Five Policy Solutions to the Climate and Energy Crisis

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Proposal by Richard Heinberg of the Post-Carbon Institute.



   1. Make a massive and immediate shift to renewable energy
   2. Electrify the transportation system
   3. Rebuild the electricity grid
   4. De-carbonize and relocalize the food system
   5. Retrofit the building stock for energy efficiency and energy production


We need to reduce our overall energy consumption, and restructure our economy to run primarily on renewable energy – and the federal government must lead the way. This energy transition should have five components: a massive shift to renewable energy, and a retrofitting of our transportation system, our electricity system, our food system, and our building stock.

Make a massive and immediate shift to renewable energy

The development of alternative energy sources must be a cornerstone of any plan to reduce our national reliance on conventional fossil fuels. However, many alternatives being discussed – including nuclear power, industrial-scale biofuels, and low-grade fossil fuels such as oil shale and tar sands – suffer from serious drawbacks, including low energy profit ratios, high environmental impacts, or a limited resource base.

Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and advanced geothermal clearly are a long-term solution to the nation’s and the world’s energy problems. However, further research is needed into new energy storage technologies, as well as new photovoltaic materials and processes, and new geothermal and tidal power technologies. While much of this could be accomplished by the private sector, the economic crisis is likely to delay or undercut needed funding, increasing the need for government support.

The U.S. Department of Energy should be tasked with undertaking a rapid but thorough assessment of available alternative energy production technologies using a carefully mapped set of consistent criteria. This assessment should be formatted in a way that helps states and communities, as well as the federal government, make practical planning and investment decisions.

Given the immediacy of this need, Post Carbon Institute, in collaboration with the International Forum on Globalization, is conducting a preliminary comparative review of alternative energy sources, using criteria including energy profit ratio, environmental impacts, scalability, and materials requirements.

Electrify the transportation system

America’s existing investment in highways, airports, cars, buses, trucks, and aircraft is enormous. However, this is a transport system that is almost completely dependent on oil. It will be significantly handicapped by higher fuel prices, and devastated by actual fuel shortages.

The electrification of road-based vehicles will help; however, this strategy will require at least two decades to fully deploy, given that the average passenger vehicle has a useful lifetime of 15 years.2 Meanwhile, road repair and tire manufacturing will continue to depend upon petroleum products, unless alternative materials can be found.

Even if it is electrified, a ground transport system consisting of trucks and private automobiles is inherently energy intensive compared to public transit alternatives like bus and rail, and non-motorized alternatives like bicycling and walking. The building and widening of highways must therefore come to a halt, and the bulk of federal transportation funding must be transferred to support electrified and non-motorized infrastructure and services. This overall shift of transport investments and priorities will require comprehensive planning and coordination at all levels of government.

There are few if any good options for maintaining the airline and air freight industries without cheap fossil fuels. While some amount of air travel is likely to persist throughout the transition, its cost will inevitably and persistently rise, and the airline industry will contract accordingly. Increasingly, high-speed electric rail connections between major cities will become the lower-cost option, but the national high speed rail network is still in its infancy.

Meanwhile, the existing fleet of private automobiles must be put to use more efficiently through carpooling, car-sharing, and ride-sharing networks coordinated primarily at the local level, but supported by federal policy and funding.

Rebuild the electricity grid

Nearly all experts on the U.S. electricity grid agree that the system is approaching crisis and desperately needs a substantial overhaul. Electricity demand has been growing at over one percent per year due to rising population and an explosion in the numbers and types of electronic devices now considered essential, yet power generation capacity has not kept up. Meanwhile our transmission networks rely on 100-year-old technology and high-voltage trunk lines that were installed in the 1950s and ’60s. It is a fragile and extremely inefficient infrastructure, and managers of the system anticipate widespread blackouts in the near future.

What is needed is not merely an enhancement of the existing system with more of the same technology. New generating capacity must come from renewable sources, many of which are intermittent and are likely to be sited far from existing power lines. The transmission system must support distributed generation, as well as robust two-way communications, advanced sensors, and distributed computers to improve the efficiency, reliability, and safety of power delivery and use.

Regional utility companies are already beginning to invest in renewables and “smart grid” upgrades, but the work is going much too slowly to avert looming power supply problems. Moreover, the credit crunch will likely slow the work that is currently under way.

Therefore the federal government must step in to set goals and standards and to provide public investment capital. This effort must not favor commercial utilities over municipal power districts; indeed, the devolution of control over power systems to the community level should be encouraged, as decentralized power systems are likely to be more resilient in the face of now-inevitable power disruptions.

De-carbonize and relocalize the food system

Our national industrial food system performs spectacularly well at producing cheap, abundant food using minimal human labor. However, it is overwhelmingly dependent upon oil and natural gas for tractor fuel, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, and the transport of farm inputs and outputs. Additionally, the current food system is responsible for over 12% of all greenhouse gases introduced into the atmosphere from human activities in the U.S.

This situation is patently unsustainable, as author Michael Pollan eloquently detailed in a recent open letter to President-elect Obama.5 As fuel prices rise, farmers will go bankrupt and food prices will skyrocket. As the global climate becomes destabilized, crops will wither. Unless America undertakes a planned redesign of its food system to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels, the future looks bleak. Famine, which formerly was an unwelcome but unavoidable fact of life in agrarian societies, could make a comeback even here in the wealthy U.S.

New farming methods, new farmers, and a re-localization of production and distribution are all needed. These in turn will require land reform, educational and financial support for new farmers, and the creation of local food processing and storage centers.

Post Carbon Institute, in collaboration with the Soil Association of Great Britain, is producing a report (forthcoming in early 2009) on “The Food and Agriculture Transition,” highlighting the context, issues, and possible strategies in detail.

Retrofit the building stock for energy efficiency and energy production

Most Americans live in homes that require heat during the winter months, and most of those homes are inadequately insulated by modern standards. Natural gas heats most of the nation’s homes, with a majority in the Northeast heated by oil. Buildings in the South and Southwest require air conditioning during summer months. Fuel shortages, power outages, and energy price hikes could bring not just discomfort, but a massive increase in mortality from cold and heat.

The technology already exists to increase energy efficiency in both new and existing buildings. Germany has successfully pioneered the “Passive House” standard that dramatically reduces the energy required for heating and cooling; the European Union is considering adopting it as a building standard by 2012. In this country, organizations like Affordable Comfort Incorporated (ACI) have been doing important work along similar lines for decades, and both the US Conference of Mayors and the American Institute of Architects have adopted the 2030 Challenge6 to set a nationwide carbon-neutral standard for all new buildings by 2030.

Throughout America, millions of buildings can and must be super-insulated and, in as many instances as possible, provided with alternative heat sources (passive solar, geothermal, or district heating).

The widespread deployment of existing knowledge and experience to retrofit millions of American homes and public buildings will require investment as well as trained workers. Once again, the potential exists for the creation of millions of jobs – as Van Jones has discussed in his proposals for a Clean Energy Corps7. But funding, new regulations, and education are needed." (