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.
Peñon de los Banos, is a women-owned sustainable organic farm cooperative, a short ride from the mountain town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. My wife and I are part of a field trip, organized by The Center for Global Justice, visiting the Campo, to learn more about their work.
Residents of this small dairy farm have been part of a traditional ejido system for generations. Ejidos are communal lands, for growing food, shared and co-managed by the people of the community. The system was developed during ancient Aztec rule of Mexico. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has forced the Mexican government to do away with the ejido system, and open the land up to foreign agri-business.
With exponential population growth driving increasing demand for food, food prices are increasing. Farm land has become a growth investment. Foreign investors are eager to buy up land in this fertile region. This can put land ownership out of reach for local farmers. Much of the traditional farming is now being forced out, replaced by industrial agriculture. So, the women of Peñon de los Banos have banded together and formed a SPR (Sociedad de Produccion Rural). Adding to their dairy cow farm, they have constructed nine greenhouses to grow organic tomatoes and other vegetables, year round. They endeavor to farm sustainably, using composted manure from their cows to keep the soil fertile, and employing drip irrigation to conserve precious water. They are creating value-added products including tomato sauce and paste.
If they can grow the farm business, they hope to bring their husbands into the operation. To help pay the bills, the spouses have had to leave the community, to work in San Miguel or the US.
They are surrounded by industrial farming, which presents some challenges. The industrial farming methods use old fashioned wasteful irrigation techniques. Peñon de los Banos uses very efficient drip irrigation, but they are drawing from the same well and aquifer as the industrial farms, so if the industrial farms run the well aquifer dry, it effects Peñon de los Banos too. And with increased drought in the south, water is getting very scarce. Also, the industrial farms are not organic, and when they spray with pesticides, the women at Peñon de los Banos need to quickly cover their crops so the poisons don’t settle on the crops.
This trip has a special energy, as we were accompanied by a wonderful bunch of young women and their teachers, from Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisconsin. The students are here on a trip lead by their sociology professor, Julie Whitaker. They are a fantastic bunch of people. Julie and I talk about sustainable farming challenges facing farmers. She seems like a great teacher. Her students ask great questions. I continue to be impressed with the social engagement and energy young people are bringing to our world. These students rock! They have it in them to leave the world a better place.
After the tour, the women of the farm serve us a delicious traditional lunch (comida). They teach me how to make gorditas, toasting them on a wood fire heated steel plate. I am frankly overwhelmed by their beautiful generous spirit. For me, this has been the highlight of my month in Mexico.
Here is a video interview with the women of Peñon de los Banos, pictures from the trip, and an audio presentation by Cliff Durand of The Center for Global Justice. Cliff talks about the history of Peñon de los Banos and small farming in Mexico, and talks about the recent impact NAFTA is having on small farmers.
Video – filmed at Peñon de los Banos
Includes video of traditional mid-day meal (comida) and interview with the women that run the farm cooperative. Translation is provided by Ousia Whitaker-DeVault.
Pictures – from around Peñon de los Banos
Scenes from the farm, sharing a mid-day meal, and at the organic farmers market
Audio Presentation: Small farming in Mexico
Cliff Durand, of The Center for Global Justice gives background on small farms in Mexico and the effects of NAFTA. Audio quality is low until about 1 minute 30 seconds. Duration: 57 minutes.
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.
I am on a road trip across America, interviewing sustainable business leaders for a new book I am working on. Entering Iowa from the Northwest corner, hundreds of wind turbines rise majestically from the endless corn and soybean fields that are a staple of the Iowa landscape.
Pulling into an access road, I drive up to a newly installed wind turbine that looks like it is ready to be commissioned. It is a GE 1.6 megawatt (MW) wind turbine. The GE on-site engineer has obvious pride as he describes the wind turbine specs, design, and geology of the area that makes this site so amenable to wind power generation.
This wind turbine is located on the Coteau des Prairies, sometimes referred to as Buffalo Ridge. The ridge is composed of thick glacial deposits that gently rise to about 900 feet, from the surrounding prairie flatlands. The ridge runs eastward, from eastern South Dakota, through southwestern Minnesota, and northwestern Iowa. Numerous wind farms have been built along the ridge to take advantage of the high average wind speeds.
Iowa wind power accounts for about 20% of the electricity generated in the state – about 4 billion watts of power (4 GW). Iowa leads the US in percentage of electrical power generated by wind. Wind turbines will produce from 12 to 16 times more revenue per acre than corn or soybeans. And farmers can plant crops around the wind turbine, reaping the benefits of both. In addition, in the winter, winds are stronger, generating much needed revenue while the fields lay fallow.
Coincidentally, I saw this news today, about farmers in the UK ramping up their investment in renewable energy:
More than one third of UK farmers want to install renewable energy projects on their farmland, most of them within the next year, and hope to generate average returns of 25,000 pounds ($40,565) per year, UK bank Barclays said.
The bank’s business arm on Tuesday launched a 100-million pound fund to help farmers finance renewable energy projects, including solar panels, wind farms, hydro plants and organic waste power as a growing number of agricultural businesses seek to benefit from government support tariffs.
“We want to signal very clearly to the market that we consider this to be a big future industry, a big opportunity for agricultural businesses and also a big opportunity for the renewables,” said Barclays Business’ Product and Marketing Director, Travers Clarke-Walker, whose team will be managing the fund.
“This is a quickly emerging industry.”
A Barclays survey of 300 agricultural customers also showed four out of five farmers recognize renewable energy can save costs and 60 percent see it as a source of additional income.
The use of renewable energy on farmland has been brought to public attention in Britain by Michael Eavis, farmer and founder of the Glastonbury music festival, who installed over one thousand solar panels on his land.
The cost of installing renewable energy projects can be recovered after around 10 years, Clarke-Walker said.
The UK government slashed state support for large-scale solar plants earlier this month as it was concerned a few huge commercial projects would scoop up money intended for household and community projects.
Nevertheless, Clarke-Walker expects around 80-90 percent of projects will be solar and wind farms as they are cheapest to build and their costs are forecast to drop by up to 50 percent in the next three to five years as demand rises and technology improves.
Britain aims to generate 15 percent of energy from renewable sources by 2020, compared with 7.4 percent reached in 2010.
The fund’s loan budget is unlimited and the first 100 million pounds could support well over 100 projects as the average cost varies between 250,000-700,000 pounds, Clarke-Walker said.
Suffolk-based farmer Mike Porter, who plants crops such as wheat and oil seed rape, received a 130,000 pound loan from Barclays to install solar panels on a grain store last month and is expected to make 20,000 pounds per year by exporting power to the national grid.
Subsidies and tax breaks are a tried and true way of helping a developing industry get up on its feet.
One of the strategies to accelerate a transition to cleaner greener renewable energy sources is to subsidize research development, and production of renewable energy sources, such as wind power, solar power, geothermal, etc.
Free market advocates often say that the emerging renewable energy industry should not be subsidized. What is not widely know though, is that subsidies for well established fossil fuels exceed renewables by almost six to one.
Research by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and the Environmental Law Institute reveals that the lion’s share of energy subsidies supported energy sources that emit high levels of greenhouse gases (GHGs). The study, which reviewed fossil fuel and energy subsidies for Fiscal Years 2002-2008, showed that the federal government spent about $70 billion on the fossil fuel industry, and about $12 billion on renewables. As the report points out:
Moreover, just a handful of tax breaks make up the largest portion of subsidies for fossil fuels, with the most significant of these, the Foreign Tax Credit, supporting the overseas production of oil. More than half of the subsidies for renewables are attributable to corn-based ethanol, the use of which, while decreasing American reliance on foreign oil, has generated concern about climate effects.These figures raise the question of whether scarce government funds might be better allocated to move the United States towards a low-carbon economy.
N.B. Carbon capture and storage is a developing technology that would allow coal-burning utilities to capture and store their carbon dioxide emissions. Although this technology does not make coal a renewable fuel, if successful it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions compared to coal plants that do not use this technology. The production and use of corn ethanol can generate significant greenhouse gas emissions. Recognizing that the production and use of corn-based ethanol may generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, the data depict renewable subsidies both with and without ethanol subsidies.
Fossil fuel extraction is increasingly toxic (e.g. fracking poisons public water systems) and environmentally destructive (e.g. gulf oil “spill”). And fossil fuel production seems to be hitting a Peak Oil wall. As production lags demand, we should expect oil and gas prices to rise precipitously. Subsidizing oil keeps us addicted to it.
Three of the top 5 biggest companies in the world are oil companies (Exxon, BP, Royal Dutch Shell). Rather than subsidize Big Oil profits and foreign oil nations, we should be taxing fossil fuels to reduce their use. Tax what we want to reduce, and subsidize what we want to increase. Tax what harms us, and subsidize what helps us. Use the taxes to fund R&D and development of a world class alternative energy industry.
Obviously, that means politicians will need to resist the monied special interests of the Big Oil lobby.
Watch this video. It’s encouraging to see a Republican politician take a risk, saying climate change is a serious problem and the US needs to become a leader in innovating solutions.
Yesterday morning, at a House subcommittee hearing on climate change, outgoing Republican representative Bob Inglis challenged his Republican colleagues to stop mocking scientists, get busy tackling climate change, and put the US in a leadership position on innovating solutions.
A ThinkProgress analysis found that 50 percent of the incoming freshman GOP class deny the existence of manmade climate change, while a shocking 86 percent are opposed to any legislation to address climate change that increases government revenue. Meanwhile, all of the Republicans vying to chair the House Energy Committee — which handles climate and energy issues — in the new Congress are climate change deniers. They include Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), who infamously apologized to BP shortly after the company’s catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico this summer.
Here’s the transcript of Rep. Bob Inglis remarks, to the House subcommittee hearing on climate change
I’m very excited to be here Mr. Chairman, because this is on the record. And it’s a wonderful thing about Congressional hearings — they’re on the record. Kim Beaszley who’s Australia’s ambassador to the United States tells me that when he runs into a climate skeptic, he says to them, “Make sure to say that very publicly, because I want our grandchildren to read what you said and what I said. And so, we’re on the record, and our grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, are going to read. And so some are here suggesting to those children that here’s a deal: Your child is sick — this is what Tom Friedman gave me this great analogy yesterday — Your child is sick. 98 doctors say treat him this way. Two say no, this other way is the way to go. I’ll go with the two. You’re taking a big risk with those kids. Because 98 of the doctors say, “Do this thing,” two say, “Do the other.” So, it’s on the record.
And we’re here with important decision to be made. And I would also suggest to my Free Enterprise colleagues — especially conservatives here — whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, what we’ve talked about in this committee, the Chinese don’t. And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century. They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that’ll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button. And as a result, if we wake up in several years and we say, “geez, this didn’t work very well for us. The two doctors didn’t turn out to be so right. 98 might have been the ones to listen to.” then what we’ll find is we’re way behind those Chinese folks. ‘Cuz you know, if you got a certain number of geniuses in the population — if you’re one in a million in China, there’s 1300 of you. And you know what?
They plan on leading the future. So whether you — if you’re a free enterprise conservative here — just think: it’s a bunch of hooey, this science is a bunch of hooey. But if you miss the commercial opportunity, you’ve really missed something. And so, I think it’s great to be here on the record. I think it’s great to see the opportunity we’ve got ahead of us. And, I also — since this is sort of a swan song for me and Mr. Barrett I’d encourage scientists who are listening out there to get ready for the hearings that are coming up in the next Congress. Those will be difficult hearings for climate scientists. But, I would encourage you to welcome those as fabulous opportunities to teach.