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Earth Day Special — The Demise of ‘Black’ Energy

Going, going – not yet gone – but definitely going; the ‘black’ energy economy is on its last legs.

I know, this is an audacious statement, but we have the ability and the renewable sources of power to make it a reality. As climate scientist Andrew Weaver says, it’s up to Generation Us.

Burning ‘black’ energy – coal, oil, and natural gas – is the leading source of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions that are the prime driver of climate change.

There is a myth that renewable energy sources cannot ever replace ‘black’ energy but everyday new evidence comes forward to destroy that falsehood.

Mark Jacobson says he can power the planet solely on wind, water and solar energy. He first went out on a limb with this statement in a Scientific American cover story co-authored with Mark Delucchi in 2009. The duo then published a detailed study in the journal Energy Policy that put numbers to a strictly U.S. strategy achieving the same goal.

Now Jacobson and a larger team, including Delucchi, have done it again.

This time Jacobson showed in much finer detail how New York State’s residential, transportation, industrial, and heating and cooling sectors could all be powered by wind, water and sun, or “WWS,” as he calls it.

In the process, New York would reduce power demand by 37 percent, largely because the new energy sources are more efficient than the old ones. And because no fossil fuels would have to be purchased or burned, consumer costs would be similar to what they are today, and the state would eliminate a huge portion of its carbon dioxide emissions.
Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, says the main obstacles to his plan are political and social – getting the support of policy makers and the grassroots.

Rather than selling the plan as a way to combat climate change, Jacobson is pushing the health benefits, money savings, and job creation components of his plan.

“The New York plan would prevent 4,000 mortalities a year in the state due to less air pollution, and a related savings of $33 billion – about 3 percent of the GDP of the state. That resonates more with people than climate change issues,” he said.  “We also looked at job creation; more jobs would be created than lost.”

Jacobson – scientist, not advocate

As a scientist, Jacobson has based his career on trying to understand large-scale pollution and climate problems – with the ultimate goal of trying to solve them.  He stresses he is a scientist, not an advocate.

“The job of a scientist is to make sure that information is provided clearly and appropriately, so people can make a better decision,” he says. “I don't advocate.”

Jacobson expects a big push by the gas lobby and the oil lobby against his plan.

“If society is going to do it, at least we now know that it’s technically and economically feasible,” he says. “Whether it actually happens depends on political will.”

Jacobson has teamed with actor Mark Ruffalo in an initiative called The Solutions Project that will try to get the clean energy plans implemented. Others involved include high profile scientists, business people, investors, movie makers and Hollywood stars.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Scarlett Johansson, documentary movie director Josh Fox, celebrity entrepreneur Elon Musk, and philanthropist Eileen Rockefeller are all supporting the cause to prove that 100 percent renewable is not only doable but should be done.

Jacobson’s study follows on the heels of another that found Canada can also be powered with renewables.

The Trottier Energy Futures Project study concluded “Canada has vast renewable energy resources in the form of hydropower, solar, wind energy, and biomass, as well as geothermal, wave, and tidal resources that are many times larger than current or projected levels of total fuel and electricity consumption.”

“The great news is that Canada’s ‘post-petroleum’ future won’t be limited by a physical shortage of renewable, carbon-free energy,” said TEFP board member Peter Robinson, CEO of the David Suzuki Foundation. “This report is the beginning of a roadmap for making that future a reality.”

Solar power potential “immense” in Canada

Here is what the report says about the prospects for solar photo-voltaic in Canada:

“The potential for solar energy production in Canada is immense. With Canada’s large land area and average insolation of 130 watts per square metre in the more southern latitudes, the deployment of photovoltaic systems in the coming years will not be restricted by available energy.”

Solar technology can also be used in other ways says the report:

“Passive solar is a demand–side reduction technique that will be an essential piece of a longer-term transition to net-zero energy buildings. Passive solar has the potential to supply 20 to 40 per cent of business-as-usual heating demand, and solar thermal could contribute 40 to 80 percent of energy needs in specific, targeted applications.”

Using less energy does not mean doing without and a low-carbon, low-energy economy is not one that proposes we freeze in the dark.
Another Trottier Energy Futures Project study summarizes low-carbon energy scenarios from eight wealthy, industrialized, largely urbanized economies, and it shows that a low-carbon energy future is a prosperous future.

The Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios report shows just how much energy waste is built into some industrialized economies, including Canada’s. Even today, some European countries have per-person greenhouse gas emissions that are half of Canada’s, with the same or better standards of living.

Those European countries can reduce their emissions by a further80% by 2050, while maintaining or improving their standard of living and quality of life. By the time they’re done, their economies will use energy 90-95% more efficiently than Canada’s does today.

Here are some examples of the success of renewable energy around the world:
·      On March 20, 2013, just after midnight, Denmark’s wind turbines alone were generating more than 100% of the Scandinavian country’s consumption. Wind power currently supplies about 30% of Denmark’s electricity. Denmark’s long-term energy goal is to become completelyindependent of fossil fuels use by 2050. In 2011, the government published the Energy Strategy 2050, a detailed policy document that sets out a series of new energy-policy initiatives. The strategy aims to transform Denmark into a low-carbon society with a stable and affordable energy supply.  

Denmark proposes to meet more than 50% of its electricity supply with renewables by 2020, 100% of electricity and heat by 2035, and 100% in transport by 2050.

Copenhagen has adopted a plan to become the world’s first carbon neutral capital city by 2025. There are state-of-the-art facilities where waste heat from power plants is used to keep buildings warm via the world’s largest district heating network, or where waters from the city harbor are deployed to cool department stores, office buildings, hotels, and data centers.

·      Almost three quarters of the electricity consumed in Portugal during the first quarter of 2013 came from renewable sources, according to new figures from the country's grid operator REN. Portugal’s 10 million people produced more than half their electricity in 2010 from their own indigenous renewable resources.

·      China does not appear ready to cede its place in the global renewable energy market any time soon, and has allocated 14.8 billion yuan ($2.4bn) for renewable energy subsidies, as the country pursues a target to cut carbon emissions by 17% per unit of gross domestic product by 2015. The government will provide 9.3 billion yuan for wind power, 3.1 billion yuan for biomass projects and 2.4 billion for solar PV plants, with the rest subsidising other technologies. Data from the Chinese government shows wind energy output rose 41% last year to 100.8 billion kilowatt hours. Installed grid-connected wind energy capacity also rose 31% year-on-year to 62.7GW, suggesting that either turbine efficiency has improved or 2012 saw stronger winds than 2011. The result puts China on track to meet its stated goal of generating 190 billion kilowatt hours of wind power from 100GW of capacity by 2015 and further entrenches the country's position as the world's largest wind energy market.

·      In Germany, generation of solar photovoltaic electricity increased by 48%, to 27.6 terawatt hours in 2012, while wind power held steady at 46 terawatt hours, accounting for 11.9% of all electricity. Other renewables (biomass and hydro) also increased, meaning that total renewables rose to 21.9% of total electricity generated in 2012. The proportion of renewables in capacity additions for 2012 is much higher, indicating that renewables will be taking more and more of the load. More importantly, half of their renewable energy (53,000 megawatts) is owned by ordinary Germans.

·      Kristianstad, Sweden was the first municipality in the western world to decide to eliminate its use of fossil fuels. That was in 1999. By 2008, Kristianstad had cut it s use of fossil fuels in half. Växjö, Sweden started shifting to a biomass-based energy system in 1996 and by 2007 through a variety of initiatives had reduced CO2 emissions by 32%. Community leaders report that economic development did not suffer from this shift.

·      The proportion of renewable energy used in Sweden has increased from 34% in 1990 to 44.4% in 2010, and today has the highest proportion of renewable energy in the EU, with a goal to reach 49% by 2020. Sweden has a vision of a fossil-fuel-independent vehicle fleet by 2030 and no net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Sweden aims to be the world’s first oil-free economy by 2020.

·      Geos – a neighborhood in Arvada, Colorado  – is being designed as the largest master planned, net zero community in the United States. It plans to be the first community in America to be self-sufficient in energy, using solar and geothermal sources.

Canada has no efficiency or renewables targets

Canada not only has no quantitative targets for energy efficiency or renewable energy, we don’t have a leader proposing them. Instead we have politicians who want to us to become America’s gas tank and suck money from Asia’s pockets.

The International Energy Agency anticipates that renewables will “become the world’s second-largest source of power generation by 2015 (roughly half that of coal).

Duncan Clark co-authored with Michael Mike Berners-Lee the recently published The Burning Question: We Can't Burn Half the World's Oil, Coal and Gas. So How Do We Quit? In a Guardian article, he writes:

“We have far more oil, coal and gas than we can safely burn. For all the millions of words written about climate change, the challenge really comes down to this: fuel is enormously useful, massively valuable and hugely important geopolitically, but tackling global warming means leaving most of it in the ground – by choice.”

But the decision to leave unburned some $20 trillion worth of fossil fuels will not come easily. The top 100 coal and top 100 oil and gas companies had a combined value of $7.42 trillion as at February 2011.

Big Oil and Gas make big money; the five biggest – ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, BP, ConocoPhillips – made $118 billion in profits in 2012. That works out to $2.27 billion a week or $323 million a day.  They will not give up this steady stream of profits easily.

But it is a choice we must make. An IEA report – Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013 – last week warned Canada and the rest of the world that “strong, credible and long-term commitments” are needed to reduce greenhouse gases and prevent catastrophic global warming.

“The drive to clean up the world’s energy system has stalled,” says IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven. “Despite much talk by world leaders, and despite a boom in renewable energy over the last decade, the average unit of energy produced today is basically as dirty as it was 20 years ago.”

We are at a turning point, not driving toward a dead end.

The antidote to despair is participation. Join with others and do your part, however small, to contribute to the demise of ‘black energy’. As the experience of numerous countries informs us, this is a growth hormone we can live without.

Future generations will be thankful for the air they can breathe, the clean water they can drink, and a habitable planet they can thrive on; something to think about as we celebrate Earth Day 2013.

Michael Jessen is a Nelson-based energy specialist and owner of the consultancy Zero Waste Solutions. He is also the energy critic for the Green Party of BC and can be reached by email at

RESOURCES– The Jacobson-Delucchi Scientific American cover story can be read at

Although not yet up and running, The Solutions Project website at accept your email address and keep you posted on developments.

The Trottier Energy Futures Project report An Inventory of Low-Carbon Energy for Canadacan be found at

Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios is at

Read about Portugal’s remarkable renewable energy achievement at

The International Energy Agency report Tracking Clean Energy Progress 2013 is at