The Global Shift to Renewable Energy

Here's good news about the global shift to renewable energy that finally has begun.
By Lester R. Brown
April/May 2004
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In the United States, a national wind resource inventory published in 1991 indicates enough harnessable wind energy exists in just three states — North Dakota, Kansas and Texas — to satisfy national electricity needs. Today, this greatly understates U.S. potential: Recent advances in wind-turbine design and size have dramatically expanded the wind-power industry.
Photo courtesy Fotolia/wajan


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Here's good news about the global shift to renewable energy that finally has begun. — MOTHER


As world population has doubled and the global economy has expanded sevenfold over the last half-century, our claims on the environment have become excessive. We are asking more of the Earth than it can give on an ongoing basis and creating a "bubble" economy — one in which economic output is artificially inflated by over-consumption of the Earth's natural resources.

We are cutting trees faster than they can regenerate, overgrazing rangelands and converting them into deserts, over-pumping aquifers and draining rivers dry. On our cropland, erosion exceeds new soil formation, slowly depriving the soil of its inherent fertility. We are taking fish from the ocean faster than they can reproduce. We are depleting our nonrenewable fossil fuels and releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) faster than nature can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect. As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, so does the Earth's temperature.

The resulting mega-threat — climate change — is not getting the attention it deserves, particularly from the United States, the nation responsible for one-fourth of all carbon emissions. Washington wants to wait until all the evidence on climate change is in, by which time it will be too late to prevent a wholesale warming of the planet. As the Earth's temperature rises, it affects all life on the planet. Climate change will cause intense heat waves, more destructive storms, lower crop yields, glacier melting and rising seas.

To head off disaster, we must design more efficient transportation systems; raise efficiency standards for buildings, appliances and automobiles; and develop and promote renewable energy technology.

The good news is that although this is a staggering challenge, it is entirely doable, and many countries are now taking action. Detailed studies by governments and environmental groups reveal the potential for reducing carbon emissions while saving money in the process. Cutting global carbon emissions in half by 2015 is entirely within range. Ambitious though this seems, it is commensurate with the threat climate change poses.

National and local governments, corporations and environmental groups are conning up with ambitious plans to cut carbon emissions. Prominent among these is a plan by British Prime Minister Tony Blair to reduce carbon emissions 60 percent in the United Kingdom by 2050. Blair and Sweden's Prime Minister, Göran Persson, are jointly urging the European Union to adopt the 60-percent goal, the amount scientists deem necessary to stabilize global atmospheric CO 2 levels.

A plan developed for Canada by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Climate Action Network — Canadian nongovernmental organizations promoting environmental sustainability — would halve carbon emissions by 2030 and would do so only with profitable investments in energy efficiency. This plan was inspired by U.S. based Interface, the world's largest manufacturer of industrial carpeting. During the 1990s, the company's Canadian affiliate cut its carbon emissions by two-thirds through examining every facet of its business — from electricity consumption to trucking procedures. The company has since saved more than $400,000 a year in energy expenditures. CEO Ray Anderson says, "Interface Canada has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 64 percent from the peak, and made money in the process, in no small measure because our customers support environmental responsibility."

Another push for renewable energy in Canada comes from the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, an environmental group that has devised a four-pronged strategy to phase out the province's five coal-fired power plants by 2010. Jack Gibbons, director of the Alliance, says of coal burning, "Its a 19th-century fuel that has no place in 21st-century Ontario."

And Germany, which has set the pace for reducing carbon emissions among industrial countries, is now talking about lowering its emissions 40 percent by 2020. This country already is far more energy-efficient than the United States, whose carbon emissions are projected to continue to increase. A lack of leadership, not a lack of technology, is why the United States goal for cutting carbon emissions contrasts with Germanys.

In April 2003, the World Wildlife Fund released a peer-reviewed analysis that proposed reducing carbon emissions from U.S. electric-power generation 60 percent by 2020. This proposal focuses on more energy-efficient power-generation equipment; more efficient household appliances, industrial motors and other equipment; and a shift from coal to natural gas. If implemented, it could result in national savings averaging $20 billion a year until 2020.

The accelerating rise in the Earth's temperature calls for simultaneously raising efficiency standards and shifting to renewables in order to cut carbon emissions in half. The initial large gains are likely to come with efficiency improvements from mandating efficiency standards for household appliances, automobiles and the construction of new buildings.

Setting New Standards

Of course, each nation will have to fashion its own plan for raising energy productivity. Nevertheless, a number of potential common components exist. These include banning nonrefillable beverage containers, eliminating incandescent light bulbs, doubling the fuel efficiency of automobiles and redesigning urban transport systems.

Canada's Prince Edward island has banned the use of nonrefillable beverage containers, and Finland's stiff tax on nonrefillables has led to 98-percent container reuse for soft drinks. These actions reduce energy use, water use and garbage generation. A refillable glass bottle used over and over again requires 90 percent less energy per use than an aluminum can, even if the can is recycled. Banning inefficient nonrefillables is a win-win policy because it will cut both energy use and garbage flow.

Another simple step is to replace incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), which only use one-third the electricity and last 10 times longer. In the United States, 20 percent of electricity is used for lighting. If each household replaces incandescents with CFLs, electricity needed for lighting could be cut in half. CFLs yield a risk-free return of 25 percent to 40 percent a year. Their cost is falling, and they typically pay for themselves in electricity savings in a few years. Worldwide, replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs could save enough electricity to close hundreds of coal-fired power plants, and it could be accomplished within three years, if we decided to do it.

A refillable glass bottle used over and over again requires 90 percent less energy per use than an aluminum can, even if the can is recycled. Banning inefficient nonrefillables is a win-win policy because it will cut both energy use and garbage flow.

A third way to raise energy efficiency is to produce more efficient automobiles. In the United States, if all motorists shifted to cars with hybrid engines, such as the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight, gasoline use could be cut in half. Sales of hybrid cars, introduced into the U.S. market in 1999, reached an estimated 46,000 in 2003, and the Prius was named "2004 Car of the Year" by Motor Trend magazine. Higher gasoline prices and a tax deduction for purchasing these vehicles are boosting sales and making the cars more cost-competitive. With U.S. auto manufacturers coming onto the market, hybrid-vehicle sales are projected to reach 1 million by 2007.

Cutting carbon emissions also means restructuring our transportation systems. Most automobile-centered systems are highly inefficient because most cars carry only the driver. Constructing well-developed light-rail systems, hydrogen-fueled buses as needed, and bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly lanes could increase mobility, reduce air pollution and provide exercise. These improvements are much needed in a world where 3 million people die each year from urban air pollution, and where half or more of the adults in exercise-deprived, affluent societies are overweight. Fewer automobiles also means some parking lots could be converted into parks.

Harnessing The Wind

Wind energy offers a powerful alternative to fossil fuels — it is abundant, inexhaustible, widely distributed and clean, which is why it has been the world's fastest-growing energy source over the last decade. Wind energy doesn't produce sulfur dioxide or nitrous oxides that cause acid rain, and it does not disrupt the Earth's climate. It also doesn't generate health-threatening mercury or pollute streams like coal-fired power plants.

Harnessing the wind also is cheap: Advances in wind-turbine design have reduced the cost of wind power to less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour at prime wind sites — well below the price of nuclear power or coal. On prime sites, wind power can now even compete with gas, currently the cheapest source of electricity generation.

Even more exciting, with each doubling of world wind-generating capacity, costs fall by 15 percent. The recent growth rate of 31 percent a year means costs are dropping by 15 percent about every 30 months. While natural-gas prices are highly volatile, the cost of wind power is declining. And, there is no OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) for wind.

Stop Subsidizing Fossil Fuels!

Despite mounting public concern about climate change driven by the burning of fossil fuels, we the taxpayers are still subsidizing the fossil-fuel industry to the tune of $210 billion per year. Fossil-fuel subsidies belong to another age, a time when development of oil and coal industries was seen as key to economic progress — not as a threat to the future. Once in place, subsidies lead to special-interest lobbies that fight tooth and nail against eliminating them, even those that were not appropriate in the first place.

In the United States, oil and gas companies are now perhaps the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Between 1990 and 2002, they amassed $154 million in campaign contributions in an effort to protect special tax rates worth billions. In testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee in 1999, Donald Lubick, then U.S. Treasury Assistant Secretary for Tax Policy, said in reference to the oil and gas industry, "This is an industry that probably has a larger tax incentive relative to its size than any other industry in the country." The fact that such profitable investments are possible is a measure of the corruption of the U.S. political system, and of the capacity of those with money to shape the economy to their advantage.

Subsidies permeate and distort every corner of the global economy. For example, Germany's coal-mining subsidy was initially justified in part as a job-protection measure. At the peak, the country's government was subsidizing the industry to the tune of nearly $90,000 per year for each worker. In purely economic terms, it would have made more sense to close the mines and pay miners not to work.

Many subsidies are largely hidden from taxpayers. This is especially true of the U.S. fossil-fuel industry, which includes a depletion allowance — a tax break based on the eventual exhaustion (or declining value) of an oil field — for oil producers. Even more dramatic are the routine U.S. military expenditures to protect access to Middle Eastern oil, which analysts at the RAND Corporation calculated to fall between $30 billion and $60 billion a year, while the oil imported from the region only is worth $20 billion. These expenditures will be much higher as long as the U.S. occupation of Iraq continues.

A 2001 study shows U.S. taxpayers subsidizing automobile use at $257 billion a year, or roughly $2,000 per taxpayer. This means that taxpayers who do not own automobiles, including those too poor to afford them, are subsidizing those who do.

On the bright side, this subsidization of fossil fuels provides a reservoir of funds that can be diverted to clean, renewable sources of energy, such as wind, solar and geothermal. Shifting subsidies from fossil fuels to the development of renewable sources is a win-win situation. To subsidize the use of fossil fuels is to subsidize rising temperatures, which lead to crop-withering heat waves, melting ice, rising seas and more destructive storms. Perhaps it's time for the world's taxpayers to ask if this is how they want their taxes to be used.

By the end of 2002, world wind-generating capacity had increased sixfold to 31,100 megawatts — enough to meet the residential needs of Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Belgium combined. Germany, with more than 12,000 megawatts of wind power at the end of 2002, leads the world in generating capacity. Spain and the United States, at 4,800 and 4,700 megawatts, are second and third, respectively. Tiny Denmark is fourth with 2,900 megawatts, and India is fifth with 1,700 megawatts. A second wave of major players is coming onto the field, including the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Brazil and China. Europe has enough easily accessible offshore wind energy to meet all of its electricity needs, and China can easily double its current electricity, generation from wind alone.

Globally, ambitious efforts to develop wind power are beginning to take shape. Germany is proposing a 30-percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions throughout Europe by 2020 — developing the continent's wind-energy resources is at the heart of this carbon-reduction effort. And the United States is following Europe's lead. A 3,000-megawatt wind farm in South Dakota, designed to partly power the industrial Midwest surrounding Chicago, is one of the largest energy projects of any kind. Cape Wind is planning a 420-megawatt wind farm off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and a newly formed energy company, called Winergy, has plans for some 9,000 megawatts in a network of wind farms stretching along the Atlantic coast.

In the United States, a national wind resource inventory published in 1991 indicates enough harnessable wind energy exists in just three states — North Dakota, Kansas and Texas — to satisfy national electricity needs. Today, this greatly understates U.S. potential: Recent advances in wind-turbine design and size have dramatically expanded the wind-power industry.

It is time to consider an all-out effort to develop wind resources, given the enormous wind-generating potential and the associated benefits of climate stabilization. Instead of doubling wind-power generation every 30 months or so, perhaps we should aim to double wind-electric generation each year for the next several years. Costs would drop precipitously, giving wind-generated electricity an even greater advantage over fossil fuels.

Cheap electricity from wind is likely to become the principle source for electrolyzing water to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen can be transported through pipelines to power residential and industrial buildings; it also can be stored in power plants and used when the wind ebbs. The hydrogen storage and distribution system — most likely an adaptation of existing natural-gas systems — provides a way of both storing and transporting wind energy.

The incentives for switching to a wind/hydrogen system could come partly from restructuring global energy subsidies — shifting the $210 billion in annual fossil- fuel subsidies to the development of wind energy, hydrogen generators and kits to convert engines from gasoline to hydrogen. The investment capital could come from private capital markets and from companies already in the energy business: Energy giants Shell and BP have begun investing in wind power, and major corporations such as General Electric and ABB, a company that produces technology systems, are now in the wind-power business.

Solar Energy Rises

In recent years, a vast new market for solar power has opened in developing nations that are not yet linked to an electrical grid. About 1.7 billion people in developing nations do not have electricity, but as the cost of solar cells declines, it often is cheaper to provide electricity from solar cells than from a centralized source.

In Andean villages, solar-power systems are replacing candles. For villagers paying installation costs over 30 months, the monthly payment is roughly the same as the cost of a month's supply of candles. Once the solar cells are paid for, the villagers essentially have a free source of power that can supply electricity for decades.

At the end of 2002, more than 1 million homes in villages in the developing world were getting their electricity from solar cells. But this is less than 1 percent of the estimated 1.7 billion people who do not have electricity. The principal obstacle slowing the spread of solar-cell installations is not the cost, but the lack of small-scale credit programs to finance them. As this credit shortfall is overcome, purchases of solar cells could climb far above the rate of recent years.

The residential use of solar cells also is expanding in industrial countries. In Japan, where companies have commercialized a solar roofing material, some 70,000 homes now have solar installations. Consumers in Germany receive low-interest loans and a favorable guaranteed price when feeding excess electricity into the grid. In industrial nations, most installations reduce the consumer's dependence on grid-supplied electricity, much of it originating from coal.

The governments with the strongest incentives for solar cells have the largest solar-cell manufacturing industries. Japan leads in solar-cell manufacturing and controls 43 percent of the global solar-cell market; residential installations produced roughly 100 megawatts in 2001. Germany produced 75 megawatts that year, and the European Union, led by Germany's vigorous program, is in second place behind Japan with 25 percent of the world's total output. The United States is third-with 32 megawatts of installations and 24 percent of the market. India is fourth with 18 megawatts.

Solar-generated electricity still is much more costly than power from wind or coal-fired plants, but industry experts estimate that with each doubling of cumulative production, the price drops roughly 20 percent. Over the last seven years, solar cell sales expanded an average of 31 percent annually, doubling every 2.6 years. Only modest government incentives are needed to accelerate the growth of solar power and make it a major player in the world energy economy.

Building The Hydrogen Economy

The evolution of the fuel cell — a device that uses an electrochemical process to convert hydrogen into electricity — is setting the stage for the evolution of a hydrogen-based economy. The fuel cell is twice as efficient as the internal combustion engine and emits only water vapor. The fuel cell facilitates the shift to a single fuel — hydrogen — that neither pollutes nor disrupts the Earth's climate. Stationary fuel cells can be installed in the basements of buildings to heat, cool and generate electricity for lights and appliances. Mobile fuel cells can power cars and portable electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptop computers. Hydrogen can come from many sources, including water, natural gas or gasoline.

Iceland already has a plan to convert from fossil fuels to hydrogen. In 2003, the government, working with a consortium of companies led by Shell and Daimler-Chrysler, took the first step by beginning to convert the capital city of Reykjavik's fleet of 80 buses from internal combustion to fuel cell engines. Shell built a hydrogen station to service the buses, using inexpensive hydroelectricity to produce clean hydrogen. In the next stage, Iceland's automobiles will be converted to fuel cell engines. And in the final stage, the Icelandic fishing fleet — the centerpiece of its economy — also will convert to fuel cells. Iceland already heats most of its homes and buildings with geothermal energy and gets most of its electricity from hydropower and geothermal power, and by 2050, plans to be the first modern economy to declare independence from fossil fuels.

On Yakushima island, an 875-square-kilometer island off the southern tip of Japan, retired corporate executive Masatsugu Taniguchi is creating a hydrogen economy. The island receives more than 300 inches of rainfall a year, so Taniguchi plans to build small dams to convert the abundant hydropower into electricity to power hydrogen generators. The first goal will be to meet the needs of the island's 74,000 residents. Then, Taniguchi plans to ship hydrogen to mainland Japan. He says the island can export enough to run 500,000 automobiles.

More than 50 fueling stations equipped with hydrogen technology have opened around the world. In the Munich, Germany, airport, a hydrogen station fuels 15 airport buses with hydrogen-burning internal combustion engines. The United States now has more than a dozen hydrogen stations, mostly in California, although they are open only for demonstrations and research, not for public use.

Hydrogen is the fuel of choice for the new fuel cell engines every major automobile manufacturer is developing. In 2002, the Honda FCX and the Toyota FCHV-4 became the first fuel-cell-powered automobiles to appear on the market. DaimlerChrysler also manufacturers a fuel cell car called the F-cell, and Ford is following close behind. The evolution of fuel cells and advances in wind-turbine design create the hope that U.S. farmers and ranchers, who own most of the country's wind rights, could one day supply much of the electricity and fuel for cars in the United States.

In the end, the central question with hydrogen is whether it is made using renewable energy to electrolyze water, or with climate-disrupting fossil fuels. Natural gas likely will be the main source of hydrogen in the near future, but, given its abundance, wind has the potential to become the principal source in the new energy economy. The hydrogen storage and distribution system provides ways of storing and transporting wind energy ef ficiently — it is a natural marriage. Thus, countries that are rich in wind and rather sparsely populated, such as Canada, Argentina and Russia, could export hydrogen. Eastern Siberia, for example, could supply vast amounts of hydrogen to China, South Korea and Japan.

In the United States, energy consultant Harry Braun made a proposal at an April 2003 Renewable Hydrogen Roundtable to quickly shift to a wind/hydrogen economy. He noted that if wind turbines were mass-produced like automobiles, the cost of wind-generated electricity would drop to 1 or 2 cents per kilowatt-hour.

Rather than wait for fuel cell engines, Braun suggests using hydrogen in internal combustion engines of the sort developed by German auto manufacturer BMW. He calculates that the production of hydrogen and high-efficiency, hydrogen-fueled engines would bring the cost of hydrogen down to $1.40 per equivalent-gallon of gasoline. If we make this conversion a priority, it can happen in two to three years.

Building a Better Future

In looking at new energy sources, wind seems certain to be the centerpiece in the new energy economy. Its wide distribution offers a practical alternative to oil, and the industry has evolved to the point where it can expand dramatically over the next decade and become the world's leading electricity source. If you think change can't happen that fast, just look at the recent adoption of other popular technologies, such as cell phones. In 1990, 11 million cell phones were in use globally. By 2002, the number had reached 1.2 billion, outnumbering the 1.1 billion fixed-line phones. In 12 years, cell phones went from being a novelty to dominating the market — their sales growth illustrates how market forces can drive the adoption of an appealing technology. The cell-phone market grew by 50 percent a year during the 1990s; wind power has grown 31 percent per year since 1995.

If we decided for climate-stabilization reasons that we wanted to double wind-electric generation each year, wind could become the dominant source of electricity. The United States, for example. now has nearly 5,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity. Doubling that each year would take it to 640,000 megawatts in seven years and make it the leading source of electricity. And this is not beyond the capacity of the industry: In 2001, wind-electric generating capacity grew by 67 percent. The total investment needed to reach this level of generation, using the rule of thumb of $1 million per megawatt (which is now on the high side), would be $640 billion over a seven-year span, or roughly $90 billion a year. For perspective, Americans currently spend $190 billion a year on gasoline.

While subsidies are being shifted from fossil fuels to renewables and the hydrogen economy infrastructure, it would make eminent sense to reduce income taxes and raise taxes on climate-disrupting energy sources at the same time. This tax shifting, already under way in several nations in Europe, helps consumers of energy-both individuals and corporations — understand the full costs of burning fossil fuels.

Although shifting subsidies and taxes are at the heart of the energy transformation that is needed, other policy tools can either increase efficiency or accelerate the shift to renewables and the hydrogen-based economy. For instance, national and local governments, corporations, universities and individual homeowners can buy green power. In the United States, even if green power is not offered locally, a national Green Power Partnership electricity market operated by the Environmental Protection Agency enables anyone to buy green power. As more users sign up, the incentive for energy companies to produce green power increases.

In the United States, 20 percent of electricity is used for lighting. If each household replaces incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescents, electricity needed for lighting could be cut in half.

As wind energy expands, the next step would be to close coal-fired power plants or use them to back up wind. Coal-fired plants are the most climate-disruptive energy source because coal is almost pure carbon. Coal burning also is the principal source of the mercury deposits that contaminate freshwater lakes and streams. The prevalence of mercury-contaminated fish has led 44 state governments in the United States to issue warnings to consumers to limit or avoid eating fish from their locales. In 2001, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that 375,000 babies born each year in the United States are at risk of impaired mental development because of mercury exposure.

Although some industry groups and governmental bodies complain that reducing carbon emissions is costly and a burden on the economy, study after study concludes it is possible to reduce carbon emissions while making money in the process. The experience of individual companies confirms this. DuPont, one of the world's largest chemical manufacturers, already has cut its greenhouse-gas emissions from its 1990 level by 65 percent. In an annual report, CEO Charles Holliday Jr. proudly reports savings of $1.5 billion in energy-efficiency gains from 1990 to 2002.

It has become clear that incorporating renewable energy is one of the most profitable investments many companies can make, and as the true costs of climate change — withering crops, rising sea levels and wildlife extinction — become apparent, companies that ignore the need to phase out fossil fuels will ultimately disappear. The companies that prosper will be the ones that adapt to a modern economy fueled by clean, renewable energy.


Lester R. Brown is President of Earth Policy Institute and author of Full Planet, Empty Plates. He is recognized worldwide for his global perspective on environmental issues and for his development of Plan B, a plan to save civilization through stabilizing population, cutting carbon emissions, and restoring the earth’s natural support systems. Find him on .


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