All people want is cold beer and hot showers: Alternative Energy & Climate Change under the Stimulus Bill

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“We stand at a moment when global affairs are rapidly shifting, requiring that shared solutions tap all sources of innovation. Changes made today will have a lasting effect on our future, our nation and our world – demanding we understand the challenges we face and the opportunities for creative solutions.”

“Global Priorities:

Critical Choices for the Obama Administration”

63rd Annual Conference, World Affairs Council

April 2-3, 2009

The Westin Hotel in San Francisco last Friday was definitely the place to be if you wanted to hear some of the nation’s energy thought-leaders reflect on the energy crisis we are facing. Sponsored by energy giant Chevron, the World Affairs Council‘s annual conference was a truly inspirational event that delved deeply into energy topics within the greater geo-political context of world affairs. With back-to-back speeches, panel discussions and breakout sessions, the day-long event provided different assessments of our energy behavior from various angles and offered sustainable solutions to protect our climate.

With his entertaining (though alarming) 8am pledge to save energy big time, Amory Lovins must have woken up every single of the 400 participants in the room. The Chairman & Chief Scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in his discourse about “Profitable Solutions to Climate, Oil and Proliferation” drove the point home saying that “saving energy is cheaper than buying it, so smart firms are rapidly buying energy efficiency whether or not they worry about climate.” While a drop of only 3-4% in emissions is needed to stabilize the climate by 2100, there is lots of potential for savings: According to Lovins, Japan could save 2/3 and the United States 1/2 of their energy. He noted that a price of 15$/bbl (in 2000 $) is needed to eliminate dependency on oil. With vehicles using 70% of US oil, more efficient solutions are needed – especially since 87% of a car’ energy is not used to move its wheels. Lovins, who is the author of “Winning the Oil Endgame” (a book the RMI wrote for the DoD), believes we need to shift strategy and investment in 6 sectors: Aviation, Trucks, Military, Fuels, Finance, Cars and Light Trucks.

Lovins also gave some career advice: Students who are interested in CleanTech should have some scientific or engineering knowledge and some economic acumen, but they should also study social sciences, like culture and anthropology. If you continue to pursue learning , Lovins said, “you’ll learn early that you can learn more in 6 months than most people know about just about anything,” and this holds particularly true in this very dynamic moment in history. Once you are in the field, you just need to take advantage of individual people’s knowledge and – tap it.

Talking about climate change, Jane C.S. Long in a plenary titled “Three Challenges in One: The Economy, Energy and the Environment” claimed that we are in the middle of “the greatest challenge we’re going to face.” The Associate Director of Energy and Environment at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory recalled that we were warned (by The Economist) about the economic crisis, and we were warned (by scientists) about the climate crisis. She pointed out that both crises have 3 things in common: a similar structure, similar dynamics, and a similar response. First, as for structure, in both crises a lot of people made a lot of money, everybody thought they couldn’t make a difference, and no leadership occurred to change it. Second, as for dynamics, the financial crisis saw highly interconnected players – with one bank falling, and the rest following, and so did the climate crisis – with rising sea levels bringing about land erosion. And third, as for response, there were massive financial and geo-engineering bailouts – and it’s not sure if either of them are going to work. These two crises brought about massive institutional change, and 4 major societal strategies evolved that need to be implemented now:

1. We need to buy time and come up with short-term strategies while developing better solutions.

2. We need to do a full life-cycle analysis and come up with long-term strategies.

3. We need to develop break-through technology.

4. We need to adapt: With 1,000 years of climate change behind us, things are going to change.

Later in the panel, David Victor reminded us that conventional energy sources challenge the switch to alternative solutions. The Director of the Program on Energy & Sustainable Development at Stanford University pointed out that China is pivotal because of its sheer size. The Chinese have an extraordinary high consumption of coal because it is so cheap,  Chinese coal plants require around 1/3 the capital expenditure of a comparable facility in the United States.

The third panelist was Dan Reicher, Director of Climate Change & Energy Initiatives at Google.org, who called for giving people a choice. Reicher, who served 8 years in the Clinton Administration, was part of Obama’s transition team that put together the stimulus bill, and he was also in the running for Secretary of Energy, reminded us that “all people want is cold beer and hot showers.” As a consequence, we have to give people an option when and how to use energy – for example when to do the dishes, at high cost during peak daytime usage, or at a fraction of that during the night. Currently, we don’t learn much from our energy bills – once a month, a whole lot of numbers on a piece of paper tell us that we have to pay our bills. He drew an interesting comparison: Imagine shopping at a supermarket without price tags where you get the bill a month later. Unbelievable, yes. And that’s why the Smart Grid makes so much sense:

1. Deploy smart meters: deliver real-time information.

2. Give consumers access to this information.

3. Give consumers options that allow them to change their behavior based on this information.

Reicher pointed out that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it” and that we need to integrate three elements to solve our energy crisis: technologies, policies and finance. If we proceed separately, we won’t succeed. Following this dictum, Google is currently testing a software you can use on your mobile device to see your energy consumption. Using this way, a Google colleague of Reicher found out that 30-50% of his electricity bill was attributable to an old fridge in his garage (that he didn’t use for anything else but an occasional six-pack).

With 60 billion US-Dollars to be spend over the next few years on Renewable Energy, Reicher noted that we’re at a pivotal moment in history and that the moment is now to spend it well: “I am really worried about the amount of stimulus money because we’re not just ready to spend that much on these new technologies.”

[Photo Credits: Flickr]

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  • MK

    You know all of this might be interesting if not built upon the myth that global warming is some how affected by mankind. The truth of the matther is, it is kind of a grandious, self important notion to believe that man has done anything to date individually or collectively to cause the earths climate to change. It is even more self aggrandizing to believe that man can do anything now to change earth’s climatic cycles. The truth is much more simple – global warming hysteria allows non-elected government employees to write, administer and tax industry in circumvention of the US Legislative Process.

  • http://www.cleantechies.com Ian

    @MK,

    My dad told me a story when I was a kid, and reminded me of it regularly throughout my teenage years. It goes something like this:

    There once was a man that had felt a bit ill. He went to the doctor, and he diagnosed his patient with cancer, and recommended chemotherapy. Scared, and confused, the man felt it best to get another opinion. He did, and the new doctor echoed the previous doctor’s diagnosis, and recommended aggressive chemo and radiation. The man was distraught, but eager to get another opinion… he got the same recommendation and this went on until he found a physician that felt he was OK, and that he was not ill.

    Satisfied with this final physician, he felt he was safe, and failed to go through the discomfort of treatment and the psychological pain of dealing with his illness. You can imagine the result.

    The parable made good sense to me, and it made good sense to my dad. Unfortunately both you, and ironically, my father, are choosing to listen to the outlying physicians in this case.

    As Kipling once wrote “Trust yourself, when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting, too.”

  • Save E

    The debate on climate change is always entertaining but the reality is that the 7 billion people and increasing can’t be supplied the amount of energy per capital that is currently being supplied. There is not enough energy resources to sustain it. So the response, energy eff. and renewable energy supply is directionly correct.

    Save E

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