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Unified green field theory

David Roberts is a staff writer at Grist and contributes frequently to their blog, Gristmill. This is the second part of a two-part attempt to present a potential unified agenda for greens. Part I was published Wednesday.

I've argued that 2007 promises to be a year of great ferment and opportunity for greens of all stripes. It's more important than ever that they get their act together and start pushing, as one, in the direction of sustainability and justice.

The bias of U.S. capitalism—in hock to the Chinese, awash in consumer debt, tottering atop a rickety real estate boom—is toward ever-escalating energy production, material consumption and concentration of wealth.

Pushing back against this tide will require a greater degree of coordination than the green movement has typically shown. Of course it would impractical to expect too specific a common agenda. Picking winners is a dodgy business, and each bloc in the green coalition has its own idiosyncratic interests. But if they can work out a common overarching chorus, one with which everybody from security hawks to conservationists to evangelicals can sing along, greens may finally start reaching beyond the choir.

I hereby propose just such an overarching message, a mere five words long: Use renewably generated electricity, efficiently, or URGE² (watch for the bumper sticker!). As far as greens are concerned, everything that advances that goal should be supported. What doesn't should be ignored or opposed. Let's pick it apart a little.

Mine negawatts. The cheapest source of new energy, as greens are practically hoarse from repeating, is not using it. Boosting efficiency will allow us to slash the growth of energy demand and offset the (for now) higher prices of renewable energy . Energy analyst Amory Lovins famously said that what we want is not energy itself but "cold beer and hot showers," i.e. the services energy provides. The goal of energy policy should not be to increase supply at any cost, but to encourage the provision of end-use services at minimal net energy cost.

Thousands of Americans—many more thousands to come with Oprah and Wal-Mart's  backing—are discovering negawatts through a rather unlikely source, the once-homely light bulb. Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) provide the same illumination as luminescent bulbs using far less energy. Greens should tie that simple, widely grasped fact to a whole panoply of similar examples: Cars can go farther on the same fuel; manufacturers can produce the same goods with less energy; power can be generated and transmitted with less loss. Low-hanging fruit is everywhere, just like lightbulbs.

Entrenched elites will always push for more supply. It's up to greens and their allies to beat the drum for demand reduction.

Electrify. For the most part, we use two basic kinds of fuel. Liquid fuels—oil and natural gas—directly power our vehicles and heat (some of) our homes. Other sources—coal and hydro, also natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar—are used to make electricity.

The simple fact all greens need to internalize is that it's easier to find clean, renewable sources of electricity than it is to find clean, renewable liquid fuels. The logic is inexorable: We need to shift almost all power use to electricity.

This will be a long, complex and likely chaotic process. We'll probably need somewhat greener liquid fuels like ethanol, liquid natural gas (LNG) and gasified coal as bridges. We'll have to vastly improve the resilience and intelligence of the electricity grid, and develop much more effective means of electricity storage. There will be exceptions—e.g. direct solar heating. Different greens will disagree about how fast to proceed and what steps to take.

But electrification has got to be the end goal.

That means dialing back the ethanol frenzy. It means pushing for plug-in hybrids and eventually fully electric vehicles, as well as an electrified national high-speed rail system. But primarily it means escalating the fight against public enemy No. 1: oil.

Kill coal. Coal is the enemy of the human race. It is corrosive to the communities and ecosystems where it is mined. Coal-fired power plants spew particulates and mercury pollution in to the air, cutting short some 30,000 lives a year. Those power plants are also responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions; electric power generation is the single biggest source of global greenhouse gases. The industry funds deliberately deceptive propaganda campaigns about global warming. Coal barons like Massey Energy's Don Blankenship openly purchase state government officials to fight off labor and environmental enforcement.

So-called "clean coal " is an improvement, if it is coupled with carbon sequestration. But, as I've argued, the full cost of coal liquefaction and carbon sequestration will make coal power uncompetitive with, for example, wind.

The quickest way to kill coal is by putting a steep price on carbon emissions, enforcing existing Clean Air Act provisions on particulate pollution, and passing a tougher federal mercury pollution law.

Upgrade the grid . Dirty sources of electricity must be phased out in favor of renewable sources like wind, solar, geothermal, hydrokinetic, cogeneration and biomethane.

All these sources share one of two characteristics, typically cast as fatal flaws: they are either intermittent ("the wind doesn't always blow") or localized ("the sun doesn't shine in Seattle"). It is often taken for granted that only coal, natural gas and nuclear can provide reliable "baseload" power.

It's not true. Intermittency can be beat with good storage, and localization, in a robust, decentralized energy grid, is a feature, not a bug.

Finding good power storage technology means devoting time and money above all to battery technology (both lithium and nano), but also worth investigating are hydrogen fuel cells, pumped storage, molten-salt storage, ultracapacitors and any other gizmo that has a shot at pulling it off. Soon enough, some combination of efficiency and flexible storage technology will render the problem of intermittency irrelevant.

While there will always be a place for large-scale infrastructure—big generation projects, long transmission lines—green advocacy should push in the direction of decentralization. To the extent any region can rely on a distributed array of clean, small- to mid-size, locally appropriate energy sources, it prospers. It creates more local jobs and becomes more economically independent. And its energy system becomes more resilient in the face of accidents, natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

The green coalition is vast and varied, but there isn't a constituency within it whose interests would not be served by URGE² (watch for the t-shirt!). Less land would be despoiled by drilling and mining. Energy security would be improved. Imperial military adventures would be (even more) unnecessary. Fewer low-income and minority children would suffer from asthma or mercury poisoning. More high-quality, high-skilled, unionized jobs would be created. Political and economic power would be less concentrated in a few hands.

Entrenched elites will always favor switching out one set of large-scale, concentrated sources of energy for another. But that's a mug's game. It's up to greens to lobby on behalf of the broader public interest.

In 2007, a time of great change and instability, a time when a butterfly's wings can create a hurricane, greens should for once join forces and push in the same direction. Imagine what could happen.


URGE2: Caveat edition

(Published in Gristmill January 15, 2007).

Several issues and questions have come up around the URGE2 concept, most of which I anticipated but was too lazy to write about on my first post. Forthwith, a few notes, caveats, and explanations.

First, remember this is conceived as a communication device, not a complete or ideal description of green policy utopia. It has to meet a few requirements:

  1. It has to be broad enough to lure the support of many green constituencies.
  2. It has to be specific enough to yield real lobbying and policy guidance.
  3. It has to be simple and memorable enough to stick in people's heads.

I worry quite a bit about greens on this score.

You've got the wonks, with their chart-laden analysis and 50-point Perfect Policy Plans. You've got the seasoned campaigners, patrolling the halls of state and federal legislatures, haggling over provision C4sub2 of some obscure regulation. You've got the dirty hippies, talking dreamily about changing the human soul and scrapping capitalism. And you've got scattered advocates raising alarms that we're all fucked if we don't get working.

I love all those people, truly I do, and there's a little of each in me. But what's conspicuously missing from that crowd is people focusing specifically on a simple policy agenda that's easy to rally public support around and easy to communicate to policymakers -- one that can provide not only immediate advice, but mid- and long-term policy guidance as well.

This is the kind of thing that virtually all conservatives trained in the College Republicans and rightwing think tanks do. They view their roles as academics or researchers or dreamers as secondary. Most of all they're trying to push public policy in their direction.

Greens, for whatever reason, have lost their mojo on this score (though groups like the Apollo Alliance and 25x25 are groping in the right direction). Pushing public policy in your direction means more than choosing what you like and cheerleading for it. It means assessing the landscape, finding pressure points, finding trends that need to be counteracted, finding overlooked pieces of the puzzle that no one else is rooting for. It means being politically strategic.

Anyway, something like that is what I'm trying to do. I'm probably not the guy to do it, but I'd like to at least get people thinking along those lines.

Any such project is going to be schematic. It will leave stuff out or over-simplify stuff. Such as:

  • A carbon cap, or tax, or cap-and-trade system. This was a tough call. Some sort of price on carbon is inevitable. But it seems to me that green advocacy for pricing carbon is kind of a back-door way of advocating for positive things like clean energy. I think a carbon price is all but inevitable now, and I'd rather have greens focus on positive solutions. But I go back and forth about this.
  • Not all liquid-fuel use will shift to electricity. Solar thermal and geothermal will take a chunk of the heating. Biofuels will serve local uses.
  • I didn't mention -- except by way of preparing the grid for it -- clean energy itself. That's because I think there's a sh-tload of capital out there already flooding into that market. Government research would help, but the ball is rolling. Tons of people are devoting themselves to it. Greens can fill in the gaps, pushing on things few others are paying attention to, like the grid, storage, etc.

One final note: Stentor warns us to avoid an "energy-reductionist conceptualization of environmentalism." I don't think we should avoid that, at least at the moment. In my mind, everything comes back to energy and climate change. Realigning our energy situation is central. All our other goals hinge on it, and it will have innumerable side benefits that will touch every other issue we hold dear. Every green group, of every stripe, should be focused like a laser on energy and climate change. Policymakers should be hearing one voice, talking about one thing, from every side. It's time for a coordinated push.

Editorial Notes: Reprinted by permissiion of the author. Strong points of David's approach:
  • He knows what it takes to get a message across. Scientists, engineers and idealists often have a strong grasp of the facts, but lack skill at the art of persuasion. The rollicking good journalism at Grist is a good model for us peak oil types.
  • He brings an environmentalist background to the discussion about energy, so he is better able to bring together peak oil and climate change activism, as Richard Heinberg has suggested.
  • He keeps in mind the need for effective political action, arguing for a simple, unified message.
From my point of view, David underestimates the changes coming as a result of peak oil. There is a need for long-range thinking, like that of M. King Hubbert, H.T. Odum, and David Holmgren, as well as many of the contributors to Energy Bulletin. -BA

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