THE FUTURIST Interviews Ozzie Zehner, Energy Policy Scholar, on the Future of Global Energy Supply
Solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable-energy options aren’t as sustainable as you may think, according to Ozzie Zehner, University of California-Berkeley visiting scholar. In his new book Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism (University of Nebraska Press, 2012), he cautions against placing too much faith in “clean energy.”
A realistic global energy solution, he argues, will make reducing society’s energy consumption the top priority. He shared his thoughts in this interview with Rick Docksai, assistant editor for THE FUTURIST.
THE FUTURIST: Germany is pursuing a plan to derive 66W of its electricity from solar energy by 2030. How do you think this will pan out?
Ozzie Zehner: Germany became a leader in solar cell research and manufacturing over the last decade. German policymakers pushed through a host of subsidies for solar cells. The Euro crisis is now undermining that framework of subsidies.
Costs are amplified with inclement weather: Clouds, haze, hail, rain, freezing temperatures, and other factors create hazards for delicate solar panels. And German power companies must back up solar output with fossil-fuel plants or store daytime solar energy for later use.
It is highly unlikely that Germany will reach 30% solar by 2030. Even if it does, it will still have to deal with the negative side effects of solar photovoltaic production and energy storage. Furthermore, alternative energy mandates could simply squeeze energy-intensive German industries overseas. There, manufacturers will use dirty coal to craft goods that they will then ship back to German consumers.
THE FUTURIST: The Earth continually produces fossil fuels, albeit many times more slowly than the rate at which the human race burns them. So, theoretically, we could go on using fossil fuels indefinitely if we cut our consumption of them to a tiny faction of what it is now. What ideal fossil-fuel consumption rate should we pursue? And how capable are we of making the needed energy-consumption cut?
Zehner: Fossil-fuel renewal rates are so low as to be meaningless for practical decision-making today. Renewable forms of energy fueled humanity before the age of fossil fuels, and so they will after fossil fuels become scarce. However, there likely won't be enough of these renewable resources to go around. Humans will have less overall energy to work with.
We must achieve structural reductions in global energy consumption. Energy efficiency won’t be enough. In fact, energy efficiency can actually lead to negative environmental impacts unless regions institute taxes, caps, or regulations to prevent rebounding consumption patterns from exceeding efficiency gains.
The best way to get renewable energies to meet our needs is to simply need less. That is plausible. The largest environmental opportunities are in issues like human rights, healthcare, effective governance, and convenient neighborhood designs that are walkable and bikeable.
THE FUTURIST: Zero-energy buildings have attracted media attention in recent years. How feasible might it be to convert most, or even all, building construction into construction of zero-energy buildings?
Zehner: Insulation and good thermal performance strategies make sense. So do passive solar techniques, which employ overhangs, blinds, and smart window placement to take the most advantage of the sun’s energy.
On the other hand, there’s little reason to believe that household photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines do much to help the environment. Because of their energy footprint of production, toxins, and numerous limitations, they often merely swap one set of side effects for another. In fact, subsidized household solar cells and wind turbines may spur greater fossil fuel consumption: Alternative energy production expands energy supplies, which places downward pressure on prices, and leads to greater total demand.
Truly green homes aren't extraordinary at all. The most efficient homes and apartments sit in downtown neighborhoods that are close to shops, restaurants, neighbors, and public transit. They aren't too large, which minimizes construction materials, decreases heating and cooling requirements, and prevents them from doubling as storage units for runaway material accumulation. They have windows with adjustable shades, plenty of roof and wall insulation, adequate weather stripping, energy-efficient appliances, and kitchens with linoleum floors.
THE FUTURIST: Demand for air-conditioning systems is rising in some markets due to the warming climate. If the trends keep up, we could see huge spikes in household energy consumption worldwide. Where does air-conditioning fit in your scenario of a more energy-efficient society?
Zehner: A durable and powerful solution is to design buildings with awnings, overhangs, and blinds to deflect the sun’s rays. This can reduce—or in some cases, eliminate—air conditioning loads. But as long as it’s cheap and easy to turn down the thermostat, we probably won’t see much of a change from current trends. If energy costs were higher or buildings were required to carry an Energy Star rating when constructed or sold, then we’d likely see a shift.
THE FUTURIST: The BRIC countries, China especially, come up frequently in conversations about environmental challenges, and for obvious reasons: their rapidly growing economies, rising resource use, increases in automobile ownership, and massive emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. At the same time, most BRIC citizens still use far fewer resources than Westerners. How much progress are China, India, and Brazil making on conservation?
Zehner: Due to its rapid economic growth, China may appear to be following an unsustainable path compared to the United States. But when comparing China, a modestly consuming populace whose numbers will someday be smaller, with the United States, a more substantially consuming populace that’s set to expand, it is not difficult to determine which is sustainable within the limits of a finite planet and which is not.
Energy and economic activity are linked. That's one of the big reasons that humans find it so difficult to share energy resources and the obligations that come with them. It's unlikely that citizens of the rich world will willingly part with their high standards of living. It's even less likely that the world's poor will cease the push to increase their own.
(Note: For more information, also be sure to visit www.greenillusions.org.)