Much of this article has been excerpted from "Energy is the Keystone," a chapter in General Plenty. More extensive discussion and references can be found therein.
Making Sense of Energy to Get the World We Want
Humanity's need for sustainable energy abundance is now paramount because it's the keystone to an available global economic system that can sustain all humanity-roughly equitably-thereby eliminating scarcity for the first time, and removing for the first time the fear-based human conviction that conflict and war are inevitable.
Neither fossil fuel nor nuclear energy technologies can lead to a desirable future state for several reasons, reasons which include capacity limits, environmental constraints, social and health impacts, technical shortcomings, potentially catastrophic accidents, and nuclear weapons proliferation.
However, certain existing and proven renewable energy technologies can: these include wind, solar photovoltaics (solar electricity), and solar hydrogen (hydrogen from solar electricity via electrolysis).
It's really about choosing the kind of world we want, because we have affordable technical capability. Choose wisely and we will all grow wealthy. Not at once, but gradually. Not just financially, but in that much broader, healthier sense we all so much want.
A recent Worldwatch report (Janet L. Sawin, Mainstreaming Renewable Energy in the 21st Century, Worldwatch Institute, May 2004) reveals that after a decade of experience, Germany and Japan have now demonstrated to the world that well-chosen, sustained government policies can nurture rapid, double-digit growth of wind and solar energy supply at a rate most likely to meet the atmospheric carbon dioxide reduction requirements recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), foster substantial job growth and strong public support, and steadily replace the limited and dangerous nuclear and fossil supply technologies while building the infrastructure for humanity's urgently needed, expanded energy supply capacity.
Other studies have suggested that the avoided health, social, environmental, and security costs exceed the costs of investment in wind and solar electricity technologies. In order to viscerally realize how powerful these technologies are, we simply need to switch from voodoo economics (the current dollar accounting that ignores directly associated environmental, health, social, and strategic security costs) to the common sense inclusion of these oh-so-relevant 'external' costs.
It's useful to think of the per capita energy supplied in the U.S. as roughly 650 energy slave units -- the inanimate work equivalent of having 650 human slaves for each of us. The per capita energy available to a person in Afghanistan is roughly 70 times less. That's less than 10 energy slaves per person. If we really do want a roughly equitable world economy, we must (and can) expand energy services (very different from energy quantity) per person until we lift everyone to a level of delivered energy services (comfort, warmth, light, production and delivery of food and shelter, etc.) now enjoyed by only a few.
What's the first step?
The first energy step is efficiency (very different from curtailment). We in the U.S. didn't solve the energy crisis of the 1970s, but many of us learned that efficiency works. Since then we've 'generated' over four times as much in energy saved as we've added in new power generation.
Today, efficiency remains the cheapest way to double our energy performance while maintaining or increasing creature comforts. Large reserves remain to be tapped, accessible through properly insulating homes, redesigning industrial processes, and building ultralight, fuel-efficient cars.
The efficiency potential is huge. It dwarfs the 6-36 months of oil supply currently predicted as coming from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Efficiency investments also provide more jobs per delivered unit of energy, and they have softer, less expensive environmental, social and health impacts.
Energy step two is supply
How do we generate sufficient amounts of this energy we'll use ever more efficiently?
Let's further envision the kind of world we want, and then ask if it¹s possible. We would like to sustainably supply each planetary citizen, using machines that:
If we get it right, we will have seized our unprecedented opportunity to move rapidly beyond energy scarcity for the first time in human history. Abundant energy is the power that can set us physically free—free to sustainably feed and shelter all, create a durable condition of general plenty, stabilize population and conquer war.
Wind energy is at once viable and superior. Wind-generated electricity costs have dropped 80% just since the 1980s, and are now at 3 to 5 cents per kilowatt-hour in the U.S. and Europe. Wind systems are reliable, more jobs intensive than conventional nuclear and fossil systems, environmentally desirable, and broadly dispersible at a variety of scales -- according to our criteria for an achievable energy abundance. Wind electricity is now competitive with conventional fossil fuel plants (and much cheaper than nuclear), even before the so-called 'external' costs related to health, environment, strategic security, and subsidy payments to the big fossil and nuclear energy companies are factored in ($250-300 billion annual subsidies worldwide in the mid-1990s). We do pay these 'external' costs of course, but indirectly through either taxes or postponement to future generations. And these costs are relatively insignificant for wind compared with coal, oil, or nuclear energy.
The wind energy resource is difficult to quantify, but it's huge enough and is likely largely underestimated. A 1995 paper by R. Gerald Nix of the U.S. National Renewable Energy Laboratory cites enough wind potential in the U.S. to provide at least 45 quads of primary energy, based on class 4 winds or greater, and the judicious use of land -- enough to meet all U.S. electricity needs.
Winona LaDuke tells us that 23 Indian tribes on western U.S. Indian reservations can tap over 250 gigawatts of wind energy, enough to provide half of current U.S. electricity generation (Honest, Cap'n Wallstreet, we didn't know we were giving them such treasure when we dumped them onto those barren, windswept lands).
There's nothing extremely difficult about it. Wheat farmers, grain associations and Native American tribes in the U.S. can manage and maintain wind farms with no more effort than it takes to manage and maintain combines.
Another abundant, resilient, and clean energy supply source is solar photovoltaics, or PV, which is the process of converting sunlight to electricity by placing configured semiconductor arrays in the sunlight. For example, silicon, the second most abundant element in the earth's crust, can be configured so that incoming sunlight¹s photons give their energy to electrons in the silicon atoms, thereby releasing these electrons as electricity. Essentially no silicon is lost, and the process can continue whenever sunlight is present.
While the physics of the PV semiconductors may be rocket science, the distribution, installation, and maintenance of them is not.
Intermittent sunlight's power can also be stored in batteries and in a carrier such as hydrogen, delivering reliable, continuous power.
The energy available from PV is enormous. Joan Ogden and Robert Williams (Solar hydrogen: Moving beyond fossil fuels. Washington D.C: World Resources Institute, 1989) report the amount of energy produced by a gram of silicon in a solar cell is equal to the amount produced by a gram of nuclear feedstock in a breeder reactor. This is because the uranium atom fissions only once before it's gone, but the silicon atom in a PV panel repeatedly absorbs photons and releases electrons over a 30+ year panel lifetime.
Yet there is 5000 times more silicon in the earth's crust than there is uranium, so the impact of PV on the earth's crust is 5000 times softer when compared with nuclear electricity. And the PV process is much cleaner in terms of health and environment than either nuclear or fossil fuels. Moreover, nobody's going to steal PV panels and convert them into a crude nuclear bomb.
Worldwatch reports (Swain, 2004) that PV production has grown at an annual rate of over 28% since 1993, and costs have dropped about 5% annually since 1976, faster than many believed possible. They are now directly competitive, even within the narrow box of voodoo economics, with conventional on-grid electricity in Japan at all times and with California at peak demand times. In 2003, the PV industry generated sales of over $5 billion and supported tens of thousands of jobs.
The third abundant, resilient, and clean energy supply technology is solar hydrogen, or SH, which can provide energy abundance for energy applications from home heat, to jet fuel, to intensive industrial processes.
Hydrogen can be cleanly generated by passing an electrical current through water. The current can be generated by PV panels placed in sunny areas, such as the Arizona desert or Eastern Oregon in the U.S., in Palestine, Iraq, Iran, China, etc. The energy contributed by the current converts the water into its constituent gaseous elements of hydrogen and oxygen, and hydrogen provides the form in which the energy can then be stored and transported.
With feasible retrofit, the existing U.S. natural gas pipeline system can serve to deliver hydrogen to remote points of use whenever it is needed. Ogden and Williams found that water requirements are so small that PV panels can be placed in currently unused Arizona desert areas, utilize the equivalent of onsite rainfall for the hydrogen source, and generate enough energy to meet all U.S. energy needs.
The captured, stored and transported hydrogen can then be converted into the form of energy needed. If hydrogen is combusted -- for example, to provide heat or jet propulsion -- the hydrogen burns without producing any atmospheric carbon, and only small amounts of nitrogen oxides, which can be eliminated or kept at safe levels. If the hydrogen is used in a Proton Exchange Membrane fuel cell -- for example to heat and power your home, business, and vehicles -- it produces only electricity, usable heat, and potable water.
Excellent pathways for transitioning to a full SH economy have been outlined. A recent proposal by Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) suggests coordinating convergent trends in several industries to create a profitable commercialization path for fuel cells and hydrogen. (See Winning the Oil Endgame and Twenty Hydrogen Myths at http://www.rmi.org).
The RMI strategy integrates vehicles and buildings to develop the hydrogen fuel cell market. Off-peak electricity from conventional power plants could initially power electrolyzers in buildings to make hydrogen. The collected hydrogen could then be used in fuel cells to power and heat the buildings and then power electric vehicles. The strategy first utilizes ultralight hybrid vehicles, whose fuel cell stacks can now use compressed hydrogen tanks practically. RMI suggests this process would eliminate the need to build a bulk supply and distribution infrastructure, while making gaseous hydrogen fueling practical. The hydrogen could be progressively derived from solar electricity rather than conventional power plant electricity. This process could potentially yield enough energy to displace all U.S. central thermal power plants -- both nuclear and fossil.
Worldwatch reports (Swain, 2004) that even the relatively tiny household rooftops in Japan can collect enough solar energy annually to fully meet their home energy needs. This means that micro-modular SH systems, once merely the stuff of a visionary Jules Verne fantasy, are now an achievable reality. A home appliance, no more complicated than a gas furnace, but safer, can now collect and safely store summer sun's energy, enough to meet your needs. Imagine the democratizing potential of the personal autonomy inherent in such a technology.
The environmental benefits of SH are broad and extraordinary. Here's just one example: A mature, regionally-scaled solar hydrogen energy supply system in the Western U.S. could reduce, and eventually eliminate, the need for hydro energy from dams in the Northwest U.S.'s rivers, enabling a sustainable fish-friendly hydro system, thereby allowing the now endangered salmon populations to return.
SH currently costs over 30 to 40 cents per kWh, roughly three times what Hawaii and New York pay today, but this is before we include environmental, social, health, and strategic security benefits in the cost calculation. The promise of a solar-fueled hydrogen economy is so complete, and so technically assured, that a large-scale development strategy should have been underway years ago.
So these are three example technologies that stand out: wind, photovoltaics, and solar hydrogen. You could add a carefully selected mix—always according to our criteria for a desirable future—of other renewable technologies. Add them in ways that strengthen and diversify the three. For example, we could use the energy of huge changes in both ocean temperatures and tide levels that occur in certain areas. The geothermal resource is particularly huge. But we don't need technologies if they compete for other important resources such as soils, forests, and water.
Distributed Energy, Disbursed Power
Bertrand Russell once said, "The fundamental concept in social science is Power, in the same sense in which Energy is the fundamental concept in physics." If disbursed and distributed physical energy systems help us to disburse political and social power, then there is much more to the story—much more that is very positive.
Suppose we did pay individuals and communities for performance, for generating capacity delivered and used (as both Germany and Washington State have begun to do), to build a distributed generation system. Imagine our nation with broadly distributed PV rooftops, each a micro power plant, each able to feed its generated electricity into the distribution grid—or not, depending on current demand. Sunny areas could provide energy when cloudy areas do not. Now add wind turbines in the right areas to enrich the decentralized energy sources. Now add storage capacity by generating and storing hydrogen near rooftops, windfarms and larger PV plants when any surplus electricity is generated. You've now grown an integrated energy system that is feasible, affordable, adequate, environmentally sound, extremely durable, and flexibly resilient.
Its broad dispersion of small, modular generation and storage technologies makes it invulnerable to blackouts. If dozens, even hundreds, of small micro-generating stations go down, the system still runs. Today's centralized system of large generation plants is exactly the opposite—extremely vulnerable. If a large plant goes down it sinks like a stone in water, dragging along the plants it's cabled to. Maybe there's time to cut the cables and maybe not. In either case, millions of people, buildings, transit and communications systems are affected.
Today's large-scale generation plants, with fuel sources in some places and generation in others, linked by a network of supply arteries—pipes long enough to circle the globe more than a dozen times—are also extremely vulnerable to terrorist attack. They are impossible to defend. A thorough 1982 synthesis of research for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Amory B. Lovins and Hunter Lovins, Brittle Power, Energy Strategy for National Security, Brick House Publishing Co., Inc., 1982), made it convincingly clear that the entire U.S. oil supply could be disrupted by a few terrorists; a small attack team in Louisiana could cut off three-fourths of the natural gas supply to the northeastern U.S. for a very long time; a small standoff attack could rupture a nuclear power plant's containment building on a windy day and make a large chunk of the U.S. uninhabitable. Both analysis and military field exercises have indicated that these things could not be reliably prevented.
But a broad dispersion of smaller, modular generation and storage technologies is much less vulnerable. For example, small, dispersed hydroelectric dams in Japan provided four-fifths of Japan's electricity, but were individually too small to be desirable targets during WWII. The same was true of North Vietnam's many small dams during the Vietnam War.
A broad dispersion of smaller, modular generation and storage technologies also reduces the ability of a nation or global corporation to monopolize the supply while enhancing the potential for local and regional sovereignty.
We can clearly see a critically relevant conflict of paradigm between the more costly and vulnerable large-scale giant plant approach, and the more flexible and resilient small-scale, distributed generation approach.
The Growing Momentum
Given the political and institutional inertia of our times, it's clear we cannot complacently assume that we will transition to a desirable energy future. Certainly our vigilance, educational efforts and pressure for appropriate government and corporate behavior is critically necessary. But when we consider the technical and economic aspects, we find such a transition entirely feasible, affordable, desirable, and urgently needed. As (if) confidence in the incredible technical, economic and socially wise opportunity for a superior alternative spreads, it will increasingly redirect the political and institutional inertia.
There are many encouraging indicators that this is indeed happening.
Worldwatch reports (Swain, 2004) that public concerns about nuclear safety, energy security, and global warming led to consistent, effective, long-term government policy commitments in both Germany and Japan that have now demonstrated the world's potential for a swift and effective transition to renewable energy abundance. Neither of these large national economies had a substantial renewables industry in the early 1990s, but now they lead the world.
Since 1992 Germany's PV has grown at nearly 47% each year, thousands of new jobs have served to further broaden popular support, and Germany plans to deliver half its total energy needs via renewables by 2050.
Japan cut installed costs of grid-connected PV systems by roughly half in eight years and now delivers PV on-grid for 11-15 cents/kilowatt-hour. This is cheaper than Japan's retail electricity, even by voodoo economic standards, and roughly equal to current residential electricity prices for California, Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Connecticut, Vermont, and other states in the U.S. (see http://www.eia.doe.gov/neic/quickfacts/quickelectric.htm).
During the last decade, global PV production grew at an annual rate of over 28% and global wind capacity grew at 30%, becoming multi-billion dollar industries and reaching the point where one-sixth of the world's 2003 investment in power generation equipment was for these new renewables.
Some developing countries, including China and India, now have a growing PV and wind manufacturing base. Over a million households in the developing world have now skipped directly to PV for their first use of electricity, the right path for the 2 billion people on earth who still lack access to electricity. Developing countries, generally rich in both renewable and labor resources, are well positioned to create jobs, build a self-reliant energy infrastructure, and forgo exporting precious capital for increasingly costly fossil fuels.
Climate change, perhaps a more serious threat to humanity than terrorism, may play a powerful motivational role. China, a country faced with potential health impacts primarily due to burning coal, impacts that may consume 13% of its GDP by 2020, has recently become the top investor in renewable energy in the world, with over 15% of the 2005 global investment of $38 billion.
And Sweden, after retooling its housing stock to the world's best energy performance during the 70s and deciding in 1980 to phase out nuclear power, has recently declared (February 2006) that it would replace all fossil fuels with renewable energy within the next 15 years.
You say you want a revolution? Well, here comes a critical part of it: a potentially bloodless, non-violent, design-science revolution, one that lifts everyone up, freeing humanity to finally begin to become civilized.
The author, Mike Nuess, is a former researcher and educator for the Washington State Energy Office, who taught extensively about efficiency and renewables in the Northwest, served on several state and national policymaking bodies and won national awards for demonstrated performance in building efficiency and indoor air quality.