Green Power: A Global Goal

by Patrick Mazza, Rhys Roth, Iain MacGill

Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2000


Two billion people in the developing world are without electricity, while dirty energy sources force many others to live under some of the most polluted skies in the world. In the developed and developing world alike, climate change threatens social progress and, perhaps, human survival.

The key is to enable the developing world to leapfrog over the model of large power stations that still prevails in the industrial world and jump directly to a decentralized system based on many micropower plants, such as solar photovoltaic (PV) panels.

"I believe there will be a complete revolution in energy technology, which will enable us to turn around global warming," President Bill Clinton has stated. But we must act soon. This nation now uses nearly one-quarter of the world's coal, oil and gas, making the US the world's worst global warming polluter.

Nature magazine reports that stabilizing CO2 emissions at current levels would require producing two-thirds of the world's energy from non-fossil fuel resources. Here is how it can be done.

Fuel Cell Technology

Fuel cells create electricity from chemical reactions without combustion or moving parts. They never need recharging because, like an engine, they run off a fuel source.

The fuel source is hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. A March 2000 study by the David Suzuki Foundation found that fuel cells cut natural gas emissions 70 percent, while reducing gasoline emissions 20 percent.

Fuel cells can be scaled from postage-stamp size to powerplant size. GE will begin selling $7,500-$1O,000 Plug Power home cells in 2001 and aims to bring that below $4,000 by 2003. At 7-8¢/kilowatt hour, fuel-cell electricity would be competitive with grid power in many regions. Fuel cell vehicles soon will reach Ford, Daimler-Chrysler and Nissan showrooms.

Wind Power's Surprising Growth

The wind energy boom is one of today's great, untold stories. Wind power, expanding an average 30 percent annually since 1994, grew even faster in 1999. The American Wind Energy Association says that global wind power surged from about 10,000 MW to 13,400 MW in 1999 alone. The US added 732 MW in states as geographically diverse as California, Oregon, Wyoming, Minnesota and lowa.

Denmark now generates ten percent of its electricity from the wind and the Spanish state of Navarra 20 percent. Even the oil state of Texas aims to develop 2,000 MW of renewable energy by 2009, the overwhelming majority from wind.

The California Energy Commission puts the wholesale cost of gas-fired electricity at 4.2¢/kWh and coal at 5.2¢/kWh. But wind could drop as low as 2.5¢/kWh by 2010.

At least 48,000-new megawatts of wind power will be added in the next ten years, increasing world wind capacity nearly fivefold. The Wind Energy Council estimates that between 1996-2020, $150-400 billion will be invested in new wind power worldwide. US Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has announced a plan to generate five percent of US electricity (80,000 MW) from wind by 2020.

Providing 10 percent of world's electricity by 2020 will take a 1999-2020 investment of $720 billion - less than 14 percent of the $10 trillion in energy investments expected over that time frame. The wind industry would create 1.7 million jobs while eliminating 11 billion tons of CO2.

Solar Power Tops a Billion Watts

Solar energy crossed an important symbolic threshold in 1999, when the worldwide production of electricity from solar photovoltaic (PV) cells surged past a gigawatt (one billion watts).

"The total solar power market is estimated to be approximately $2 billion, growing at 20-25 percent per year," notes the investment firm of Robertson Stevens. In 1972, solar PV electricity cost $500/watt but by 1999, wholesale prices hit $3.50/watt. Allied Business Intelligence projects wholesale costs of $1/watt by 2010.

Constructing a 500 MW plant would drop the wholesale price to 90 cents. Building such a plant (along with an installation to supply raw silicon) would cost $660 million - less than one percent of the annual global expenditures on oil exploration.

San Diego-based Schumacher Technology has developed a method to make "green silicon" that does not require the vacuum and intense energy use currently involved. Running cooler, the process reduces energy consumption by 80 percent.

The Revolution is Needed NOW !

Wind power and solar PV are now the world's fastest-growing energy sources. Even the conservative International Energy Agency admits "the world is in the early stages of an inevitable transition to a sustainable energy system that will be largely dependent on renewable resources."

Ushering in this energy transition with the speed required to prevent irreparable climate damage is an enormous challenge. The White House seems prepared to let the fossil fuel industry escape accountability

In order to ensure a rapid transition to clean energy, the government must remove subsidies to the fossil-fuel industry (which Industrial Economics Inc. estimates amounted to between $5.2 billion and $ 11.9 billion in 1995 alone). Next, the fossil fuel industry must be forced to stop polluting and pay the full cost of the damage it has caused. Finally, governments need to support the fledging clean-energy industry.

Solar panels are being integrated into roofing materials, walls, and windows. This country's 105 million buildings represent around ten percent of world energy consumption, providing an enormous potential market for pollution-free power.

We are at the portal of the Clean Energy Revolution. Whether it takes off fast enough to stabilize the climate is an issue of global urgency - with long-term and irreversible implications. The emerging picture is of a Smart-Energy Web that parallels the Internet revolution. It represents the most significant transformation in energy since Thomas A. Edison set up the first power plant more than a century ago.

Patrick Mazza is a researcher at Climate Solutions. Rhys Roth is co-director of Climate Solutions. Dr lain MacGill is energy solutions analyst with Greenpeace. [Climate Solutions, 610 E. 4th Avenue, Olympia, WA 98501, (360) 352-1763, Fax: 943-4977,, www. climatesolutions. org]

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