A sustainable energy plan for the US

by Guy Dauncey

Earth Island Journal, Autumn 2003


Every morning when we rise, we flick on the lights and various electrical appliances before we drive or cycle off to work, school, or play. Somewhere far away, trucks haul coal into the hoppers of giant power plants. Across the oceans, ships bring us oil, which produces the power we need to run our lives. For most North Americans, the system works just fine. We no longer think about where the energy comes from. If there's an energy shortage, all we need to do is burn more coal, drill more oil, and pump more gas. If only it were so simple.

Troublesome facts The rate at which we are discovering new oil will soon fall below the rate at which we are using it. As soon as it does, oil prices will shoot up as demand starts to outstrip supply. There's plenty of coal in the ground, but it's a pernicious fuel. Aside from carbon dioxide, burning coal releases nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, which contribute to smog, asthma, acid rain, and poisoned lakes and rivers.

The world's climate is responding to the increase in atmospheric C02, methane, and nitrogen oxides caused by burning fossil fuels. All three gases trap heat. Before the industrial age, atmospheric C02 was around 280 parts per million. Today, it is 373 ppm, the highest it has been for 20 million years. The Arctic summer icepack, normally three meters thick, has dwindled by 40 percent since 1970. At this rate, it could be gone entirely by 2050. Polar bears, which depend on the ice to hunt, will become extinct. Scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say that we need an immediate 60 percent reduction in emissions to stabilize the climate at a safe level. In our book, Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, Patrick Mazza and I call for an 80 percent reduction by 2025.

Natural gas is not a cleaner alternative or a "bridge to the future" as many people would have us believe. Natural gas produces lower C02 emissions than coal or oil, but 85 percent of natural gas is methane, some of which escapes during production and distribution. In a sustainable energy plan, reliance on natural gas would be excluded along with coal and oil.

Nuclear power should also be avoided because of the risk of catastrophic accidents. The idea of a bunch of terrorists flying a jet into a nuclear power plant is not comforting; and no one knows how to deal with the radioactive wastes.

How much do we need? The challenge for a sustainable energy plan is to meet America's reasonable energy needs using energy from the sun, wind, biomass, geothermal, microhydro, waves, and tides.

The good news is that the transition to a sustainable energy future is well underway. All that is needed is for the kind of support Washington gives to the coal, oil, and gas industries to be given to the sustainable energy industry instead.

So how much energy do we need? Let's crunch some numbers. In the year 2002, the US consumed 97 quadrillion BTUs of primary energy-the energy used to generate electricity, fuel vehicles, heat buildings and run factories. Industry used 38 percent, transport 32 percent, residential buildings 19 percent, and commercial buildings 16 percent. US electrical generating capacity in 2001 was 813 gigawatts; in that year, US power plants produced 3,836 terawatt hours of electricity-52 percent from coal, 21 percent from nuclear, 16 percent from natural gas, 7 percent from hydro, 2 percent from oil, and 1 percent from non-hydro renewables. A terawatt (TW) is 1,000 gigawatts, or a million megawatts (MW).

The Energy Information Administration estimates that demand for electricity is growing by 1.8 percent per year in the US, and will increase to 5,439 TWh by 2020, requiring 1,300 new power plants to be built-more than one a week. This assumes the current "business as usual," profligate North American energy use levels.

What might we do instead? European countries get by on half as much energy per capita and per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Using today's technologies, buildings, appliances, factories, and vehicles in North America could be twice as efficient. Using tomorrow's technologies, they could be four to ten times as efficient.

Here are some of the policies that could cut our electricity demand by 75 percent by 2020, to 1,360 TWh, without any loss of quality:

* Apply a mandatory one- to four-star energy efficiency rating to appliances, houses, and vehicles, and give big tax credits for the purchase of four-star items. Award annual "achievement" tax credits to the companies that produce the most efficient appliances and technologies.

* Strengthen the national energy code for buildings, and then build on San Francisco's example: make compliance mandatory for all buildings, new and existing. For nonconforming buildings, make the code kick in whenever a building is sold, a lease renewed, or an owner applies for a building permit for work worth more than $10,000.

* Establish a national electricity efficiency tax, or public benefit charge, as several states have done. This increases the price of electricity, but returns all the revenue in energy efficiency incentives.

Transportation inefficiencies In 2002, America's vehicles consumed three billion barrels of oil. Four-fifths of that oil could be saved through a combination of smarter travel, greater fuel efficiency, and a switch to sustainably derived hydrogen, bioethanol, and biodiesel.

First, let's aim for a 25 percent reduction in motor traffic by investing in bicycle trails, mass transit, and telecommuting. We should also use smart-growth planning principles for new settlements, and retrofit America's suburbs to create small village centers where people can work, shop, and relax.

Next, we need to make our vehicles far more efficient. There are cars on the road today that can get 50 mpg. We should upgrade the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard so that new cars are required to increase their efficiency to 45 mpg by 2010, and to 80 mpg by 2025, with an equivalent increase for trucks, buses, and SUVs. Taken together, these policies will create a four-fold reduction in the energy needed for transport.

Fuels for cars, trucks, and planes of the future will be hydrogen, bioethanol, and biodiesel-and carbohydrate oils from sewage and garbage, should a promising technology known as "thermal depolymerization" work out.

America's bioethanol potential comes from harvesting existing agricultural wastes and low-cost cellulose feedstocks; there is already enough to produce 51 billion gallons a year, equivalent to 40 percent of the current gasoline market, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates. If our vehicles were four times as efficient-easily achievable under more rigorous CAFE standards-bioethanol and biodiesel from agricultural wastes could provide 40 percent of the fuel they'd need.

Clean electricity A reasonable goal for sustainable US electricity consumption is 1,360 TWh by 2025, of which 80 percent must come from clean energy. Since hydrogen will be needed for most of our transportation needs, and the cleanest way to obtain hydrogen is by using renewable energy to split water, we should increase the goal to 4,000 TWh.

Can it be done? No problem. The steps below, taken together, could provide the US with 24,000 TWh, six times more than we need if we gain the efficiencies described above. Producing so much extra energy would give us some options among the most cost-effective, environmentally benign routes. By linking many renewable energy sources together through a smart electronic energy network, or distributed grid, we would gain further efficiencies in production and in price.

A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund shows that the lower 48 states have 14,244 TWh of wind energy potential. The best land areas are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, and South Dakota, which have a potential of 4,500 TWh, 17 percent more than America's current electricity demand. It's all good news for the farmers, who can form wind-turbine cooperatives and obtain a steady income while farming underneath, as they do in Denmark. The southern and southeastern coastlines also have excellent offshore wind potential, and Alaska has superb on-land and offshore potential. Together, these could produce an additional 4,000 TWh.

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