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Transforming Cassandra into Pollyanna

• October 30, 2009 • 11:00 AM

Worldwatch founder Lester Brown, long known for dire prognosis, reports cheerful climate and energy news for United States.

Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute, best known for his research in sustainable agriculture and often dire predictions of resource scarcity, last week released a report that was almost entirely good news, at least for the United States.

The release announcing an update to Brown’s Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization chirped that the country is headed for a “massive decline in carbon emissions,” citing a 9 percent drop in the last two years.

According to Brown, citizens and industry may be ahead of the government in addressing concerns about energy use and climate change.

He pointed to figures from the U.S. Department of Energy that show decreases in oil use by 10 percent and coal use by 11 percent over the last two years. Projections are that emissions from coal plants will be 10.1 percent less in 2009 than the previous year.

Chief among the factors leading to the drop in carbon emissions, Brown said, are a turning away from coal-generated electricity, a drop in the nation’s vehicle fleet and a notable increase in wind power.

Brown, who has a master’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Maryland, founded the Worldwatch Institute in 1974 and began releasing “State of the World” reports in 1984, which were heralded as seminal research by the global environmental movement. A MacArthur Fellow, he has been described by The Washington Post as “one of the world’s most influential thinkers.” caught up with him last week. I’m sure one of the first questions you’re asked is how much of the decline in carbon emissions has to do with the recession. Can you give any ballpark estimate of what is due to the economic pullback?

Lester Brown: One would think that would be a fairly easy distinction to make, but it’s not as clear-cut as it might seem. The largest share of the decline in the last two years is probably due directly or indirectly to the recession, but there’s quite a bit of it due to efficiency gains and to turning to renewables – wind, solar, geothermal energy. The fact that 102 wind farms came on line in 2008 is a very substantial development, and it either added to the energy supply or it backed out [of another sector], most likely coal.

There’s another factor here, too, and that is lower prices for natural gas. A lot of utilities that have fleets of plants shift from coal to natural gas when the price for natural gas drops, partly because they have a lot more flexibility with natural gas. You can take a natural gas plant way down during the night and quickly bring it up in the morning, so you don’t waste a lot of fuel. You can’t do that with coal. It has to keep clunking along at more or less full pace. That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen this 10 percent drop in carbon emissions from coal this year.

M-M: Would you hazard a guess as to what might be attributable to conservation and lifestyle changes?

Brown: It’s difficult to say, and I’m reluctant to use a number. The larger share came from the recession and the smaller from efficiency gains and shifting to renewables and natural gas. Oil use went down 5 percent in 2008, and it’s going down another 5 percent in 2009. Coal went down only about 1 percent in 2008, but in 2009 by 10 percent. Overall, carbon emissions were down 3 percent in 2008 and then 6 percent in 2009, and that adds up to the 9 percent for the last two years.

There is a tendency to think of this as just a temporary thing. There are things in motion now that almost guarantee that carbon emissions are going to be dropping for some years into the future, and that’s what I find of most interest.

M-M: Can you elaborate?

Brown: There are a number of things in the policy pipeline, like the automobile fuel economy standards that were announced in February — a 42 percent increase in miles per gallon for cars and a 25 percent increase for light trucks by 2016. That’s a very substantial factor when predicting fuel use and carbon emissions. And then we have the appliance efficiency standards. Here, what most people don’t know, unless they’re tracking these things closely, is that for some years now the Department of Energy has not translated congressional legislation on appliance efficiency standards into regulations that could be used by the appliance manufacturers.

Within days of taking office, Obama instructed the DOE to get this legislation translated into regulations that appliance manufacturers can use. There’s a huge backlog of gains coming there. A third thing, of course, is that there are pretty strong economic incentives for developing wind, solar and geothermal, and we’re going to see an enormous increase in all three of them in the years immediately ahead. The fourth thing, as of the beginning last week, is the decision by the federal government to set standards for itself in cutting carbon emissions, and that will undoubtedly encourage state governments to do the same thing.

These will add up to a very substantive decline in carbon emissions in the years ahead. Beyond that, we have some other trends that are playing an important role.

There’s a lot of talk about raising automotive fuel efficiency and almost no recognition of the fact that the U.S. automobile fleet is starting to shrink. This year, we’ll be selling about 10 million new cars, but the retirement rate is about 14 million cars. This is interesting for two reasons. It means the U.S. automobile fleet will shrink this year by nearly 2 percent, and it means that the automobile sector is now producing a steel surplus. The steel used for 10 million new cars, which are relatively small compared to the 14 million being retired, is much less than the steel being scrapped. So not only is the number of cars being scrapped 40 percent more than the new cars being made, but the cars being scrapped are larger and have more steel in them than the newer, smaller cars. This is an amazing situation where we have an industry that is normally a net consumer of steel producing a steel surplus.

M-M: Another plus is that recycled steel takes less energy to produce.

Brown: Exactly. It takes about a third as much energy to produce steel from scrap as it does to produce it with virgin ore. So that’s another big energy savings built in there.

M-M: You don’t see the automobile industry making a comeback in sales?

Brown: It looks to us as though the number of cars scrapped is going to exceed new car sales for many years into the future. The only question is how large the margin will be.

There’s another factor reducing oil consumption that, so far as I can tell, is totally ignored — that is when coal use goes down, as it is this year by 10 percent, the amount of diesel fuel to haul coal also goes down because 42 percent of the freight rail use of fuel is for hauling coal. If you reduce that by 10 percent, then you’re reducing diesel fuel use in the freight sector by about 4 percent. There are all kinds of positive feedback loops here.

M-M: How do we relate this decline in carbon emissions to a 2.2 percent forecast decline in gross domestic product?

Brown: The fact that the decline in carbon emissions is substantially greater than the decline in GDP suggests that part of the decline is due to other factors, such as is gains in efficiency and substituting natural gas and renewables for coal.

We have some enormous growth coming in renewable energy resources. Another 47 wind farms came online the first half of this year, and there are another 57 under construction, quite a few of which will be finished this year. Beyond wind, we not only have rooftop solar cell installations growing by 40 percent a year or so, but we also have for the first time utility-scale solar cell farms that cover 12 miles with solar cells and produce as much electricity as a nuclear reactor.

We have the emergence of solar-thermal power plants as a major source of electricity in the Southwest. We have 15 of those in the pipeline, and I think 15 under development that have power purchasing agreements already signed. And the reason they’ve become so popular almost overnight is that they use a technology called molten salt technology, where you store excessive heat during the day in salt and use that heat to keep the generators going from sunset until say midnight. You get about six additional hours of generation, which covers most of the peak demand of the day. And that’s important if you’re turning to solar energy as a major source of energy as California, Nevada and Arizona now are.

Then we have geothermal power plants. For decades, we only had one — The Geysers north of San Francisco. Now we have 132 geothermal power plants under development. They tend to be smaller — 10 megawatts to 130 megawatts — but there are a lot of them, and they’re developing all across the western U.S.

I mention these things just to give a sense of what’s happening. There are 22 coal-fired power plants now scheduled to close, and they’ll either be converted to natural gas or they’ll use wood chips instead of coal or what have you, and that’s another major source of future reduction in carbon emissions. These are plants that will probably close in the next year.

M-M: This appears to be what people working in the renewable energy field have envisioned for years — renewables really starting to take off.

Brown: Right.

M-M: Why do you think more people aren’t talking about this, including people in government?

Brown: The thing that I find sort of puzzling is that official Washington hasn’t grasped what is happening — either what’s happening in the last two years, or what’s going to be happening in the years ahead.

M-M: There are tax incentives for renewables, but they still compete with government subsidies for fossil fuels, and the effect stimulus money is having on renewables and conservation is not likely to be showing up in these numbers. Is it a groundswell as opposed to coming from the top down?

Brown: It’s a combination of the two. With coal, for example, we’ve had this powerful grassroots movement emerge over the last year or two opposing new coal-fired power plants and it has basically led to a de facto moratorium on new coal plants. If I had to guess right now, we would not see another coal plant licensed in the U.S. There are a few in the pipeline that will come online, but we’re getting pretty close to the end of coal. And I don’t think we’ve quite realized it yet.

We’re also getting reinforcement from the top. For example, the Kansas power plant that [Gov. Kathleen] Sebelius vetoed, was a really huge coal-fired power plant. First her environmental director wouldn’t give the permit, so they tried to get it through the Kansas Legislature and succeeded, and she revoked it. Then her replacement negotiated an arrangement with the utilities that wanted to build this large complex whereby they’d make it smaller and reconfigure it and would begin developing some renewable resources like wind. What happened then was that [U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator] Lisa Jackson told them, since you now have a new plant configuration, you’ll have to start the permitting process all over. She’s a real warrior. I don’t think most people realize that behind the scenes she’s really willing to boot. She did the same thing in West Virginia, where one of the coal companies was preparing the largest mountain-top removal in history, and they had gotten a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers. She went to them and said, “Wait a minute. I don’t think your permit takes into account the water pollution problems that are going to result, so I suggest you revoke it.” And they did, in 24 hours.

M-M: So, it’s both top down and bottom up?

Brown: Yup. In the last chapter of my book Plan B 4.0, I talk about models of social change. One of them I call the Pearl Harbor model, where you have a catastrophic event that changes everything. The second I call the Berlin Wall model, where you have resistance rising slowly and not very visibly, and, suddenly, you reach a tipping point and everything changes. And the third model I call the sandwich model, where you have strong support for change at the bottom matched by strong support at the top. When you have that sandwich model, you often get very rapid change.

M-M: Are there DOE projections for energy use and carbon emissions for 2010?

Brown: They are projecting a 1 percent increase in emissions in 2010.

M-M: That would relate to the economy picking up?

Brown: I think. But I doubt there’s going to be any increase at all for some of the reasons I’ve been mentioning. I believe they will offset the recovery of the economy.

M-M: Do you have any projections — or even an educated guess — of what sort of decline in emissions we might see in 2010?

Brown: I have no projections for 2010.

M-M: You have some interesting numbers related to the nation’s use of automobiles.

Brown: If you go back to 1990 and track [automobile sales], about 1994 we moved up to 15 million new cars being sold, and we had that for five years and then it jumped to 17 million and it stayed there until a couple years ago. So about 15 years from now, we’ll have all these sort of large — to use a demographic term — age cohorts in the automobile fleet. Some of those cars have already been retired, and a lot more are going to be retiring. Every analyst that I’ve seen looking at automobile sales is saying that 17 million car sales are history.

M-M: The population is growing, so if anything you’d expect an increase in car sales.

Brown: There are other things at work here. For example, young people today do not look at cars in the same way that my generation did. For us, getting a driver’s license and a car was a rite of passage. Socialization of young people centered around the automobile. Today, socialization takes place over the Internet. Because we’re a more urban society, cars are less important and less valuable. Young people today do not automatically think of buying a car, especially in urban areas.

M-M: As you know, access to transmission lines is a problem for wind and other renewables. Some say that the $6 billion the administration has earmarked for transmission improvements over the next two years will fall far short of what is needed to allow new projects access to the grid. Do you agree? And, if so, what do you think is needed?

Brown: It is clearly a challenge, but what is happening is that investors are looking at this need for transmission capacity as an investment opportunity. We’re looking at two major lines being built — one from southwestern Wyoming and one from southern Montana down to California. What that does is open enormous amount of wind energy in those regions to the populations of California and Arizona.

There are three grids in the country — the Eastern grid, the Western grid and the Texas grid. There are a few little links between them here and there, but they don’t amount to much. There was an article recently in The Wall Street Journal of a firm that is proposing a sort of traffic circle being built in eastern New Mexico. That would be a place where electricity could come in and go out from these three grids, and they’d install some really heavy-duty cables to link the three grids so that electricity could move more freely around the country.

M-M: From what I remember after reading the story, they thought they could get this done in a few years. They were waiting on a ruling from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to allow access to the Texas power?

Brown: The timeline is relatively short term. They have not yet submitted documents to FERC for this, but John Wellinghoff [chairman of the agency] is very pro getting transmission capacity so that renewables can develop. He’s another one behind the scenes playing a very positive role. He quickly approved the lines going from Wyoming and Montana down to California, for example.

M-M: So it may not be as much of a problem as some have thought? Connecting the three major grids would seem to be a huge step.

Brown: It is huge, and within each grid you have to put in some arteries where there are now only veins. But it’s entirely doable, and once you get this sort of traffic circle that links them together, converts AC into DC and back, you’re in business. And things will go from there.

We’ll get some big pieces of it put together and it will just keep building. Looking back five years from now we’ll be surprised by how much has happened.

M-M: You’ve spoken about how wind power will benefit from an integrated transmission system. Can you explain?

Brown: A team at Stanford has modeled wind as a national resource and concluded that after a point, wind becomes part of the baseload because if you have output from one wind farm, it’s going to fluctuate quite a bit. But since no two wind farms have identical profiles, if you have two wind farms, the output will fluctuate less. And if you have a third one, it will be still less and eventually it won’t fluctuate much at all.

M-M: Many of the reports you write deal with problems associated with poor resource use and unsustainable practices. It was a little surprising to see a report from the institute that is almost all good news. Was this different for you?

Brown: It’s pretty exciting. Another way to look at it is that we’re in a race between tipping points: natural tipping points versus political tipping points. What we’re beginning to see is things happening on the renewable energy front on a scale and at a rate that we could not have imagined just two years ago when we were just finishing Plan B 3.0, for example.

The Chinese have been doubling their wind energy capacity each year for the past four years, and have now they have launched these six wind mega-complexes. The smallest one is 10,000 megawatts and the largest is nearly 30,000 megawatts. All together it’s 100,000 megawatts: think 100 coal-fired power plants. In terms of new capacity, we’ve been the world leader in wind capacity the last three years. Within a matter of months, China is going to go by us so fast we may not even see them.

The other big one, even bigger, is in Europe. Munich Re announced in July that it had put together a consortium of companies, including Deutsche Bank, ABB and Siemens, and was creating a new entity whose responsibility will be to devise a strategy and develop a financial plan to develop the solar resources of North Africa.

M-M: Is that related to the Desertec plan? As I remember, that plan called also for developing wind in northern Europe and other renewables.

Brown: There’s been a proposal by the Club of Rome called Desertec around for years, and in the larger plan, they’re looking at integrating the wind resources of northern Europe and the solar resources of North Africa. There will [also be] some wave power and other things. There’s some wind in North Africa as well. They’re going to put it all together in a single system.

M-M: Is all going forward with private-entity funding?

Brown: The consortium is all private firms. I’m sure governments will get involved at some point, but the initiative has come from the private sector.

M-M: You’ve said we need an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions worldwide by 2020 to address climate problems. Even with continuing reductions as you forecast, do you think there’s a remote chance we could meet that goal?

Brown: Business as usual is certainly not going to get us there. But we have a far better chance than most people realize — partly because we’ll be driven by mounting concern about climate change.

[The 80 percent reduction by 2020] assumes we want to save the Greenland ice sheet and at least the larger glaciers remaining in the Himalayas on the Tibetan plateau. These are the glaciers whose ice melt sustain the major rivers and the irrigation systems of India and China. If they go, then not only are they in trouble, but the whole world is in trouble.

It’s hard to say how many new initiatives will be coming in the months and years ahead. There are at least 640 college presidents who have signed pledges to make their campuses carbon neutral. The mayor of Phoenix is talking about the same thing.

Things are happening on so many fronts. I haven’t even mentioned the renewable portfolio standards in some of the most populous states. Those are very substantial commitments to carbon-free energy.

M-M: So you see a momentum building?

Brown: It’s going to keep building, and there will be times when we’ll move faster than other times and it will take many different forms. But we’re headed in the right direction now.

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Joan Melcher
Joan Melcher is a freelance writer and editor living in Missoula, Montana. Her work ranges from travel magazine articles to stories on breaking research.

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