EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Stabilizing Climate: Shifting to Renewable Energy: Introduction

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about climate change cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new energy economy is emerging. The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas, is being replaced by one powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy. Despite the global economic crisis, this energy transition is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even two years ago. And it is a worldwide phenomenon.

Consider Texas. Long the leading U.S. oil-producing state, it is now also the leading generator of electricity from wind, having overtaken California three years ago. Texas now has 7,900 megawatts of wind generating capacity online, 1,100 more in the construction stage, and a huge amount in the development stage. When all of these wind farms are completed, Texas will have 53,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity—the equivalent of 53 coal-fired power plants. This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 24 million people, enabling Texas to export electricity, just as it has long exported oil. 1

Texas is not alone. In South Dakota, a wind-rich, sparsely populated state, development has begun on a vast 5,050-megawatt wind farm (1 megawatt of wind capacity supplies 300 U.S. homes) that when completed will produce nearly five times as much electricity as the 796,000 people living in the state need. Altogether, some 10 states in the United States, most of them in the Great Plains, and several Canadian provinces are planning to export wind energy. 2

Across the Atlantic, the government of Scotland is negotiating with two sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East to invest $7 billion in a grid in the North Sea off its eastern coast. This grid will enable Scotland to develop nearly 60,000 megawatts of off-shore wind generating capacity, close to the 79,000 megawatts of current electrical generating capacity for the United Kingdom. 3

We are witnessing an embrace of renewable energy on a scale we’ve never seen for fossil fuels or nuclear power. And not only in industrial countries. Algeria, which knows it will not be exporting oil forever, is planning to build 6,000 megawatts of solar thermal generating capacity for export to Europe via undersea cable. The Algerians note that they have enough harnessable solar energy in their vast desert to power the entire world economy. This is not a mathematical error. A similarly striking fact is that the sunlight striking the earth in just one hour is enough to power the world economy for one year. 4

Turkey, which now has 39,000 megawatts of total electrical generating capacity, issued a request for proposals in 2007 to build wind farms. It received bids from both domestic and international wind development firms to build a staggering 78,000 megawatts of wind generating capacity. Having selected 15,000 megawatts of the most promising proposals, the government is now issuing construction permits. 5

In mid-2008, Indonesia—a country with 128 active volcanoes and therefore rich in geothermal energy—announced that it would develop 6,900 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity, with Pertamina, the state oil company, responsible for developing the lion’s share. Indonesia’s oil production has been declining for the last decade, and in each of the last four years the country has been an oil importer. As Pertamina shifts resources from oil into the development of geothermal energy, it could become the first oil company—state-owned or independent—to make the transition from oil to renewable energy. 6

These are only a few of the visionary initiatives to tap the earth’s renewable energy. The resources are vast. In the United States, three states—North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—have enough harnessable wind energy to run the entire economy. In China, wind will likely become the dominant power source. Indonesia could one day get all its power from geothermal energy alone. Europe will be powered largely by wind farms in the North Sea and solar thermal power plants in the North African desert. 7

The Plan B goals for developing renewable sources of energy by 2020 that are laid out in this chapter are based not on what is conventionally believed to be politically feasible but on what we think is needed. This is not Plan A, business as usual. This is Plan B—a wartime mobilization, an all-out response that is designed to avoid destabilizing economic and political stresses that will come with unmanageable climate change.

To reduce worldwide net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80 percent by 2020, the first priority is to replace all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with renewable sources. Whereas the twentieth century was marked by the globalization of the world energy economy as countries everywhere turned to oil, much of it coming from the Middle East, this century will see the localization of energy production as the world turns to wind, solar, and geothermal energy.

This century will also see the electrification of the economy. The transport sector will shift from gasoline-powered automobiles to plug-in gas-electric hybrids, all-electric cars, light rail transit, and high-speed intercity rail. And for long-distance freight, the shift will be from diesel-powered trucks to electrically powered rail freight systems. The movement of people and goods will be powered largely by electricity. In this new energy economy, buildings will rely on renewable electricity almost exclusively for heating, cooling, and lighting.

In the electrification of the economy, we do not count on a buildup in nuclear power. Our assumption is that the limited number of nuclear power plants now under construction worldwide will simply offset the closing of aging plants, with no overall growth in capacity by 2020. If we use full-cost pricing—requiring utilities to absorb the costs of disposing of nuclear waste, of decommissioning a plant when it wears out, and of insuring reactors against possible accidents and terrorist attacks—building nuclear plants in a competitive electricity market is simply not economical. 8

Beyond the costs of nuclear power 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?

In laying out the climate component of Plan B, we also exclude the oft-discussed option of carbon sequestration at coal-fired power plants. Given the costs and the lack of investor interest within the coal community itself, this technology is not likely to be economically viable on a meaningful scale by 2020.

Can we expand renewable energy use fast enough? We think so. Recent trends in the adoption of mobile phones and personal computers give a sense of how quickly new technologies can spread. Once cumulative mobile phone sales reached 1 million units in 1986, the stage was set for explosive growth, and the number of cell phone subscribers doubled in each of the next three years. Over the next 12 years the number doubled every two years. By 2001 there were 961 million cell phones—nearly a 1,000-fold increase in just 15 years. And now there are more than 4 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide. 9

Sales of personal computers followed a similar trajectory. In 1980 roughly a million were sold, but by 2008 the figure was an estimated 270 million—a 270-fold jump in 28 years. We are now seeing similar growth figures for renewable energy technologies. Installations of solar cells are doubling every two years, and the annual growth in wind generating capacity is not far behind. Just as the communications and information economies have changed beyond recognition over the past two decades, so too will the energy economy over the next decade. 10

There is one outstanding difference. Whereas the restructuring of the information economy was shaped only by advancing technology and market forces, the restructuring of the energy economy will be driven also by the realization that the fate of civilization may depend not only on doing so, but on doing it at wartime speed.

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1. U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), Crude Oil Production, electronic database, at tonto.eia.doe.gov, updated 28 July 2008; American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), “Installed U.S. Wind Power Capacity Surged 45% in 2007: American Wind Energy Association Market Report,” press release (Washington, DC: 17 January 2008); AWEA, U.S. Wind Energy Projects, electronic database, at www.awea.org/projects, updated 31 March 2009; future capacity calculated from Emerging Energy Research (EER), “US Wind Markets Surge to New Heights,” press release (Cambridge, MA: 14 August 2008); coal-fired power plant equivalents calculated by assuming that an average plant has a 500-megawatt capacity and operates 72 percent of the time, generating 3.15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year; residential consumption calculated using “Residential Sector Energy Consumption Estimates, 2005,” in DOE, EIA, Residential Energy Consumption Survey 2005 Status Report (Washington, DC: 2007), with capacity factor from DOE, National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Power Technologies Energy Data Book (Golden, CO: August 2006); population from U.S. Census Bureau, State & County QuickFacts, electronic database, at quickfacts.census.gov, updated 20 February 2009.

2. “Clipper and BP to JV on 5,050-MW South Dakota Wind Project,” Wind Energy Weekly, vol. 27, no. 1300 (1 August 2008); 1 megawatt (MW) of installed wind capacity produces enough electricity to supply 300 homes from AWEA, “U.S. Wind Energy Installations Reach New Milestone,” press release (Washington, DC: 14 August 2006); average U.S. household size from U.S. Census Bureau, “2005–2007 American Community Survey 3-Year Estimates—Data Profile Highlights,” at factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ACSSAFFFacts, viewed 9 April 2009, with population from Census Bureau, op. cit. note 1; electricity export from EER, op. cit. note 1; ITC Holdings Corp., “ITC Holdings Corp. Unveils Green Power Express,” press release (Novi, MI: 9 February 2009); TransCanada, “TransCanada’s Zephyr and Chinook Power Transmission Line,” project brochure (Calgary, Alberta: April 2009); Quanta Technology, LLC, Final Report on the Southwest Power Pool (SPP) Updated EHV Overlay Study (Raleigh, NC: 3 March 2008), pp. 11–17; “A Window of North Atlantic Opportunity,” Windpower Monthly, October 2008, pp. 21–22.

3. Mark Leftly, “Middle East to Fund Scotland’s £5bn Power Grid,” Independent (London), 10 August 2008; currency conversion from www.bloomberg.com/invest/calculators/currency.html, 9 April 2009; “World Electricity Installed Capacity by Type (Million Kilowatts), January 1, 2006,” in DOE, EIA, “International Energy Annual 2006—World Electricity Data,” at www.eia.doe.gov/iea/elec.html, updated 8 December 2008.

4. “Algeria Aims to Export Power—Solar Power,” Associated Press, 11 August 2007; William Maclean, “Algeria Plans Solar Power Cable to Germany—Paper,” Reuters, 15 November 2007.

5. “World Electricity Installed Capacity by Type (Million Kilowatts),” in DOE, op. cit. note 3; David O’Byrne, “Electricity Generation: Fair Winds Blow for a Clean Alternative,” Financial Times, 10 June 2008; Jan Dodd, “Strong Winds and High Prices in Turkey,” Windpower Monthly, September 2008; project selection and permitting from Dr. Hilmi Güler, Turkish Minister of Energy and Natural Resources, discussion with author, 20 June 2008.

6. Peter Janssen, “The Too Slow Flow: Why Indonesia Could Get All Its Power from Volcanoes—But Doesn’t,” Newsweek, 20 September 2004; “Geothermal Power Projects to Cost $US19.8 Bln, Official Says,” ANTARA News (Jakarta), 9 July 2008; Gita Wirjawan, “The Oil Cycle: The Wheels are Turning Again,” Jakarta Post, 12 March 2009.

7. D. L. Elliott, L. L. Wendell, and G. L. Gower, An Assessment of the Available Windy Land Area and Wind Energy Potential in the Contiguous United States (Richland, WA: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, 1991); Cristina L. Archer and Mark Z. Jacobson, “The Spatial and Temporal Distributions of U.S. Winds and Wind Power at 80 m Derived from Measurements,” Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 108 (13 May 2003); China from C. L. Archer and M. Z. Jacobson, “Evaluation of Global Windpower,” Journal of Geophysical Research, vol. 110 (30 June 2005), and from Jean Hu et al., “Wind: The Future is Now,” Renewable Energy World, July–August 2005, p. 212; Indonesia based on 27,000 MW potential from Alimin Ginting, Indonesia Geothermal Association, “Geothermal Energy: Global Status, Market and Challenge for Developing in Indonesia,” presentation to the Thematic Panel Discussion of LEAD International Training Session on Leadership and Climate Change, 26 November–1 December 2007, Jakarta-Bandung, Indonesia, and on International Energy Agency (IEA), IEA Statistics, electronic database, at www.iea.org/Textbase/stats/index.asp, viewed 1 May 2009.

8. Lester R. Brown, “The Flawed Economics of Nuclear Power,” Plan B Update (Washington, DC: Earth Policy Institute, 28 October 2008).

9. International Telecommunication Union, “Key Global Telecom Indicators for the World Telecommunication Service Sector,” at www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict/statistics/at_glance/KeyTelecom99.html, updated 10 March 2009; Molly O. Sheehan, “Mobile Phone Use Booms,” in Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2002 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 85.

10. “Historical USA PC Sales” and “Historical Worldwide PC Sales,” tables in Computer Industry Almanac Inc., Worldwide PC Market (Arlington Heights, IL: September 2008); European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA), Global Market Outlook for Photovoltaics Until 2013 (Brussels: April 2009), pp. 3–4; Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), Global Wind 2008 Report (Brussels: 2009), p. 10.

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