I couldn’t agree more with Bill McKibben. it’s time to get angry.
So far we’ve raised the temperature of the earth about one degree Celsius, and two decades ago it was hard to believe this would be enough to cause huge damage. But it was. We’ve clearly come out of the Holocene and into something else. Forty percent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone; the ocean is 30 percent more acidic. There’s nothing theoretical about any of this any more. Since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere is about 4 percent wetter than it used to be, which has loaded the dice for drought and flood. In my home country, 2011 smashed the record for multibillion-dollar weather disasters—and we were hit nowhere near as badly as some. Thailand’s record flooding late in the year did damage equivalent to 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). That’s almost unbelievable. But it’s not just scientists who have been warning us. Insurance companies—the people in our economy who we ask to analyze risk—have been bellowing in their quiet, actuarial way for years. Here’s Munich Re, the world’s largest insurer, in their 2010 annual report: “The reinsurer has built up the world’s most comprehensive natural catastrophe database, which shows a marked increase in the number of weather-related events. For instance, globally, loss-related floods have more than tripled since 1980, and windstorm natural catastrophes more than doubled, with particularly heavy losses from Atlantic hurricanes. This rise cannot be explained without global warming.”
I’m getting really tired of hearing people talk the talk, without walking the walk. All of us do it, me included (what else can you say when I take a long airplane trip to vacation in San Francisco, despite the fact that I often ride a bicycle to work?). In the meantime, we are living in the only industrialized country that is still debating whether burning fossil fuels is heating up the planet. I’m tired of people driving to Earth Day in big SUVs. I’m tired of the fact that most of us who whine about sustainability (including me) live comparable lifestyles to those who downplay the importance of such issues.
And how is THIS for a sobering talk?
The speaker is Dr. Peter Raven who, in a gentle voice, is reading the riot act to the audience (his speech “Saving Ourselves” runs from 5:55 to 29:00). Raven is a courageous speaker who is not afraid to tie the exhaustion of natural resources to the exploding number of human beings on planet Earth. His facts and figures are not in dispute by any thinking person.
[At the 29:00 mark, Raven describes an attempt to reclaim a precious preserve of extremely bio-diverse land in Costa Rica–this video was created at a fundraiser for that effort, titled the “Children’s Eternal Rainforest.”]
As Bill McKibben says, it’s time to severely devalue mere talk and to start making things really happen. The path is going to require some conscious change at the highest levels, because we cannot depend on ourselves to keep making the right decisions–we don’t have that kind of willpower. We don’t yet know exactly where we are headed, but we do know that we need to steer sharply away from fossil fuels. We also have some reason to believe that this future devoid of fossil fuels could be an opportunity as much as it is a crisis–see this talk by Amory Lovins, who argues that it is time to “Reinvent Fire.”
At United Republic, Bill McKibben reports on the obscene amount of Big Oil lobbying each year in Congress. It amounts to $146 Million per year. Bernie Sanders and Keith Ellison have launched a new bill that dramatically cuts subsidies to the fossil fuel industry. McKibben notes that no member of Congress makes rational arguments in favor of fossil fuel subsidies. No arguments need to be made, because money talks:
According to Open Secrets, the oil and gas industry has already spent $37.6 million lobbying the federal government in the first few months of the year alone. They also spend buckets of money on campaign contributions to persuade our elected officials to vote for policies they favor. A recent vote in the Senate revealed just how persuasive campaign cash can be. A bid to end taxpayer subsidies for the five biggest oil companies failed to get the 60 votes it needed. The 57 senators who voted to end the subsidies received about $6 million from the oil and gas industries, compared to a whopping $24 million pocketed by the 41 senators who voted against the bill.
No wonder America is so slow to move to elementary conservation methods and sustainable energy production. This is not a new story, of course, but a continuation of legalized bribery that infests the entire electoral system. Even worse, this is a system that severely punishes representatives who do the right thing.
Our energy system is inefficient, disconnected, aging, dirty and insecure. In this TED talk, Lovins argues that we can become frugal with our energy, eliminating our addiction to oil and coal by 2050, in addition to using 1/3 less natural gas. This talk is based on ideas presented by his book, Reinventing Fire, and his website.
This could cost $5 trillion less than business as usual, assuming external costs of business as usual is zero (which he wryly terms a “conservative” estimate). His approach requires no new inventions, no act of Congress and no subsidies, and it will increase the U.S. economy to 158% of the present.
Our addiction to oil costs us $2B per day in direct costs and $4B in indirect costs, such as the U.S. military. This amounts to 1/6 of GDP. Lovins opened his talk by noting that 80% of the energy we use every year comes from burning four cubic miles of primordial swamp goo.
How can we reduce the use of oil? Make cars “oil free.” Cars use 3/5 of this amount. 2/3 of the energy caused to move a car is attributed to its weight, but over the past 25 years, our cars have become “obese.” We have the ability to make lighter and “more slippery” autos, which makes electricity an excellent way to move cars. Lovins asserts that we have the technologies to make the cars much lighter. America could lead this revolution, though Germany is currently in the lead. If this technology were prevalent, it would be the equivalent of finding 1 1/2 Saudi Arabias worth of oil.
He proposes that we save electricity and make it differently. Most electricity now is wasted. Buildings now use 3/4 of our electricity. That offers a tremendous opportunity for savings through “integrative design.” (min 14). One way of doing this is via “2010 retrofit.” Industry still has $1/2 trillion of saving to reap. Pumps can be made much more efficient by using larger straighter pipes instead of narrower winding pipes. (Min 16). Needing less electricity means we can make it more easily. China is leading the way currently. Solar panels are an excellent way to make the shift. Wind and solar constitute half of the new capacity of electricity. (19).
How can we replace coal-fired electricity? Natural gas is one option. A grid using wind and solar can be a substantial part of the grid, much like it is in Europe. (21) The U.S. grid is old, over-centralized and vulnerable, and it will need to be replaced by 2050.
In 34 states, utilities are rewarded for selling us more electricity. Where they are rewarded for cutting our bills, investments are shifting to renewables. (22).
Lovins’ approach to “reinventing fire” asserts that our energy future is a matter of choice, not fate. He recognizes that these facts and numbers seem incredible, but they are true. A bonus would be an 86% reduction in greenhouse gases, in addition to a much more secure energy supply. He describes his approach as a “once-in-a-civilization business opportunity.”
Back in 2008, before Barack Obama was President, FOX News understood that no president has the power to affect the price of gasoline:
Lester Brown reports on the proliferation of solar rooftop water heaters at Sustainablog:
The pace of solar energy development is accelerating as the installation of rooftop solar water heaters takes off. Unlike solar photovoltaic (PV) panels that convert solar radiation into electricity, these “solar thermal collectors” use the sun’s energy to heat water, space, or both.
Source: sustainablog (http://s.tt/14T9R)
The cost of solar power is collapsing to the point that its use is about to explode across the United States, according to Kees Van Der Leun at Grist:
[T]he fact that 30 pounds of silicon, an amount that costs $700 to produce, is enough to generate a lifetime of household electricity baffled me. Over 25 years, the family would pay at least $25,000 for the same 100,000 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity from fossil fuels — and its generation cost alone would total over $6,000!
Paul Krugman weighs in too, criticizing those who just can’t stop touting dirty coal and natural gas derived from tracking. Then he turns to the quickly falling cost savings of PV solar:
[P]rogress in solar panels has been so dramatic and sustained that, as a blog post at Scientific American put it, “there’s now frequent talk of a ‘Moore’s law’ in solar energy,” with prices adjusted for inflation falling around 7 percent a year.
Even more falling cost data at CNET.
At Occasional Planet, Mike Davis discusses the ubiquitous TV commercials touting the green-ness of natural gas and Canadian tar-sand oil. At my workplace lunchroom, there is a TV, and I’ve seen these misleading commercials many times. I’ve also seen many recent ads for “clean coal,” even though no such coal plants exist. Interesting how the industry never even attempts to argue that coal ash is “clean.”
Mike notes a lack of media stories critical of these ads, not surprising given the ad revenue the media receives for running these commercials.
If you want a good starting point for learning the facts about clean energy, The Union of Concerned Scientists is offering an excellent resource, “Clean Energy 101.” If you’d like to learn about the pollution caused by coal plants, and how sustainable energy would cut this pollution, check the article called “Benefits of Renewable Energy.”
A Typical Coal PlantA typical 500-megawatt coal plant produces 3.5 billion kilowatt-hours per year — enough to power a city of about 140,000 people.
It burns 1.4 million tons of coal (the equivalent of 40 train cars of coal each day) and uses 2.2 billion gallons of water each year. In an average year, this one plant also generates the following:
10,000 tons of sulfur dioxide
10,200 tons of nitrogen oxide, equivalent to half a million late-model cars
3.7 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to cutting down 100 million trees
500 tons of small particles
220 tons of hydrocarbons
720 tons of carbon monoxide
125,000 tons of ash and 193,000 tons of sludge from the smokestack scrubber
170 pounds of mercury, 225 pounds of arsenic, 114 pounds of lead, 4 pounds of cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals
Trace amounts of uranium
Here are each of the main topics covered:
- How Biomass Energy Works
- How Natural Gas Works
- How Solar Energy Works
- How Geothermal Energy Works
- How Wind Energy Works
- How Coal Works
- How Hydrokinetic Energy Works
- The Costs of Coal
- Buy Green Power
- A Short History of Energy
- Benefits of Renewable Energy Use
- Real Energy Solutions: The Renewable Electricity Standard
- Renewable Energy and Agriculture: A Natural Fit
- Measuring Energy
- How Oil Works
- The Sources of Energy
- 7 Ways to Switch America to Renewable Energy
- The Hidden Cost of Fossil Fuels
- Renewable Energy Checklist for Homebuilders
- Environmental Benefits of Renewable Energy
- Putting Green Customer Demand to Work
- Energy 101: Take a tour
- Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies
- Energy Star Label Saves Energy and Money