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Asher Miller

Asher Miller

Posted: October 23, 2010 11:08 PM

Uttering the "C" Word

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I was intrigued to learn that authors from three politically disparate think tanks--American Enterprise Institute, Brookings, and Breakthrough Institute--had recently published a report on how to foster deployment of clean energy technology. For those of you who don't know, AEI's most well-known in energy/climate circles for receiving millions of dollars from the oil industry to foment doubt about anthropogenic global warming. So it's interesting to see someone from AEI as a co-author of this report.

Unfortunately, the report reminded me a lot of the failed legislative attempt undertaken by Senators Kerry (D-MA), Lieberman (I-CT), and Graham (R-SC) to pass bipartisan climate legislation. The original bill was a watered-down pile of... um, paper... but Graham still wound up pulling his support before it saw the light of day. And even after Kerry ignominiously signaled his belief that he and Lieberman had "compromised significantly" and yet were "prepared to compromise further," the bill still died.

Like the ill-fated American Power Act, this report makes some good recommendations but utterly fails to offer anything that promises to transcend political partisanship or transform the energy landscape with the speed and scale required. A few quick responses:

  • The belief that the recommendations included are somehow post-partisan is, at best, naive. Joseph Romm does a thorough job of refuting this claim, so I won't bother to address that piece of it.
  • I'm guessing that references to Department of Energy offices being "overly stove-piped, centralized in Washington, D.C.," and "ineffective, even wasteful energy research spending" came from the AEI side of the table. But I agree with the recommendation of establishing a "national network of decentralized energy innovation institutes that can bring private sector, university, and government researchers together alongside investors" -- particularly if those regional innovation institutes were focused on developing regionalized, distributed sources of truly renewable energy.
  • The authors promote a "new generation of smaller, innovative nuclear reactors" that can provide "affordable, reliable, zero-carbon power and heat to utilities of all sizes, industrial facilities, and military bases." But unless this new generation of nuclear reactors manages to address many of the limitations that currently beset large-scale nuclear plants--the need for a depleting, non-renewable source of energy (uranium); the use of massive amounts of fresh water (already scarce in many regions and expected to worsen with climate change and population growth); significant requirements of fossil fuels and fossil fuel by-products for production; and tremendous capital costs, not to mention even bigger questions about security and disposal when dealing with a much more distributed collection of reactors--I have a hard time understanding how the authors can view nuclear power as a renewable, cost-effective, or scalable solution.

Most worrying (though least surprising) is the authors' belief that clean energy innovation breakthroughs can drive continued economic growth. This belief reflects two commonly held assumptions:

  1. That alternative energy sources capable of replacing conventional fossil fuels either already exist or can be invented. All that's missing are incentives for innovation and/or the political will.
  2. That exponential growth of the global economy--fundamentally driven by ever-growing consumption of energy and other natural resources--can and should continue indefinitely. Never mind the little fact that we live on a finite planet.

Last year, Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg authored a report entitled Searching for a Miracle that intended to answer a basic question: Can any combination of known energy sources successfully supply society's energy needs at least up to the year 2100? The report examined 18 energy sources based on ten criteria, with particular emphasis on a far-too-commonly overlooked concern, energy returned on energy invested (EROEI). As Richard wrote in the Overview,

...the fundamental disturbing conclusion of the report is that there is little likelihood that either conventional fossil fuels or alternative energy sources can reliably be counted on to provide the amount and quality of energy that will be needed to sustain economic growth--or even current levels of economic activity--during the remainder of the current century.

This preliminary conclusion in turn suggests that a sensible transition energy plan will have to emphasize energy conservation above all. It also raises questions about the sustainability of growth per se, both in terms of human population numbers and economic activity.

Now, it's true that renewable energy will increasingly be the energy of the future--whether simply as a result of fossil fuel depletion or through a concerted, cooperative effort to kick the addiction before it's too late. And, despite the challenges of alternative energy, we are wholly supportive of efforts to deploy renewable energy sources as quickly and effectively as possible. But it takes a certain amount of blind faith to believe that investment in innovation alone can trump the physics of energy or even partisan politics, not to mention that notion that we can continue to grow our economies indefinitely.

And so I want to throw out a word that didn't show up once in the Post-Partisan Power report: Conservation.

The Case for Conservation

(from the conclusion of Searching for a Miracle)

The question the world faces is no longer whether to reduce energy consumption, but how. Policy makers could choose to manage energy unintelligently (maintaining fossil fuel dependency as long as possible while making poor choices of alternatives, such as biofuels or tar sands, and insufficient investments in the far more promising options such as wind and solar). In the latter case, results will be catastrophic. Transport systems will wither (especially ones relying on the most energy intensive vehicles--such as airplanes, automobiles, and trucks). Global trade will contract dramatically, as shipping becomes more costly. And energy dependent food systems will falter, as chemical input and transport costs soar. All of this could in turn lead to very high long-term unemployment and perhaps even famine.

However, if policy makers manage the energy downturn intelligently, an acceptable quality of life could be maintained in both industrialized and less-industrialized nations at a more equitable level than today; at the same time, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced dramatically. This would require a significant public campaign toward the establishment of a new broadly accepted conservation ethic to replace current emphases on never ending growth and over-consumption at both personal and institutional-corporate levels. We will not attempt here a full list of the needed shifts, but they might well include the following practical, engineering-based efforts:

  • Immediate emphasis on and major public investment in construction of highly efficient rail-based transit systems and other public transport systems (including bicycle and pedestrian pathways), along with the redesign of cities to reduce the need for motorized human transport.
  • Research, development, and construction of electricity grid systems that support distributed, intermittent, renewable energy inputs.
  • Retrofit of building stock for maximum energy efficiency (energy demand for space heating can be dramatically reduced through super-insulation of structures and by designing to maximize solar gain).
  • Reduction of the need for energy in water pumping and processing through intensive water conservation programs (considerable energy is currently used in moving water, which is essential to both agriculture and human health).

As well, the following policy-based initiatives will be needed:

  • Internalization of the full costs of energy to reflect its true price. Elimination of perverse energy subsidies, especially all upstream and production-side state support. Encourage government "feed-in tariffs" that favor ecologically sustainable renewable energy production.
  • Application of the ten energy assessment criteria listed in this document to all energy technologies that are currently being proposed within the UN climate negotiations, for "technology transfer" from rich countries to poor.
  • Re-localization of much economic activity (especially the production and distribution of essential bulky items and materials) in order to lessen the need for transport energy111; correspondingly, a reversal of the recent emphasis on inherently wasteful globalized economic systems.
  • Rapid transition of food systems away from export oriented industrial production, toward more local production for local consumption, thus reducing mechanization, energy inputs, petro-chemicals and transport costs. Also, increased backing for permaculture, and organic food production.And, firm support for traditional local Third World farming communities in their growing resistance to industrial export agriculture.
  • A major shift toward re-ruralization, i.e., creating incentives for people to move back to the land, while converting as much urban land as possible to sustainable food production, including substantial suburban lands currently used for decorative lawns and gardens.
  • Abandonment of economic growth as the standard for measuring economic progress, and establishment of a more equitable universal standard of "sufficiency."
  • Increase of reserve requirements on lending institutions to restrain rampant industrial growth until price signals are aligned to reflect full costs. Restrictions on debt-based finance.
  • Development of indicators of economic health to replace the current GDP calculus with one that better reflects the general welfare of human beings.
  • Re-introduction of the once popular "import substitution" (from the 1930s) model whereby nations determine to satisfy basic needs--food, energy, transport, housing, healthcare, etc.--locally if they possibly can, rather than through global trade.
  • Establishment of international protocols on both energy assessment (including standards for assessing EROEI and environmental impacts) and also technology assessment.The latter should include full lifecycle energy analysis, along with the principles of "polluter pays" and the "precautionary principle."
  • Adoption of international depletion protocols for oil, gas and coal--mandating gradual reduction of production and consumption of these fuels by an annual percentage rate equal to the current annual depletion rate, as outlined in the present author's previous book, The Oil Depletion Protocol, so as to reduce fuel price volatility.
  • Transformation of global trade rules to reward governments for, rather than restraining them from, protecting and encouraging the localization of economic production and consumption patterns.
  • Aggressive measures for "demand-side management" that reduce overall energy needs, particularly for power grids. This would be part of a society-wide "powering down," i.e., a planned reduction in overall economic activity involving energy, transport and material throughputs, emphasizing conservation over new technology as the central solution to burgeoning problems.
  • International support for women's reproductive and health rights, as well as education and opportunity, as important steps toward mitigation of the population crisis, and its impact on resource depletions.
  • The return of control of the bulk of the world's remaining natural resources from corporations and financial institutions in the industrialized countries to the people of the less industrialized nations where those resources are located.

Conservation is not something most environmental think-tanks or NGOs (not to mention the likes of American Enterprise Institute) want to discuss, but I dare say it will have a much bigger role in our energy future than "innovative, small-scale nuclear reactors."

For those who want to cast this conclusion as "doomish" or think that I'm somehow underestimating our capacity to innovate, let me be clear: Clean energy innovation should absolutely receive investment. But am I the only one who thinks it's crazy to bet the fate of our species and the planet entirely on a technological miracle? It may be easier to hope that technology will save us, but it will not actually be easier to do.