At a recent Crossroads Lecture, energy policy expert Daniel Kammen spoke about Energizing the Low-Carbon Future. His presentation is timely – climate change has been on the public mind as hurricane superstorm Sandy devastated New York, New Jersey, and beyond. Though we would all agree that energy is an essential part of our daily life, Americans spend more money on potato chips than on energy research and development. Dan has a deep nuanced understanding of where we are at, and where we need to go, to build a clean, sustainable energy future.
In the presentation below, Dr. Kammen explores innovations in, and barriers to, building renewable energy systems worldwide – from villages to large regional economies. He discusses tools already available, and others needed, to speed the transition to a sustainable planet. Daniel Kammen is Professor in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG), Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL). Kammen advises the World Bank, and the Presidents Committee on Science and Technology (PCAST), and is a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Working Group III and the Special Report on Technology Transfer).
Dan spoke for about an hour, followed by a 35 minute question and answer session. The Q&A session has some great questions and discussion.
Dan talked about cleantech jobs, the economic benefits of transitioning to renewable energy, climate change, coal, natural gas, arctic sea ice loss, peak oil, the real cost of coal and other high-carbon sources of energy, solar energy, and energy storage. One of my favorite quotes:
When you are spending your funds buying fuels as a fraction of the cost of the technology, it’s a very different equation than when you are investing in people, training, new companies, and intellectual capital. [And so, for example] if you buy a gas turbine, 70 percent of the money that will go in to that, over its lifetime, is not going to be for human resources and hardware, it’s to buy fuel. If you buy renewable energy and energy efficiency, while we have a problem of needing to find ways to amortize up-front costs, you are investing in people, companies, and innovation.
Jobs created, per dollar invested, are consistently higher for cleantech jobs versus old fossil fuel based energy sources. Economist Robert Solow, in his Nobel prize winning work on the drivers of economic growth, demonstrated that about 75 to 80 percent of the growth in US output per worker was attributable to technical progress and innovation. Transitioning to renewable forms of energy will provide strong stimulus to our economy, while reducing public health and environmental costs associated with dirty coal and oil pollution.
After Dan Kammen finished overviewing climate change and energy issues, he highlighted several case studies that featured renewable energy and low-carbon energy production implementations for small (personal), medium (community) and large (national) installations. Watch the video above for more.
Veteran investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner Hedrick Smith’s new work, Who Stole the American Dream?, steps back from the partisan fever of the 2012 campaign to explain how we got to where we are today — how America moved from an era of middle class prosperity and power, effective bipartisanship, and grass roots activism, to today’s polarized gridlock, unequal democracy and unequal economy that has unraveled the American Dream for millions of middle class families.
On 22 September 2012, Hedrick Smith spoke at the Parish Hall on Orcas Island, WA, as part of the Crossroads Lecture Series. He spoke for about an hour, followed by a 20 minute question and answer session. His book is available on Orcas Island at Darvill’s Bookstore (a signed copy), or at Amazon.
Smith’s book is brimming with fascinating insider stories that detail the shift from a strong middle class of the 50s and 60s, to the current weakened middle class, with an income inequality that is at an all time high, ranking with that of Rwanda and Uganda.
This didn’t happen by accident. Smith details how, beginning in the 1970s, corporate attorney Lewis Powell sparked a political rebellion with his call to arms for Corporate America. Like a gripping detective story, Smith follows the trail through to present day. Chronicling a stunning shift in power, away from a healthy growing middle-class, toward a superPACed, lobbyist fueled, special interest driven, well oiled, corporate powered, political machine.
Over the past decade, at the center of the machine, stands the “Gang of Six” and Washington insider Dirk Van Dongen, the man behind the curtain, who coordinates very effective lobbying of our elected officials. The Gang of Six include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, and Van Dongen’s own National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.
Who Stole the American Dream? makes for compelling reading, and at the end, Smith offers up a grassroots-centered strategy for reclaiming the dream – restoring balance to our economy and re-building a healthy middle-class. The video above will give you a summary understanding of what is well detailed in his book.
Corporate lobbyists funnel billions of dollars to our elected officials each year. Recent studies show that for every dollar spent lobbying, business receives over $220 back in legislation that favors the business.
On climate change alone, 770 companies hired 2,340 lobbyists, up 300% in past 5 years. Most of those companies have vested interests in fossil fuels and benefit from delay of legislation that would speed the transition to clean energy.
In 2011 private companies and special interest groups spent $3.32 billion lobbying their agendas. In 2010, they spent even more at $3.54 billion. From 2008 to 2010, 30 Fortune 500 companies spent more money on lobbying than they did on taxes.
In an unusual moment of candor, here’s what Senator Dick Durbin had to say about corporate money and politicians:
“I think most Americans would be shocked, not surprised, but shocked if they knew how much time a United States Senator spends raising money. And how much time we spend talking about raising money, and thinking about raising money, and planning to raise money.” Dick Durbin, 30 March 2012
Depending on status and influence, our elected officials in Congress typically raise about $5,000 to $30,000 per day. They spend a good part of each day dialing for dollars, asking businesses to send them money. It is against the law (the Hatch Act) to make those calls from government property, so they walk to call centers located conveniently just a few minutes from Capitol Hill.
Money in Politics
For more on how corporations and our elected officials are joined at the hip, see the excellent series on Money in Politics. Here’s an excerpt from that series:
So senators and congressmen go across the street to private rooms in nongovernmental buildings, where they make call after call, asking people for money. In other words, most of our lawmakers are moonlighting as telemarketers.
“If you walked in there, you would say, ‘Boy, this is the about the worst looking, most abusive looking call center situation I’ve seen in my life,'” says Rep. Peter Defazio, a Democrat from Oregon. “These people don’t have any workspace, the other person is virtually touching them.”
There are stacks of names in front of each lawmaker. They go through the list, making calls and asking people for money.
The fundraising never stops, because everyone needs money to run for re-election. In the House, the candidate with more money wins in 9 out of 10 races, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics. In the Senate, it’s 8 out of 10.
It’s not uncommon for congressmen to average three or four hours moonlighting as telemarketers. One lawmaker told me if it was the end of the quarter and he really needed to make his numbers, he’d be there all day long.
The fox is in the hen house. Time to get the big money out of politics. Surely our elected representatives don’t want to do this demeaning begging for money. Surely they would like to start making laws and setting public policy based on the merits of an issue. Right?
Last Call at the Oasis just opened in movie theaters this past Friday. Film critic Christopher Campbell said it best: Last Call at the Oasis is “necessary viewing for anyone on the planet who drinks water.”
It helps us understand how water is central to every part of our lives, shows how it is becoming more scarce and in some cases toxic, and offers examples of ways to conserve water more effectively, reduce pollution, and manage our precious water resources better.
The movie trailer is below. As you watch it, note the lake that appears at 45 seconds in to the trailer. That is Lake Mead. It is the main source for water to Las Vegas, and feeds the Hoover Dam, which generates electricity for Las Vegas and beyond. The lake has been around for a very very long time, and, according to Scripps Institution of Oceanography, will likely be dry in the next 10 years. Increased consumption and changing climate have caused the lake to drop an average of 10 feet per year. In 4 years, the water level will likely drop so low that Hoover Dam will be unable to operate.
Here’s a picture of Lake Mead taken in 2007. It was bad then and it’s worse now.
I was driving through Texas last summer, and all the radio stations could talk about was how hot and dry it was. At that time, Austin had over 70 days straight of temperatures above 100 degrees F. Wildfires raged as the drought-parched land baked to a crisp. Here’s a drought map that shows just how extensive the drought was. Note that the brownish-red areas are ranked as “Exceptional” – beyond even extreme drought.
As climate change continues its slow inexorable advance, we should expect to see the southern US trend much drier and hotter. Agriculture and ranching will become unsustainable. Humans will need to be very good at conserving and getting by with much less water. Last Call at the Oasis is a wakeup call.
Here’s the movie trailer for Last Call at the Oasis…
Consider seeing the movie. It helps us understand how we can preserve our precious water resources. It is so much more satisfying being part of the solution, than being part of the problem.
In an uplifting TED video, Britta Riley, founder of R&D-I-Y (Research & Develop It Yourself), talks about how a global network of interested citizens developed a simple window farming design that allows urban dwellers to grow food in their apartment windows.
Using open-source collaboration methods, and sharing a common interest in growing fresh food in their living spaces, the online innovation community has grown to 25,000+ participants.
In the same way that Egyptians used Web 2.0 social media tools (e.g. Facebook and online forums) to rise up, R&D-I-Y is using those social media tools for product development and innovation. All this, done outside the for-profit sanctum of traditional corporate culture.
Here’s the video of Britta describing the journey that started with a simple desire to grow healthy fresh food in her tiny apartment.
The resulting window garden design is in the public domain, at Windowfarms.org, and can be purchased as a kit, or, for Do-It-Yourselfers, you can download plans and participate in the collaborative community, to build one for yourself.
This is important. If you can build it, you can repair it. And in our disposable culture, on a finite planet, that’s a big win.
By building something, we come to understand the nature of it – how it works. And, should it break, we understand it enough to repair it. And we have the collaborative community backing us up, if we need some advice.
Repair – it is one of the 4 Rs of sustainable living – Reduce, Recycle, Reuse and Repair. Here’s how window farming helps us live more sustainably:
Reduce the distance food travels, water consumed for irrigation, CO2 and water pollution, fuel imports, food cost, food nutritional loss, etc.
Reuse things like wire, light fixtures, fabric, etc., that might normally be discarded, when you are building it from scratch.
Recycle things like plastic bottles, which are basic building blocks of do-it-yourself window farms. But in this design, no need to recycle (which takes energy) – we can Reuse discarded plastic bottles.
Repair – If you build it, you can repair it.
For those that want to live lighter on the land, and more sustainably, the 4 Rs are our credo.
One hundred years ago, almost half of Americans were employed in farming or food production. Now it is less than .4 percent of the nation. While this is a testament to improvements in the efficiency of agriculture, much has been lost. We have become disconnected from how our food is produced. Convenience often drives our choices. We consume much more prepared food, loaded with preservatives and with less nutritional goodness.
Our food travels an average of over 1,500 miles to get to us. That consumes a lot of fuel, emits a lot of CO2, reduces food freshness, and removes dollars from our local communities.
As our global population has doubled to over 7 billion people, the per capita land available for growing food has been cut in half. There are serious concerns about how we will feed the exponentially growing population. And that population will largely be dwelling in cities.
What if much of the food we wanted to eat was, literally, within reach?
Urban agriculture allows us to reclaim the built urban landscape for growing food. But now, in the dense urban setting, we will do it vertically. The acres of farmland are transformed into vertical window scapes, or rooftop gardens.
My wife and I garden year round, raise chickens, and enjoy a local community committed to growing healthy food. In addition to the economic benefits (food is one of the biggest costs of living), there is something deeply satisfying about picking fresh produce and cooking it up, on the spot – sharing it with friends.
Growing food is a daily miracle. The tiny seed becomes a mature plant that can provide food for months. In an economy of increasing scarcity, gardens provide a welcome abundance.
Beyond the satisfaction of growing ones own food, there is a real health benefit. Listen to Dr. Terry Wahls describe her remarkable story about how careful food choices cured her MS. At the center of her diet – kale and greens that can be grown in a window garden.
As Dr. Wahls points out, we can be eating a lot of food, but starving ourselves of the nutrients needed for good health. Obesity in the US is at all time highs – thanks to the proliferation of prepared foods that taste great but have little nutritional value – e.g. soft drinks, pizza, fast food, etc.. Here’s just one example. Each day, the average American consumes 100 to 200 times more sugar than we did 100 years ago. Healthcare costs now represent 17% of US GDP. Anything we can do to stay healthy will save us enormous amounts of money and the inconvenience and discomfort of doctor visits, hospitalization, surgery, back problems, addiction to pain-killers, chemo, radiation, …
Bad food put Dr. Wahls in a wheel chair. Good food got her back on her own two feet – In a matter of seven months. But with so much processed food being engineered to addict us to the food (sweet, salty, buttery, etc.), the choice to eat nutritious healthy foods is not easy. It is a daily choice that rewards only if we are steadily committed to the journey.
A Global Perspective on Food
Pulling the lens back for a more global view – as world population expands inexorably – we are approaching a tipping point with regard to food production.
Recently, a report that gained little attention in the news, but has major ramifications for every nation, was published by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
The FAO report – The World Food Situation – reports that world food prices surged to a new historic peak in January, for the seventh consecutive month. The FAO Food Price Index (below) is a commodity basket that regularly tracks monthly changes in global food prices.
This is the highest level (both in real and nominal terms) since FAO started measuring food prices in 1990.
As we can see from the chart on the right, the price of individual commodities that comprise the index – meat, dairy, cereals, oil and fats, and sugar – are all on the rise.
Global food prices have exceeded their pre-recession price levels. Some of this is due to the price of petroleum returning to pre-recession levels. About 17% of all petroleum production is consumed for food production. Petroleum is a key ingredient in the manufacture of fertilizer and pesticides, and sources energy for irrigation, food transport, etc. Note how the Food Price Index closely parallels the price of oil.
In addition, climate change is driving an increase in extreme weather, including record heat during growing seasons, record flooding, and extreme rain.
Protein is usually produced with grain, and it is an inefficient process:
It takes 1,ooo tons of water to produce a ton of grain
It takes about 15 pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef
So, it takes about 5,200 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef
Though food prices are volatile, and change daily, the trend is clearly up.
As our population increases, and as each nation seeks affluence, food will become a major factor in the stability of all nations. Food shortages in China will effect the price of our food here in the US, as nations vie for the precious basics of life, on a finite planet.
Want to change the world? Plant some food in your window.
Jeffrey Sachs has a outstanding new book out called The Price of Civilization. The title of the book refers to remarks made by US Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who spoke of the need for citizens of a country, who enjoyed the benefits of living in that country, to pay the price to support that civilization.
Sachs provides a thoughtful, cogent analysis of challenges facing America, and how to address those challenges. The book has a clean straightforward jargon-free narrative that is balanced and has elements that will appeal to conservatives, independents and progressives alike – though each group will find things to disagree with, there is much that will be embraced.
Sachs looks at the nature of America, through the lens of democracy, fairness, civic virtue, compassion, and happiness, and asks the question “What is our role in the 21st century?”
Sachs is the Director of The Earth Institute, Quetelet Professor of Sustainable Development, and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University.
Here’s Sachs being interviewed by Charlie Rose, about The Price of Civilization.
Here’s Sachs in the middle of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, taking questions from reporters. Sachs is articulate, plain speaking and clearly frustrated with the faltering state of the nation and the cozy monied relationship between government and big business.
On a related note, Charles M. Blow had an excellent graphic from the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation report “Social Justice in the OECD — How Do the Member States Compare?” It helps give some context to issues driving the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations and challenges facing America.
Oil production in the US peaked in 1970. The easy “sweeter” stuff has been extracted. What remains is deeper in the ground or farther off-shore, requires much more energy to extract, and is more toxic to produce. It takes energy to make energy. Energy Return on Investment (EROI) also known as ERoEI (Energy Returned on Energy Invested), is a common way of expressing the efficiency of the energy production process. The EROI for oil and gas, as well as other fossil fuels, has been falling for decades (see chart below). If it was a financial stock, you would have sold it years ago.
It is important to track EROI. Producing a barrel of oil consumes more and more energy, thus exponentially accelerating the consumption of the oil. It is like the mythic Ouroboros – a snake eating its own tail. A high EROI is better than low EROI. As we approach an EROI of 1:1 (e.g. consuming 1 barrel of oil to produce 1 barrel of oil), it’s game over – why bother. Prudent nations would want to have a comprehensive plan for transitioning to alternative fuels and renewable energy, well before we hit peak oil. Oh well… More on that in a minute (see The Hirsch Report, below).
Oil and gas are the main sources of energy in the United States. Part of their appeal is the high Energy Return on Energy Investment (EROI) when procuring them. We assessed data from the United States Bureau of the Census of Mineral Industries, the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the Oil and Gas Journal for the years 1919–2007 and from oil analyst Jean Laherrere to derive EROI for both finding and producing oil and gas. We found two general patterns in the relation of energy gains compared to energy costs: a gradual secular decrease in EROI and an inverse relation to drilling effort. EROI for finding oil and gas decreased exponentially from 1200:1 in 1919 to 5:1 in 2007. The EROI for production of the oil and gas industry was about 20:1 from 1919 to 1972, declined to about 8:1 in 1982 when peak drilling occurred, recovered to about 17:1 from 1986–2002 and declined sharply to about 11:1 in the mid to late 2000s. The slowly declining secular trend has been partly masked by changing effort: the lower the intensity of drilling, the higher the EROI compared to the secular trend. Fuel consumption within the oil and gas industry grew continuously from 1919 through the early 1980s, declined in the mid-1990s, and has increased recently, not surprisingly linked to the increased cost of finding and extracting oil.
As we deplete the earths global oil reserves, we need to dig deeper and deeper – typically drilling over 100 million feet of well per year. It takes enormous amounts of energy and resources to do that, not to mention the energy consumed just to figure out where to drill. The next two charts show the EROI for oil and gas discovery and production.
For the Discovery chart above, note that in the early days of oil exploration, the stuff was practically bubbling out of the ground, so it was much easier to figure out where to drill – hence the EROI over 1,200 in 1920. As the US industrial age found its legs, oil consumption accelerated. Demand for more and more oil quickly consumed the easy stuff, and the EROI fell rapidly. As we hit peak oil production in 1970, the EROI fell below 10:1. I inset a blowup of the chart, from 1950 to 2010, so that we can see how EROI has since remained firmly in the single digits.
The EROI for Production is trending lower too. Variations in any given year are largely dependent on how much drilling it takes to produce the oil. Typically about 2 barrels of oil equivalent are consumed per foot of well drilled. In years where there was a lot of drilling, the EROI would be lower.
A more intuitive way to look at this trend is as dollars per barrel of oil. The chart below is from the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Annual Energy Review for 2011. It shows the cost to add each additional barrel of oil to US reserves.
As I mentioned above, the easy oil has been extracted. What remains is increasingly difficult to get to and refine (ultra-deep, off-shore, tar sands, shale-rock fracking, etc). We should expect these prices to continue their trend higher.
The Hirsch Report
In 2005, the US Department of Energy published Peaking of World Oil Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management, which came to be known as the Hirsch Report, named for the reports lead author, Robert Hirsch. It examined the time frame for the occurrence of peak oil, the necessary mitigating actions, and the likely impacts based on the timeliness of those actions. From the report:
The peaking of world oil production presents the U.S. and the world with an unprecedented risk management problem. As peaking is approached, liquid fuel prices and price volatility will increase dramatically, and, without timely mitigation, the economic, social, and political costs will be unprecedented. Viable mitigation options exist on both the supply and demand sides, but to have substantial impact, they must be initiated more than a decade in advance of peaking.
The report estimated that oil production would peak in about 2015. It laid out three possible scenarios:
A scenario analysis was performed, based on crash program implementation worldwide – the fastest humanly possible. Three starting dates were considered: 1. When peaking occurs; 2. Ten years before peaking occurs; and 3. Twenty years before peaking.
The timing of oil peaking was left open because of the considerable differences of opinion among experts. Consideration of a number of implementation scenarios provided some fundamental insights, as follows:
Waiting until world oil production peaks before taking crash program action leaves the world with a significant liquid fuel deficit for more than two decades.
Initiating a mitigation crash program 10 years before world oil peaking helps considerably but still leaves a liquid fuels shortfall roughly a decade after the time that oil would have peaked.
Initiating a mitigation crash program 20 years before peaking offers the possibility of avoiding a world liquid fuels shortfall for the forecast period.
The reason why such long lead times are required is that the worldwide scale of oil consumption is enormous – a fact often lost in a world where oil abundance has been taken for granted for so long. If mitigation is too little, too late, world supply/demand balance will have to be achieved through massive demand destruction (shortages), which would translate to extreme economic hardship. On the other hand, with timely mitigation, economic damage can be minimized.
We are on a short fuse. As we ride along the top of peak oil production, spikes in demand, or disruptions in supply, will cause rapid fluctuations in the price of oil. With no ability to provide alternatives, the economy will stutter, usually in the form of a recession, which has the side effect of reducing demand. Until we transition to alternative forms of energy, we will repeat the cycle of growth, followed by hitting the peak oil wall, followed by recession.
Small is Beautiful
And as the legendary economist E.F. Schumacher points out in his seminal book Small is Beautiful, to understand the true cost of an product or initiative, we must tally both the direct costs as well as the indirect costs. When we talk about oil and gas, what is the cost of CO2 spewing into our atmosphere? What is the cost of toxic chemicals leaking into our water systems? What is the cost to public health? What is the cost of each oil war? What is the cost of funding petro-dictatorships? What is the cost to the common wealth?
What is the cost?
While the EROI of fossil fuels such as oil, gas, and coal plummet, the EROI for renewables such as wind and solar are trending strongly up, with EROIs five to twenty times higher than their fossil fuel counterparts.
Can the nation that pioneered the computer, telecommunications, the internet, medical technology, oil exploration, landed on the moon, etc. muster the will to do it again with alternative energy? Carpe Diem!