The transition towards renewable energy

Book: Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization. by Lester R. Brown. Earth Policy Institute, 2008

This is one of the most important policy books available for the moment, with an integrated, well researched and well-thought out transition plan.

The excerpts were compiled by Paul D. Fernhout:

1. Our current use of fossil fuels represent a massive market failure

“One of the best examples of this massive market failure can be seen in the United States, where the gasoline pump price in mid-2007 was $3 per gallon. But this price reflects only the cost of discovering the oil, pumping it to the surface, refining it into gasoline, and delivering the gas to service stations. It overlooks the costs of climate change as well as the costs of tax subsidies to the oil industry (such as the oil depletion allowance), the burgeoning military costs of protecting access to oil in the politically unstable Middle East, and the health care costs for treating respiratory illnesses from breathing polluted air. 16 Based on a study by the International Center for Technology Assessment, these costs now total nearly $12 per gallon ($3.17 per liter) of gasoline burned in the United States. If these were added to the $3 cost of the gasoline itself, motorists would pay $15 a gallon for gas at the pump. In reality, burning gasoline is very costly, but the market tells us it is cheap, thus grossly distorting the structure of the economy. The challenge facing governments is to restructure tax systems by systematically incorporating indirect costs as a tax to make sure the price of products reflects their full costs to society and by offsetting this with a reduction in income taxes.”

2. The main challenge is social.

“Mobilizing to save civilization means restructuring the economy, restoring its natural support systems, eradicating poverty, stabilizing population and climate, and, above all, restoring hope. We have the technologies, economic instruments, and financial resources to do this. The United States, the wealthiest society that has ever existed, has the resources to lead this effort. Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University’s Earth Institute sums it up well: “The tragic irony of this moment is that the rich countries are so rich and the poor so poor that a few added tenths of one percent of GNP from the rich ones ramped up over the coming decades could do what was never before possible in human history: ensure that the basic needs of health and education are met for all impoverished children in this world. How many more tragedies will we suffer in this country before we wake up to our capacity to help make the world a safer and more prosperous place not only through military might, but through the gift of life itself?”

Combining social goals and earth restoration components into a Plan B budget yields an additional annual expenditure of $190 billion, roughly one third of the current U.S. military budget or one sixth of the global military budget. (See Table 13–3.) In a sense this is the new defense budget, the one that addresses the most serious threats to our security. 50 Unfortunately, the United States continues to focus on building an ever-stronger military, largely ignoring the threats posed by continuing environmental deterioration, poverty, and population growth. Its defense budget for 2006, including $118 billion for the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, brought the U.S. military expenditure to $560 billion. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members spend a combined $328 billion a year on the military. Russia spends about $35 billion, and China, $50 billion. U.S. military spending is now roughly equal to that of all other countries combined.

As of late 2007, direct U.S. appropriations for the Iraq war, which has lasted longer than World War II, total some $450 billion. Economists Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes calculate that if all the costs are included, such as the lifetime of care required for returning troops who are brain-injured or psychologically shattered, the war will cost in the end some $2 trillion. Yet the Iraq war may prove to be one of history’s most costly mistakes not so much because of fiscal outlay but because it has diverted the world’s attention from climate change and the other threats to civilization itself.

It is decision time. Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we can decide to stay with business as usual and watch our modern economy decline and eventually collapse, or we can consciously move onto a new path, one that will sustain economic progress. In this situation, no action is a de facto decision to stay on the decline-and-collapse path.

No one can argue today that we do not have the resources to eradicate poverty, stabilize population, and protect the earth’s natural resource base. We can get rid of hunger, illiteracy, disease, and poverty, and we can restore the earth’s soils, forests, and fisheries. Shifting one sixth of the world military budget to the Plan B budget would be more than adequate to move the world onto a path that would sustain progress. We can build a global community where the basic needs of all the earth’s people are satisfied—a world that will allow us to think of ourselves as civilized.”

3. And not financial.

“With sales of solar cells now doubling every two years and likely to continue doing so at least until 2020, the estimated sales for 2008 of over 5,000 megawatts will climb to 320,000 megawatts in 2020. By this time the cumulative installed capacity would exceed 1 million megawatts (1,000 gigawatts). Although this projection may seem ambitious, it may in fact turn out to be conservative. For one thing, if most of the nearly 1.6 billion people who lack electricity today get it by 2020, it will likely be because they have installed solar home systems.

When a villager buys a solar cell system, that person is in effect buying a 25-year supply of electricity. Since there is no fuel cost and very little maintenance, it is the upfront outlay that counts, and that typically requires financing. Recognizing this, the World Bank and the U.N. Environment Programme have stepped in with programs to help local lenders set up credit systems to finance this cheap source of electricity. An initial World Bank loan has helped 50,000 home owners in Bangladesh obtain solar cell systems. A second, much larger round of funding will enable 200,000 more families to do the same.”

4. An example: “Harnessing the Wind”.

“In 1991 the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released a national wind resource inventory, noting that three wind-rich states— North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas—had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. Advances in wind turbine design since then allow turbines to operate at lower wind speeds and to convert wind into electricity more efficiently. And because they are now 100 meters tall, instead of less than 40 meters, they harvest a far larger, stronger, and more reliable wind regime, generating 20 times as much electricity as the turbines installed in the early 1980s when modern wind power development began. With these new turbine technologies, the three states singled out by DOE could satisfy not only national electricity needs but national energy needs. …

From 2000 to 2007, world wind generating capacity increased from 18,000 megawatts to an estimated 92,000 megawatts. In early 2008 it will pass the 100,000-megawatt milestone. Since 2000, capacity has been growing at 25 percent annually, doubling every three years. … One of the early concerns with wind energy was the risk it posed to birds, but this can be overcome by conducting studies and careful siting to avoid risky areas for birds. The most recent research indicates that bird fatalities from wind farms are minuscule compared with deaths from flying into skyscrapers, colliding with cars, or being captured by cats. [Or being killed by pollution from coal burning and coal mining.] 12 Other critics are concerned about the visual effect. When some people see a wind farm they see a blight on the landscape. Others see a civilization-saving source of energy. Although there are NIMBY problems (“not in my backyard”), the PIMBY response (“put it in my backyard”) is much more pervasive. Within U.S. communities, for instance, among ranchers in Colorado or dairy farmers in upstate New York, the competition for wind farms is intense. This is not surprising, since a large, advanced design wind turbine can generate $300,000 worth of electricity in a year. Farmers, with no investment on their part, typically receive $3,000–10,000 a year in royalties for each wind turbine erected on their land. One of wind’s attractions is that it requires so little land compared with other sources of renewable energy. For example, a corn farmer in northern Iowa can put a wind turbine on a quarter-acre of land that can produce $300,000 worth of electricity per year. This same quarter-acre would produce 40 bushels of corn that in turn could produce 120 gallons of ethanol worth $300. Since the turbines occupy less than 1 percent of the land in a wind farm, this technology lets farmers harvest both energy and crops from the same land. Thousands of ranchers in the wind-rich Great Plains will soon be earning more from wind royalties than from cattle sales.”

3 Comments The transition towards renewable energy

  1. Avatarnursing program college

    Well said by Paul D. Fernhout about renewable energy. AS we all know that our non-renewable resources are limited and at the point of about to finish. So, if we use our renewable energy resources like solar energy, wind, water as our energy resources as Paul D. Fernhout writes in this post. we can save our non-renewable resources.

  2. Pingback: How To Make Solar Power –Learn How To Make Solar Power |

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