Renewables Can Turn the Tide on Global Warming

There is no "silver bullet" solution to our energy crisis. But a new study shows that the right combination of renewables may be our best bet.
The American Solar Energy Association (ASES), with the backing of several U.S. representatives and a senator, released its new nuts and bolts approach to reducing carbon emissions with a combination of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies.

The report comes at an opportune time: the release of the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) latest climate change report is expected to finally clear up any lingering uncertainty about the role fossil fuel burning and other human activities have in changing the Earth's climate. As the deniers and obstructionists lose all credibility, the debate now turns to solutions.

The ASES report, titled "Tackling Climate Change in the US -- Potential Carbon Emissions Reductions From Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy by 2030," makes this extraordinary claim: "Energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies have the potential to provide most, if not all, of the US carbon emissions reductions that will be needed to help limit the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 450 to 500 ppm."

The ASES report was presented at a press briefing in the Capitol with the support of Senator Jeff Bingaman, Chair of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, Representative Henry Waxman, Representative Chris Shays, Sierra Club president Carl Pope, and NASA's chief climate change scientist, Dr. James Hansen.

Hansen's backing is especially important because the report is aimed at meeting a target for emissions reductions that he and other scientists agree is the minimum necessary to preserve a habitable planet. The target is to keep the global average temperature from rising by more than one degree Celsius, and to do that, it will be necessary to limit atmospheric CO2 levels to 450 to 500 ppm. That means reducing U.S. emissions by 60 percent to 80 percent by mid-century.

Over the past several years, as the dimensions of the energy and climate crisis have unfolded, the press, the public and politicians have embraced various "silver bullet" solutions one after another according to the fad of the day: at one moment it's hydrogen, then ethanol, then nuclear power, then wind. Today there is a growing recognition that no single energy technology can replace fossil fuels, but there is still no recipe that tells us how to combine energy technologies into a healthful brew that can save our planet and our civilization.

The ASES report takes a unique approach. Instead of turning to the systems analysts who normally tackle such problems, ASES asked the experts in each technology to estimate how much carbon-emitting energy their technologies could displace. Each technology is conceived of as a "wedge" in a stack of wedges that add up to a replacement for fossil fuels. The report consists of separate papers on each technology, including energy efficiency, concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, windpower, biofuels and geothermal.

Each paper was written by experts in the technology, presumably giving the most realistic possible assessment of the capabilities of the technology. And each technology was evaluated in terms of its current capabilities without relying on any major new technical breakthroughs, although some research and development to increase efficiency and reduce costs was assumed. The papers took economic factors into account and real world constraints like the silicon supply shortage that has hampered photovoltaic productions.

Despite its conservative assumptions, the ASES report concludes that renewables and efficiency alone can meet the goal of a 60 to 80 percent emissions reduction by mid-century while the economy continues to grow. Energy efficiency accounts for 57 percent of the reductions, and the renewable energy technologies provide the other 43 percent.

While the report does not estimate a total cost for the deployment of the technologies, it does assume that some government support for R&D and production tax credits will be available. At the press briefing, James Hansen also said that while much could be accomplished without a carbon tax, attaching some kind of economic cost to carbon emissions would be essential to keep the effort on track.

Representative Henry Waxman reiterated the need for a price on carbon: "Unless we put a price on carbon emissions I don't see how we can avoid them continuing to emit carbon from other sources. I mean people are already starting to go to the Rocky Mountains and try to cook oil out of the tar shale there, which you can do, but that's an indication of just how addicted we are to oil."

The report presents a serious challenge to the policy makers who have assumed that the U.S. would need to increase its use of carbon-intensive coal, oil shale and tar sands to meet energy needs. It also challenges the idea that we need to ramp up nuclear power to provide carbon-free energy.

Although President Bush often refers to nuclear power as "renewable energy," the ASES report did not assume any nuclear expansion. A group of more than 100 businesses and organizations recently took Bush to task over his misleading statements about nuclear power in a letter, saying: "Please be advised that nuclear power is neither a renewable nor a clean source of energy. For that matter, oil, coal, and natural gas are also not renewable or clean sources of energy."

The groups believe that Bush is defining nuclear energy as "renewable" so that it might be included in a future federal Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard or supported by federal tax incentives or R&D programs specifically designed to promote renewable energy technologies.

The nuclear issue exposed a difference of opinion among the ASES report's supporters at the press briefing last Thursday. Senator Bingaman expressed his support for new reactors and his view that nuclear power is a viable carbon-free energy source, saying, "Nuclear power, I think, is almost certain to be emphasized to a greater extent if a cap and trade system is put in place."

Bingaman is currently drafting a bill for a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard that would require utilities to provide a certain percentage of power generation from renewables, and he may add support for nuclear power to that bill.

Representative Waxman appeared more cautious about nuclear power, pointing out that it requires subsidies and "therefore, may be more costly" than the renewable technologies.

Carl Pope of the Sierra Club was more specific: "With present technology, without massive government subsidies, nuclear power does not appear to be competitive with [increased] efficiency or wind ... I think what this report reveals, however, is that even if nuclear power never becomes competitive, and it isn't today, we can still solve our global warming problem. And that means we should not be artificially forcing nuclear power into the market mix as some of the current proposals would do."

Pope also addressed an important question about the feasibility of the ASES report's renewable energy scenario. He said: "One of the reactions it's very easy to have when you read a report like this is, it's too good to be true. If all these things were possible, why aren't they already being done? And the unfortunate answer to that question is they are not being done because we have massive examples of policy failure and market failure in our energy sector."

Pope cited a number of problems, like building codes that don't allow white, reflective roofs to reduce summertime cooling loads, grid regulations that limit solar and wind production, and builders who have no incentive to build energy efficient buildings because they don't have to pay the energy bills. Pope vowed that the Sierra Club would aggressively pursue solutions to these problems. He promised that "This is not a report that will be sitting on a shelf."

Interestingly, the ASES report was released just as Exxon Mobil was about to announce the largest annual profits of any corporation in history. The company has topped its 2005 record by 9 percent, for a total profit of $39.5 billion in 2006.

Representative Edward J. Markey blamed the Bush administration and the previous Republican Congress for passing "energy bills full of goodies." No doubt the Sierra Club's Carl Pope would agree that continued subsidies and tax breaks for the oil industry are another instance of "policy failure and market failure in our energy sector."

Download a copy of the American Solar Energy Society report.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout's environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of Darwin's Radio, says: "Primal Tears is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family."
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