Energy Supply

Summary: Brown depicts a sharp acceleration in the adoption worldwide of renewable sources of energy, especially wind power. Indeed, Brown depicts a historical transition from coal, oil, and natural gas to wind, solar, and geothermal. The dimensions of this shift in the last two years were unexpected.

Renewable Energy Sources

Lester Brown and his team have put together in Chapter 5 a startling documentation of rapid expansion of capacity in wind and solar energy that was unforeseen even two years ago. As energy insecurity intensifies, fossil fuel prices remain volatile but trending upward, and as concerns about climate change deepen, Brown documents what might be a historical transformation of the energy potential for the entire planet. And all this in the midst of the gravest financial meltdown since the Great Depression.

Read the detailed depiction of investment in capacity in wind and solar and note the extensive research, with most of the 121 references (298-309) dated from 2007 to 2009. And natural gas, the cleanest form of fossil fuel, has increased in supply during this period, although not mentioned by Brown. The introduction, pages 109-112, presents a compelling case.

Brown's introduction points to the surge in wind energy but also the meaning of the shift away from coal. This trend has strategic significance. His chapter is a round-up of current trends that sharply diverge from the practices of the past:

  1. Wind energy
  2. Solar energy
  3. Geothermal
  4. Biofuels
  5. Hydropower from rivers, tides, and waves
  6. The emerging energy economy

Wind Power ^

The greatest increase in production and in investment in wind appear to have shifted from northern Europe (Germany and Norway) to the two superpowers, the USA and China. The size of the projects depicted by Brown is stunning. Notice the specifics of the references and their timeliness. Perhaps these projects, although large in scale, are highly localized, they fail to get enough attention outside of their immediate area of impact. The totals in added power generation capacity are enormous, however. Go through the cases from pages 113-117. Do the math.

Within the USA, the Great Plains states of North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas contain the most potential for wind generation and export -- but with a necessary smart grid infrastructure. This does not diminish the harvest of grains but rather supplements agriculture, giving a substantial economic boost to the farm states of the American midwest. Notice how the geography of renewables contrasts with the unfavorable geography of fossil fuels, particularly oil. Harvesting the sun and the wind are environmentally benign and economically advantageous --- and the investments continue to pay with little maintenance and no fuel costs.

Solar Energy ^

Not quite as spectacular but nevertheless nearly as impressive is the acceleration in the installation of solar photovoltaics (PV). Notice the advantage of sunny areas heading South, such as Spain and southern California. Here utility-scale projects are now feasible and attracting huge investments (120-124). Indeed, this sector appears poised to breakthrough in heavily populated and often affluent sunbelt areas, such as the American Southwest. A promising tandem is the use of natural gas for backup power.

Just as compelling but also strategic are small, household-size installations in rural India and Bangladesh that can serve villages not feasibly connected to an electrical grid. See his cases depicted on page 118. The significance of this southern advantage is that typically these are areas where the needs are greatest and the alternative, kerosene, is the most damaging. Unlike the perverse "geopolitics of scarcity" of petroleum, the geographical distribution of solar has the potential to actualize power to the people. This provides a higher quality of life within rural areas of the developing world, dampening migration to overcrowded cities.

Solar water heaters are required for newly constructed buildings in Spain, Israel, and Portugal. Solar water heaters are proliferating throughout China. For under $200 per installation, millions are now, perhaps for the first time, able to afford a household shower. Brown reports that 29 million such solar water heaters have been installed already in China, which plans to double this number over the next decade. The installed base eliminates 49 coal-fired power plants. Brazil and India will follow in this direction. Two million Germans now live in homes with both solar power and solar water heaters, giving rise to a hybrid industry that installs both forms of solar. In the USA, Hawaii, Florida, and California are moving rapidly in the adoption of solar water heaters.

Brown forecasts that by 2020, the increase in solar energy applications will equal the output of 690 coal-fired power plants. He even suggests that in 2009 in the USA for the first time the increase in solar power may exceed the increase in coal-fired plant capacity. This was unthinkable several years ago.

Geothermal ^

Geothermal energy derives from heat contained within the upper six miles of the surface of the earth and could increase in applications within specific regions, such as the Ring of Fire of the Pacific. Heat pumps have had success in heating and cooling of buildings, pumping either warmer or cooler water from below the earth's surface. Some commercial applications have also been significant: greenhouses and aquaculture (fish-farming of tilapia, catfish, and striped bass) have been growing in output. Again, regional applications are listed (125-128) but widespread, large-scale energy applications are not anticipated.

Biofuels ^

Ethanol from corn has received a lot of attention in the USA, but study after study has discounted the real gains from corn-based ethanol (131). Biowaste from forestry has had some success, but Brown does not laud expansion except for the specific application of district heating, as in St. Paul, Minnesota. Some clever niche projects, such as Interface Carpet in Georgia capturing methane from Atlanta's garbage dumps, are reported. However, since Brown wants to vastly reduce the waste stream, he is hardly in a position to advocate increased burning as a source of either electricity or the co-generation of district heating.

Hydropower ^

Dams now provide 945,000 megawatts of power, about 16% of the world's electricity. Large dams are controversial, however, and most of the opportunities to impound water for electricity have been accomplished. Small-scale in-stream generators have a role, but most of the potential to increase electricity output from hydropower may come from sources relatively modest today: from tidal flows and from waves. He describes a series of consequential projects at the regional level (133-134). By 2020, however, Brown sees only modest increments from hydropower, but holds out hopes for the future.

The Emerging Energy Economy ^

As Brown aggregates the trends he depicts in additional renewable energy sources, the picture that emerges indicates a sharp surge in renewables and away from coal and gas in the production of electricity. He boldly predicts that the burning of fossil fuels to generate electricity will plummet by 90% worldwide, while at the same time vastly increasing the amount of power produced.

Leadership and innovation is emerging rapidly in transforming the global energy economy, trends that had hardly been foreseen even a few years ago. Ironically, a civil society organization that had advocated many of the specifics now emerging is the Club of Rome, founded by industrialists in the late 1960s, the group that commissioned the historic study, Limits to Growth.

Consider this: Who would have guessed a decade ago that the Texas Public Utility Commission would coordinate a $5-billion investment around a network of 2,900 miles of high-voltage transmission lines that would connect urban centers to wind fields estimated at producing 18,500 megawatts of power --- enough to supply half the residents of Texas, about 12 million people (137)?

Mainstream Renewable Power of Ireland is partnering with the ABB Group of Sweden to build an offshore super grid stretching from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea, then south through the English Channel to Southern Europe (139).

A significant trend revealed here is a profound geopolitical shift away from global sources of energy, such as petroleum, to regional sources, such as wind, solar, and geothermal. This translates into regional-self-reliance, the re-localization of food, and thriving regional economies independent of the ideology of neoliberalism and the institutions of the Washington Consensus. The potential of bioregions displacing economic globalization can be imagined.

The trend can devolve one step further, down to local levels as communities and homeowners participate in the renewable energy economy and, through energy efficiencies at the local level, reduce dependency on distant and often hostile sources of fossil fuels. The environmental benefits of cleaner cities and regions provide more incentives to head in this direction.

The World Sustainability Web Site | © Wayne Hayes, Ph.D.
Initialized: 3/18/2010 | Last Update: 11/17/2011