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Post Carbon Exchange #1: Richard Heinberg & Lester Brown (transcript added)

In this premier Post Carbon Exchange, Post Carbon Institute Senior Fellow Richard Heinberg talks with Lester Brown, Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, about hopeful developments in alternative energy, as well as the importance of Brown's updated path toward a sustainable future, "Plan B 4.0".

RH: Hi, I’m Richard Heinberg, Senior fellow with the Post Carbon Institute, and I’m delighted to be speaking with Lester Brown, founder and president of Earth Policy Institute, and author of many important books. One of my favorites is ‘Who Will Feed China?’. But we’re actually here to talk about another book today. Hi Lester.

LB: Hi Richard – good to be chatting again.

RH: Yeah, yeah, definitely. So, you have just come out with a new iteration of your Plan B series, Plan B 4.0. I wanted to hear from you – what’s different about this new iteration of this very important series of books?

LB: Probably the most important thing in Plan B 4.0 that is new and is why we stepped up publication of it is the extraordinary developments on the renewable energy front. I mean things are happening on a scale, and at a rate that we could not have imagined even a year or two ago. Just 3 quick examples – one is the US state of Texas. When we think of states on the environmental cutting edge, we don’t usually put Texas near the top of the list. But in terms of developing wind resources, Texas is way out front now of all other states. It has about 9000 Megawatts of wind generating capacity online, it is planning another 40000 or so Megawatts, which will give it a total of maybe 50000 or more Megawatts of wind generating capacity. I mean think 50 coal fired power plants – this is huge, by any standard. So that’s one exciting development. The second is also in wind energy and this is in China. China’s a latecomer to wind energy – it was, just got started late but in each of the last 5 years it has doubled its wind generating capacity, and as you know if you keep doubling anything it’ll eventually become a lot. But beyond that, a government agency is now coordinating the development of seven wind mega-complexes, the smallest of which will be 10000 megawatts, the largest 30000 megawatts. Altogether, this is more than 100000 megawatts of wind generating capacity, and again it’s huge. Think 100 coal fired power plants, I mean, we have not seen thinking on this scale before. And a US Harvard team, just a few months ago published the results of a wind resource inventory they had done for China which points out that China can increase its current electrical generating capacity sevenfold from wind alone. I mean, it just gives a sense of the extraordinary scale of things. The third exciting example is something happening in Europe. A consortium of companies led by Munich Re, Munich reinsurance which is one of the worlds largest reinsurance companies has put together a consortium to both develop a strategy and a financial plan for integrating the solar resources of North Africa into a European wide grid. This includes firms like, in addition to Munich RE, Deutsche Bank, Siemens, some of the really big players. And the idea is to use trans-oceanic cables to link solar thermal power plants built across the north of Africa integrated into the European system, and then that would permit the strong wind resources of northern Europe and the North Sea to be integrated into the same system that contains the solar resources from North Africa, and again, this is on the scale of hundreds of thousands of megawatts, and we’ve never seen anything like this before, and it’s being done independently of governments.

RH: So up to this point for the past few years, the fastest growing energy source by quantity has been coal, primarily because of China. So you see that trend actually changing?

LB: I do, and that’s another one of the exciting developments. In the United States, for example, over the last 2 years, coal use has actually dropped 11 percent. Meanwhile, we’ve brought 191 new wind farms online, with a generating capacity of some 17000 megawatts. And what that means is that coal is shrinking. And wind is expanding very rapidly. Coal is shrinking for two reasons – one, is that there has been a powerful grassroots movement in this country that has effectively introduced a de facto moratorium on the construction of new coal fired power plants. The second thing is this effort is moving into its second phase now, to begin closing existing coal plants. And there are already some 40 plants now scheduled either to close, coal fired power plants scheduled to close or to switch to wood chips, natural gas, or wind of course as the alternative source of energy.

RH: So how do you see the current economic crisis playing into this? - Because the investment capital for new energy projects of all kinds, fossil fuels and renewables has pretty much dried up for the last while. Do you see that investment capital coming back to renewables?

LB: Well, renewables have done surprisingly well, they’ve kept growing throughout this period, whereas in the US both oil and coal use have declined in the past two years. Renewables have been growing and I think they’re going to continue to grow. We’ve seen - I think we’re through the worst part of the economic trauma, if you will, and I think we’re going to see huge growth in wind and solar this year worldwide. I mean I think it was last year, for the first time worldwide, more new capital went into renewable energy sources than into traditional energy sources.

RH: Well it’s nice to hear some good news for a change.

LB: That is, it’s exciting.

RH: What about other renewable energy sources like tidal, geothermal, biofuels, and so on?

LB: In the United States we now we have something like 140 geothermal powerplants under construction or in the development stage. And that’s going to lead to some very substantial growth. They are almost all in the western US states, states led by Nevada, Idaho, Utah, California. So we’re seeing growth there. We’re also seeing a lot of interest in solar thermal. Solar cells have been growing at a pretty good clip, but solar thermal has attracted a lot of recent interest. And it’s partly because of the so called molten salt technology that enables these power plants to use excess heat during the day to melt salt, literally melt the salt and turn it into a liquid stage, and then, since by nature salt is crystalline, after the sun goes down the molten salt will revert back to a crystalline form but it gives off energy in the process. It’s about 97% efficient. That is, about 97% of the energy you invest in melting the salt, you can take out as heat. So that really addresses one of the major problems with solar energy which is ‘what do you do after the sun goes down?’ And this technology will provide another 6 hours of generating capacity to take you to midnight or so.

RH: Right, as you say this is very promising technology, particularly for the American southwest - Spanish companies are helping to develop some of that technology. How about colder regions like the American northeast, what are folks up there, what can they look to in terms of renewable energy for things like home heating and electricity generation?

LB: Well we’re seeing pretty rapid growth in the northeastern US, in fact just within the last week or so the 11 Governors of the northeastern states met to devise a common strategy for developing offshore wind resources. Much of our wind is offshore, but because the east coast is rather shallow, it’s fairly easy to develop it. So we’re beginning to see momentum building now with states from Maine to Maryland wanting to develop very substantial offshore wind operations.

RH: Terrific. Well, this new version of the Plan B book sounds like it actually has not only up to date information but also some encouraging and important information that I hope all our watchers and listeners will avail themselves of. It’s such an important resource that you’re providing for the world right now. We desperately need a plan B. And your book is the resource, it’s the place to go, so thank you so much for doing this work Lester.

LB: My pleasure. Things are beginning to happen pretty fast now, that’s the good news.

RH: Terrific. Well it’s been great speaking with you, and more power to you!

LB: Keep up the great work Richard.

RH: Thank you.

Editorial Notes: Lester Brown's latest book, Plan B 4.0 is available from the Earth Policy Institute. A very great and slightly belated thanks to Carl Jacobs, who pulled this transcription out in record time! -KS

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