Climate and Energy
"I'd put my money on the sun and solar energy.
What a source of power!
I hope we don't have to wait 'til oil and coal run out before we tackle that."
- Thomas Edison

A Sustainable Energy Plan For The US

by Guy Dauncey

Every morning when we rise, we flick on the lights and various electrical appliances before we drive or cycle off to work, school, or play on this beautiful planet.

Somewhere far away, trucks haul coal into the hoppers of giant power plants. Across the oceans, ships bring us oil, which produces the power we need to run our lives.

For most North Americans, the system works just fine. We have grown so used to it. We no longer think about where the energy comes from. California’s energy crisis was just a small glitch in the past. If there’s an energy shortage, all we need to do is burn more coal, drill more oil, and pump more gas.

If only it were so simple.

Troublesome Fact A: Oil

The rate at which we are discovering new oil will soon fall below the rate at which we are using it. If you believe the geologist Colin Campbell, this may happen as soon as 2005. If you believe the International Energy Agency, it’ll be 2015. As soon as the warning bells ring, oil prices will shoot up. Global demand will start to outstrip supply, and if there is no alternative in place, the result will be chaos.

Troublesome Fact B: Global terrorism

In the wake of 9/11, we must not lose sight of the fact that much of the hatred is being fuelled by the US presence in the Middle East. If Iraq was a world exporter of broccoli, the US would not have bothered with military intervention. It's all about the oil. The US deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, a leading architect of the Project for a New American Century, and a key ideological force behind the war on Iraq, admitted this when he told delegates at the Asian security summit in Singapore at the beginning of June: "Lets look at it simply. The most important difference between North Korea and Iraq is that economically, we just had no choice in Iraq. The country swims on a sea of oil". The sooner we move to a sustainable energy plan, the sooner we can defuse this particular irritant.

Troublesome Fact C: Coal

There’s plenty of coal in the ground, but it’s a pernicious fuel to use. As well as pouring out carbon dioxide, burning coal releases nitrous oxides, sulfur dioxide, and mercury, three of the nastiest pollutants in North America, which are responsible for smog, asthma, acid rain, and poisoned lakes and rivers.

Troublesome Fact D: Climate

The world’s climate is responding very badly to the increase in CO2, methane, and nitrous oxide emissions from burning fossil fuels; all three gases trap heat. Before the industrial age, atmospheric CO2 was around 280 parts per million. Today, it is 373 ppm, the highest it has been for 20 million years. The Arctic summer icepack, normally three meters thick, has lost 40 percent of its thickness since 1970. At this rate, it could be gone entirely by 2050, and the polar bears, which depend on the ice to hunt, will become extinct. Because of the simple physics of heat, we cannot burn fossil fuels and have polar bears. The Kyoto Protocol is a first step toward reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, even though the US has refused to sign. The scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have said that we need an immediate 60 percent reduction in emissions to stabilize the climate at a safe level. In our book, Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change, Patrick Mazza and I call for an 80 percent reduction by 2025.

Troublesome Fact E: Natural gas

Natural gas is not a cleaner alternative or a "bridge to the future" as many people would have us believe. Natural gas produces lower emissions of CO2 than coal or oil, but 85 percent of natural gas is methane, some of which escapes during production and distribution. Over 20 years, it is 9 percent worse than oil. It is still better than coal, but we are building new gas-fired plants in addition to the existing coal-fired plants, not instead of them. In a sustainable, ecologically smart energy plan, natural gas needs to be excluded along with coal and oil.

Nuclear should also be excluded, because no one can guarantee that a catastrophic accident won’t happen. The idea of a bunch of terrorists flying a jet into a nuclear power plant is not comforting; and besides, no one knows how to deal with the radioactive wastes.

How much energy do we need?

The challenge for a sustainable energy plan is to show how we can meet America’s energy needs using renewable energy from the sun, wind, biomass, geothermal, microhydro, waves, tides, and hydrogen. Or perhaps we should say reasonable energy needs, because the North American cultural belief that we are entitled to have it all—from timber and energy to vehicles, ice cream, burgers, and holidays in the Bahamas—is the biggest barrier of all to the realization of a sustainable world.

The good news—Bush and Cheney notwithstanding—is that the transition to a sustainable energy future is well underway. All that is needed is for the kind of support Washington gives to the coal, oil, and gas industry be given to the sustainable energy industry instead. That will require smart politics.

So how much energy do we need?

First, let’s crunch some numbers. In the year 2002, the US consumed 97 quadrillion Btus of primary energy. Industry used 38 percent, transport 32 percent, residential buildings 19 percent, and commercial buildings 16 percent. For electricity, US power plants produced 3,836 terawatt hours of electricity — 52 percent from coal, 21 percent from nuclear, 16 percent from natural gas, 7 percent from hydro, 2 percent from oil, and 1 percent from non-hydro renewables. (One terawatt [TW] equals 1,000 gigawatts, or one million megawatts. A terawatt hour is the electricity generated by one TW during one hour). America’s electrical generating capacity in 2001 was 813 GW (813,000 MW).

The Energy Information Administration estimates that demand for electricity is growing by 1.8 percent per year in the US, and will increase to 5,439 TWh by 2020, requiring 1,300 new power plants to be built—more than one a week. This assumes "business as usual."

What might we do instead?

Step One: Encourage Energy Efficiency

European countries get by on half as much energy per unit of GDP (and per capita) while enjoying a perfectly civilized life. Using today’s technologies, every building, appliance, factory process, and vehicle in North America could be twice as efficient. Using tomorrow’s technologies, they could be four to ten times more efficient. The trick is to overcome the barriers that tie us to wasteful technologies instead of smart ones.

Here are some of the policies that could cut our electricity demand by 75 percent by 2020, to 1,360 TWh, without any loss of quality:

• Apply a mandatory one- to four-star rating to every appliance, house, and vehicle, so that people can see what is smart and what is stupid, and give big tax credits for the purchase of four-star items. Award annual "achievement" tax credits to the companies that produce the most efficient appliances and technologies.

• Ramp up the national energy code for buildings, and then build on San Francisco’s example: make it mandatory for all existing buildings, as well as new ones. Allow buildings to be nonconforming, but make the code kick in whenever a building is sold, whenever a lease is renewed, or whenever an owner applies for a building permit for changes worth more than $10,000. Since the average family moves house every five years, the process will soon take hold.

• Establish a national electricity efficiency tax, or public benefit charge, as Connecticut, Massachusetts, and several other states have done. This increases the price of electricity, but returns all of the revenue as rebates and incentives for energy efficiency upgrades.

Step Two: Encourage Transport Efficiency

In 2002, America’s vehicles consumed three billion barrels of oil, 40% of the seven billion barrels that are used every year. Our goal is to eliminate 80 percent of the fossil fuels involved, through a combination of smarter travel, far greater fuel efficiency, and a switch to sustainably derived hydrogen, bioethanol and biodiesel.

First, let’s aim for a 25 percent reduction in traffic by investing in bicycling trails, transit, railways, and telecommuting. We should also use smart growth planning principles for future settlements and retrofit America’s suburbs to create small village centers where people can work, shop, relax, and meet each other.

Next, we need to make our vehicles far more efficient. There are cars on the road today that can get 50 mpg, so there are no technical problems. We should upgrade the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard so that new cars are required to increase their efficiency from today’s CAFE standard of 27.5 mpg to 45 mpg by 2010, and to 80 mpg by 2025, with an equivalent increase for trucks, buses, and SUVs. Taken together, these policies will create a four-fold reduction in the energy needed for transport.

The fuels that will drive the cars, trucks, and planes of the future will be hydrogen, bioethanol, biodiesel, and maybe also from carbohydrate oils from sewage and garbage, if a brand new technology known as "thermal depolymerization process" works out.

America’s bioethanol potential comes from harvesting existing agricultural wastes and low–cost cellulosic feedstocks; there is already enough to produce 51 billion gallons a year, equivalent to 40 percent of the current gasoline market, according to Oak Ridge National Laboratory estimates. Of this, 10–15 billion gallons could come from agricultural wastes, representing 10 percent of the current gasoline market. If the amount of energy needed to drive our vehicles was reduced by 75 percent, bioethanol and biodiesel from agricultural wastes would cover 40 percent of the fuel needed. Some of this could come from California’s rice fields, where straw cannot be ploughed back into the fields without creating disease problems, and where field-burning is being banned in 2003. Much of the rest will come from hydrogen, which requires energy to separate it from whatever it is bonded to (see below).

Step Three: Generate Clean Electricity

The goal we have set for the sustainable use of electricity in 2025 is 1,360 TWh of electricity, of which 80 percent (1,080 TWh) needs to come from clean energy. Since hydrogen is going to be needed for most of our transport needs, and the cleanest way to obtain hydrogen is by using renewable energy to split water, we should increase the goal to 4,000 TWh.

Can it be done? No problem. The steps below, taken together, could provide the US with 24,000 TWh, 6 times more than we need if we gain the efficiencies described above. The benefit of producing so much extra energy is that it gives us some options among the most cost-effective, environmentally benign routes. By linking the many renewable energy sources together through a smart electronic energy network, or distributed grid, there are further efficiencies to be gained, both in production and in price.

Wind – A recent study by the World Wildlife Fund shows that the lower 48 states have 14,244 TWh of wind energy potential. The best land areas are North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, and South Dakota, which have a potential of 4,500 TWh, 17 percent more than America’s current electricity demand. It’s all good news for the farmers, who can form wind-turbine cooperatives and obtain a steady income while farming underneath, as they do in Denmark. Alternatively, they can lease their land to a clean energy company at $2,000 per quarter acre per year. The southern and south-eastern coastlines also have excellent offshore wind potential, and Alaska has superb on-land and offshore potential. Together, these could produce an additional 4,000 TWh. Around the world, wind is selling at a very competitive 3–6 cents/kWh, and is among the fastest-growing segments of the energy market.

Wind energy potential: 18,000 TWh

Geothermal – There are 39 countries that could meet all of their energy needs from hot underground geothermal water. In Britain, a proposal has been floated to drill two miles deep into Cornwall and access enough geothermal energy from hot rocks (as opposed to hot water) to supply the entire British grid. A similar proposal is being explored in the Charleville area of Australia, which could provide all of Australia’s power needs for hundreds of years. In the US, the GeoPowering the West initiative aims to provide 20 percent of the West’s power from geothermal energy by 2020. We can also use ground-source geothermal energy to heat homes, offices, and schools, using off-the-shelf heat pumps to extract heat from the year-round temperature differential six feet down. The energy potential calculated here relies just on geothermal hot water; the heat pumps and the new technology involving hot rocks would add much more.

Geothermal energy potential: 190 TWh

Solar – Every year, the sun pours 220 million TWh of energy onto the Earth’s surface, 1,864 times more than the world’s entire consumption of primary energy (118,000 TWh). At the current level of solar efficiency, and allowing for cloudier conditions in the north, today’s entire US electricity demand (3,836 TWh) could be met from 10,000 square miles of solar photovoltaics (PV), an area equivalent to 9 percent of Arizona. America’s rooftops could generate 964 TWh (24 percent of our sustainable electricity needs) if solar shingles were used to roof an average of 540 square feet of every dwelling. Many open air car parks could also be covered, providing welcome shade for the vehicles.

What about the argument that photovoltaic cells require more energy to make than they generate? A 1997 study by Siemens (now Shell Solar) showed that the payback for crystalline silicon PV modules varied from two to five years (for sunny and less sunny areas), and was set to improve to one to two years. For amorphous silicon, the payback was one year. For both technologies, most of the energy cost is for the aluminum that holds the PV module. By moving to solar shingles, this disappears.

The biggest holdback is the cost. At the current price of around $3.50 per installed watt, a 3kW system on your roof might cost $24,750. If you include an assumed 5% interest rate, it will take 70 years of saved electricity from the grid before it pays its way. With mass production, however, the price falls to $1 per watt, and the payback falls to 17 years. When you add the income from the sale of surplus solar energy on a hot summer’s afternoon, the payback could fall to 10 years or lower, and your solar shingles become a money-making machine that will save the planet’s atmosphere at the same time.

It was the same for computers and cell phones. The early ones were expensive – now they’re cheap. Mass production for solar PV needs a single factory that can produce 500MW of PV in a year. To put this in context, the entire world’s solar production in 2002 was 540MW – about the size of one regular coal thermal power plant.

Production is growing by a whopping 35% a year, however, doubling every two years, and the Japanese company Sharp plans to open a 500 MW factory in 2005, supported by a consistent set of supportive programs from the Japanese Government, which plans to install 4,600MW of solar in Japan by 2010. With the price of solar at $1 a watt, the solar revolution will take off, and everyone in the sunbelt will rush out to Home Depot to buy as big a system as they can afford. As the price falls yet further, people in rainy Washington state and as far north as Alaska will find that it pays to install solar, too.

For our Sustainable Energy Plan, we will assume that all southfacing sloping roofs can be covered with solar shingles, and we will use 10,000 square miles of other surface areas (chiefly flat commercial and industrial roofs) to collect solar energy. As the technical efficiency of PV increases, the area needed decreases.

Solar energy potential: 5,000 TWh

The wind, sun, and geothermal energy take us well over our goal. In addition, we can probably assume another 1,000 TWh from micro-hydro, tidal and wave energy, biomass, and methane gas from landfills. With this much energy, we can afford to close down the nuclear plants and remove many of the dams that block the wild flow of rivers.

Other renewable energy potential: 1,000 TWh

Goal for US sustainable energy plan: 4,000 TWh

Total US renewable energy potential: 24,190 TWh

Step Four: Build A Hydrogen Network

There’s a big debate going on as to where the hydrogen is to come from. The new White House initiative assumes that it will come from coal, oil and gas, guaranteeing the flow of dollars to the fossil fuel corporations, and the continued release of greenhouse gases. Bad idea. Sustainable hydrogen will come from the surplus of clean energy, and from biomass such as sewage and algae.

We then have to distribute the hydrogen around the country. The mega-solution is for the government to step in and build a national "hydrogen backbone" to collect, store, and distribute the hydrogen through a network of pipelines, financed by the income from carbon taxes. If it can do it for cars, through the Interstate Highway system, the argument goes, it can do it for hydrogen. The micro-solution is for every gas station to have its own hydrogen conversion plant. The fuel will probably cost four to five times what it does today, but so it should, if we are to restore any kind of sanity to our cities, and to the country as a whole.

Creating the Plan

There is plenty of renewable energy to meet our needs without creating greenhouse gas emissions. The task is to craft a detailed sustainable energy plan that will take us there. Luckily, the models already exist.

We need four four basic policies to launch the sustainable energy revolution: energy efficiency standards,

renewable portfolio standards, carbon taxes, and tax and subsidy shifts. We have already covered the efficiency policies, so we’ll move right on.

The thirdsecond policy—a renewable portfolio standard (RPS)—sets up a requirement that a percentage of a state’s electricity must come from renewable sources by a certain date. Fifteen states have put this in motion, led by Nevada, which requires that 15 percent of all energy be generated from renewable sources by 2013 (5 per cent from solar), and then by a further 2 per cent every year. A federal RPS could require that 10 percent of all US energy come from renewable sources by 2010, and 80 percent by 2025. The policy will drive investment, and give industry plenty of notice to get in motion. We saw a similar dynamic in 1990, when the California Air Resources Board required that 4 percent of all new vehicles in California be zero emission by 2003. That caused investment to pour into hydrogen fuel companies such as Ballard Power.

The second third policy—carbon taxes—places a tax on all fuel that releases carbon emissions, driving up the price of oil, coal, and natural gas relative to non-carbon energy such as solar, wind, bioethanol, and the other renewables. Individuals and businesses would receive carbon rebates priced at three times the carbon tax, allowing people to reduce their overall energy bills if they reduce their emissions.

The benefits of such a tax include a shift away from the use of fossil fuels, forestalling climate change with its multi-billion dollar price tag. We could cut the $10–$23 billion that is spent each year on maintaining a military presence in the Middle East. A root cause of the asthma epidemic that is sweeping the land would be eliminated. Lakes and streams would recover from acid rain. Businesses would benefit from investing in the innovations as the world shifts to non-fossil fuels. A host of new jobs would be generated, far more than would be lost by closing the coalmines and capping the oil and gas wells.

The final policy—a tax and subsidy shift—takes all the subsidies, programs, and tax breaks that support the fossil fuel industry and transfers them to efficiency, renewable energy, and hydrogen. Those subsidies amount to $20 billion a year, according to one widely quoted figure; that tallies out at $55 million a day. Other figures suggest $29–$46 billion a year. If you include the hidden costs to taxpayers for health and environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, the total reaches $68–$228 billion a year – that’s $247–$829 per person, given to the fossil fuel corporations out of your pocket, every year.

Remember, oil and gas are going to increase in price as the energy becomes scarce or is manipulated by the power corporations. They’re going to give us higher, unstable prices. Renewable energy is free, once you have installed the technology, so the prices can only fall as the technology improves, giving us lower, stable prices. Politically, financially, and environmentally, it is a far, far wiser way to go.

So what will it take?

This is not something hypothetical. The urgency of our situation is similar to that faced by Roosevelt in 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. To those who argue that market mechanisms must always take precedence, imagine President Roosevelt saying, "We’re sorry, we can’t afford to build any more battleships; we’ll have to wait until the price comes down."

What is needed is a massive mobilization of 10,000 nonprofit groups and their members around a sane sustainable energy plan that will phase out fossil fuels and set us on the path to an efficient, solar-hydrogen society.

Polls show that the majority of Americans want definite action to tackle global warming. Until recently, the environmental movement has been divided between some larger organizations that still supported natural gas as a "bridge to the future" and others, such as Earth Day, that didn’t. As natural gas shows its colors, however, with scarcity leading to higher prices, the movement is building consensus around the feasibility of a truly sustainable energy plan for the US.

The first step is to build a coalition, produce a plan that will stand up to the closest scrutiny, and package it in a clear, elegant manner.

The second step is to reach out to solar, wind, energy efficiency, environmental, health, and citizens organizations all across America, and to cities, towns, businesses, labor unions, schools, colleges, churches, and progressive businesses, inviting them to support the plan, so that we create a huge choir, all singing from the same songbook. Ten labor unions, including the steelworkers and the auto workers, have taken the initiative by calling for a 10-year, $300 billion New Apollo Project to fund, develop and expand high-speed rail, hybrid and hydrogen cars, energy efficiency, and wind and solar energy. They hope that many other groups will sign onto the plan. (See

The final step is to build a campaign that everyone can engage in, with a message as strong and simple as "Votes for Women" or "Stop the War." We need to make it so that all across America, people start acting on the plan in their own communities, involving their politicians and leaders at every level, from businesses, school boards and city halls to Congress and the White House. It’s doable. It’s sensible. It’s sustainable.

And we need to get on with it, urgently.



1. Find out how much carbon emissions you and your family produce each year. For a choice of carbon calculators, see

2. Develop a plan to reduce your emissions, along with US dependence on coal, oil, gas, and the Middle East. For a ten-step plan that addresses your household energy use, vehicles, flying, and eating habits, see
here (for metric) or here (for US)

3. Urge any NGOs that you are a member of to sign onto the New Apollo Project, so that we can build this huge national campaign . See

About the author

Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.

His website is

First published in Earth Island Journal, August 2003.

Adapted from an article first printed in YES! Magazine, Fall 2001.