A sustainable energy plan
for the US
by Guy Dauncey
Earth Island Journal, Autumn
Every morning when we rise, we flick on
the lights and various electrical appliances before we drive or
cycle off to work, school, or play. Somewhere far away, trucks
haul coal into the hoppers of giant power plants. Across the oceans,
ships bring us oil, which produces the power we need to run our
lives. For most North Americans, the system works just fine. We
no longer think about where the energy comes from. If there's
an energy shortage, all we need to do is burn more coal, drill
more oil, and pump more gas. If only it were so simple.
Troublesome facts The rate at which we
are discovering new oil will soon fall below the rate at which
we are using it. As soon as it does, oil prices will shoot up
as demand starts to outstrip supply. There's plenty of coal in
the ground, but it's a pernicious fuel. Aside from carbon dioxide,
burning coal releases nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury,
which contribute to smog, asthma, acid rain, and poisoned lakes
The world's climate is responding to the
increase in atmospheric C02, methane, and nitrogen oxides caused
by burning fossil fuels. All three gases trap heat. Before the
industrial age, atmospheric C02 was around 280 parts per million.
Today, it is 373 ppm, the highest it has been for 20 million years.
The Arctic summer icepack, normally three meters thick, has dwindled
by 40 percent since 1970. At this rate, it could be gone entirely
by 2050. Polar bears, which depend on the ice to hunt, will become
extinct. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change say that we need an immediate 60 percent reduction in emissions
to stabilize the climate at a safe level. In our book, Stormy
Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, Patrick Mazza
and I call for an 80 percent reduction by 2025.
Natural gas is not a cleaner alternative
or a "bridge to the future" as many people would have
us believe. Natural gas produces lower C02 emissions than coal
or oil, but 85 percent of natural gas is methane, some of which
escapes during production and distribution. In a sustainable energy
plan, reliance on natural gas would be excluded along with coal
Nuclear power should also be avoided because
of the risk of catastrophic accidents. The idea of a bunch of
terrorists flying a jet into a nuclear power plant is not comforting;
and no one knows how to deal with the radioactive wastes.
How much do we need? The challenge for
a sustainable energy plan is to meet America's reasonable energy
needs using energy from the sun, wind, biomass, geothermal, microhydro,
waves, and tides.
The good news is that the transition to
a sustainable energy future is well underway. All that is needed
is for the kind of support Washington gives to the coal, oil,
and gas industries to be given to the sustainable energy industry
So how much energy do we need? Let's crunch
some numbers. In the year 2002, the US consumed 97 quadrillion
BTUs of primary energy-the energy used to generate electricity,
fuel vehicles, heat buildings and run factories. Industry used
38 percent, transport 32 percent, residential buildings 19 percent,
and commercial buildings 16 percent. US electrical generating
capacity in 2001 was 813 gigawatts; in that year, US power plants
produced 3,836 terawatt hours of electricity-52 percent from coal,
21 percent from nuclear, 16 percent from natural gas, 7 percent
from hydro, 2 percent from oil, and 1 percent from non-hydro renewables.
A terawatt (TW) is 1,000 gigawatts, or a million megawatts (MW).
The Energy Information Administration
estimates that demand for electricity is growing by 1.8 percent
per year in the US, and will increase to 5,439 TWh by 2020, requiring
1,300 new power plants to be built-more than one a week. This
assumes the current "business as usual," profligate
North American energy use levels.
What might we do instead? European countries
get by on half as much energy per capita and per unit of Gross
Domestic Product (GDP). Using today's technologies, buildings,
appliances, factories, and vehicles in North America could be
twice as efficient. Using tomorrow's technologies, they could
be four to ten times as efficient.
Here are some of the policies that could
cut our electricity demand by 75 percent by 2020, to 1,360 TWh,
without any loss of quality:
* Apply a mandatory one- to four-star
energy efficiency rating to appliances, houses, and vehicles,
and give big tax credits for the purchase of four-star items.
Award annual "achievement" tax credits to the companies
that produce the most efficient appliances and technologies.
* Strengthen the national energy code
for buildings, and then build on San Francisco's example: make
compliance mandatory for all buildings, new and existing. For
nonconforming buildings, make the code kick in whenever a building
is sold, a lease renewed, or an owner applies for a building permit
for work worth more than $10,000.
* Establish a national electricity efficiency
tax, or public benefit charge, as several states have done. This
increases the price of electricity, but returns all the revenue
in energy efficiency incentives.
Transportation inefficiencies In 2002,
America's vehicles consumed three billion barrels of oil. Four-fifths
of that oil could be saved through a combination of smarter travel,
greater fuel efficiency, and a switch to sustainably derived hydrogen,
bioethanol, and biodiesel.
First, let's aim for a 25 percent reduction
in motor traffic by investing in bicycle trails, mass transit,
and telecommuting. We should also use smart-growth planning principles
for new settlements, and retrofit America's suburbs to create
small village centers where people can work, shop, and relax.
Next, we need to make our vehicles far
more efficient. There are cars on the road today that can get
50 mpg. We should upgrade the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency
(CAFE) standard so that new cars are required to increase their
efficiency to 45 mpg by 2010, and to 80 mpg by 2025, with an equivalent
increase for trucks, buses, and SUVs. Taken together, these policies
will create a four-fold reduction in the energy needed for transport.
Fuels for cars, trucks, and planes of
the future will be hydrogen, bioethanol, and biodiesel-and carbohydrate
oils from sewage and garbage, should a promising technology known
as "thermal depolymerization" work out.
America's bioethanol potential comes from
harvesting existing agricultural wastes and low-cost cellulose
feedstocks; there is already enough to produce 51 billion gallons
a year, equivalent to 40 percent of the current gasoline market,
according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates. If our vehicles
were four times as efficient-easily achievable under more rigorous
CAFE standards-bioethanol and biodiesel from agricultural wastes
could provide 40 percent of the fuel they'd need.
Clean electricity A reasonable goal for
sustainable US electricity consumption is 1,360 TWh by 2025, of
which 80 percent must come from clean energy. Since hydrogen will
be needed for most of our transportation needs, and the cleanest
way to obtain hydrogen is by using renewable energy to split water,
we should increase the goal to 4,000 TWh.
Can it be done? No problem. The steps
below, taken together, could provide the US with 24,000 TWh, six
times more than we need if we gain the efficiencies described
above. Producing so much extra energy would give us some options
among the most cost-effective, environmentally benign routes.
By linking many renewable energy sources together through a smart
electronic energy network, or distributed grid, we would gain
further efficiencies in production and in price.
A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund
shows that the lower 48 states have 14,244 TWh of wind energy
potential. The best land areas are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas,
and South Dakota, which have a potential of 4,500 TWh, 17 percent
more than America's current electricity demand. It's all good
news for the farmers, who can form wind-turbine cooperatives and
obtain a steady income while farming underneath, as they do in
Denmark. The southern and southeastern coastlines also have excellent
offshore wind potential, and Alaska has superb on-land and offshore
potential. Together, these could produce an additional 4,000 TWh.