Watch Out For Unintended Consequences

Mojave Desert scene in Joshua Tree National Park.
Image via Wikipedia

In their editorial Green Energy vs. Actual “Green” Energy Basin and Range Watch point out that there are lots of opportunities for making a big mess of the environment while trying to save it. The focus of this site is the Mojave and Great Basin Deserts in Nevada and California, the targets of many new solar projects. “There are over one million acres of public land in the six states that are being considered for sacrifice.”

Most of these projects require a lot of water, and all require “clear cutting” the desert to prevent weeds and pests.

How ironic that this so called “green revolution” has taken the irresponsible direction of so much environmental destruction. Why not just use the countless rooftops and vacant space of the millions of developed urban acres in the southwest? Could it be that urban environmental planning is considered too costly? We are baffled by this because it defeats the purpose of green.

As we make the changes to our economy and our energy infrastructure that we have to make, we have to take care of our existing resources, such as the great deserts. For no other reason than we don’t really know everything about them. For example, it’s been learned recently that:

Desert plants and soils store carbon better than most northern forests. Desert plants are masters of storing carbon. CAM (“crassulacean acid metabolism”) plants are plants that use certain special compounds to gather carbon dioxide (CO2) during photosynthesis.

Don’t want to lose that while trying to eliminate carbon from our energy system, do we? We have a lot of carbon already in the atmosphere that needs sucking up. What else is this desert flora and fauna doing for Earth that we haven’t learned yet? Do we want to take the chance of upsetting yet more of the balance? We need to take a lot of care as we move forward with whatever large-scale energy projects we undertake.

I recommend this article, and I’d be interested to hear your thinking about how to avoid bad consequences while achieving energy independence.

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Amory Lovins On Declining Gas Prices

There's a lot of energy to be saved in all sectors
There is lots of opportunity to reduce energy intensity throughout the U.S. economy

In “a few policies to hedge against crashing oil prices,” the latest post on the Rocky Mountain Institute‘s “Environmental Lovin’s” blog, Amory Lovins himself provides some suggestions on how to keep making progress on energy independence despite the recent dip in oil prices. Of course, efficiency is the star of the show:

We now have techniques to save half our oil and gas, and three-quarters of our electricity, at about an eighth of their price. Energy efficiency remains one of the highest-return and lowest-risk investments in the entire economy.

The basic argument is that no matter how low oil prices go, efficiency remains more cost effective than almost any other investment. His specific suggestions, such as “fee-bates” to encourage purchasing more efficient cars, rewarding utilities for cutting energy use (as we do in California), and implementing policies that get older less efficient cars off the road faster, are covered in much more detail in RMI’s two books Winning The Oil Endgame and Climate: Making Sense and Making Money (both free for download).

Efficiency investments pay for themselves twice over – saving money on energy usage, while reaping numerous benefits as side effects – improved productivity in businesses, faster learning in schools, better sales in shops. As Lovins concludes:

Conscientiously pursued, this … approach would solve the oil, climate, and proliferation problems at a profit, over a few decades, totaling trillions of dollars.

There have been calls already for President-elect Obama to bring Lovins into the cabinet to help drive us to energy independence. He won’t do it (he wants to remain independent), but hopefully Obama and his team will at least take the advice – it will definitely pay off for all of us – and help us out of the recession to boot.

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Michael Pollan Advises Obama on Food and Agriculture

Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not
Otis wasn't sure if it was really a crashed spaceship or not!

Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food) gave some advice to the next president (Obama, as it turns out) in the NY Times October 12 Sunday Magazine. If he didn’t know already, Pollan warned him that food policy is going to be a big issue, and provides some advice on what to do about it.

It may surprise you to learn that among the issues that will occupy much of your time in the coming years is one you barely mentioned during the campaign: food.

Modern U.S. agriculture (especially as embodied in “The Farm Bill”) is not only a giant user of fossil fuels, but also arguably the major contributor to health crises like obesity and diabetes.

Agriculture in the U.S. uses a surprisingly large amount of fossil fuels (about 14% of the total), and actually generates proportionally more potent greenhouse gases than other uses of the same feedstock. The green revolution was all about fossil fuel-based fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and monoculture. Furthermore, the incentives are perverse, especially in the U.S., anti-health and anti-family farm.

Summarizing Pollan’s article, the key recommendation is the “resolarization” of American agriculture:

Right now, the government actively discourages the farmers it subsidizes from growing healthful, fresh food: farmers receiving crop subsidies are prohibited from growing “specialty crops” — farm-bill speak for fruits and vegetables. … Commodity farmers should instead be encouraged to grow as many different crops — including animals — as possible. Why? Because the greater the diversity of crops on a farm, the less the need for both fertilizers and pesticides.

Pollan was also on Fresh Air on October 20, a fantastic interview following up on this article, which you can hear at http://freshair.npr.org. I have the mp3 of the show if you want to listen to it on your pod-player (let me know – I’ll make it available for download).

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Economic Stimulus Via Renewable Energy Transmission Grid

Let’s hope Obama focuses the stimulus package on things we know we need to do anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind energy and solar energy projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative.

Arizona sunset
Arizona sunset

Al Gore and I are in agreement that Obama can kill two birds with one stone by structuring his economic stimulus plan around improving the U.S.’s energy posture – which everyone agrees we need to do, both to achieve energy independence and to mitigate climate change. In his op-ed in today’s New York Times he said:

Here’s what we can do — now: we can make an immediate and large strategic investment to put people to work replacing 19th-century energy technologies that depend on dangerous and expensive carbon-based fuels with 21st-century technologies that use fuel that is free forever: the sun, the wind and the natural heat of the earth.

So, following up on my post from Friday, let’s focus the stimulus package on things we know need doing anyway. In particular, a modern transmission grid. The current grid is obsolete even for conventional power, and is completely unsuitable for handling big wind and solar projects that require efficient long-haul capabilities. What can the Feds do? I’m not an economist, but here’s the basics for one initiative: Solicit the top five or ten proposals for new grid projects (a lot of organizations have already put these together), have a six month vetting process, and for the ones that pass the vetting process, provide substantial incentives for investing in those projects, or guarantee the first $100 million of financing for each.

It’s important that the incentives are given to worthy projects, hence the vetting process, but time is clearly of the essence in getting these projects started, hence the six month window. Who does the vetting? Could be a “blue ribbon panel” (assembled very swiftly), or could be an existing industry group that volunteers (again, in response to an incentive of some kind if necessary).

The idea here is that new grid is likely to be cost-effective and pay for itself (that is, investors will get their money back) but in the current financial market and given the curent set of regulations covering conventional energy it’s difficult to actually raise that money. So the Feds can step in and help make sure that these projects, that are desirable for the economy and the nation in the long-term, are able to get off the ground in the short term. You want to avoid the Feds from “choosing the winners” – that will still be done by the market. But you also need to give the market a nudge along the lines of “we’ll give you some incentives to invest in this rather than in a non-productive financial instrument or in conventional energy.”

There are lots of legitimate fears out there about economic stimulus programs – they’re expensive, they’ll have to be paid back eventually, and they solve the wrong problems. So what does Obama and his brain trust need to make sure we avoid?

  • Assuming they can “choose the winners”
  • Funding something that only benefits the already wealthy and doesn’t create jobs (Paulson bailout, anyone?) or improve the country and its opportunities structurally
  • A set of incentives that are too localized

Al’s and my proposals, I think, address all of these concerns:

  • My vetting process allows the market to choose the winners
  • The project will be of benefit to all of us – we need a new grid, and it will enable new kinds of business opportunities for both large and small entrepreneurs. And the projects demand a huge range of skills, from the electrical engineers who design the grid, to the mechanical engineers and technicians who design the transmission lines, to the blue collar workers who manufacture the equipment and build the grid itself
  • The nature of the transmission grid, and in particular the types of problems this grid needs to solve, are inherently non-local – the electricity has to get from rural areas like Arizona and Wyoming to urban centers like San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago

I’d love to hear your feedback on this idea, and also your ideas for the initiatives Obama could pursue to address the financial crisis and the energy independence crisis at the same time.

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Obama’s Green Opportunity

US Senator Barack Obama campaigning in New Ham...
Image via Wikipedia

On Wednesday, the Freakonomics blog asked:

If you had a seat at one of the tables where Obama will be meeting over the next days and weeks, what would be some of your suggestions for how he should shape his administration, address the economic mess, consider the energy future, engage the global community, and so on and so forth?

My suggestions for the president-elect:

  1. Energy independence is the biggest lever you have – it generates jobs (including lots in the red states for solar and wind farms and transmission lines as well as high tech jobs in the blue states), technological leadership, economic growth due to new global industries that should be based here in the States, a “sending a man to the moon” type of national goal, and the potential to change the political calculus with the Middle East, Russia, and Venezuela. Yes, we want a market-based approach, but you have a great opportunity to accelerate the revolution through good policies and emphatic “nudges.”
  2. Quick action to start rebuilding relationships with the rest of the world, especially the parts that are not already our close friends – we really need friends everywhere, not just in Europe. Many options here, from driving worldwide action on climate change to a dignified drawdown in Iraq to, yes, drawing Iran, Cuba and some of our other “enemies” into the world community to reduce their threat to us.

At this critical juncture for the U.S. and the world, and with the world-changing potential of a new administration, energy and sustainability are the common thread leading to a desirable outcome.

In the comments, please let me know your thoughts on Obama’s next steps.

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30-fold Increase In Solar Energy By 2016 – Moore’s Law, Anyone?

Solar Power International Logo
Solar Power International Logo

The opening keynotes at the Solar Power International trade show last week were eye-opening. (See the Tuesday Keynotes video on this page – Resch at 20 minutes, Hamm at 37 minutes.)

Rhone Resch of the Solar Energy Industries Association first told the story of getting the investment tax credit for solar renewed – 17 failed votes before it finally passed with the Paulson Bailout bill. He then outlined the benefits to the solar industry of the ITC – stability for solar energy businesses, creation of thousands of new business opportunities due to the remove of the residential solar cap, and a return to leadership of the US in solar. “Solar energy is going to create 440k new jobs, 1.2 million new solar installations, and 28 gigawatts of new capacity – enough to power seven million homes throughout the U.S.”

To achieve the 28 gigawatts of new solar electric generation capacity predicted by Resch in the next eight years, Julia Hamm of the Solar Electric Power Association (SEPA) threw down a challenge to the attendees. The industry must “be bold, be innovative, be strategic.” In particular, she outlined four key policy guidelines the industry must embrace to achieve this goal.

Utility Ownership of Solar Power Projects

The utility and solar industries must collaborate to find program structures, such as utility ownership of distributed photovoltaics, that provide a winning scenario for both industries, as well as for customers at large. The solar industry can utilize this new market segment as a buffer until home and small business owners are back on more solid financial footing.

Increased Utility Engagement in Solar Markets

The utility and solar industries must work together to get more utilities engaged, starting by increasing the solar knowledge base of utility employees, from top executives down to distribution engineers. We must move beyond having ninety seven percent of all grid-connected solar installations in just 10 utilities’ service territories.

Greased Wheels

The utility and solar industries must work in partnership with regulators and investors to push for approval and funding of new transmission projects and the development of smart grid configurations to expedite the timeframe in which new utility-scale and distributed solar projects can come on line and provide maximum value.

Development of Innovative Approaches

By working in collaboration, the utility and solar industries can make great strides towards modernizing today’s electricity infrastructure and offering customers affordable and clean power. But the status quo will not cut it. We need bold new ideas developed in tandem for the mutual benefit of both industries, and society at large.

(A press release version of this challenge is here.)

The 28 gigawatt figure represents an increase in solar capacity of more than thirty fold between 2009 and 2016. This is approximately three times the estimated amount of generation predicted to come online as a result of existing renewable portfolio standards and policies in states with existing solar carve outs.

However, not only does 30-fold growth far outstrip most predictions for solar energy capacity in the next eight years, it has another interesting property. It corresponds to a “Moore’s Law-type” of growth, with a doubling period of about every 18 months. This is the first time I’ve heard a solar energy organization step up to a prediction of a Moore’s Law-type growth rate. And it means that in 18 years, if the doubling rate stays constant, solar would be responsible for over 400 gigawatts of capacity, or just about equal to our current energy usage in the U.S. Solar could be providing nearly 100 percent of our energy by 2026, or even more if our overall energy usage goes down due to efficiency, as is possible given California’s example.

And if our solar capacity keeps on doubling every year and half after that? What will we do with all that energy? Your comments welcome, of course!

Great Summary Of The Green Goodness Of The Bailout

Image via Wikipedia

In this post, the ecopreneur details the silver lining of the hurricane cloud that is the bailout bill.

No news was bigger than the $18 billion package for renewable energy that was slipped into the $700 billion Wall Street financial bailout (H.R. 1424, the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008)

In particular, the future of a number of large projects was contingent on the renewal of the investment tax credit, such as the PG&E 550MW solar farm. Now, with the ITC safe for eight years, those projects can go ahead.

What are your feelings about the bailout and its effects on the solution to the climate crisis and energy security? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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Renewable Energy Investment up 60% Per Year in 2007, On Same Pace for 2008

Windmills Along the M6
Windmills Along the M6, photo by Bob Cox Photography

Saw this news item about the growth of green energy investment last week, which tends to correlate with the idea that the growth rate of renewable energy is not linear, but geometric (that is, doubling every n years, like Moore’s Law).

The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) reports that investments in renewable energy in 2007, at $148 billion, were 60 percent above 2006, with 2008 growth continuing. Achim Steiner, head of UNEP, said:

“The clean energy industry is maturing and its backers remain bullish. These findings should empower governments both North and South to reach a deep and meaningful new agreement by the crucial climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009. It is increasingly obvious to the public and investors alike that the transition to a low-carbon society is both a global imperative and an inevitability. This is attracting an enormous inflow of capital, talent and technology. But it is only inevitable if creative market mechanisms and public policy continue to evolve to liberate rather than frustrate this clean energy dawn. What is unfolding is nothing less than a fundamental transformation of the world’s energy infrastructure.”

There was similar news recently about the growth of both solar energy generation and wind energy generation.

Thanks to blow-hard winds, the United States has just become the world’s largest generator of wind energy.

Germany previously held this distinction, though since the United States has about 26 times more land than Germany, the milestone isn’t a huge surprise. Nonetheless, we weren’t expected to reach this point until late 2009. [Emphasis added – npd]

The key point is that we’re ahead of schedule on renewables, because the schedule was based on linear growth projections. The big question that remains is not whether the growth is exponential, but what’s the time period for doubling? Is it two years? Three years? One year? What do you think?

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Both Sides Essentially Agree in “Economist” Debate – Act Now!

A transmission substation decreases the voltag...Image via Wikipedia

The Economist magazine hosted an online debate earlier this week, on the proposition “We can solve our energy problems with existing technologies today, without the need for breakthrough innovations.”? Speaking in favor of the proposition was Joseph J. Romm, Senior Fellow at the Centre for American Progress. Speaking against was Peter Meisen, President, Global Energy Network Institute.

In my opinion, although Meisen had some good observations of some non-“business as usual” innovations that are needed, the proposition was well-defended by Romm. He argued that not only do we not have time to wait for new breakthroughs in alternative energy, we have enough technology now – solar thermal, efficiency, wind, etc. – that we can address climate change with our current capabilities. He agrees that innovations will be welcome, but they are not required.

First, new breakthrough energy technologies simply don’t enter the market fast enough to have a big impact in the time frame we care about. We need strategies that can get a 5-10% share—or more—of the global market for energy in a quarter century. Second, if you are in the kind of hurry humanity is in, then you are going to have to take unusual measures to deploy technologies far more aggressively than has ever occurred historically.

Bottom line: If we want to preserve the health and well-being of future generations, then focusing government policy and resources on speeding up existing technology deployment is far more important than focusing them on breakthrough technology development.

Meisen actually agreed completely that we need to start now with what we have today in terms of technology. But as I read it, his major point was that we need innovations not in technology, but in policy, thinking, and approach to really solve our climate and energy problems:

We now have more elegant, sophisticated and cleaner ways to generate and deliver electricity for our society. Remaining addicted to fossil fuels is damaging to our environment and bad long term policy. It is unsustainable. Aggressive policies that encourage conservation, energy efficiency, clean transport and linking renewable resources are the new priorities. Flipping our energy paradigm upside down will drive innovation and investment towards a de-carbonised future–and just makes sense..

The bottom line conclusion – get started now with the technology we have (both speakers agree) but direct some of our efforts toward new ways of solving the problem, such as improved policies from our governments (including better cooperation on international electricity transmission).

The entire debate is well worth reading on the Economist web site. They are open for comments, as am I.

(Thanks to CleanTechnica.com for the link to the debate.)

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Why My Optimism Is Tempered

Achieving energy independence in the U.S. is possible, but there are many obstacles to overcome.

On 140 acres of unused land on Nellis Air Forc...Image via Wikipedia

I wrote on Monday about why I am optimistic that we will come out of this energy mess in excellent shape. But, my optimism is not unalloyed – there are a lot of questions still to answer.

  • Is there truly enough capturable solar energy streaming down on the Earth to power a good lifestyle for all 9 billion of us in 2050? Clearly not, at least at the U.S.’s current per capita energy intensity. What about at 50% of our current energy use? That’s a target that many think we can accomplish here in the U.S., so why not around the world?
  • What about all the C02 we’ve stuck up there already? Can we do something about it that won’t end up causing as many problems as it solves? Certainly sensible steps like reversing deforestation will help a lot, but do we have time, and do we know how? Can we grow a rainforest from a burned-out meadow, even if it use to be a rainforest? This is not clear – but we should figure it out.
  • Can we do any of this fast enough? I’ve argued that the technology and knowledge are here for reducing our energy footprint in the U.S. by 50% and replacing all of the remaining energy needs with renewables, but is there time and will to do it? The sheer manpower that it will take? Even if owners of commercial real estate were willing to do the necessary retrofits to achieve the goals, because they are cost effective? More importantly, if every one agreed to do it, are there enough architects, contractors, HVAC installers, and electricians to do the work?
  • There’s a similar question for residences – most residences get enough solar energy flux on the roof to offset a good portion of their electricity use – but even if the cost were free, after first year saving, who would do the 100 million installations? Even if spread over ten years, that would keep 25,000 installers busy every day.

There are many more such questions – can we successfully combine distributed power generation (e.g., on residences) with utility energy on a gigantic scale? Where do all the materials to do these installations come from?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments about whether you’re optimistic, the obstacles you see in the road ahead, and your ideas on how to overcome the roadblocks.

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