Solution: Energy

General Issues
Links To Energy Sites

Our current fossil fuel energy system creates 80 percent of the human-made CO2 emissions. The first step is to emphasize conservation. It’s cheaper to help customers save electricity than to try to sell them more of it.

"An informed global public may be all that is required to bring an end to the climate-destabilizing fossil fuel era." Dr. Ty Cashman Former secretary of energy of California. Quoted in Alternatives to Economic Globalization, p. 158.

The primary fight over energy production is between centralists and decentralists; that is, decentralizing the generation of energy as well as the authority and control. Therefore, the discussion is about democratic control as well as the generation of energy. New technologies can place an affordable, reliable, and accessible power supply near where it is needed, using the renewable sources of wind, solar, geothermal, biomass. When created with renewable energy, hydrogen produces a decentralized, completely zero-emission energy loop. Hydrogen can be used for both stationary (heating) and transportation (cars) applications. This energy can be stored in fuel cells. Petroleum-based natural gas will be the transition fuel to renewable energy. Switching to renewable energy will create many new jobs.

"The question is not how much these changes will cost—but how much it will cost if we don’t change." Lester Brown Plan B p. 23

The discussion of renewable energy must consider three phases: energy must be:

Sustainable energy systems use renewable energy sources to create energy. The most common renewables are wind and solar. But there are other inexhaustible energy supplies: biomass; geothermal; ocean energy from the tides, currents and waves; and ocean thermal energy. Janet Sawin in “Charting a New Energy Future” in the State of the World 2003, says “experts estimate that onshore wind resources could provide more than four times global electricity consumption,” and that “each year the sun delivers to Earth more than 10,000 times the energy that humans currently use.” In fact, “ all U.S. electricity could be provided by wind turbines in just three states— Kansas, North Dakota, and South Dakota—or with solar energy on a plot of land 100 miles square in Nevada.” She says it is entirely possible that “half our power will come from small-scale systems, with the rest coming from larger renewable energy plants such as wind and solar farms—making central energy plants no longer necessary.” The energy is there—the needed policies are not.

Wind power is the world’s fastest growing energy source at 27 percent per year.  Worldwide, wind power use is nearly 4 times greater than 5 years ago, a growth rate matched only by the computer industry. New designs in wind turbines generate electricity—in prime wind sites— at less than 4 cents per kilowatt-hour, down from 18 cents a decade ago. The cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen by 10 percent every year for the past 15 years, and as the technology matures and enters mass production, costs will fall even more.

The costs of solar cells have fallen from more than $70 per watt of production capacity in the 1970’s to less than $3.50 per watt today. As technologies advance and manufacturing capacity expand, costs will continue to drop. Although solar energy costs are still high, Janet Sawin says, “Companies around the world are in a race to create future generations of products to make photovoltaic cells (PVs) cost completive, even for on-grid use.” “On-grid” means connected to the current distribution systems.

After energy is created from renewable sources, it must still be stored and distributed. We cannot turn on and off the wind and sunshine at will, therefore, we need to store an excess or have a backup power source. How to generate energy when the wind is still or the sky cloudy has been worked on by generations of engineers. They have experimented with batteries, flywheels, superconductors, ultracapacitors, pumped hydropower, and compressed gas. Now, they have found the solution: renewable energy can be used to produce hydrogen; the hydrogen can then be stored underground, and carried to cities and factories by pipeline. Lester Brown says, “Since hydrogen can be stored and used as needed, it provides perfect support for an energy economy with wind and solar power as the main pillars.”

Hydrogen can store energy, but to reduce global warming, it must be generated from renewable energy sources. Natural gas, reacting with steam in a catalytic converter, produces half the hydrogen we now use as fuel. Coal can produce hydrogen, as can gasoline or methanol, but all these methods still create carbon dioxide. Producing hydrogen with renewable energy can be done with solar PV, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass. In this process,

  • a renewable energy resource first produces electricity.
  • the electricity, through electrolysis, splits water into hydrogen and oxygen.
  • this separated hydrogen is stored in a fuel cell to generate electricity later.

The process generates electricity twice—first in the process of creating hydrogen to store until needed, and then again, when the hydrogen (stored in a fuel cell), produces electricity and heat later. Rifken says that “Internal-combustion engines capture only 15 to 20 percent of the energy in gasoline, and the conventional electric power grid is only 33 percent efficient . . . . Fuel cells can convert 40 to 65 percent of hydrogen’s energy into electricity.”
Fuel Cells
Fuel-cell technology works like a car battery, combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. However, batteries store their fuel and their oxidizer internally and have to be recharged. The fuel cell can run continuously because its fuel hydrogen and oxygen are external. Fuel cells are stackable flat plates that produce about one volt. The size of the stack determines the power output. A fuel cell works by feeding pure hydrogen gas to one of two electrodes in the cell. The process turns hydrogen atoms into hydrogen ions, which then pass through an electrolyte to the second electrode, known as the cathode. This electron movement produces electric current. At the cathode, the electrons are brought back together with their ions and combined with oxygen to produce the byproduct, water. The other byproduct, heat, is captured and reused. [X]

When created with renewable energy, hydrogen produces a decentralized, completely zero-emission energy loop. Lester Brown says petroleum-based natural gas will be the transition fuel to renewable energy. Natural gas companies can be leaders in building the solar/hydrogen economy. Natural gas is the cleanest and fastest-growing fossil fuel, but it still creates carbon dioxide and it is found in ecologically sensitive areas.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute says that it is essential to build cars that use hydrogen so efficiently that they need only a third the current amount of power. Then fuel cells will be small enough to be affordable, and the compressed hydrogen tanks small enough to fit. That type of car is now being developed.

One added benefit to renewable energy is that it will create many new jobs. In Germany, the wind industry had created 40,000 jobs, compared with 38,000 in nuclear power (an industry that generates 30 percent of Germany’s electricity). Renewable energy provides more jobs per unit of capacity or output and per dollar spent, than conventional energies do. Many of the jobs are high-wage and high-tech, and require a range of skills, often in areas that are rural or economically depressed.

Diverting to small-scale generators and improved energy efficiency could save $800 million to $2.5 billion of these current expenditures, according to a report prepared for the Energy Foundation.

"Perhaps the most problematic systemic aspect of the global oil-based economy is the inherently long and highly vulnerable “supply line” between producers and consumers." Alternatives to Economic Globalization , p. 155

Micropower” is the term for decentralized, efficient energy storage units, (such as fuel cells and microturbines that now operate on natural gas.) Shifting to micropower units is a shift as profound as the move from mainframes to personal computers. When power is created and stored where it is used, as in micropower, distribution costs and vulnerabilities are eliminated. Distribution system failures cause 95 percent of the electricity outages in the United States. Since 1994, in the US, costs to transmit and distribute energy have exceeded the costs of generating it. Micropower” technologies are small enough to be connected to low-voltage local distribution systems, (less than 10 megawatts—or 10,000 kilowatts). Power systems of this scale are small enough to be factory-built in modular units and transported in one piece by truck or rail to the site where they are installed. Installation often takes a few hours or less. There can be small turbines in factories, fuel cells in basements, rooftop solar panels, wind turbines scattered across pastures and power plants that can be carried in a briefcase.

Political Implications of Hydrogen Energy: “The Democratic Energy”
A very different organization of social and political power is possible when using renewable sources of energy. The fossil fuel economy created an unprecedented concentration of economic wealth and power, and a new generation of societal disparities in addition to serious environmental problems. The energy created by medium sized power plants or, more commonly, by small local decentralized “micropower” plants will decentralize systems that have concentrate wealth and power.

A new solar/hydrogen economy holds enormous political implications by redistributing power and control to smaller communities. For example, countries without oil will not be dependent on oil-rich countries. De-centralized power plants mean a shift to de-centralized social and political power.

These new systems would combine a range of new energy devices. There can be small turbines in factories, fuel cells in basements, rooftop solar panels, wind turbines scattered across pastures and power plants that can be carried in a briefcase. The nature of fossil-fuel energy systems are, in large part, what created today’s concentration of power. Rifkin says this old power structure is inherent in fossil fuel energy:

Unevenly distributed, difficult to extract, costly to transport, complicated to refine and multifaceted in the forms in which they are used, fossil fuels, from the very beginning, required a highly centralized command-and-control structure to finance exploration and production, and coordinate the flow of energy to end users. [X]

Twentieth century energy systems built large and larger facilities with greater distances between energy source and use. New technologies would place an affordable, reliable, and accessible power supply near where it is needed. The coming energy shift echoes the computer industry’s path from mainframe to desktop computers in just two decades.

"A Hypercar vehicle is designed to capture the synergies of: ultralight construction; low-drag design; hybrid-electric drive; and, efficient accessories to achieve 3 to 5-fold improvement in fuel economy, equal or better performance, safety, amenity and affordability, compared to today's vehicles." Rocky Mountain Institute

Hydrogen Energy in the Third World: The Politics of Re-globalization from the Bottom Up 
Small-scale electricity may have the greatest impact in the developing world, where central power grids are vulnerable to frequent blackout. Power plant and grid construction in the Third World has created multibillion-dollar debts for their governments, yet 2 billion people (30% of world population) still have no electricity at all.

Renewable energy technologies—wind, photovoltaic, hydro, biomass, etc, can enable villages to produce their own electricity to make hydrogen and then store it in fuel cells. When enough fuel cells are in place, mini energy grids can connect urban neighborhoods and rural villages into expanding energy networks that can grow organically.

Our responsibility as researchers is nothing short of organizing a scientific initiative as complex and daunting as putting a human on the moon, with the ultimate goal of ensuring that life as we know it continues to exist." Museum Provost of Science Michael J. Novacek

Airhead (emissions data for hundreds of consumer goods)
Alliance to Save Energy
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Green Book
American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy’s Clean Car Campaign
Collaborative Labeling and Appliance Standards Program
Consumer Federation of America Database of State
ncentives for Renewable Energy- h ttp://
Department of Energy, Energy Information Administration
Energy Information Agency:
Energy Savers – Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
EPA Energy Star
EPA Green Vehicle Guide
Environmental Defense’s Tailpipe Tally
EV World
Green-e Renewable Energy Certification Program
Green Power Network
Natural Resources Defense Council – Clean air and Energy
Renewable Energy Policy Project
Safe Climate for Business [World Resources Institute ( and the Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (]
Sierra Club- 12 Key Benchmarks for Achieving a Sound Energy Plan
Solar Access.Com
Surface Transportation Policy Project

Wind Energy
American Wind Energy Association
Danish Wind Industry Association
European Wind Energy Association
Windpower Monthly
U.S Dept. of Energy
National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Sandia National Laboratories
Wind Powering America

Solar Energy
American Solar Energy Society
European Photovoltaic Industry Association
Photon International
Renewable Energy Policy Project: Solar Page
SolarAccess: Renewable Energy News
Solar Electric Light Fund

Fuel Cells
Argonne National Laboratory Transportation Research
BC Research Inc. Centre for Alternative Transportation Fuels
Buy Fuel Cell Car Kit
Energy 21
Fuel Cell Today
Fuel Cells 2000: The Online Fuel Cell Information Center
Hydrogen Energy Center
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Program
National Fuel Cell Research Center : Fuel Cell Information
Rocky Mountain Institute Links to Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Showcase
U.S. Department of Defense: Fuel Cell Program Overview
U.S. Fuel Cell Council

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