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Seeking Contentment with Energy

Energy is experiencing a makeunder.

Abundant and affordable energy has been lauded as the backbone of economic prosperity and quality of life since the advent of society’s use of coal, oil, natural gas and electricity.

But energy use has become unattractive and is searching for a more natural look. Efficient usage of energy is now a “game changer” and renewable energies like solar, wind, and geothermal are the new darlings of community-sourced power.

Energy efficiency is all about cutting away all the fat and all of the clutter. Stripping away what isn’t needed results in lower energy bills with zero loss of comfort.

Renewable energy is being generated closer to home, giving communities and cooperatives a foothold in distributing energy and loosening the control of energy giants.

No longer able to sustain itself with cosmetic changes like new dams or pipelines and unconventional sources like tar sands oil or shale oil and gas, the energy sector is ditching makeover for makeunder.

(A makeover is a term given to an overall treatment to improve appearance or image, sometimes through cosmetics. A makeunder is based on the opposite principle – removing artificial enhancements to give a more 'natural' look.)

Curiously, the sector isn’t even aware that it is re-writing its own story. It is too busy fighting to the bitter end to defend its right to mine, drill, and develop its fossil fuel reserves with an estimated market value of $20 trillion.

80% of fossil fuel reserves are stranded

The investment community – including such venerable institutions as Deutsche Bank, HSBC, and the World Bank – are warning that 80% of those coal, oil, and gas assets are becoming obsolete and non-performing. In effect, they are stranded in the ground, never to be mined or pumped, blatantly unburnable.

Ratings agencies like Standard and Poor's and Moody's have begun worrying aloud that stranded asset risk could lead to credit downgrades.

Shareholder action campaigns led by Ceres, As You Sow and other socially responsible investors are pressuring large energy companies to acknowledge that the value of fossil fuel assets may be out of line with emerging policies on climate change.

Meeting climate action goals has caused companies and homeowners to learn they can typically get payback in a year for simple energy improvements. Many are following the example of a million Australian homeowners who have put solar photovoltaic panels on their roofs and have become “prosumers” – both consumers and producers of energy.

Businesses are discovering that wringing more work from each barrel, tonne, therm, or kilowatt-hour is a veritable gold mine and raises their energy productivity.

Some makeunder examples

In California, energy efficiency is a state priority and energy use has been relatively flat over the past 35 years despite a growing population, whereas in the U.S. as a whole use is up by 50%.

The state was a pioneer in wind energy and is now reaping its solar resources. Solar energy provided a record 3.9 gigawatts (GW) of electricity on March 7th, then bested that mark with 4.1GW on March 8th, enough to power about 3 million homes. In May, solar power was responsible for powering 6% of California's total electric load, three times the amount produced in May 2013.

On June 9, Germany generated over 50% of its electricity from solar power for the first time ever, and weekly solar power output hit new highs too.

A combination of strong winter winds and the addition of several massive new offshore wind farms meant that the United Kingdom produced a record 19.4% of its electricity supply from renewables in the first quarter of 2014, up 43% from the same period of 2013.

Texas is no slouch when it comes to wind energy, momentarily hitting 29% of the Lone Star State's electricity production on March 26.

In 2013, China added at least 11,300 megawatts of solar PV, the largest addition by any country in a single year. With 18,300 megawatts, China now trails only Germany (at 36,000 megawatts) in overall capacity.

Kimberley going solar

Vancouver’s Ecosmart Foundation in conjunction with the City of Kimberley, the B.C. government, Teck and BC Hydro, have begun developing Western Canada’s first commercial solar farm on a former mine site near the East Kootenay community.

The $5.3 million SunMine project, the biggest solar field west of Ontario, will use solar trackers to sense where to capture the best light and generate electricity. Initially, the solar farm will generate one megawatt – enough power for about 200 homes – but it has the potential to accommodate at least 200 megawatts, according to Jared Donald, former president of the Solar Energy Association of Canada.

In a former Swedish shipyard called Western Harbour, the city of Malmö has constructed housing for 10,000 residents as well as space for 20,000 employees – all powered exclusively with “100 percent locally produced renewable energy from the wind, sun and water.”

As part of the city’s goal to be the first carbon-neutral capital by 2025, green roofs have sprouted up all over Copenhagen, not only helping to insulate buildings in the Danish city, but also allowing water to be more slowly absorbed, lessening the pressure on sewers and drains.

Oslo, Norway’s heating system is powered by 80% renewable energy – mainly bio-methane from waste. In the next 10 years, the city hopes to get that number up to 100%.

The love affair is over

The simple fact is that renewable energy production capacity is being added at an astonishing rate. Worldwide solar power capacity is 53 times higher than it was just nine years ago, and wind power has grown more than six-fold in that same period.

And because renewables can be deployed much faster than traditional, centralized power plants (83% of new production capacity was from renewables in May), clean energy will be claiming a bigger piece of the production pie for some time to come.

The Renewables 2014 Global Status Report estimated 22.1% of the world’s electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2013. Nearly 38,000 megawatts of solar PV came online in 2013, a new annual record.

It has been five years since Mark Jacobson of Stanford University and Mark Delucchi of UC Davis published in peer-reviewed scientific journals a plan to provide energy for the entire world by 2030 using only already available wind, water, and solar technology.  They state that 100% renewable energy transport and infrastructure is possible by 2030 if there is a WWII–type ramp up to meet this goal.

Humans are not in love with the ‘business-as-usual’ energy business.

We whine about the cost of gasoline for our vehicles and we tremble as we tear open our utility bills to learn of the latest rate increase.  Thousands of us have mounted unprecedented opposition to projects like the Enbridge Northern Gateway and Keystone XL pipelines, the Site C dam, and expansion of the Alberta tar sands.  

Lower-income households, on a per capita basis, consume less energy and hence contribute less to GHG emissions. A carbon tax policy with 100% of the fees raised returned to residents as a dividend would help these households cope with inevitable rising energy prices, such as the forecast 45% increase in electricity rates over the next decade.

Pathway to safety

A new report delivered to the United Nations on July 8 indicates that there is a pathway to climate safety. The Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project says success rests on three key actions:

  •  Energy efficiency improvement,
  • Low-carbon electric production, and
  • Fuel switching from carbon-intensive sources (especially coal) to renewables.

The collaborative initiative was developed by the 15 countries with the highest CO2 emissions and shows how each of those countries could rapidly reduce its emissions by 2050 in order to meet the internationally agreed target of limiting the increase in global mean surface temperature to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

Prepared under the auspices of the international Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) and the Paris-based non-profit Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI), the report says the world must send global net greenhouse gas emissions toward zero by the second half of the century.

To reach the goal, nations of the world must profoundly transform their energy systems by mid-century by steeply reducing carbon intensity in all sectors of the economy. Their numbers: from a current level of about 36 gigatons CO2 equivalent down to 11 gigatons by 2050. The planners call this transition “deep decarbonization.”

Time to act is now

“We know that we are not on track, and time is not on our side,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at a news conference during the report’s release. Economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a Special Advisor to the UN was blunter: “We’re just about out of time to meet this crucial limit.”

To contribute to a path that limits the global increase in temperature to less than 2°C, Canada needs to achieve a nearly 90% reduction in carbon emissions from 2010 levels by 2050. Emissions would need to be transformed from 20.6 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per capita (tCO2e/cap) in 2010 to less than 2 tCO2e/cap in 2050.

“The reduction in emissions is driven most significantly by a dramatic reduction in the carbon intensity of energy use, as renewables and biomass become the dominant energy sources, and there is broad fuel switching across the economy toward electricity and biofuels,” says the report. This achievement occurs with no reduction in gross domestic product; in fact, the report says Canada’s economy will triple during this period.

The ingenuity and labour of past generations will not sustain our growth as a nation for generations to come. In times of yore, resources were exploited without question.

Today we are recognizing the need to develop a plan for sustainable access to, cultivation and use of, the natural resources needed for our children’s and grandchildren’s continued well-being, prosperity and economic growth.

In addition, climate change is now considered a question of intergenerational equity: To what degree should current generations take action to protect future generations from harm?

Makeunder requires commitment

It has taken a couple of centuries of industrialization but we finally understand the need to give up short term profits for long term benefits.

Today’s world is all about choice and many of us understand the most important thing we can do today is to tackle global warming. That requires us to find contentment with our energy use.

Doing more with less is our mantra. Replacing outmoded fossil fuel and nuclear power plants with renewable generation will lead to a richer, fairer, cooler, safer planet.

The energy world must change and is changing. A makeover won’t cut it; it’s time for something completely different. The makeunder has begun and we must all commit to it.

As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon stated: “Change is in the air, solutions exist, the race is on, and it’s time to lead.”

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based sustainability consultant who has written about environmental issues for more than two decades. He is a member of his local Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter and can be reached by email at zerowaste@shaw.ca

RESOURCES - Find out more about SunMine at http://www.sunmine.ca/

Tour Malmo’s Western Harbour at http://www.malmo.se/English/Technical-visits/Theme-Sustainable-City/Sustainable-Urban-Development/Western-Harbour.html

The Renewables 2014 Global Status Report can be found at http://www.ren21.net/portals/0/documents/resources/gsr/2014/gsr2014_full%20report_low%20res.pdf

Meeting the world’s energy needs entirely with wind, water, and solar powerby Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi can be read at http://www.itm-power.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Delucchi-Bull-Atom-Sci-2013-WWS-for-the-world.pdf

Mark Jacobson was interviewed by David Letterman on October 9, 2013. His 10-minute interview can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AqIu2J3vRJc

Professor Jacobson and his team have created 50 state plans for the 50 U.S. states to transition to 100% renewable energy. Each plan identifies a custom mix of wind, water and solar (WWS) to power our energy for all purposes (electricity, transportation, heating/cooling and industry). Details at http://thesolutionsproject.org/

Both a 16-page executive summary of the pathways to deep decarbonization report and the full 218-page report can be downloaded from http://unsdsn.org/what-we-do/deep-decarbonization-pathways/

A graphic showing how much energy-related CO2 emissions would have to fall by 2050 to stay within “safe” levels can be viewed at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/08/deep-decarbonization-pathways_n_5567560.html

World Council of Churches has voted to divest itself of fossil fuels http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2014/07/11/3459111/wcc-christians-divests/