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New Energy Age: Do We Really Mean It This Time?

RE Insider - August 9, 2004 - Was it groupthink, or did the German Government's Renewables 2004 conference in Bonn earlier this summer mean the world's nations finally understand that the age of fossil fuels is coming to a close? And, more importantly, that their governments must midwife the birth of sustainable energy?

The naturally lit interior of the old East German Bundestag assembly hall on the banks of the Rhine River rang with rhetoric once heard only at West Coast communes and the Sierra Club, but this time it was coming from representative of 154 countries and 30 international agencies.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the 3600 Participants: "Those who have been hesitant in addressing this issue (of redirecting global energy policy) in the past are now coming around to realizing the urgency of doing so...Events in Saudi Arabia and Iraq have made it dramatically clear how vitally important it is to our security to have an energy supply based on as many different types and sources of energy as possible."

The chancellor was pointing out that which seems to have barely entered the consciousness of mainstream American politics, namely, the folly of placing our energy future in the hands of Islamist fundamentalists - very likely the next governments of Iraq and Saudi Arabia -- who are more interested in using oil to realize apocalyptic visions than conspicuous consumption.

But most of this was clear enough in the 1970s of the first two oil shocks. What was new in the energy dialogue in Bonn was the leader of the economic powerhouse of Europe, which as much as any industrial country relies on cheap fossil fuels for its prosperity, publicly warning that everything must change... That "the nightmare scenario in which deserts would expand and large parts of the world would be flooded can be avoided only if we radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions."

Something else, not new but more urgently felt, was in the air at the conference. The expert consensus now holds that the peak of world oil production is near - if it has not already happened. When legendary geologist M. King Hubbert famously predicted in 1956 that U.S. oil production would peak in the early 70s, he was derided. It peaked in 1970. Now similar predictions for the global peak vary by decades, but they are not being dismissed. It may already have happened (does Saudi Arabia really have all those reserves?) , and it will certainly happen within the lifetimes of most everyone alive today.

What this of course means is that policy makers who now worry about the political fall-out of a 20-cent rise in the price of a gallon of gasoline are looking at exponential increases -- as falling production curves crash through rising energy demand in China, India, and the rest of the developing world where most people live.

The conference organizers leaned on the 200 governments and international organizations to submit voluntary commitments to "action" programs and specific goals to promote renewables and efficiency. Submissions trickled in at first, but the 214-page final draft had 165 actions. Some, like the U.S. offering, were nothing more than existing programs reformatted for the conference documentation.

But the German government added it all up and estimated that implementation would save 1.2 billion tons of CO2 per year by 2015 and would "mobilize billions in investments in generating energy from wind, solar, biomass and geothermal sources."

Among the most impressive was the submission of the Philippines. By 2013 the Pacific Island republic has set itself the goal of doubling the current renewable energy share of total national energy capacity. That would mean 4700 MW, primarily through geothermal power and wind energy, making Philippines the world's main producer of geothermal energy and South-East Asian leader in wind energy generation.

In his statement outlining the plan, Eduardo Manalac, Philippines undersecretary of Energy, took a battle stance:

"A war is being waged at the present time against extreme poverty and the real threat of climate change," he said, "A war, ladies and gentlemen, and so a man of peace must take up arms. The strategy for the war is straightforward, undeniable, unattainable, some say: DEVELOPING RENEWABLE ENERGY SOURCES."

The metaphor might not have appealed to one of the key conference organizers, Federal Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul. She had earlier landed the best sound-bite of the conference: "You don't fight wars over the sun."

You would think not, yet a key element of Germany's plan is to import solar-generated electricity from the sun belt of northern Africa.

Even China, whose growing appetite for automobiles and commensurate ability to pay for them has loomed over the world's energy future, got praise. By 2010 China has pledged to increase the share of renewables energies in its total installed capacity to 10 per cent, the equivalent of 60 GW total installed capacity. Of that 50GW will be small hydropower, 4 GW from wind energy, 6 GW bio biomass, and 450 MW from solar power. The government expects to put EURO 50 billion into this.

The Renewables 04 conference left me with both new hope for a better energy future but also an uncomfortable foreboding. Most national governments and their international councils seem to accept the inevitability of energy change because of global warming and a prospective peak of global oil production.

But one doesn't, and that's the one who matters most - the USA.

Twenty-five years ago I led a group within the office of the Mayor of Los Angeles which mapped a different energy path of the nation's second largest city. Our Energy/LA Action Plan, published in 1980, found that a reduction of 21% of projected demand for conventional energy use within that decade was feasible for an investment of $1.2 billion in efficiency and renewables. With estimated savings of $790 million in the city's energy bill in 1990 alone, that investment would be repaid many times over, with big dividends of cleaner air and jobs. These results would deliver a large share of air pollutant reductions needed to achieve federal clean air standards, and they would create thousands of new, good jobs.

The Energy/LA Plan was adopted by City Council as part of the city's general plan and won the American Planning Association's top award for urban planning. But it was never fully implemented. Why?

Energy ceased to be a sexy political issue in the 1980s. For that we can thank the same folks who brought us the two oils shocks of the 70s - OPEC. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries learned its lesson even if we didn't. Push your monopoly too far - raise the price of oil too high - and you'll bring on the market options that will put you out of business. Now, OPEC (read Saudi Arabia) virtually admits in public that it manages oil prices in such a way as to keep our economy dependent and just healthy enough to pay the bill while ignoring the alternatives. (Well, isn't that what we both want?)

Every government except ours seems to get this. But, some of us remember we actually had bi-partisan support for energy independence in the 1970s. Both Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter called for and committed themselves to aggressive plans to solve the energy problem. What happened? Watergate. The Iran hostage crisis. The torrent of Middle East petro dollars buying political influence in our government and economy. The newly dominant Free Market religion that made any government expenditure except defense and tax cuts a mistake if not immoral.

The dread I felt at the Renewables conference is that Schroeder's nightmare scenario will have to happen in order to produce the political consensus for action in the United States. The history of the AIDS pandemic seems to show that we have to be well into the crisis with millions dead and millions more mobilized before we can focus on a problem. A world conference on AIDS in Bangkok has been the lead story in the mainstream media for a week. The English-language mainstream press coverage of Renewables 04 conference was almost nil. Yet every meaningless dip and rise of oil prices is breathlessly reported.

Where to call to find out if they really mean it:
Where in the world are the government officials responsible for implementing the energy commitments made at the Renewables 2004 conference? You can find out at this link on the web:
www.renewables2004.de/pdf/Final_International_Action_Programme.pdf

This is a searchable pdf file which contains a description of all of the voluntary efficiency and renewable energy projects submitted by governments and international agencies at the conference. More important for marketing purposes, it has the names, addresses, phone numbers, and email of the responsible officials. Let us know if anyone is answering mail.

About the author...

Mark Braly was director of the Mayor's Energy Office, City of Los Angeles, and President of a State of California agency which financed small businesses in the renewable energy and efficiency industries. He recently retired from the U.S. Dept. of Defense where he was a project manager for the redevelopment of closing military bases. He began his career as a journalist in Houston. His undergraduate degree is from Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, and his master's is in economics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He lives in Davis, CA.

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