EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 11. Raising Energy Efficiency: Introduction

As noted in Chapter 3, the Himalayan glaciers that feed the major rivers in Asia during the dry season are melting, and some of them could disappear entirely in a matter of decades, shrinking the region’s grain harvest. We also noted that if the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets melt, sea level will rise 12 meters (39 feet).

The ice melting effects of climate change alone could increase the number of failing states to a point where civilization would begin to unravel. We are faced with civilization-threatening climate change and a need to massively reduce carbon emissions—and to do it quickly. We do not need to wait for future temperature rises to see that we are in trouble. The melting just described warrants a crash program to cut carbon emissions.

One of the goals of Plan B is to reestablish a balance between carbon emissions and nature’s capacity to sequester carbon by cutting net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions 80 percent by 2020. This will halt the rise in atmospheric CO2, stabilizing it below 400 parts per million (ppm), up only modestly from the 384 ppm in 2007. It will also help keep future temperature rise to a minimum. Such a basic economy restructuring in time to avoid catastrophic climate disruption will be challenging, but how can we face the next generation if we do not try? 1

Our plan to cut net CO2 emissions 80 percent by 2020 includes stopping deforestation and an even more ambitious effort to cut fossil fuel use. The latter has two major components—raising energy efficiency to offset all projected demand growth, as discussed in this chapter, and developing the earth’s rich array of renewable energy resources in order to close down all coal- and oil-fired power plants, as discussed in the next chapter.

In laying out Plan B, we exclude the oft-discussed option of CO2 sequestration at coal-fired power plants. Given the costs and the lack of investor interest in the technology, there is reason to doubt that carbon sequestration will be economically viable on a meaningful scale by 2020.

And similarly, we do not count on a buildup in nuclear power. Our assumption is that new openings of nuclear power plants worldwide will simply offset the closing of aging plants, with no overall growth in capacity. If we use full-cost pricing—requiring utilities to absorb the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, of decommissioning the plant when it is worn out, and of insuring the reactors against possible accidents and terrorist attacks—building nuclear plants in a competitive electricity market is simply not economical.

Beyond the economic costs are the political questions. If we say that expanding nuclear power is an important part of our energy future, do we mean for all countries or only for some countries? If the latter, who makes the A-list and the B-list of countries? And who enforces the listings?

For reference, world electricity generation totaled 18.5 trillion kilowatt-hours in 2006. Of this, two thirds came from fossil fuels (40 percent from coal, 6 percent from oil, and 20 percent from natural gas), 15 percent from nuclear, 16 percent from hydropower, and 2 percent or so from other renewables. (The average U.S. home uses roughly 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, so 1 billion kilowatt-hours is enough to supply 100,000 U.S. homes). 2

Since coal supplies 40 percent of the world’s electricity but accounts for over 70 percent of the electrical sector’s CO2 emissions, the first priority is to reduce demand enough to avoid constructing any new coal-fired power plants. In the next chapter we focus on phasing out coal-fired power plants. This may appear to be a novel idea, particularly to energy planners in countries such as China and India, but it is not, for example, in Europe. Germany has cut coal use 37 percent since 1990 through efficiency gains and by substituting wind-generated electricity for that from coal. The United Kingdom has cut coal use 43 percent, largely by replacing it with North Sea natural gas. 3

In early 2007, some 150 new coal-fired power plants were planned in the United States. Then public opposition began to mount. California, which imports 20 percent of its electricity, prohibited the signing of any new contracts to import electricity produced with coal. Several other states, including Florida, Texas, Minnesota, Washington, and Kansas, followed, refusing licenses for coal-fired power plants or otherwise preventing their construction. 4

Coal’s future took a telling blow in July 2007 when Citigroup downgraded coal company stocks across the board and recommended that clients switch to other energy stocks. In August, coal took another hit when U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who had been opposing three coal-fired power plants planned for his own state, announced that he was extending his opposition to building coal-fired power plants anywhere in the world. Investment analysts and political leaders are now beginning to see what has been obvious for some time to scientists such as NASA’s James Hansen, who says that it makes no sense to build coal-fired power plants when we will have to bulldoze them in a few years. 5

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1. Figure of 400 ppm calculated using fossil fuel emissions from G. Marland et al., “Global, Regional, and National CO2 Emissions,” in Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2007), and land use change emissions from R .A. Houghton and J. L. Hackler, “Carbon Flux to the Atmosphere from Land-Use Changes,” in Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change (Oak Ridge, TN: Carbon Dioxide Information and Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2002), with decay curve cited in J. Hansen et al., “Dangerous Human-Made Interference with Climate: A GISS ModelE Study,” Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, vol. 7 (2007), pp. 2287–312; 384 ppm from Pieter Tans, “Trends in Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide—Mauna Loa,” NOAA/ESRL, at www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends, viewed 16 October 2007.

2. International Energy Agency (IEA), World Energy Outlook 2006 (Paris: 2006), p. 493; electricity consumption per U.S home from U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), Regional Energy Profile—U.S. Household Electricity Report (Washington, DC: July 2005).

3. IEA, op. cit. note 2; coal reduction from DOE, EIA, International Energy Annual 2005 (Washington, DC: June–October 2007), Table E.4.

4. Bill Moore, “California Bans Future Purchase of Coal-Generated Power,” EV World, 28 June 2007; Rebecca Smith, “Coal’s Doubters Block New Wave of Power Plants,” Wall Street Journal, 25 July 2007; California Energy Commission, “California’s Major Sources of Energy,” at www.energy.ca.gov, updated 10 October 2007; Matthew L. Wald, “Citing Global Warming, Kansas Denies Plant Permit,” New York Times, 20 October 2007.

5. Steven Mufson, “Coal Rush Reverses, Power Firms Follow Plans for New Plants Stalled by Growing Opposition,” Washington Post, 4 September 2007; James Hansen, “Why We Can’t Wait,” The Nation, 7 May 2007; Martin Griffith, “Reid Opposes New Coal-fired Power Plants Worldwide,” Las Vegas Sun, 18 August 2007.


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