EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Turning to Renewable Energy: The World Energy Economy of 2020

Backing out fossil fuels begins with the electricity sector, where the development of 5,153 gigawatts of new renewable generating capacity by 2020, over half of it from wind, would be more than enough to replace all the coal and oil and 70 percent of the natural gas now used to generate electricity. (See Table 12–1.) The addition of 1,530 gigawatts of thermal capacity by 2020 will reduce the use of both oil and gas for heating buildings and water. Roughly two thirds of this growth will come from rooftop solar water and space heaters. 97

In looking at the broad shifts from 2006 to the Plan B energy economy of 2020, fossil fuel–generated electricity drops by 90 percent. This is more than offset by the fivefold growth in renewably generated electricity. In the transportation sector, energy use from fossil fuels drops by some 70 percent. This comes from shifting not just to hybrids that run partly on electricity but to highly efficient plug-in hybrids that run largely on electricity from renewable sources. And it also comes from shifting to electric trains, which are much more efficient than diesel-powered trains. 98

Closely related to this overall energy restructuring are several indirect energy savings. For example, when coal is phased out as a power source the vast amount of energy used to extract the coal, bring it to the surface, and transport it—typically hundreds of miles by rail to power plants—is no longer needed. Some 42 percent of U.S. freight is coal transported by diesel-powered locomotives. 99

The new energy economy will be based much less on energy from combustion and more on the direct harnessing of energy from wind, the sun, and the earth itself. In the new economy, for example, cars will be running largely on wind energy.

Electricity will be much more prominent in the new energy economy. In 2020 it will be the principal source of energy for cars, largely replacing gasoline. For trains it will replace diesel fuel. In the new economy, many buildings will be all-electric—heated, cooled, and illuminated entirely with carbon-free renewable electricity.

Just as renewable energy technologies are advancing, so too are those that will lead to a smart grid, one that uses smart meters, to constantly monitor not only electricity flows but specific uses at the household level. It gives consumers a choice, for example, between running a dishwasher during peak demand and paying 9¢ per kilowatt-hour for electricity and running it at 3 a.m. using 5¢ electricity. Giving consumers options like this can shrink their electricity bills and benefit utilities by reducing the generating capacity that utilities will need. 100

Whereas fossil fuels helped globalize the energy economy, shifting to renewable sources will localize it. We anticipate that the energy transition will be driven largely by mounting concerns about climate change, by climbing oil prices, and by the restructuring of taxes to incorporate the indirect costs of burning fossil fuels. It is encouraging to know that we now have the technologies to build a new energy economy, one that is not climate-disruptive, that does not pollute the air, and that can last as long as the sun itself. The question is no longer whether we can develop a climate-stabilizing energy economy, but whether we can develop it before climate change spins out of control.

Table 12–1. World Energy from Renewables in 2006 and Plan B Goals for 2020

Source: Source: See endnote 97.
Goal for 2020

Electricity Generating Capacity (electrical gigawatts)

Rooftop solar electric systems
Solar electric power plants
Solar thermal power plants

Thermal Energy Capacity (thermal gigawatts)

Solar rooftop water and space heaters

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97. Table 12–1 by Earth Policy Institute, with 2020 projections cited throughout chapter and with 2006 figures calculated using the following sources: rooftop solar electric systems in Worldwatch Institute, op. cit. note 4, and Maycock, op. cit. note 4; wind from GWEC, op. cit. note 8; geothermal from Gawell et al., op. cit. note 64, and from REN21, op. cit. note 2; biomass from REN21, op. cit. note 2; hydropower, including tidal and wave, from IEA, Renewables in Global Energy Supply: An IEA Fact Sheet, pp.13, 25, at www.iea.org/textbase; rooftop solar water and space heaters from IEA, Solar Heating and Cooling Program, Solar Heat Worldwide: Markets and Contribution to the Energy Supply 2005 (Paris: April 2007); REN21, op. cit. note 2; REN21, op. cit. note 44; geothermal from Tester et al., op. cit. note 65, p. 9.

98. GM, op. cit. note 36.

99. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Freight in America: A New National Picture (Washington, DC: January 2006), pp. 7, 28.

100. Ashlea Ebeling, “What Would You Pay to Stay Cool?” Forbes, 15 August 2007.


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