Boosting the planet’s health and economy

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 7, 2008

By Chris Verner
If you want to gauge the winds of future power production in the United States, you might look to Texas, where rows of turbines are rising from the dusty plains so rapidly they may replace the oil derrick as the state’s iconic emblem of brawny energy output.
Or consider South Dakota, where British Petroleum and Clipper Windpower have teamed to build the world’s largest wind farm, with the capacity to channel thousands of megawatts of electricity into the nation’s industrial heartland. Or California and New Jersey, where commercial-scale solar installations are turning sunlight into zero-emissions electricity through photovoltaic and thermal mechanisms.
For environmentalist Lester Brown, these are examples of an amazing transition.
“The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal and natural gas, is being replaced by one powered by wind, solar and geothermal energy,” he says. “The transition is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even a year ago.”
Brown, who’ll give a presentation Monday evening at Catawba College, is one of the world’s foremost environmental thinkers and proponents of sustainable development. His long and prolific career has ranged from farming tomatoes in New Jersey to serving as a government adviser on agriculture and development to founding the Worldwatch Institute and, more recently, the Earth Policy Institute. He has written more than 50 books on global environmental issues. His many accolades include the United Nation’s Environment Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship and the 1994 Blue Planet Prize for “exceptional contributions to solving global environmental problems.”
In his most recent book, “Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization,” Brown describes some of the environmental problems making headlines today ó climate change, deforestation, grinding poverty and a scarcity of clean water and adequate food in emerging nations ó and lays out a plan for solving them by reducing carbon emissions, expanding renewable energy and increasing recycling and reuse. We have the technology to make such things happen, he says, but it’s urgent that we speed the transition along.
“We can describe this new economy in some detail,” he writes. “The question is how to get from here to there before time runs out.”
Brown recently spoke with the Post about his upcoming visit, which is being hosted by Catawba’s Center for the Environment. This is a condensed transcript of the interview.
Q. What will your presentation here focus on?A. I’ll talk quite a bit about climate change, things like ice melting, the Greenland ice sheet, the glaciers in the Himalayas, whose ice melt sustains the major river systems of Asia during the dry season … and what climate change translates into in terms of policy. (At the Energy Policy Institute) we didn’t ask the question how much of a cut in carbon emissions would be politically feasible; we said, how much do we have to cut carbon emissions if we want to save the Greenland ice sheet or at least the larger glaciers in the Himalayas? When you ask that question, it turns out you really do have to crank things up and cut carbon emissions fast. I’ll also probably talk a bit about water and food and maybe peak oil.
Q. Climate change and the need for alternative energy were issues in the presidential campaign, with both candidates affirming the need to reduce carbon emissions and develop new energy sources. Is that window dressing or a sign of a deeper shift?
A. I think it indicates a deeper shift. Both Senators McCain and Obama have been talking about these issues. It’s probably been at least a decade since I saw the first op-ed piece that Senator McCain wrote on climate change. Obama has a pretty good sense of what’s happening and what we need to be doing.
Q. We’re seeing an increase in the adoption of alternative energy sources like solar and wind, as well as development of biofuels. What areas of alternative energy do you think we should be focussing on?A. I think we have a lot of potential with wind, solar and geothermal. But the one where we’re farthest down the falling cost curve in terms of new industries starting up is clearly wind. We’re seeing some really exciting things happening in this country.
For example, we’re looking at Texas, a state that has 45,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity either in operation, under construction or in the planning stages. That’s the equivalent of 45 coal-fired power plants. It’s huge. When these wind farms are completed, they will generate more electricity than the 24 million people living in Texas will be able to use. They’ll be exporting electricity from Texas wind farms in same way that Texas now exports oil to other parts of country.
Q. In that regard, what do you think of former oilman T. Boone Pickens’ plan to use wind turbines to produce more electricity while using more natural gas as a transportation fuel?A. The first step is to develop our wind resources. He and I are both very strong in wanting to develop wind. But then, he wants to use the wind to back out the use of natural gas to generate electricity. We have a lot of power plants that run on natural gas. I think we should go directly to plug-in hybrid cars and use wind-generated electricity to recharge their batteries.
We have at least four major automakers coming to market with plug-in hybrids. I think the winners are either going to be Toyota or GM ó Toyota with a plug-in version of the Prius or GM with the Chevrolet Volt. I think we ought to have crash program to convert our automobile fleet to plug-in hybrids. A plug-in Prius, for example, gets on average over 100 mpg; GM thinks the Volt is going to get more than 150 mpg because it has a 40-mile all-electric range. Most people don’t drive more than 40 miles a day. They’re commuting and so forth, so you end up using electricity most of the time.
… There are two things I like about developing wind resources and moving in mass to plug-in hybrid cars. One is, it will dramatically cut carbon emissions; the second is, it will dramatically cut oil use and the outflow of up to $700 billion a year for oil. If we could keep that money home … think about it, that $700 billion is equal to the bailout. It’s huge. And all that money is going someplace else. If we can keep that at home and invest it here, we could creat a lot more jobs.
Q. Previously, you’ve said that environmental groups expend a lot of energy on drilling for oil in the Alaskan refuge but don’t talk much about tax restructuring. How do taxes relate to the environment and sustainability?A. The market does a lot of things very well. Of of the things that it does not do well is incorporate the indirect costs of the goods and services we consume. For example, the market does not incorporate the costs of climate change in the price of coal-fired electricity or gasoline.
What we need to do is to get the market to tell the environmental truth. The way to do that, in my book and, indeed, for most economists, is to restructure our taxes ó lower income taxes and offset that with a rise in carbon tax. That’s a fairly simple concept. Once it’s explained to people, they say, “Oh, yeah, that makes sense.” But we don’t have anyone willing to lead on this, and that’s partly because politicians have been so scared off ó they don’t even want to talk about taxes if they can avoid it.
This is clearly the way to accelerate the restructuring of the energy economy, both to reduce our dependence on imported oil and to cut carbon emissions to stabilize the climate.
Q. There’s a lot of discussion about about expansion of off-shore drilling along the U.S. coast, including here in North Carolina. Bad idea or good idea?A. This is being presented as something that will make a huge difference in future oil and gasoline prices. In reality, it won’t have much effect. The Department of Energy has looked pretty carefully at this, and they estimate it might eventually lower gasoline prices by 3 cents a gallon. You have to keep in mind that we have only 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves. If we found some more offshore oil, off the East Coast or the West Coast or Gulf Cosat or whatever, it wouldn’t expand that 3 percent by very much. The other thing is, if we somehow found a huge amount of oil, it still might not have much of an effect on prices because OPEC would simply reduce their production to offset it.
We forget that whatever we do takes place in the world market. It’s the world market price that we have to think about.
Q. What country do you see emerging in the future as the world leader in promoting sustainable development and renewable energy resources?A. New Zealand is one candidate. Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland would be other countries that are beginning to talk about becoming carbon neutral. Costa Rica is in the same category. So there are countries that are doing that.
But if you want to look at what’s happening with renewable energy, you should take a look at a piece in our “Plan B” update series (on the Energy Policy Institute’s Web site). It talks about the extraordinary rate and scale at which renewable energy resources are beginning to develop in this country.
I use the Texas example for wind energy, but it’s only one of several in the article. Similar things are happening with solar-thermal power plants, with geothermal energy, with solar cells. It’s just amazing. In the last two or three years, we’ve been adding maybe 200 megawatts of solar cell generating capacity per year. Pacific Gas & Electric in California has signed a contract for an 800-megawatt solar cell generating facility. It will cover 12 square miles with solar cells.
Q. If you could change one thing about our modern lifestyles in the United States, what would it be?A. I think it would be to restructure urban transport systems. The automobile promised mobility, and in a largely rural society, it provided mobility.
Those of us who grew up in rural areas understand the importance of automobiles. But in cities, more and more automobiles bring not mobility but immobility. It’s taken us a while to figure that out, but it’s an issue not just in this country but in cities all over the world. So what we’re seeing is a shift to light-rail systems, to more buses, rapid transit lines, to creating pedestrian and bicycle friendly streets and roads.
… And just to add on to that, there is something in this country called the Complete Streets Movement, and the two major organizations supporting it are NRDC (National Resources Defense Council) and AARP. The reason for that is there are a lot of suburban communities that have developed over the last half century where ó and this is particularly true in states in the Southeast ó where engineers did not include sidewalks.
So you have streets, and sometimes, if these are major streets, they have very fast traffic on them, and there’s no place for people or bicycles. So a lot of older people who can no longer drive ó either because they can’t afford it or because physically they’re not able to ó they’re trapped in their homes. There’s no place they can go. That’s why AARP has gotten involved.
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Lester Brown will speak at 7 p.m. Monday in Catawba College’s Omwake-Dearborn Chapel. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Call 704-637-4727 or e-mail