Climate Change: No Breakthroughs Needed, Mr. President
Co-authored with Thomas Dinwoodie
In his recent New Republic interview, President Obama said we “need some big technological breakthrough” to tackle climate change. Mr. President — our nation already has the technologies to protect the climate while advancing prosperity. Here’s how.
Your National Renewable Energy Laboratory showed just last June how to produce 80 to 90 percent of America’s electricity from proven, reliable and increasingly competitive renewable sources like the sun and wind.
That confirmed the findings of Rocky Mountain Institute’s peer-reviewed study Reinventing Fire, introduced by the heads of Shell Oil and Exelon and endorsed by President Clinton. RMI showed how to run a 2.6-fold-bigger U.S. economy by 2050 with no oil, coal, or nuclear energy, one-third less natural gas, a $5 trillion dollar net savings, 82-86 percent lower carbon emissions, and no new inventions, with the transition led by business for growth and profit.
The U.S. is already started towards a clean energy system based on technologies cost-competitive today in many markets and, unlike traditional generation, with steadily declining costs. These new winners include energy efficiency, solar, wind, and flexible demand through a smart grid, integrated with geothermal, biomass, hydro, and others. Soon most renewables will compete almost anywhere without subsidies — especially if fossil-fuel subsidies are phased out too, as the G8 nations have agreed to do.
Let’s examine the biggest three — efficiency, solar and wind.
Energy efficiency can save 44 percent of projected 2050 electricity needs through proven building and industrial technologies that pay back far faster than any new source of supply. Wasting far less energy and getting the rest at lower and stable prices would powerfully boost jobs and growth.
In many states today, homeowners and businesses get immediate savings by letting entrepreneurs finance solar power on their roof, with no money down. Falling costs reminiscent of cellphones and DVD players have roughly doubled U.S. solar deployment every year for the past five years. While overall capacity is presently low, 100 percent of our nation’s annual electricity needs (after efficiency improvements) could be served with just seven more doublings of solar, readily achieved in the next few decades. Such is the power of exponential growth.
Windpower’s growth has been equally explosive. Iowa alone is now 20 percent wind-powered, and with only three more doublings, will receive all its electricity from wind while exporting the excess — its current goal for 2030. That’s putting millions in the pockets of Iowa farmers and county treasuries.
Conventional wisdom is wrong that solar and wind aren’t viable without a breakthrough in electricity storage. Analysis and experience prove that 60-80 percent solar and windpower — sited across a region, forecasted, and balanced by flexible supply and demand — can keep the lights on with often less storage or backup than traditional giant power stations need now. That’s how Germany, without adding storage, is already one-fourth renewable-powered, and at times last spring met over half its electric load just with solar power. A smart grid will make this even more successful and resilient.
Freeing American mobility from oil is another key to a richer, cooler, safer world. Deploying new DOE, DOD, and industry technologies could do this at an average cost of $25 per saved barrel. Ultralight, supersafe structures can make electric autos affordable by needing two-thirds fewer batteries. Over 25 varieties of electric and plug-in hybrid autos are on the market today, twice as many as two years ago. Smart charging and discharging of electric autos can even stabilize the grid and store renewable power.
These technologies scale faster than any other. No form of traditional generation — coal, gas, or nuclear — scales nearly as fast as efficiency, solar, and wind. Gigawatts of solar and wind can be added in months — not the years to decades required for traditional power plants. Cloudy Germany installed three gigawatts of solar in the month of December 2011 alone. That is 1.6 times more than was installed in the entire U.S. Germany’s scale-up has cut its solar-system costs to half of ours.
While we have these technologies, of course vibrant R & D investments are vital to keep America competitive and make clean energy even cheaper. Your Administration is wise to keep these strong.
Many climate scientists are calling for an end to fossil fuels in the next several decades to avoid severe climate change. This goal is aggressive but achievable, with competitive advantage, lower energy bills, and a stronger economy. Other countries are not waiting. China, Japan and India are tipping toward renewables; much of Europe already has. If we wait, they will own the future, our costs will rise, and so will risks to climate and global stability.
Mr. President, we have the technologies. Please lead us in removing the barriers to scaling them quickly to save our climate, protect our economy, and restore our energy security.
Amory Lovins is Chairman and Chief Scientist at Rocky Mountain Institute where Thomas Dinwoodie, former CEO of SunPower Corporation, Systems, is Lead Trustee.