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
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
• 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
• 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
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"
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
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
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
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
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 www.ApolloAlliance.org)
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.
WHAT CAN I DO?
1. Find out how much carbon emissions you and your family produce
each year. For a choice of carbon calculators, see www.earthfuture.com/climateenergy/calculators.asp
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
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 www.ApolloAlliance.org
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 www.earthfuture.com.
First published in Earth Island Journal, August 2003. www.earthisland.org/eijournal
Adapted from an article first printed in YES! Magazine, Fall