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Posts Tagged solar power

Let the sun shine in Bryan Walker Nov 10

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Soon after writing the post in which I reported Carbon War Room CEO Shigar Khan’s prediction that within this decade incremental energy will all be coming from renewables I saw Paul Krugman’s latest column in the New York Times. He draws attention to the rapidly falling cost of solar power:

If the downward trend continues – and if anything it seems to be accelerating – we’re just a few years from the point at which electricity from solar panels becomes cheaper than electricity generated by burning coal.

That, of course, is the point at which there’s no longer any question of continuing with new coal or even gas powered electricity generation.

Not that it’s a matter of simply waiting for that to happen.  Krugman points out that it would likely already have happened if fossil fuels were priced to take into account the external costs they impose. And he sees the fossil fuel industry fighting hard to oppose and delay the transition.

Let’s face it: a large part of our political class, including essentially the entire G.O.P., is deeply invested in an energy sector dominated by fossil fuels, and actively hostile to alternatives. This political class will do everything it can to ensure subsidies for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, directly with taxpayers’ money and indirectly by letting the industry off the hook for environmental costs, while ridiculing technologies like solar.

The failure of the solar panel company Solyndra is currently being proclaimed by some in the US as a sign that renewable energy is on a downward slide. But, as Krugman points out, the failure of Solyndra can be better understood as testimony to the rapidly lowering costs of panels, which the Solyndra technology was unable to match.

Krugman refers to an illuminating Scientific American blog post by computer scientist and entrepreneur Ramez Naam (pictured). It’s well worth reading in full, but I’ll pull out a few points here. Naam begins by reminding readers of just how much energy the sun provides to Earth. In 14 and a half seconds it provides as much as humanity uses in a day, in 88 minutes as much as we consume in a year.  In 112 hours — less than five days — it provides 36 zettajoules of energy — as much energy as is contained in all proven reserves of oil, coal, and natural gas on the planet. Capturing one tenth of one percent of the solar energy striking the earth — one part in one thousand — would give us access to six times as much energy as we consume in all forms today, with almost no greenhouse gas emissions.

Up to now solar energy provides only 0.2 percent of all energy production. The energy itself may be abundant but the systems to capture it have been expensive and inefficient. But Naam explains that that is changing. The price of capture has been dropping exponentially, to the extent that people are starting to talk of a Moore’s Law in solar energy, not as dramatic as in the computing world in which it has been formulated, but possibly with similar dynamics.  He produces graphs to show the exponential nature of the dropping price.

Two factors contribute. One is manufacturers learning how to reduce the cost of fabrication. The other is the continual improvement in the efficiency of solar cells so that they capture higher proportions of the sun’s energy that strikes them. Manufacture of the panels is only part of the cost. Historically installation costs have been half of the total. But they too appear to be dropping at a similar pace.

So where are we headed?

The cost of solar, in the average location in the U.S., will cross the current average retail electricity price of 12 cents per kilowatt hour in around 2020, or 9 years from now. In fact, given that retail electricity prices are currently rising by a few percent per year, prices will probably cross earlier, around 2018 for the country as a whole, and as early as 2015 for the sunniest parts of America.

And from there on in it’s an ever-widening gap:

10 years later, in 2030, solar electricity is likely to cost half what coal electricity does today. Solar capacity is being built out at an exponential pace already. When the prices become so much more favourable than those of alternate energy sources, that pace will only accelerate.

Naam acknowledges the need to be careful in extrapolating trends out. The exponential eventually levels off or becomes linear. But he reports that physicists and engineers in the solar world are optimistic about their roadmaps for the coming decade.

As he concludes, that’s good news for the world.

But it’s only good news if it is allowed to happen. We shouldn’t underestimate the dark forces in our economies which will fight to preserve favoured treatment for fossil fuels. Look at the commitment of the New Zealand government to support oil and gas and coal mining more vigorously than renewable energy, to cash in on other nations’ burning of the fuel we hope to export, to disastrously develop our lignite fields. Renewable energy shouldn’t have to make its way against an opposing tide of government-supported fossil fuel development. Investment should now be flowing overwhelmingly to green energy, encouraged and supported by government action to price carbon properly and discourage or stop the mining of fossil fuels. Until then the good news remains somewhat muted.

[Hair]

Straight Up Bryan Walker Jun 27

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’I joined the new media because the old media have failed us. They have utterly failed to face unpleasant facts.’ So writes Joseph Romm of blogging, in his new book Straight Up, a themed selection from the thousands of posts on his widely respected blog ClimateProgress.org. It’s as direct, lively and unequivocal as its title suggests. Romm, an admirer of George Orwell, knows how to express himself with admirable clarity and to satisfy what he describes as ’a great hunger out there for the bluntest possible talk’.

The ’status quo media’ receive a drubbing. Romm is critical of their giving the same credence to a handful of US scientists, most receiving funds from the fossil fuel industry, as they give to hundreds of the world’s leading climate scientists. Senior political reporters are writing more and more pieces as the issue becomes political; most know little about global warming and haven’t bothered to educate themselves. They stick with the ’horse-race perspective’, measuring only who is up and who is down. In one post he criticises even Andy Revkin of the New York Times for suggesting that catastrophe is a marginal possibility and that campaigners for carbon dioxide curbs are suppressing the uncertainty in their picture. Revkin, says Romm, should know that catastrophe is not at the edge of the debate. The Washington Post he accuses of publishing unmitigated tabloid nonsense on climate change.

On the science Romm considers that the IPCC 2007 summary report underestimated likely climate impacts by not giving sufficient weight to positive feedbacks that accelerate warming and by assuming there would be aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The book includes a stunning post written in March 2009, where he reports on more recent scientific literature. Under five headings he relentlessly lists the evidence that points to catastrophic impacts this century under business-as-usual conditions — temperature rise of 5-7 degrees, sea level rise of 5 feet or more, dust-bowlification in the Southwest US, high loss of species on land and sea, and likely further unexpected impacts difficult to foresee. So we must stabilise at 450 ppm or below, or risk humanity’s self-destruction. The cost of action is maybe 0.12 percent of GDP per year or a little higher if we aim for 350 ppm. This is the reality that the scientific community and environmentalists and progressives need to start articulating cogently.

The solution is clean energy, a strong focus of Romm’s blogging. For a number of years in the mid-1990s he worked in the Department of Energy on energy efficiency and renewable energy. He considers that the US has all the clean energy technology it needs to start reducing emissions aggressively and cost effectively now. Deployment is the key. Electricity efficiency is high on his list. He points to McKinsey’s estimate that one third of the US greenhouse gas reductions by 2030 could come from electricity efficiency and be achieved at negative marginal costs. California is a model: if all America adopted their energy efficiency policies the country would never have to build another polluting power plant. Concentrated solar power is the technology on which Romm places most hope, because it generates primary energy in the form of heat which can be stored 20 to 100 times more cheaply than electricity –and with far greater efficiency. If all the renewable technologies that are commercial or nearly commercial today are deployed they will be enough to see the US through to 2050. He emphasises the steadily declining cost curve, due to economies of scale and the manufacturing learning curve.

As peak oil approaches it’s crucial that we avoid the strategy preferred by most in the oil industry of ramping up unconventional oil. Oil from tar sands and shale will make global warming worse. Coal to diesel will be catastrophic. The way forward for vehicle transport is better fuel economy standards and a move to plug-in hybrids which he discusses in some detail.

Romm has two key questions for the US. Will they voluntarily give up fossil fuels before they are forced to do so after it is too late to stop the catastrophe? When they do give them up will they be a global leader in the new technologies, or will they have been overtaken by other countries, especially China?

Romm was an advocate of the ’flawed’ Waxman-Markey climate bill which finally made it through the House of Representatives in June 2009. How can his climate politics realism be reconciled with his climate science realism? He replies that the bill was the only game in town and its passing a staggering achievement. It didn’t do enough, but it began a process and established a framework that can be strengthened over time as the science warrants. His political realism is also on view in his optimistic take on the result of Copenhagen. High level negotiations by the senior leaders of the big emitters seems to him a more likely way forward than the consensus process of the UN.

In right-wing US circles politics and climate disinformation have become entangled. Romm sees the conservative think tanks, media pundits and politicians as driving the disinformation campaign. He observes that while they can stop the country from taking the necessary action to avert catastrophe, they can’t actually stop the climate from changing. And some of the congressional conservatives are pushing policies that will lead to unimaginable planetary horror. Why? A post on a Krauthammer article in the Washington Post finds the heart of US conservatives’ hatred of climate science in the fact that it requires action by government, which is the same as socialism (except when it comes to government action on behalf of the nuclear and fossil fuel industries).

Misinformation has had a field day in the US. In part this is due to the organised campaign and the repeated broadcast of its messages by conservative pundits and politicians like George Will and Rush Limbaugh and Sen. James Inhofe. The ’balanced’ presentation favoured by the media hasn’t helped. But there are messaging failures from progressives in general and scientists in particular. Romm strongly opposes the notion that the impacts of global warming should be downplayed in communication to the public. Doing that would amount to unilateral disarmament in the battle to have the public understand what will happen if we continue on the path of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. People need to know the truth.  However he considers that some of the simple rules of rhetoric need to be better used in getting the message across. He identifies three of them as simple language, frequent repetition, and skilful use of figures of speech, especially metaphor and irony. The posts discussing better techniques of communicating the science are well worth attention and clearly underly his own practice.

Romm’s industry as a blogger is phenomenal, as anyone who follows Climate Progress will know. The selection of posts that he has chosen for this book testify that quantity doesn’t rule out quality. They have translated well to the printed page. Many of them repay close reader attention and together they serve to highlight the major themes which guide his work. The urgency displayed in his 2007 book Hell and High Water is undiminished.

[Available from Fishpond (NZ), Amazon.com, Book Depository (UK)]

The Clean Industrial Revolution Bryan Walker May 21

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The Clean Industrial Revolution: Growing Australian Prosperity in a Greenhouse AgeThe problem with cutting greenhouse gas emissions is that it will harm economic growth. Right? No, quite the opposite, says Ben McNeil in his book The Clean Industrial Revolution. It’s an age-old myth that doing good for the environment is bad for the economy. He’s addressing Australians, but what he has to say will arrest readers from many countries. It has certainly grabbed the attention of some prominent New Zealand businessmen who have presented every MP with a copy of the book and used it to back a call to the Prime Minister for a joint business/government task-force to focus attention on emerging clean technologies.

McNeil is a senior research fellow at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Besides a PhD in climate science he also holds a Master of Economics degree.  The two worlds are bridged in this energetic book.  Australia is very vulnerable to climate change through sea-level rise, rainfall changes, storms, and a decrease in food production. It is also highly carbon-intensive in its economy and its export industries will suffer as a consequence when the world starts to move heavily to reduce carbon emissions and impose carbon tariffs.

Such consequences can be pre-empted by a clean-energy revolution, one for which Australia is well-endowed. That hot arid interior is the potential source of vast quantities of high capacity solar power. The use of mirrors to concentrate sunlight so perfectly that the ultra-high temperatures convert water to steam is one way. Another, already under construction in north-west Victoria, uses mirrors to concentrate the sunlight on to high-performance photovoltaic panels. Solar power could replace the need for coal-fired power stations. A massive underground ’hot rock’ heat source can be tapped to create steam for power generation, a technique already being worked on by a number of companies at several sites throughout Australia. Wind power in the south could supply 20 percent of the country’s needs. Advanced biofuels that do not impact on food can be produced.  Biomass-fuelled electricity is already generated in some parts of rural Australia. Carbon capture and storage may hold some hope for the continuing use of coal, though not while coal companies put a miserly 0.3 percent of their production value into research, apparently believing that governments will do the work for them.

McNeil argues that Australia must take up a forefront position in the low-carbon economic future if it wants to remain prosperous. At the time of writing in 2009 he expected the emissions trading scheme to kick in, putting a price on carbon and pointing the economy towards investment in clean energy. This has been delayed, but even without it there is ample reason for the change of focus away from the carbon-intensive economy (carbon obesity he calls it).  The world will soon be crying out for clean energy technology.  Australia will continue to prosper in the future if it has used research and development to drive down the cost of renewable energy technologies, and investment to commercialise them and prepare them for export.

McNeil illustrates this with a striking imaginary scenario. A series of climate catastrophes hit the world in the 2020s. Global greenhouse gas sanctions quickly followed. Those nations with expanses of desert which had been working on the development of solar power became the energy superpowers of the 21st century. Australia led in the building of the Asia Pacific Electricity Grid following a breakthrough in transport efficiency for transmission cables discovered by Australian researchers. The grid connected Australian energy supply to its Asian neighbours.  The scenario is much more elaborated than this, but it all certainly sounded feasible.

Back to present reality. McNeil is adamant that there are solid employment opportunities in an economy focused on clean energy. More than offered by the present carbon intensive economy, and jobs which can’t be outsourced. Creating energy-efficient homes and buildings, for example, is a proven source of increased jobs. The European Commission suggests that energy efficiency creates three to four times the level of employment as an equivalent investment in a new coal-fired power station. Renewable energy requires two or three times more people for operation than an equivalent coal-based energy project. A comparison between Denmark’s wind industry and New South Wales coal industry clinches that. A renewables manufacturing industry is feasible kept based in Australia by a strong domestic market.

McNeil provides a wealth of illustrative material from many countries and forward-looking firms. He instances General Electric’s ‘Ecoimagination’ programme launched in 2005, aimed at developing low-carbon solutions. The company reports that it has never had an initiative that generated better financial returns so quickly. Cloudy Germany is the world’s largest market for solar energy and German solar manufacturing companies produce over half the world’s solar panels. German companies are positioning themselves for the burgeoning global clean-tech market. Tiny Denmark manufactures over half the world’s wind turbines, obtains 20 percent of its electricity from wind and plans to increase that to 40 percent. McNeil notes dryly that contrary to some prophesies Danes are far richer than Australians by GDP per capita, while cutting their carbon intensity by over one-third in less than ten years.

Innovation needs science, and McNeil titles one of his chapters ’How Science Must Save Us’. If Finland can produce Nokia, Australia also can help shape the world, not by raw military or economic might but by ’the seeding of ideas in an interconnected world.’ Education and research funding are crucial for the development of science and he discusses how they can be expanded. Scientists and engineers will not only develop new generation clean energy but also seek to understand and monitor the effects of climate change on the natural ecosystems of Australia with its immense variety of specially evolved plants and animals. They will also continue to seek the development of techniques for reducing methane emissions from livestock, which produce 10 percent of Australian greenhouse emissions.

McNeil knows first hand how serious the implications of climate change are.  The disease has been diagnosed but his attention in this book is on the cure. He matches the environmental imperative of emissions reduction with the economic benefit of entering wholeheartedly into a new, clean, low-carbon industrial revolution. Climate change poses a great risk to the Australian economy, and so does their over-reliance on fossil fuels. They need to embrace the change to clean energy. The costs of not doing so will far outweigh the cost of making the change.

One doesn’t need to be an Australian to be cheered by much that the book has to say and the detail with which it is illustrated.  But the final sentence has to be conditional:

’If Australia sets strong greenhouse gas emission targets and invests in unleashing clean-technology innovation,…’

Unfortunately it’s still a big if, not only for Australia.  But here’s the rest of the sentence:

’…not only will Australia help the world as it makes the transition towards a low-carbon development pathway to solve climate change, it will bring new prosperity and employment growth to a country desperately needing economic reform in its energy policy.’

Note: There’s a short relevant interview with Ben McNeil here on YouTube.

[Check out this book at: Fishpond, Amazon.com, Book Depository]

Friedman: China beating US on low carbon energy Bryan Walker Jan 13

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Thomas Friedman is now doubtful that China will follow an American lead towards a greener economy, as he suggested in his book Hot, Flat and Crowded reviewed here. He considers rather that it is more likely to pull ahead of the US. He writes from China in his recent column in the New York Times that he’s been astonished to learn of how many projects have got under way in China in just the last year —- wind, solar, nuclear, mass transit and more efficient coal burning. 

He quotes Bill Gross, head of a solar-thermal Californian company, eSolar, announcing the biggest solar deal ever, a 2 gigawatt, $5 billion deal to build solar thermal plants in China using California-based technology. Gross comments that China is being more aggressive than the US. His company applied for a US Department of Energy loan for a 92 megawatt project in New Mexico. In less time than it took them to do stage 1 of the application review ’China signs, approves, and is ready to begin construction this year on a 20 times bigger project!’

Friedman goes on to instance other developments. Solar panels are one. He says so many new solar panel makers emerged in China in the last year alone that the price of solar power has fallen from roughly 59 cents a kilowatt hour to 16 cents. 50 new nuclear reactors are expected to be built by 2020, while the rest of the world may manage 15. High speed trains are breaking world records. A high speed rail link from Shanghai to Beijing means trains will cover the 700 miles in just five hours, compared with 12 hours today (and 18 hours for a similar distance from New York to Chicago in the US).

China is on the way to making green power technologies cheaper for itself and for everyone else.

’But even Chinese experts will tell you that it will all happen faster and more effectively if China and America work together — with the U.S. specializing in energy research and innovation, at which China is still weak, as well as in venture investing and servicing of new clean technologies, and with China specializing in mass production.’

Friedman concludes with a call to America to put in place a long-term carbon price that stimulates and rewards clean power innovation. ’We can’t afford to be asleep with an invigorated China wide awake.’

Meanwhile India has plans to be a world leader in solar power, as announced by the Prime Minister a couple of days ago. He launched the National Solar Mission with a target of 20,000 megawatts of solar generating capacity by 2022. It will be helped along by a regulatory and incentive framework. Manmohan Singh hoped the new laws and incentives will ’lead to a rapid scale up of capacity. This will encourage technological innovation and generate economies of scale, thereby leading to a steady lowering of costs. Once parity with conventional power tariff is achieved, there will be no technological or economic constraint to the rapid and large-scale expansion of solar power thereafter’.

He said he was “convinced that solar energy can also be the next scientific and technological frontier in India after atomic energy, space and information technology”. The scheme has pride of place in India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.

Obama’s new pathways for power Bryan Walker Oct 29

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Barack Obama is matching his words with action. Four days after his MIT speech on renewable energy he has announced, under the Recovery Act,  $3.4 billion in grants to improve the US electricity grid. The grants go to 100 partners with plans to install smart grid technologies in their area. The government money will be matched by industry funding for a total public-private investment worth over $8 billion.

The announcement was made in a speech at Arcadia, Florida, where he was visiting a solar energy centre to open a large-scale solar power plant. In a vigorous statement he explained why the improvement is necessary and what it will accomplish. 

’…to realize the full potential of this plant and others like it, we’ve got to do more than just add extra solar megawatts to our electrical grid.  That’s because this grid – which is made up of everything from power lines to generators to the meters in your home – still runs on century-old technology.  It wastes too much energy, it costs us too much money, and it’s too susceptible to outages and blackouts.’

It will be very good for the economy:

“Such an investment won’t just create new pathways for energy – it’s expected to create tens of thousands of new jobs all across America in areas ranging from manufacturing and construction to IT and the installation of new equipment in homes and in businesses.  It’s expected to save consumers more than $20 billion over the next decade on their utility bills… 

“It will make our grid more secure and more reliable, saving us some of the $150 billion we lose each year during power outages.  It will allow us to more effectively transport renewable energy generated in remote places to large population centers, so that a wind farm in rural South Dakota can power homes in Chicago.  And by facilitating the creation of a clean energy economy, building this 21st century energy infrastructure will help us lay a foundation for lasting growth and prosperity…

“Here in this region of Florida, this project will reduce demand for electricity by up to 20 percent during the hottest summer days that stress the grid and power plants.  It will provide smart meters to 2.6 million more customers.  And most importantly, it will create thousands of jobs – good jobs, by the way, that can’t be outsourced; jobs that will last and jobs that pay a decent wage.”

He is prepared to use mobilisation analogies:

“So at this moment, there is something big happening in America when it comes to creating a clean energy economy.  But getting there will take a few more days like this one and more projects like this one.  And I have often said that the creation of such an economy is going to require nothing less than the sustained effort of an entire nation – an all-hands-on-deck approach similar to the mobilization that preceded World War II or the Apollo Project.” 

He followed with optimistic remarks about the progress of the legislation now with the Senate and delivered a broadside against the delayers:

“Now, I have to be honest with you, though.  The closer we get to this new energy future, the harder the opposition is going to fight, the more we’re going to hear from special interests and lobbyists in Washington whose interests are contrary to the interests of the American people.  Now, there are those who are also going to suggest that moving towards a clean energy future is going to somehow harm the economy or lead to fewer jobs.  And they’re going to argue that we should do nothing, stand pat, do less, or delay action yet again…

“We’ve engaged in this same type of debate a lot of times through our history.  People don’t like change, and they get nervous about it… 

“It’s a debate between looking backwards and looking forward; between those who are ready to seize the future and those who are afraid of the future.

This led to enthusiastic words about the capacity of the American people to embrace progress and reach out for a more promising future, words which I won’t try to pull out of their domestic political context.

In my review of Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0 I wrote of Brown’s sensible optimism and of his sense that movement on renewable energy is already strongly under way, needing only strategic government action to fully enable it. Obama seems to singing from the same song sheet.  One senses from his speeches and accompanying actions how politically feasible the transition to new sources of energy may yet prove to be.

Wind, water and sun are all we need Bryan Walker Oct 22

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Climatechallenge Wind, solar and water sources are sufficient to provide the world’s energy by 2030. Scientific American has a front cover article coming up in November to demonstrate that. Written by Mark Jacobson (left) and Mark Delucchi, it’s heartening information according to a Stanford University report. Turning away from combustion to electricity from renewable sources results in a striking lowering of global power demand. The reason is that fossil fuel and biomass combustion are inefficient at producing usable energy. For example, when gasoline is used to power a vehicle, at least 80 percent of the energy produced is wasted as heat. With vehicles that run on electricity, it’s the opposite. Roughly 80 percent of the energy supplied to the vehicle is converted into motion, with only 20 percent lost as heat. Other combustion devices can similarly be replaced with electricity or with hydrogen produced by electricity. The authors estimate a consequent 30 percent decrease in global power demand, which is a promising start and helps to make renewables ultimately cheaper than fossil or nuclear generation.

Lester Brown’s latest Plan B book, reviewed on Hot Topic recently, made confident claims that the transition to renewable energy can produce very large cuts in emissions by as soon as 2020. This is not pie in the sky if Jacobson and Delucchi are right.

First of all, there is plenty available. Analyzing only on-land locations with a high potential for producing power, they found that even if wind were the only method used to generate power the potential for wind energy production is 5 to 15 times greater than what is needed to power the entire world. For solar energy, the comparable calculation found that solar could produce about 30 times the amount needed. And that’s without considering water or geothermal energy.

It has to be captured. The world would have to build wind turbines; solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar arrays; and geothermal, tidal, wave and hydroelectric power sources to generate the electricity, as well as transmission lines to carry it to the users. The long-run net savings would more than equal the costs, according to Jacobson and Delucchi’s analysis. The transition to renewables and electricity eliminates the need for 13,000 new or existing coal plants.

Meeting the projected (reduced) power demand for 2030 would not require vast amounts of space. The wind turbines themselves would fit into an area smaller than the borough of Manhattan. Allowing the necessary space between them would cover 1 percent of Earth’s land area, but the spaces between are available for crops or grazing if suitable. The various non-rooftop solar power installations would need about a third of 1 percent of the world’s land. 

But what about the inherent variability of wind speed and sunshine? The study provides examples of how a combination of renewable energy sources could be used to meet hour-by-hour power demand, and demonstrates that between them they can consistently produce enough power. Expansion of transmissions grids is an essential part of the change.

The researchers also considered availability of certain materials that are needed for some of the current technologies, such as lithium for lithium-ion batteries, or platinum for fuel cells. They are not currently barriers to building a large-scale renewable infrastructure. But efforts will be needed to ensure that such materials are recycled and potential alternative materials are explored.

So what’s to stop us?  The authors conclude that perhaps the most significant barrier to the implementation of their plan is the competing energy industries that currently dominate political lobbying for available financial resources. We’re back in the world of policy and politics — the real world as some delight to call it.

Can you see our Minister of Energy losing his enthusiasm for oil drilling and coal prospecting, and getting behind a major drive for wind and marine power?  I have to admit to an impoverished imagination at this point. But then I think of Stephen Chu, the US Secretary of Energy, of Ed Miliband the UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (sensibly coupled as they no longer are in NZ), or of Connie Hedegaard, the Danish Minister of Climate and Energy. Who’s to say there can’t be a major shift which will put fossil fuel combustion behind us, and say bad luck to the industries which have to close down as a result?

US should aim for 80% by 2020 Bryan Walker Sep 22

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Renowned American environmentalist Lester Brown offers measured optimism in an article published in the Washington Post on Sunday. He claims a surprisingly dramatic 9 percent drop in US carbon emissions over the past two years and the promise of further huge reductions.  Part of this decline, he acknowledges, was caused by the recession and higher petrol prices but part of it came from gains in energy efficiency and shifts to carbon-free sources of energy, including record amounts of new wind-generating capacity. He looks ahead to the prospect of further reductions.  

Efforts to reduce fossil fuel use and cut carbon emissions are under way at every level of government — national, state and city — and in corporations, utilities and universities. Beyond this, millions of climate-conscious Americans are altering their lifestyles to reduce energy use and carbon emissions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute calculates that if the 40 least-efficient states were to achieve the electrical efficiency of the 10 most-efficient ones, national electricity use would be reduced by one third. This would allow the equivalent of 62 percent of the country’s 617 coal-fired power plants to be closed.

On the supply side he points to the utilities beginning to turn their backs on coal. One hundred proposed coal-fired power plants have been cancelled since 2001. About 22 coal-fired power plants in 12 states are being replaced by wood-fired power, wind farms or natural gas plants.  

While some U.S. coal plants are closing, wind farms are multiplying. Last year, 102 wind farms came online, providing 8,400 megawatts of electricity-generating capacity, the equivalent of eight coal-fired power plants. Forty-nine wind farms were completed in the first half of this year, and 57 more are under construction. More important, 300,000 megawatts of wind projects (think 300 coal plants) await access to the grid so that construction can begin.

U.S. solar cell installations are growing at 40 percent a year and with new government incentives, this rapid growth should continue. Solar thermal power plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight and generate electricity are going up fast in California, Arizona and Nevada. The availability of a molten-salt heat-storage technology that enables the plants to continue generating power up to six hours past sundown is spurring investor interest.

Oil use is going down and purchase of vehicles with better mileage ratios is increasing.  The shift to plug-in hybrids and electric cars will come faster than most policy-makers anticipate, as it becomes apparent that their fuelling cost from wind-generated electricity is low.

I don’t know whether Brown’s optimism is well founded.  I do know that he is always realistic when describing the environmental threats confronting the world, not only in climate change but also in water shortages, food shortages, population pressure, soil degradation and the like. The first part of his Plan B books is always extremely sobering as he details the challenges.  But the pessimistic tone of what he writes there is always matched by the vigour with which he advocates the Plan B solutions later in the books.  It appears from the Washington Post article that he considers that the US is at last on the solutions path in relation to carbon emissions. 

Indeed he draws some striking conclusions.

’Although Congress is considering legislation that would cut emissions only 15 or 20 percent by 2020, it’s clear to me that with just a little effort, the United States could far surpass this. Given the potentially catastrophic climate change the world is facing, we should push in Copenhagen for an 80 percent reduction by 2020.’

This is the amount he thinks we need to cut to have a decent shot at saving the larger ice masses. It would halt the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, now 387 parts per million , at 400 ppm in 2020. Reductions could then begin to the 350 ppm that the James Hansen says is necessary to stem global warming’s most egregious effects.

If the United States were to push for an 80 percent cut, will the rest of the world follow? In particular will China and India cooperate?  He points out that the two countries are among those whose food security is most affected by global warming, and the world does not hold food supplies adequate to supply their giant populations by imports. This he implies is a spur to change from the fossil-fuel pathway. He points to the extraordinary growth in wind energy in China and the advance of solar cell technology, and notes that the pace of building coal-fired power stations seems to be slowing, with many of the older, dirtier coal plants being closed down.  For India, the answer lies not only in wind energy but in the Great Indian Desert. The harnessable solar energy there could power the entire Indian economy. The new solar thermal power plants, which can generate electricity several hours after sundown, could wean India from its coal addiction.

’Stabilizing the earth’s climate is a complex undertaking and fraught with risk. If the United States leads — and does so boldly —  I believe the world will follow.’

’Follow’ — that’s our cue isn’t it? 

Is Brown just singing to keep his courage up?  Or is he really discerning a shift, the early stages perhaps of a wave that will confound our pessimism?  He is always worth attention, and I was certainly happy enough while reading him to at least hope he might be right.