We can have the energy we need without emitting carbon or using nuclear energy.
That's the takeaway from my recent interview with Dr. Arjun Makhijani on Progressive Radio Network (www.prn.fm, "All Together Now"). At the request of the esteemed Dr. Helen Caldicott, Dr. Makhijani did the first analysis of the technical and economic feasibility of transitioning to a U.S. economy based completely on renewable energy, with no carbon dioxide emissions and no nuclear energy.
Despite his own initial skepticism, his research led him to conclude, Yes, we can do this. Dr. Makhijani lays out the path forward in his book, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy.
I recently interviewed Dr. Makhijani on my radio show on Progressive Radio Network. He earned a Ph.D. in engineering (with specialization in nuclear fusion) from the University of California at Berkeley, then went on to warn people about the dangers of nuclear energy. When Dr. Caldicott asked him to write a book on meeting our energy needs without carbon pollution or nuclear power and offered to raise the money to do it, he was skeptical it could be done, thinking it would be too expensive.
I asked him what he discovered in his research that made him believe it is possible. He replied: "We are in the midst of a technological revolution that is making renewables more economically feasible. We can make this happen." Since the book was published, the pace of technology change has continued to accelerate.
- Wind power has been economical for years. In 2006, solar electric was five times more expensive than it needed to be to compete as a source for home energy, but it is becoming competitive.
- As demand goes up, the cost of production goes down: manufacturers can shift from custom-made to larger scale production. The price of silicon needed for solar cells is down. A few years ago, you'd pay $4 a watt for a solar panel, now it's 70 cents a watt.
"I thought we'd need major legislation such as a price on carbon through a carbon tax or trading emissions," said Dr. Makhijani. "But the technological developments are making renewables economically feasible without any major legislation." Thank God we don't have to rely on legislation passed by our increasingly dysfunctional Congress. He continued, "I thought it would take to the middle of the century; now, if we try hard, it could be much faster -- by 2035 or 2040."
Demand for renewables is coming from many directions. After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, Japan increased its use of renewables, and is now the second largest market for solar energy, bigger than the U.S. Among the largest buyers of solar electricity in the US is that great bastion of radicals, the Pentagon. They are also leading in alternative energy. It makes sense, given that the military understands our vulnerability to disruption in oil supplies: if our oil supply were cut from the Mideast and elsewhere, we'd need renewables to ensure enough stable energy at home. Of course, climate is a security issue: more extreme weather increases the need for more domestic energy supplies.
Demand for renewables is also coming from the states which are leading this energy revolution. States from California to Maryland are passing incentives and lifting standards that increase demand for renewables.
Dr. Makhijani offers a clear goal -- a zero CO2 economy -- which gives policy coherence and a yardstick by which we can measure progress. He identifies 12 critical policies to be enacted to achieve it. I asked him, "What are the most important things we need to do to have affordable energy without using fossil fuels or nuclear energy?" He replied:
"We can eliminate half of our energy consumption through efficiency; we can get the rest of our energy from renewables."
When I asked, "Where can we have the most impact for the money?" he replied without hesitation, "Enact high efficiency standards for buildings, appliances, and vehicles."
-Mandate more efficient cars. We're doing and need to do more. Cars have been made that get 200 miles per gallon; we can have a standard of 100 mpg by 2030. Push plug-in hybrids.
-Increase efficiency standards for appliances. Some existing standards are proceeding well. A refrigerator used to consume 1800 kw-hours per year; today you can buy a larger, better performer that uses only 400 kw- hours per year. A 100-watt bulb today of good quality uses 1/5 or 1/7 the electricity of an incandescent lamp. But standards for air conditioning and heating are lagging far behind available technology.
-Fix existing buildings. Most old buildings are not well-insulated and waste lots of energy. When a house is sold, we could mandate that buildings meet a certain standard of energy efficiency, like fire codes and electrical safety standards. We can do it, but it's not required, so it's not being done at the level we need.
Some people don't like regulations, but they can work well.
Since Dr. Makhijani was the principal author of the first comprehensive review of US energy efficiency in 1971, I asked him, "Where did we make progress in the past 40 years, and where do we still need to act?"
I was a staff member of the Energy Policy Project of the Ford Foundation during the 1973 energy crisis. Our report became the basis of President Carter's energy policy. Today we use less than half of the energy we thought we'd use by now: energy use has not grown much, but the economy is 2-3 times bigger.
So that's good progress. We'd be in even better shape if the U.S. hadn't dropped the ball on energy policy in the 1980s. Since Carter, we haven't had a coherent overall energy policy, so we tend to scatter limited resources on bits and pieces.
What about limiting those pernicious carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, do you support cap and trade, or a carbon tax? Dr. Makhijani said: "I thought cap and trade would be efficient, but they made it too complicated, so I'm glad it didn't pass. A carbon tax is good, but we won't get it passed in Congress."
Other actions we can take include:
- Stop subsidies and tax breaks for fossil fuels and the nuclear industry.
- Stop subsidies for biofuels.
- Use government buying power to encourage the development of renewable supply technologies.
- Ban new coal fired plants.
Dr Makhijani is generously giving away free digital copies of his important book, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy on his website, ieer.org. Now that's some holiday cheer.