Interview: Earth Policy Institute’s Lester Brown
For the last 40 years, Lester Brown has been one of the primary forces in the sustainability movement. Besides publishing some 45 books, he is the founder of the Worldwatch Institute and the Earth Policy Institute. EarthTalk’s Ethan Goffman recently caught up with him and two of his colleagues, Janet Larsen and J. Matthew Roney, to ask about their new book, The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy…
EarthTalk: Your new book is on the energy transition. Why is that such an important topic right now?
Lester Brown: Well, the energy transition, or The Great Transition as the book is called, is about the shift from coal and oil to solar and wind. And at first it seems kind of far out, I mean solar and wind to run the economy? We can do it now, and the exciting thing is that the cost of rooftop solar panels to go on your house has dropped to the point that in all probability you can get cheaper electricity from those panels than you can get from the local utility. And this is creating an interesting situation because as utilities lose customers, because the customers put these panels on the roofs, their market shrinks but their costs remain essentially the same because they have to maintain the grid. And so for utilities it’s called, the “death spiral” has been the term that’s sort of been coined. But the exciting thing is the change in geography of the energy economy throughout our lifetimes. Our oil came from halfway around the world, from Saudi Arabia or some place, our energy came from halfway around the world. And the idea that you can get it from ten feet above your head, you know, that’s a big change. But that’s where we are now. And we’re going to see a half century of change in the next decade, as the market drives this transition to solar and wind energy.
E: So are you seeing like a 100 percent solar and wind energy, or, what’s the balance in, say, a ten year timeframe or by 2050?
LB: Well, solar’s going to lead because everyone has a rooftop. Not everyone has space for a wind turbine. There are no little wind turbines that are economic that you put on your roof. Wind turbines work where you have a lot of space, like the U.S. Midwest or Great Plains. And the biggest wind project in the world right now is in China. In China wind electric generation has overtaken nuclear. And it not only has overtaken it, it’s literally blown by it. I mean if you were to graph nuclear power generation in China and wind, wind would go like this. So China is leading the world with wind, and the idea that it has already overtaken nuclear, it’s just a matter of time before it begins to compete directly and to shrink coal and oil. So it’s an exciting development. And the economics are there, and because it’s market driven it’s happening pretty fast and you don’t have to have a lot of government involvement. I mean, government just needs to step back and let the market take care of it because it’s doing such a good job. So this is what’s new and exciting in the world energy economy. I mean we’ve had energy transitions before; we went from wood to coal, that was a few centuries, and coal to oil, and coal and oil, and now it’s from coal and oil to solar and wind. And the interesting thing is that in the old energy system when you used some coal or pumped some oil your resource shrunk. But with solar and wind, how much you use today has no effect on the availability tomorrow.
E: So it’s basically an infinite source. And can you say a little bit about resources, and will the mix of solar and wind be different in different parts of the globe and are there other sources such as geothermal or ocean waves.
LB: Yes, there are other sources. But solar and wind are going to dominate, they’re going to be the big two the way coal and oil were the big two in the old energy economy. I mean some countries like Denmark already have gotten 43 percent of their energy from wind; four states in Germany got over half their energy from wind; Ireland some days has enough wind to run everything. So the point here is that what we used to think as sort of marginal kind of interesting energy sources are now becoming mainstream and that’s the big change that’s occurring.
E: Right and there are places like the Southwest in the U.S. where solar might be the more dominant form.
LB: Yes. In the Southwestern United States there are literally hundreds of utility-scale solar generating plants under construction or in the planning stages. And the reason is because there’s a lot of sunlight there and it hardly ever rains and clouds are few and far between; so you have a good source of solar electricity. So that’s one of the big developments and with wind we have an enormous amount of wind, I mean the Great Plains. Kansas is the state that’s really beginning to look at this through a commercial lens, and they want to export wind in every direction. They want to export it to the industrial Midwest, they want to export it down into the southeastern countries that haven’t done anything with wind yet. So there’s some enterprising things coming on. Texas wants to export wind into Louisiana and Alabama.
E: And would that take some upgrading of the electrical grid?
LB: It would take some upgrading and in some cases an entirely new transmission facility. The good news is that we have new transmission lines now that are much more efficient than we’ve had before, I mean probably twice as efficient. So you can think about moving electricity in much longer directions. The other exciting thing about this is to see how much private capital is moving into renewable energy. I mean the billionaires, you know Warren Buffet and Ted Turner and Phil Anschutz. Phil Anschutz is a Denver billionaire who made his billions with coal and oil, mostly in Wyoming. And he is building a 3000 megawatt went compex in Wyoming, and building a transmission line to take that to California. He happens to have an old railroad right-of-way so he’s just building a line through there. But I mention these things just to give a sense of how they, I mean Warren Buffet has invested 15 bill and in the last year or so has announced he’s going to invest 15 billion more. So the smart money is going in this area now. It’s not going into oil and coal, they don’t even think about that. That was last century.
E: Right, and once the money moves in it stops being a political problem to support and there’s a lot of incentive for the politicians to be behind it.
LB: Right. And it’s also interesting that these investors who have huge sums of money to play with, but have those huge sums because they’re smart investors and anticipate things. They’re also setting the stage for Wall Street now, the Goldman Sachs of the world, the investment banks in New York to move in big time.
E: Okay great. Let me just switch topics somewhat. Because I know you’ve written a lot about food and water security, and also the relationship to energy. So how will the energy transition effect basically agriculture and water resources?
LB: The energy transition will not have a major effect on agriculture, because it’s just a different source of energy but you use it the same as we now do. Instead of having a diesel run your irrigation system you’ll have a solar powered motor doing the pumping. The big thing in the food future is not land, it’s water. We’ve got a lot of land in the world that could produce food if we had the water to go with it. So water is emerging as the principal constraint on efforts to expand world food production. The principal resource constraint, I should say.
E: But the agriculture is competing with energy, like nuclear energy uses a lot of water, fracking uses a lot of water, right? So, if we switch to renewables you no longer have those competing uses of water, is that fair to say?
LB: It is and it’s an important point because water’s going to become increasingly tight in the world.
E: Which we’re seeing in California.
LB: Right. And in Sao Paulo in western Brazil.
E: In many places.
LB: Yes. And water is now the principle constraint in efforts to expand food production. So anything that saves water, anything that’s more water efficient, is attractive. One of the attractions of wind and solar energy is that they don’t use any water at all. Whereas coal or nuclear energy use a lot of water. So the tightening water supply is pushing the game very much toward solar and wind and away from coal nuclear.
E: So just another reason why we need to move toward the renewable energy.
LB: That’s right.
E: Thank you very much. It’s been great to meet you and best of luck.
Janet Larsen, Director of Research at the Earth Policy Institute, holds a degree in Earth Systems from Stanford University. She manages the research for the institute’s many publications, including the important Plan B series.
E: What do you see as the likely future of coal, oil, and natural gas, and why?
Janet Larsen: Coal, oil, and natural gas had a great run, but in The Great Transition we talk about how coal, oil, and natural gas will soon be on their way out. Now they dominate the world’s energy supply, but in many parts of the world we’re seeing coal already has peaked and is going down in some big countries like the United States, many in Europe, and Australia as well. In the United States coal use has fallen 21 percent since 2007 and the main reason for that is people are looking for alternatives. Natural gas prices have been lower so some coal fired power plants have closed and switched to natural gas, but then we have these new energy sources, wind and solar in particular, where their costs are falling and they’re starting to take over more of the market. So there’s a great campaign against coal, Sierra Club has been instrumental in mobilizing groups around the country. It’s called Beyond Coal.
They count that of the country’s some 500 power plants 108 have closed or announced they will be closing. And so this is why we’re seeing no one wants to put any money behind coal any more. The stocks of the major companies coal related companies, such as Peabody the largest coal producer, have been plummeting and Peabody got kicked out of the S&P 500 as well because of its poor performance. None of the smart money is going to these antiquated, to coal at all. Oil use as well is still climbing on a global level and we have many countries where they’re trying to emulate the US car heavy lifestyle, but it’s just not going to work, there’s just not enough land in the world for everybody to have a car. And in many places where were now mostly urbanized worldwide people are looking for other ways to get around. How do you redefine mobility? So in the United States, we’re already past peak oil use. Oil use has been falling. Since about 2004 it’s dropped 8.5 percent. And that’s for a number of reasons. One, vehicle fuel efficiency has been improving, but people are also starting to drive less. People are doing more car sharing, public transportation, bike sharing is also popping up in over 800 cities round the world. So now there are just more alternatives to cars. Young People are just not as interested in getting drivers licenses, the love affair with the car is over so we’re seeing us move away from oil.
E: Speaking of the car, are you seeing a little bit more of a move toward electric cars as well so they’ll be more fuel efficient and ready for the new grid when it comes along?
JL: Exactly, that’s the way of the future. As many people as can get on public transportation the better, but for individual auto use it’s going to be an electrifying. People will plug in their cars, there’ll be fully electric cars, there’ll be plug in hybrid electric cars. Now they’re a small share of the market both in the United States and internationally, but that share is growing very fast. Some countries are moving very quickly, like Norway is probably the world’s leader in electrifying their automobile fleet. But the U.S. is going to be there soon and we’re seeing battery costs fall very quickly so that the global financial services firm UBS thinks that by 2025 battery costs will be cut in have and thus an electric vehicle can be comparable with a trad vehicle in terms of price, it’ll have a very fast payback. And looking at buying an electric vehicle plus a rooftop solar system plus battery storage we see that there’ll be a payback of eight years or less and then homes and cars can get that power for free from the sun.
E: So cheaper, better batteries solve all kinds of problems for clean energy, especially solar.
JL: Yes, it’s amazing how the battery technology has improved. It’s still about a decade or so behind solar PV in terms of the cost drop, so costs haven’t fallen quite enough yet, but I think it’s any day now we’ll be seeing it. And people when they’re looking to buy a car, they’re going to be looking for electric or hybrid electric.
E: On the other hand, the U.S. is now in kind of a new energy boom using fracking and horizontal drilling to get natural gas and oil, not always in the most environmentally friendly way. So might this affect or slow the clean energy revolution and might it be exported to other countries? Or what do you see the impact being?
JL: I think a lot of countries are watching the United States and our fracking boom. China in particular has tried to figure out how they’re going to access their deposits in shale formations, and they’ve found it’s just not as easy as they originally projections and I think that’s part of the reason why China’s really going gung ho on all these other renewables. It’s just not going to work everywhere around the world like it is here. And we would even question whether it’s really working here very well or if it’s just prolonging the inevitable. The depletion rates on a fracked natural gas well are measured in months, they’re not measured in years or decades. So we’re perforating the ground with all these wells, we’re allowing methane to seep up out of these wells, methane being a very potent greenhouse gas. And the risk is if we build out this natural gas infrastructure to expand our use of natural gas for both electricity production and for transportation, we’ll be basically building a bridge to nowhere. It’s not a lasting energy future like the transition to renewable energy would be.
E: Of course there are water problems with fracking and possibly Earthquake problems.
JL: It’s been amazing to see that now there’s more Earthquakes in Oklahoma than in California last year, and that is all centered around these hydraulic fracking and wastewater injection sites. You never would think of Oklahoma or Ohio having earthquakes before, but now we’re able to create them; it’s pretty astonishing. And that’s one of the reasons why there’s 400 communities around the US that have actually taken action to put forth moratoria on fracking or make sure that it’ll be harder for these natural gas and oil companies to come into their communities, because people who have to live with it have been, they complain about the health effects, everybody’s concerned about the water supply, the trucking in and out is big, heavy infrastructure. It’s not a pretty thing to look at a fracking site.
E: So we need to move to clean energy as quickly as possible and not be mislead by false alternatives.
JL: I think we have a limited amount of time to solve the climate problem and we have a limited amount of resources. And that’s why we’re really hopeful about wind and solar because the costs have fallen such that they’re competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world and they’re deployable incredibly rapidly so we don’t have to take the time to build huge centralized power plants necessarily. We can put up solar panels on our roofs and erect wind turbines very quickly. We don’t have to wait.
E: Okay great, thanks very much.
JL: Thank you.
Matthew Roney is Research Associate at the Earth Policy Institute and has a Master of Science degree in Environmental Sciences and Policy from The Johns Hopkins University. Besides researching renewable energy, fisheries, and aquaculture, he has led community outreach projects.
E: Just how fast are solar and wind growing and how well do they compete with fossil fuel?
Matt Roney: On a global basis over the last six or so years, solar power, solar PV, the solar power you see on rooftops or in big ground-mounted arrays, are growing at about 50 percent annually both capacity and generation in terms of energy produced. Wind is about 20 percent capacity and generation growth; it’s from a larger base than solar power, so it’s still growing very fast. In China actually, wind generation is growing at about 50% a year because they’re just moving so quickly. As far as competition with fossil fuels, there are a growing number of markets around the world, where solar and wind are coming in under the cost of even natural gas. For instance, in the Midwest United States there are a contracts being signed for wind for the long term, for 20 years, and they’re coming in at 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour and that’s well below some natural gas contracts.
E: Wow, crazy cheap!
MR: For solar we’re seeing a growing number of markets where unsubsidized rooftop solar is coming in well below that of fossil fuels. For instance, in the Philippines, rooftop solar generation is about 10 cents per kilowatt hour equivalent, whereas delivered coal-fired power including transmission and distribution is about 25 cents per hour. So we’re just seeing, the rapid drop in cost for solar and wind is really making them competitive in a growing number of markets.
E: And of course they don’t have all those harmful side effects either.
MR: Right. One other great example is, earlier this year, in January of 2015 Dubai electricity and water awarded a contract to a Saudi firm for utility-scale solar250 megawatts for 5.8 cents per kilowatt hour, that’s unsubsidized. And that’s about a third less than the natural gas rate in the United Arab Emirates.
E: And of course they could do oil powered plants really easily too.
MR: Right, so these are very oil heavy countries realizing, Saudie Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, they’re also very rich in the sun.
E: So all kinds of energy there. But let me ask about the problem of intermittency, because obviously the sun’s not always shining, the wind’s not always blowing and when you hit a certain amount, a certain percentage, are you going to run into, so much is solar and wind that we’re going to have blackouts unless we continue using fossil fuels, or, do you have any estimate when that might happen or if there’s a way to avoid it?
MR: Well, we can certainly reach much higher rates of penetration in solar and wind than even in the countries that have the most wind or solar on the grid right now. For instance, in Denmark, Denmark generated 43% of its electricity from wind in 2014, that’s for the entire year. No blackout problems in Denmark. And they’re aiming for 50% by 2020, and they’ll probably easily get there. Germany and the UK both are 9% wind powered. Germany also gets about 7% of its electricity from solar power, and one interesting thing, in March of this year there was the big solar eclipse. There was the fear that, since Europe has so much solar power built already, that they would experience potentially very wide blackouts. But the grid pretty much just shrugged it off. So we know that solar and wind resources are very predictable on a daily or weekly basis, and grid operators already can plan for that. So yes, much higher rates of penetration of wind and solar are possible. Even in the United States, Iowa gets 28% of its electricity from wind power, for example.
E: So the grid is able to shift power around better than had been feared.
MR: Right, because even the most efficient baseload plant, like a coal plant or a natural gas plant, is offline some of the time. So grid operators are very practiced at dealing with unexpected outages. So when you have a predictable outage, like when you know the wind is not going to be blowing very powerfully or it’s going to be cloudy, they know how to deal with it. One other thing is that, if you have a number of wind farms connected to the same overall grid over a wide geographical area, they tend to balance each other out because no one place has the same wind regime. And so they start to get closer and closer to baseload generation if you have enough strung together.
E: I know that’s the plan off the East Coast of the United States, but that’s been running into some problems because of political opposition.
MR: Yes, you’re maybe talking about the Atlantic Wind Corridor. And that was backed by Google and a Japanese firm. And that was several years ago, where they thought we’ll make this offshore wind energy backbone off the Atlantic East Coast. And resource-wise it makes a lot of sense. There’s enough wind energy off the Atlantic Coast to probably meet 40-50 percent of total U.S. energy needs if we were to harness all of it. But it did run into some political opposition. I think New Jersey rejected the part of the corridor that was going to be offshore there. So there are barriers to overcome, and offshore wind has been talked about on the Atlantic coast for some time. We’re really behind the game because the first offshore wind farm was built by Denmark in 1991.
E: We used to be the world leader, but not so much anymore.
MR: But I would say that the United States, we have the second most wind generating capacity behind China, but the United States generates more electricity from wind than any other country.
E: Already? That’s all onshore wind?
MR: All onshore windshore.
E: So we could do fantastic things with offshore wind.
MR: And the United States really lends itself to offshore generation because there’s a shallow continental shelf there, which makes it much easier to install those wind turbines offshore. There’s also floating offshore technology that’s being developed and demonstrated in Japan, for example. And I believe there’s a project off the coast of Oregon that’s supposed to be up and running soon. But that would take care of the problem in some cases where you don’t have a shallow offshore continental shelf. Where it’s much more expensive to put in traditional offshore wind turbines in deeper waters.
E: Right, and there are only going to be more technological fixes to the remaining problems. Let me just ask, are we going to need some kind of baseline power for the foreseeable future, like some kind of gas or coal or nuclear plant to avoid blackouts, or can we really get to 100% renewables, say within ten or fifteen years?
MR: I think within ten or fifteen years, we’ve already got so much built into the system in terms of the capacity of fossil fuel generation, we’ll probably have some natural gas left even if we were really aggressive in building out renewables and closing out fossil fuel generators. Coals already having a hard time in the United States; you know there are probably another 20 thousand or so megawatts of coal that’s going to retire in 2015. And so, yes, we probably will have some natural gas left over even with a big push. But in the long term there’s no real technological barrier to getting to 100% renewables. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi are two researchers who did a couple of papers in the journal Energy Policy several years ago that mapped out how we would get to a world powered entirely by wind, water, and sun. That includes geothermal in the water component because that uses hot water to generate electricity, wave tidal but also your solar power PV and concentrated solar power. And without major technological breakthroughs beyond what we have today, they also electrified the transit system. They also included some hydrogen for combustion and industrial applications as well. But right now we have baseload renewable technologies in certain regions. We have geothermal in the Pacific, ring of fire, so Asia Pacific, the West Coast of the United States and the Southwest, Indonesia, the Philippines. We also have the African rift valley, where Kenya and Tanzania and Ethiopia are very rich in geothermal energy. And the eastern Mediterranean. Those are plants that can run 24 hours a day. But we also have concentrating solar plants now under construction that would get about 18 hours worth of storage from molten salts. And that’s a proven technology as well. So well after the sun goes down you can still generate electricity from solar, even without big advances in battery storage, which is also in the works, but further away.
E: So it is possible and it is happening and the future is looking better than we had thought.
MR: Yes, I mean looking at Germany is very inspiring. They’re turning away from coal at the same time as they’re phasing out their nuclear fleet. Wind, solar, and efficiency have taken care of all of the nuclear power phased out since the Fukushima disaster in Japan, which prompted the German phase-out acceleration. And in 2014 Germany reached a 35 year low in fossil-fuel generated energy, and so we’re seeing the changes happening now and we can see what the future might look like in a renewable world.
E: Okay great, thank you very much and good luck.
MR: Thanks very much.