Will Al Gore Deliver Us to Solartopia?


Al Gore has leapt to center stage with well-founded concerns about global warming. He has been gratefully successful in publicizing the fact that there is a virtual library of irrefutable evidence that carbon dioxide levels are rapidly rising in our atmosphere, that this is being caused by human beings, and that the potential impacts are catastrophic.

What’s not being said is that the solution to the problem—the necessary transition to Solartopia, a world based on renewable energy—is also the key to the future of our economic well-being, and would be whether global warming was a problem or not.

In short: even without the dire disaster of climate change, a transitioning to green power is the only hope our global economy has for future prosperity.

Indeed, moving to an industrial system that runs on wind, solar, bio-fuels and other renewable sources, along with increased efficiency, including a revival of mass transit, can and will do for the global economy in the next 25 years what the computer/internet revolution has done for the last.

What’s also clear is that there is absolutely no room in this future for fossil fuels or nuclear power. But King CONG (coal, oil, nukes and gas) is not going to give up without a ferocious fight.

First up is the insane idea of bulding new nuclear plants. A debate now rages about a possible "renaissance" for atomic energy. It’s a non-starter. Nuclear power is nothing more than a half-century of proven failure.

It is 50 years since the first commercial reactor opened at Shippingport, Pennsylvania. But no solution has been found for the long-term management of spent nuclear fuel.

Nor is the private insurance industry willing assume liability for a possible catastrophic accident.

We have had a taste of such disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. We agree with the insurers that risk of another one, by terror or error, is too great to sustain.

The scant experience with these new reactors has already been bad, with cost overruns and other problems plaguing the few projects that have been tried.

The economics for new nukes are catastrophic. Bush Administration partisans may be willing to pour billions of taxpayer dollers into them. But we see no rush from Wall Street to embrace more nukes, especially when Bush is threatening war with Iran to prevent them from doing the same.

Which leaves us with this obvious challenge: if we reject fossil fuels and nuclear power, how will we heat and light an increasingly crowded planet, whose people are rightly intent on material prosperity?

The answer is in green power: renewable energy and increased efficiency.

For decades it has been argued that a planet run entirely on natural energy—a "Solartopia"—is an unrealistic dream, that might, at best, come in fifty or a hundred years.

But our planetary eco-systems can not wait that long.

And the economic engines now driving the conversion to green power—the big investment dollars pouring into wind, solar, bio-fuels, etc—will not allow such a delay.

In fact, there is a "great green avalanche" of investment dollars now flooding the renewable markets. The global wind business is booming with 25-35% annual growth. Far more new wind capacity is being installed than nuclear. Major technological advances in commercial-scale turbines mean there is no cheaper form of new electric generation. New gearless machines promise even better performance.

Though siting issues often arise (as they certainly will with new nuclear plants), properly installed wind machines do virtually no environmental damage. Though there are exceptions, the bird-kill issue is mostly anti-wind hype. Wind turbines are in fact proven to the point that financial powerhouses such as Goldman Sachs, Edison Capital, John Deare, and many more are lining up to invest in these projects. Wind power’s principle problem today is a shortage of turbines.

Solar power is also plummeting in cost and soaring in demand. Solar water heating has long been economically competitive throughout the northern hemisphere. Photovoltaics (PV), which convert sunlight to electricity, are being incorporated into roofing shingles and window glass.

Solar power towers and parabolic trough collectors have proven themselves to be cost effective.

Passive solar architecture can be as simple as facing a building’s biggest windows to the south, with resultant heat gain worth big money for decades to come.

Ethanol from corn and diesel from soy have become major cash crops. But in the long run, bio-fuel stocks that need annual planting will give way to perennials with high cellulose and vegetable oil content. These "incredible inedibles" will include switchgrass, miscanthus, hemp, canola and more.

Meanwhile, simple devices to harness the tides, the currents, and the thermal differentials between solar-heated water at the surface of the oceans and the colder waters deeper down, are already proving do-able. Geothermal power, built on the heat beneath the Earth’s crust, has been with us for centuries.

All these sources are great job-creators. But can they add up to a totally green-powered planet?

That depends on our most crucial energy wild-card—increased efficiency. Despite all we’ve been through since the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973, this nation—and much of the rest of the world—still wastes at least half the energy it burns.

Light Emitting Diodes (LED), superconducting, mag-lev, and a wide range of other high-performance technologies will redefine how we use—and abuse—energy. The projections for unsustainable rises in global energy consumption in the next decades are posited on energy inefficiencies that economic factors will force us to transcend.

In fact, we see a society that has no choice but to go totally green. The primary reason is that our survival on this planet depends on it.

Green energy and efficiency make perfect economic sense. They are our future, both economically and ecologically.

But none of that matters if we are still stymied by the hugely rich and powerful fossil/fuel industry. We won’t get to Solartopia until King CONG (coal, oil, nukes and gas) is shoved out of the way.

And that’s the hugest "if" of all. Those awaiting Al Gore to take on these industries may have a long wait. Even if he were an ideal leader, it will take nothing less than a gargantuan grassroots campaign to change our energy system to what it must be if we are to survive. For many of us, that will be the real work of the coming era.

A century ago, a great leader named Eugene V. Debs warned that he could not lead the American people into a worker’s paradise, because if one leader could take them there, another could take them out.

In the long run, Al Gore is right, global warming is a dire threat. There are major investors now willing to invest big money in solar power. And it is certain that one leader after another will emerge to lead us toward a world based on green energy and efficiency.

But King CONG will not give up on its gargantuan investments without an epic struggle. We will not get to a green-powered world without dismantling the enormous infrastructure that is the fossil/nuke cartel, with all its power and money.

No single politician will ever do that. In the long run, the only route to Solartopia is through the green grassroots.

HARVEY WASSERMAN, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA since 1990, is author of "Solartopia: Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030,"


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