“There's a wealth of real possibilities for change to a more sustainable and more human course.” – Bill McKibben, billmckibben.com on Plan B.
Chapter 10. Stabilizing Climate: Cutting Carbon Emissions Fast
By far the cheapest and fastest way to cut carbon emissions is to raise the efficiency of energy use. Not only is it cheap, it is often profitable. The other option is to develop renewable sources of energy. Within this framework, perhaps the most complex question is which alternative automotive fuels to develop. Until recently, the only widely considered alternative to oil since the initial oil price hikes in the 1970s was biofuels. Now with the advent of gas-electric hybrid plug-ins, wind-generated electricity becomes an appealing option because of its abundance and low cost.
The frugal use of land by wind is impressive. Within the United States, a quarter-acre of land in the corn belt can be used to site an advanced-design wind turbine that will produce $100,000 worth of electricity per year or it can be used to produce 40 bushels of corn that will yield 100 gallons of ethanol worth perhaps $200. If the goal is to minimize competition from the automotive fuel economy for food resources, wind-generated electricity is the obvious choice. 63
Among the various ethanol sources, sugarcane is by far the most efficient in both land and energy use. The ethanol yield of sugarcane per acre is roughly 650 gallons, whereas for corn in the United States it is 350 gallons, scarcely half as much. The net energy yield of 8 for sugarcane offers an overwhelming advantage over that of the 1.5 for corn. 64
The palm oil yield of over 500 gallons of biodiesel per acre compares very favorably with 56 gallons per acre for soybeans. The downside of sugarcane and palm oil as feedstocks is that both are grown in tropical and subtropical regions, which means their production will likely be expanded by clearing tropical forests. 65
The most efficient automotive fuel option appears to the gas-electric hybrid with a plug-in capacity and wind energy as the principal fuel. Since nearly all the basic food commodities can be converted into automotive fuel, either ethanol or biodiesel, there is a risk that rising oil prices will stimulate massive investments in biofuels production, using food staples as the feedstock. This could set up direct competition between affluent motorists and low-income food consumers for the same foodstuffs, including wheat, rice, corn, soybeans, and sugarcane. Avoiding this potential competition between supermarkets and service stations for the same food commodities will depend on governments establishing policies to protect food consumers.
In a world facing disruptive climate change, each country will need to fashion its own carbon reduction strategy in light of its unique complement of renewable sources of energy and its most promising potentials for raising energy efficiency. Yet, many technologies for cutting carbon emissions, such as energy-efficient household appliances and gas-electric hybrid vehicles, are common to all societies.
Among countries, Iceland may be the only one that currently has a strategy to phase out the use of fossil fuels, including oil, entirely. Currently it heats 85 percent of all its buildings, residential and commercial, with geothermal energy. In addition, 82 percent of its electricity comes from hydropower, with most of the remaining electricity geothermally generated. It is now using its cheap hydroelectricity to electrolyze water and produce hydrogen. With its first hydrogen station in operation in Reykjavik, the country is turning to fuel-cell-powered buses. Next it plans to convert its automobiles to fuel cells and then eventually to do the same with its fishing fleet, which lies at the heart of its economy. 66
The biggest single gain in carbon emission reductions could come in the U.S. automotive sector where, as described earlier, the potential exists for cutting gasoline use by a staggering 85 percent. This model applied worldwide could help the world adjust to the coming decline in oil production. 67
For the United States, its rich endowment of low-cost wind energy suggests that wind will likely emerge as the centerpiece of the new energy economy. It can supply electricity for heating, cooling, cooking, powering automobiles, and even producing steel, using energy-efficient electric arc furnaces for steel smelting. The United States, which gets 7 percent of its electricity from existing hydroelectric facilities, also has a substantial geothermal potential in the western states and an enormous solar cell potential throughout the country. 68
Germany plans to cut its carbon emissions dramatically by continuously raising energy efficiency and harnessing renewable energy resources, with an emphasis on wind. By 2050, Germany plans to reduce overall energy use by 37 percent as it uses the latest technologies to raise energy efficiency. Of the remaining 63 percent, 45 percent will come from renewables. This means a cut of 65 percent in overall carbon emissions. Germany will rely heavily on wind and solar cells for electricity generation and solar thermal panels for water and space heating. 69
Indonesia’s energy future lies in its vast resources of geothermal energy. With more than enough geothermal energy to satisfy all its electricity needs, Indonesia can also develop its abundance of solar and wind resources and use electricity to fuel hybrid vehicles. With 11 percent of its electricity coming from hydro, Indonesia has a wide range of renewable energy sources. 70
For Spain, bathed in sunlight year-round, solar cells and solar panels will figure prominently in supplying electricity, heating, and cooling. Spain is also moving fast to develop its rich endowment of wind energy. 71
Brazil is unique in that self-sufficiency in automotive fuel in the form of sugarcane-based ethanol could be only a few years away. Along with a generous supply of hydropower, wind and solar cells will also supply electricity. Solar panels will heat water. Brazil could be one of the first large countries to substantially phase out fossil fuels. 72
For China, hydropower already supplies 15 percent of its electricity, but the big potential lies with wind. China could easily double its current electricity generation from wind alone. Like the United States, a combination of gas-electric hybrids with a second storage battery and a plug-in capacity and a heavy investment in harnessing its abundant wind resources can minimize the use of gasoline and reduce dependence on coal. 73
In the United Kingdom, wind-generated electricity, primarily from offshore wind farms, holds enormous potential. This, combined with wave power (of which it has an abundance) and solar panels for water heating, can meet much of the country’s energy needs. 74
For Argentina, where hydropower already supplies 42 percent of electricity, wind could easily supply the remainder. Its large Patagonian region has some of the richest wind resources found anywhere. Argentina also has the potential for solar electricity and solar panels. 75
During the last century, the world became increasingly dependent on a small handful of countries in the Middle East for its energy. During this century, the world is turning to local energy resources. The last century saw the globalization of the energy economy, while today we are seeing its localization. Whereas “one size fit all” in the last century, in the twenty-first century each country will fashion an energy strategy that fits its own renewable energy resources and its potential for raising energy efficiency.
For countries everywhere, particularly developing countries, the economic good news in the energy transition is that it is much more labor-intensive than the use of fossil fuels. Even though Germany is still early in the energy transition, renewable energy industries already employ more workers than the long-standing fossil fuel and nuclear industries. In a world where unemployment is widespread, this is welcome news indeed. 76
Furthermore, in contrast to investments in oil and gas fields and coal mines, where depletion and abandonment were inevitable, the new energy sources are inexhaustible. While wind turbines, solar cells, and solar thermal panels will all need repair and occasional replacement, the initial investment can last indefinitely. This well will not go dry.
63. Calculation of electricity production from Gray, op. cit. note 27; Renewable Fuels Association, “Homegrown for the Homeland: Ethanol Industry Outlook 2005” (Washington, DC: 2005).
64. Renewable Fuels Association, op. cit. note 63; average ethanol yield in Brazil calculated by Earth Policy Institute from São Paulo Sugar Cane Agroindustry Union (UNICA), cited in Alfred Szwarc, “Use of Bio-Fuels in Brazil,” presentation at In-Session Workshop on Mitigation, SBSTA 21 / COP 10, Buenos Aires: Ministry of Science and Technology, 9 December 2004; Christoph Berg, World Fuel Ethanol Analysis and Outlook (Ratzeburg, Germany: F.O. Licht, April 2004); net energy yields from F.O. Licht, cited in Szwarc, op. cit. this note.
65. “Oil Yields and Characteristics,” Journey to Forever, at www.journeytoforever.org/biodiesel_yield.html, viewed 15 July 2005; soybean yield is author’s estimate.
66. Geothermal heat and hydrogen from Árni Ragnarsson and Thorkell Helgason, eds., Energy In Iceland: Historical Perspective, Present Status, Future Outlook (Reykjavik, Iceland: National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun) and Ministries of Industry and Commerce, February 2004), pp. 21, 42; hydropower from Ragnheidur Inga Thorarinsdottir and Helga Bardadottir, eds., Energy Statistics in Iceland (Reykjavik, Iceland: National Energy Authority (Orkustofnun), September 2004.
67. Lovins et al., op. cit. note 34.
68. DOE, EIA, “United States,” EIA Country Analysis Brief (Washington, DC: updated January 2005).
69. Donald W. Aitken, “Germany Launches Its Transition: How One of the Most Advanced Industrial Nations Is Moving to 100 Percent Energy from Renewable Sources,” Solar Today, March/April 2005,
70. Janssen, op. cit. note 62; hydroelectricity from DOE, EIA, “Indonesia,” EIA Country Analysis Brief (Washington, DC: updated July 2004).
71. GWEC, op. cit. note 15, p. 7.
72. Brazil’s ethanol self-sufficiency potential calculated by Earth Policy Institute from UNICA, “Brazil as a Strategic Supplier of Fuel Ethanol,” presentation for the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition, January 2005.
73. Hydropower and electricity generation from DOE, EIA, “China,” EIA Country Analysis Brief (Washington, DC: updated August 2005); wind potential from GWEC, op. cit. note 15, p. 28.
74. GWEC, op. cit. note 15, p. 43.
75. DOE, op. cit. note 68; C. Palese et al., “Wind Regime and Wind Power in North Patagonia, Argentina,” Wind Engineering, 1 September 2000, pp. 361–77; “Clean Energy in Patagonia from Wind and Hydrogen,” Inter Press Service, 15 May 2005.
76. Kelly, op. cit. note 39.
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