COMMENTARY: Greenpeace Proposes an Energy Revolution

In the middle of his State of the Union Address on January 23, President George W. Bush gave a little "shout out" to alternative fuels. But interspersed with references to solar energy and hybrids, were such oxymorons as "clean coal technology" and "safe nuclear power." While hearing the President admit that "global climate change" was a serious issue provided at least a little relief for environmentalists, Greenpeace experts who held a press conference the following day said Bush’s proposal did not go nearly far enough in weaning America’s dependence from fossil fuels.

According to the Greenpeace-sponsored report, wind turbines could provide the majority of U.S. energy by 2020.© GETTY IMAGES

While solving the global warming crisis is a top priority for the group, Greenpeace stressed that it can be done without any reliance on coal or nuclear energy by using truly renewable energy sources like wind. Over the last year and a half, Greenpeace International and the European Renewable Energy Council (EREC) commissioned a study, entitled "Energy Revolution: A Blueprint for Solving Global Warming," from the German Aerospace Center, showing that 80 percent of our electricity can be produced by renewal sources, carbon dioxide emissions can be reduced 50 percent globally and 72 percent in the U.S. without resorting to nuclear power or new coal technologies.

Bush’s call for a zero emission coal-fired plant is an untested idea. "Carbon capture and storage [CCS] or so-called "clean coal" is not a proven technology," says Sven Teske of Greenpeace International. "There is not a single commercial-scale power plant right now on the grid. We’ve seen through our analysis that wind turbines in some areas are competitive with new coal power plants already, or will be in the next five years." In terms of nuclear power, Teske says, "Besides all the dangers…it is just too slow. It takes about 10 years to build one. The only European new reactor under construction is in Finland. One year under construction and already it’s one year behind schedule."

Still, coal companies have plans for more than 100 new coal-burning power plants to be built in the U.S. to meet energy needs. Seventeen of those would be built in Bush’s home state, Texas, where Governor Rick Perry has attempted to speed the process through executive order. And they aren’t of the expensive "clean coal" variety. A National Public Radio story on the Texas coal plants says, "The new power plants in Texas will emit the equivalent of 19 million automobiles" worth of carbon dioxide every year. When all the new plants are up and running, Texas will send nearly as much carbon dioxide up its stacks as California, New York and Florida combined." Following suit, more than 700 additional coal plants are scheduled for China and India by 2012.

The U.S. is known as the "Saudi Arabia of coal," with enough supply to last hundreds of years, and China has a similar coal surplus. Having rejected the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the Bush Administration favors voluntary carbon reductions and supporting technologies that capture carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions before they are released into the atmosphere. But that technology is expensive and the incentive that might come from federal mandate isn’t there.

"If those [coal] plants are built, it will be impossible to reduce CO2 emissions in time to avoid dangerous climate impacts," says the report.

Instead, the report stresses renewable energy: wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, biomass power plants, solar thermal collectors and biofuels, all successful and growing technologies that are currently in the market and create jobs at the same time they reduce harmful emissions. "The global market for renewable energy is growing dramatically," the report says, "global investment in 2006 reached $38 billion, 26 percent higher than the previous year."

Solar panels like these in New Mexico offer a major renewable source of heat in Greenpeace"s energy revolution future.© GETTY IMAGES

Its outlook for renewable energy in the electricity sector is the most promising, where the plan calls for the phasing out of nuclear energy, initially meeting energy demands through high efficiency gas-fired power plants together with wind turbines and biomass. After 2020, wind will provide the most electricity, supported by electricity from photovoltaics and solar thermal power plants. Even as U.S. population continues to grow—to an estimated 420 million in 2050, according to United Nations development projections—our energy demands would diminish by following the report’s recommendations.

There are barriers in the heating sector, through "lack of district heating networks" that make large-scale geothermal and solar thermal energy difficult to implement. But with energy-efficiency measures, direct heating through solar collectors and biomass and a shift from coal to oil and natural gas in conventional systems, the U.S. could cut CO2 emissions dramatically.

"We wanted to know what the renewable industry was actually able to deliver," Teske says. "We have witnessed some problems in the last year in providing enough solar panels for a booming market, so we have to take that into account. All the assumptions we have in our report are based on the growth rate which has been experienced in the last five to 10 years. In terms of energy efficiency, we don’t have to freeze in the dark. We basically assume that we have strict technical standards for all electrical applications for buildings and for transport vehicles, including cars and trucks. And if we put this together, we still have quite a few fossil fuels in place. In 2050, we have about 50 percent of the overall primary energy still from fossil fuels, but we will have mainly phased them out from the electricity and heating sectors."

The Greenpeace-sponsored report says that fossil fuels will make their last stand in transportation, the sector that will require the most creative juggling. "America’s oil use can be cut over 50 percent by 2050 with much more efficient cars and trucks, potentially including new plug-in hybrids, use of biofuels, and greater reliance on electricity for public transportation," the report says. Of course, strict emissions standards would need to be put in place, too. But the ideas coming from the Bush White House seem to focus almost exclusively on the promise of ethanol."We must increase the supply of alternative fuels, by setting a mandatory Fuels Standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017," said Bush in his State of the Union address. "This is nearly five times the current target. At the same time, we need to reform and modernize fuel economy standards for cars the way we did for light trucks and conserve up to 8.5 billion more gallons of gasoline by 2017." To meet the President’s standards with ethanol using the current corn crop, says John Coequyt of Greenpeace USA, we’d have to use "between 75 and 100 percent of the corn crop and that’s completely unrealistic." Coequyt says he doesn’t think Bush’s plan will make it through Congress because its focus is in the wrong place. "The problem is that the plan is backwards; it has a small amount of efficiency and a large amount of biofuels and it really needs to be the other way around," he says.

The report’s recommendations for transportation involve improved efficiency in such new car models as hybrids, which are already on the road and getting 100 miles per gallon.

The technology for electricity and heating i

s already in place and simply needs federal support for serious implementation. It will be a slower process to replace oil and no one renewable source will provide the solution. But significant energy-efficiency standards in transportation combined with phasing out of fossil fuels and use of renewable energy, from wind to solar, can drastically reduce CO2 emissions to safe levels.

As the report says: "It’s time for a national plan to address global warming. Such a plan will create jobs, improve the security of America’s energy supply and protect Americans from volatile energy prices. It will restore America’s moral leadership on the critical international issue of climate change. And real action in the U.S. will inspire confidence as the rest of the world negotiates future global commitments to address climate change."

CONTACT: Greenpeace International