Getting to 80% renewable is not only possible – it’s cheaper than the alternative.
By Mitchell Beer
In the world of climate change and energy, 2012 just might be the year when policy gets practical.
The transition to a low-carbon energy future won’t be simple, but its dimensions are well known. Municipalities have been developing low-carbon strategies since the late 1980s and discussing them on the international stage since at least 1995. The cost of low-carbon energy has plummeted in recent years, and national studies in several countries have looked at the mix of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies that would cut industrialized economies’ carbon output 80% by 2050.
The research is pragmatic, deliberate, and largely hopeful, and even bigger innovations are around the corner. In Reinventing Fire, a landmark study released in late October, the Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) modelled a U.S. economy in 2050 that is 158% larger than today’s, requires no oil, coal, or nuclear generation, and can be achieved with no new inventions and (thankfully) no acts of Congress.
Among other new developments: RMI anticipates a new generation of redesigned automobiles that weigh just half a ton, cost $1,000 to build, get the equivalent of 125 to 240 miles per gallon, and require no liquid fuel, in communities that provide the same or better access with 46 to 84 percent less driving. This vision is based on solid research, not wishful thinking, and the vehicles may be as little as 10 years away.
Canada distinguished itself late last year by withdrawing from the Kyoto Protocol, but more productive directions are taking shape. In its work on low-carbon energy futures, the Trottier Energy Futures Project is assessing the underlying drivers that have shaped energy use since 1970. (Full disclosure: I recently joined Trottier as its part-time deputy director.)
It turns out that for every unit of fuel and electricity saved in recent years through greater efficiency, another two units were avoided altogether by these underlying drivers—factors like a shift from face-to-face to virtual meetings, not primarily or even deliberately to cut into the energy and carbon footprint of air travel, but to cut costs.
This example, and many others, point to a huge new category of energy-saving opportunities that could be mobilized to drastically reduce the demand for fuels and electricity.
There are challenges on the road to an 80 percent solution — from the resilience of national electricity grids, to the sustainability of some low-carbon fuels, to the investment and skilled labor force that will be needed to rapidly make the building stock more energy efficient.
But the solution is to “deploy, deploy, deploy, carry on with research and development, deploy, deploy, deploy.”
That quote is just slightly adapted from a recent Climate Progress blog post on a landmark low-carbon study from California, and its underlying philosophy was refreshingly different from the caution emanating from Durban (and, for those of us north of the border, Ottawa).
That caution is shaping up as a problem that will become increasingly expensive, in human and financial terms. The usually staid International Energy Agency warned last month that the world is “on an even more dangerous track to an increase of 6°C [11°F],” and that:
“Delaying action is a false economy: For every $1 of investment in cleaner technology that is avoided in the power sector before 2020, an additional $4.30 would need to be spent after 2020 to compensate for the increased emissions.”
So the hope for the next year is that a comprehensive set of climate solutions has never been more obvious, practical, or affordable. There’s a lot to do, but we do have 365 days to make 2012 the year when climate policy begins to turn the corner.