel resources, manpower and the hopes and dreams of the American people behind the Apollo project and getting man to the moon.
Consensus is needed
Kennedy didn’t do it alone. His predecessor, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, lit the space-race fuse with the signing of the signing the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, and support came flooding in from both sides of the aisle.
“We choose to go to the moon … not because they are easy, but because they are hard … because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win,” Kennedy said in a speech to Rice University in Houston.
Kennedy said the United State was not built by those who rested and those who waited. He said the nation rode the first waves of industrial revolution and modern invention. “This generation does not intend to founder in the backwash,” he said in a speech that sounds as relevent today as it did June 10, 1963.
Clean energy should be given treatment similar to that received by the space race. The stakes are high, perhaps higher. The nation’s security is compromised by its dependence on foreign oil and national debt. Its skies are darkened by smog. Its children suffer from toxins in the air and environment. Our way of life is threatened.
No thanks Dr. Srangelove
Taking action is a heck of a lot better than the depressing scenario painted by TomDispatch blogger and author Michael T. Klare, who writes that pursuing no alternative course will result in potential serious conflict over the scant remaining resources. He identifies several hot spots “where energy, politics, and geography are likely to mix in dangerous ways in 2012 and beyond.”
Klare warns to watch the Strait of Hormuz, the East and South China Seas, the Caspian Sea basin and the Arctic.
Wouldn’t it be better to look the enemy square in the eye and yell like Slim Pickens’ Major Kong?