Monday, August 19, 2013

Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism

Book Review: Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by Ozzie Zehner (University of Nebraska Press 2012 – Kindle Edition)

This book is not at all ‘against’ renewable energy as the title might suggest, but makes some important points toward shifting the whole focus of environmentalism and economics away from productivism, growth, and faith in technology. It is a rather sobering assessment of our predicaments concerning both the potential destructiveness of climate change, the current limitations of non-renewable energy, and the many pitfalls and less than desirable implications of renewable energy technologies (especially at current tech levels). Indeed the author shifts the focus away from being “for” or “against” energy technologies. What is fairly clear is that the best and fastest means of mitigating carbon emissions will have to come more from the consumption side than from the production side.

The first subject encountered is the viability of solar photovoltaics. Solar PV is commonly touted for CO2 reduction, simplicity, silence, local energy, economies of scale, durability, and the promise of further cost-reduction down the line. He gives a quick history of photovoltaics. Then he takes on the question of how we could actually power the planet with PV technology. He estimates optimistically that it would cost 123 trillion bucks to do so plus about 700 billion a year for maintenance. Then he considers other factors and ups the estimate to 1.4 quadrillion (100 times the US GDP) for global solar. In addition, people would have to live near the desert as losses from transmission would be too much. Economies of scale are often cheered as solar components become cheaper – although as the author points out those costs have remained relatively flat and other expenditures: insurance, warranty expenses, materials, transportation, labor, etc. may offset any reductions. Apparently, in some areas, theft of PV panels has become widespread – which can make a need for securing them better and can increase homeowner’s insurance.

Solar power does have great applicability as a local source of power, especially in remote areas. As a local source it can also compare favorably to the lack of efficiency of power distributed long-distance through wires. It also has great potential to add significant back-up power during peak power usage times which are often peak solar radiation times as well. Even with these timing and transmission advantages as well as factoring in the social costs of reduced CO2, it has been calculated that solar PV is still uneconomic compared to status quo power production. The author debunks the notion that solar cells will shrink in the manner of microchips, where more and more memory can be stored in smaller spaces. The reason is physics – solar panels need space to collect the sunlight – that space can be reduced in ingenious ways but there is a limit – so they won’t follow the pace of microchips.

Carbon offsets in Europe go for about $30/ton. When one compares solar to coal it could only compete if carbon offsets were $300/ton and for natural gas they would have to be $600/ton. He also mentions that manufacturing solar panels produces hexafluoroethane (C2F6) which is 12,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2, nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) which is 17,000 times more potent than CO2, and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) which is a whopping 25,000 times more potent. These man-made gases are measurably accumulating in the atmosphere and have a long stay-time (~ 10,000 yrs). He also mentions many cases of solar waste-dumping in China as solar produces a significant amount of toxic waste that must be dealt with. Solar panels have limited lives – 20-30 years and the waste in them is toxic and must be disposed of properly. Many chemicals of varying toxicity are used in the manufacture and final product. The waste is far less in potential damage than that spewed by fossil fuels but it would probably increase significantly with the growth of solar.

Apparently, solar panels can be very affected by humidity, haze, dust, snow, leaves, ice, and other soiling effects. Too much heat (in tropical areas) can lessen their ability to harness sunlight. A less than ideal angle can diminish them. Apparently, solar cells lose an avg. of about 1% efficiency per year – so they “age” and some thin film versions may degrade faster. Solar panel efficiency ratings may be twice as much or more as one actually gets. According to the author:

“This limitation is regularly concealed because of the way reporters, corporations, and scientists present these technologies.”

Corrosion, delamination, electrical arcing, water infiltration, and broken glass may also occur, further reducing efficiency and function. Such sobering thoughts have influenced me to reconsider a potential solar project. He suggests that at 5-10 years is when an inverter will fail. According to him the inverter (at $8000 each) must be changed 2-5 times during the life of the solar panels.

“In fact, the unanticipated costs, performance variables, and maintenance obligations for photovoltaics, too often ignored by giddy proponents of the technology, can swell to unsustainable magnitudes.”

Zehner notes that solar CEOs and those who work in the industry are well aware of these limitations and hazards of PV technology even if idealistic activists and optimists are not. He notes the – Five Harms of Photovoltaics – 1) can be seen as a form of ‘misdirection’ or greenwashing, 2) may cause people to abandon more sensible but less popular options – such as cutting down trees so that solar panels can collect more sun, 3) the promise of solar panels may prop up a productivist mentality, 4) possible misallocations of taxpayer monies as when a large business gets large taxpayer-funded subsidies for going solar, 5) photovoltaics generate their own environmental side effects throughout their life cycle. He does acknowledge that one of the best applications of solar is in more remote places where there is no electricity and only a small amount is required to make life better.

Other solutions such as converting coal-burning power plats to natural gas, utilizing solar water heating, passive solar, and better insulation could have a much more profound effect on CO2, pollution, and cost than installing solar panels. Citing long-studied comparisons in Europe, California, and Japan, Zehner sees proposals that solar PV can compete with fossil fuels as downright delusional.

Wind has many advantages over solar, one being that it is about 1/6 as expensive. Advocates say that with a modest carbon tax wind power can compete with coal and natural gas. The author gives a quick history of wind energy and its modern revival beginning with the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Wind energy has a modern history of being dependent on high oil prices but with climate change threats and better economics and technology it has steadily grown over the last few years. Even so, wind energy in 2012 was not enough to fulfill even 1% of global energy demand. Detractors note unpleasant sounds and headaches and there is even a “wind turbine syndrome” though that may be placebo-effect related. The main problems occur within a mile of the turbines so that suggests a solution. There have been NIMBY complaints, about the giant structures, the lights, the noise, etc although some find them picturesque. The well known phenomenon of wind turbines killing birds is noted – eagles, birds of prey, and migrating birds have been cited – although any tall structures such as buildings and towers kill birds in the same way. Electromagnetic interference is another issue with wind turbines which limits siting them.

In Brazil, large swathes of rainforest have been torn down to build roads, pads, and power line cuts for wind farms – roads which were subsequently used by illegal loggers and poachers. Such deforestation – especially in that area – cancels out some of the positive carbon impacts. Calculating the life-cycle carbon footprint of wind turbines is variable but quite significant. 40ft by 40ft by 40ft deep concrete pads made by fossil fuel consuming concrete plants mount each turbine. Turbines break and wear out eventually. The author notes that wind is renewable but turbines are not. The biggest problem is simply that the wind does not always blow. Relying on wind power alone without adequate storage would likely result in erratic electricity which could be damaging and dangerous. Current wind power grids are backed-up by what he calls dirty peaker plants powered by fossil fuels. They are often idled awaiting the next lull in the wind. Minute-to minute output of wind is apparently quite variable. If the wind is still the turbines will suck power from the grid since they have idling and steering systems powered up. The bottom line is that wind power is not well-suited to provide “base-load” power – the power to supply minimum demands at all times. The grids are not well set-up to handle intermittent wind power, especially those in America – apparently 2% is about max many of the grids can deal with. Even with the completion of the new smart grids engineers predict they could only handle about 30% max wind power. Energy storage options have not yet emerged as feasible though many are in the works. Here is something I have suspected for quite some time:

“Policymakers, journalists, and wind proponents alike regularly misunderstand or misrepresent these windy realities. Proponents frequently declare that wind power costs the same as natural gas or just a bit more than coal, but this is misleading…. The inconsistency of wind power necessitates a dual system, the construction and maintenance of one power supply network for when the wind is blowing and a second network for when it isn’t – an incredibly expensive luxury.”

A new American smart grid – though not likely soon due – could be quite beneficial:

“Instead of utilities adjusting their output to meet demand, a smart grid would allow homes and businesses to adjust their electrical use automatically, based on the availability of power.”

This could minimize the need for expensive peaker power plants and “spinning reserve” (idling power plants). Power leaks, stealing of electricity, and power outages would be reduced. Upgrading to a smart grid would offer more benefits than investing in solar and wind at present.

Zehner notes the “capacity factor” of coal plants (74%) and wind plants (24%) and states that a 1000 MW coal plant will output the same amount of energy as a 3100 MW wind plant over time. This equivalence is hypothetical and does not factor in the inconsistency of wind power. Taking into account the “reliability factor to measure the minimum percentage of wind power that turbines can deliver 90% of the time” – 18,000 MW of wind power would offset 1000 MW of fossil fuel or nuclear power 90% of the time! The author notes that journalists and politicians have opted for far more optimistic projections that do not match reality. A DOE report saying that 20% wind power by 2030 was possible has been strongly criticized as a fraudulent assessment not based on DOE data but on data projected by self-promoting wind and renewable energy consultants. The author brands this report as propaganda with totally unrealistic estimated capacity factors. Zehner goes through this report in detail and notes that it assumes technology would lower costs and increase capacity factors, which has not happened since the report was made several years ago. He sees this report as an example of “selection bias” where “people tend to overvalue information that reinforces their ideology and undervalue that which contradicts it.” Other studies have also verified discrepancies between anticipated and realized wind power outputs. Zehner again emphasizes that changes in patterns of consumption and waste offer more hope than producing more power. He says that we don’t have an energy crisis but a consumption crisis.

The section on biofuels emphasizes what is now well-known: that biofuels, particularly ethanol, offer little or no mitigation of carbon emissions, use vast amounts of water and land, and compete with and raise food and grain prices. He goes into great detail to explain what is now obvious, that corn ethanol was a flop. Sugar cane ethanol was much more of a success in places where it grows, like Brazil. Palm oil fuel from Indonesia has been a climatic disaster with deforestation, killing of animals, and little, no, or even negative emissions reduction. Cellulosic ethanol mitigates some of the problems but getting it to ferment is not so easy and currently requires expensive enzymes, so it is still in the research phase. It does potentially offer higher yields than sugar cane if perfected.

Less than 10% of U.S. sewage and wastewater treatment plants capture methane. Captured biogas has been utilized by landfills for a long time now though it is small-scale in impact. Wood and dung fires are particularly toxic. Biochar, cooked wood and cellulose that burns more efficiently than wood, which can save emissions and be sequestered as fertilizer later, may offer some benefits – although like corn ethanol it would require the use of much land. The bottom line is that the whole global potential for biomass energy is only enough to replace a few percent of current fossil fuel consumption.

The section on nuclear power goes through the history of accidents and releases of radioactivity and problems with waste disposal, clean-up, and decommissioning. Spent fuel from nuclear energy can be used to make bombs. The price of nuclear energy is also very high compared to fossil fuels even though it releases no CO2. Taxpayers end up paying for much of the construction, storing of waste, and deconstruction of nuclear plants. Spent fuel rods can be reprocessed into new fuel for so-called yet to be built “fast reactors”, as done in Europe – but this is still in R & D phase. Thorium offers a possibility as a nuclear fuel as it is more abundant than uranium but is also still in the research stages. Apparently, radiation risks are difficult to predict. Even though fossil fuel pollution kills and sickens magnitudes more people than radiation, there is a fear of big disasters with widespread carnage, as Chernobyl was.

Energy from hydrogen fuel cells, the so-called “hydrogen economy” has been called a pipedream, a hoax, even a conspiracy. Unfortunately it takes quite a bit of energy, presumably fossil fuel or nuclear to separate hydrogen from other molecules. The propaganda eventually suggested that renewable energy could be used to make hydrogen for fuel cells but that would drastically increase costs beyond any feasibility. Fuel cells are desirable because they can store energy. There are many many serious logistical problems for a hydrogen economy and he goes through them in detail. All the hype of hydrogen eventually brought on hecklers. Eventually the bubble burst. Beginning with Bush and ending with Obama the hydrogen dream was abandoned. The whole history of it is one of unrealizable hopes based on propaganda. Hydrogen fuel cell technology does have some niche applications, potentially, such as power back-up and battery replacement.

Next examined is the equally hyped notion of “clean coal”- the dirtiest of the fossil fuels. Air pollution, water contamination, land degradation, fly-ash waste, occupational risks, and community health risks are among the well-known problems of coal. Smokestack scrubbers filter out some contaminants but this sludge is routinely apparently dumped in waterways  that supply drinking water. Scrubbers have managed to very much reduce sulfur dioxide (SO2) pollution which comes from high-sulfur coal. Nowadays the idea of clean coal technology also includes carbon dioxide capture and sequestration, particularly from coal-burning power plants. This is very expensive at present and mainly still in the R&D stage with only a few projects active around the world. The costs, extra energy usage, and uncertainties virtually guarantee that it will make coal uncompetitive with natural gas for electricity production. CO2 capture, CO2 transport, favorable reservoirs (mainly porous saline reservoirs, salt caverns, and depleted oil and gas fields), and seal integrity (CO2 is harder to trap than hydrocarbons) are other hurdles. Though unlikely, a CO2 leakage on a large scale could be dangerous – a 1986 CO2 leak from a volcanic crater in Cameroon killed 1800 people. It is conceded that widespread deployment of CO2 capture and sequestration is a decade or probably two away. The amount of emissions that will be mitigated will likely be small even with widespread adoption due to the many scattered sources of emissions. The whole idea of “clean coal” is another hyped illusion.

Hydropower produces about 15% of energy around the world but that is unlikely to rise much due to the best places being already taken up. Other ones in potential development – in China and Brazil for instance – threaten to displace indigenous people and so have been unpopular. Dams can cause many ecosystem problems as well.

Low-temperature geothermal offers some mitigation after initial costs of emissions from heating and cooling, but only in places where the lots are big enough to bury the underground tubes. This is not feasible in cities where most houses are. For me out in the country this may be a more sensible option than solar panels.

High-temperature geothermal is dependent on places where the geothermal gradient is high enough to return sufficiently hot water and is also wrought with uncertainties like earthquakes. It holds great potential in the right localities. Places with shallow geothermal such as hot springs and volcanism– ie. Iceland and a few parts of western North America are tapped but deeper projects would require drilling wells, fracking them, and repeatedly injecting large quantities of water (the biggest earthquake risk) to be heated and cycled back to the surface. One Geothermal CEO optimistically predicts geothermal may end up producing 2% of energy in 20-50 years but that is about it.

Cold fusion and low-energy nuclear reactions have also been hoax-like in their tech development. Cost and technological feasibility do not look promising at present without some pretty serious breakthroughs.

Concentrating solar PV offers cheaper collectors but those are offset by much faster replacement times. Solar thermal is more grid-friendly because collected energy can be stored longer and the steam turbines can be integrated better with back-up power. These are applicable to deserts but affect desert ecosystems and use a lot of water which is scarce in the desert. Much smaller solar strategies like hot-water heating for homes and pools and geothermal heat pumps have proven to be feasible.

Zehner’s section on natural gas is wrought with fallacies and makes me wonder about the other aspects of the book. If his research here is so poor maybe it is elsewhere too. It seems he bought the whole anti-shale gas propaganda, particularly regarding the Marcellus Shale – now the most prolific American source of gas. This seems a reverse-hoax. The concerns about methane release during drilling, fracking, testing, and producing have been way overstated by one poorly calculated study – the only one cited by activists. The others, including the ones by the EPA, show far less leaks and are far more realistic. There is really little doubt that natural gas creates less greenhouse gas emissions than coal, not to mention the pollutants. Water contamination, though possible and occasional with drilling, has been vastly overstated. He scoffs at natural gas a bridge fuel but if one removes his inaccuracies and biases here, it makes much sense as a bridge fuel as moving from heavier to lighter hydrocarbons has immediate benefits to the environment.  

Electric cars and hybrids are really powered by fossil fuels and lithium mines. The expensive batteries support mining industries with questionable environmental records. Batteries are expensive and eventually need replaced. Hybrids and electric vehicles bring more benefits in cities as they can support sprawl in the suburbs and countryside. He compares greener vehicles to low-tar cigarettes. The author has designed hybrid vehicles but eventually changed his mind about them. I still like our Prius though and it continues to save us money with the battery nearly 8 years old.

Zehner says we have an alternative-energy fetish fueled by peer pressure and productivism, which suggests that simply producing more energy will solve our energy problems. Reduction is poorly utilized. He goes through some philosophical ideas to explain why we have come to embrace productivism. Producing alternative energy has gained vastly more headlines, airplay, and articles than energy conservation even though energy conservation offers better, cheaper, and faster opportunities as he demonstrates. Technologies can be promoted, bought, and sold but many conservation strategies must be implemented by the public – although there are vast opportunities at the corporate level as well. Conservation also reduces consumption which can reduce corporate profits. Journalists often seem to present the prevailing beliefs of those who promote products and often present energy issues as fossil fuels vs. alternative energy. This distracts from reduction options. Journalism and the internet have also made it so that politicians and ideologues can influence opinion about scientific issues as much or more than scientists. Technology is commodifiable while energy conservation is generally not. During a history of sustainability section he says reduction does not appeal to industry – but I disagree and again some forms of reduction can save industry significant amounts of money so I think this is or perhaps will change much in the future. Faith in clean energy technology is one way to justify our consumptive lifestyles and habits.  Cheap energy supply tends to feed consumptive recklessness.

Framing serious energy and climate issues as technological problems with technological solutions is a trademark of productivism. Zehner calls the low-price-influenced demand and high-price supply issues of energy an energy “boomerang effect.” Since the 19th century it had been noted that increases in energy efficiency make energy cheaper which increases demand for energy. In that sense energy efficiency can increase demand for energy which has the potential to feed a productivist mentality concerned with growth and affluence. He calls this a “rebound effect” – this tendency to use more energy because it is cheaper. Acceptance of higher gas mileage, smaller vehicles, and improved energy efficiency in buildings and appliances have proven to bypass much of this rebound effect.

Energy and economy are inseparable. Fossil fuel will eventually run out and alternative energy will supply our electricity needs. Efficiency will continue to improve and waste will not be tolerated. Even though energy is cheap at the moment it gives us an opportunity to redesign and reconfigure for the scarcity and high-energy costs projected in future times. Zehner says in the meantime we must “achieve specific structural reductions in global energy consumption.”

“The best way to get precious renewable energies to meet our needs is simply to need less – a chore that will be more fun than we might think.”

An example of things to come in an energy conserving paradigm given is California where decades ago energy production was decoupled from utility company profits. This decoupling and taxing heavy energy use has been fairly successful. He notes that two Californians use as much energy as one Texan. Appealing to human behavior and drawing on human creativity will be required in designing incentives to conserve energy. Zehner suggests that convincing people to partake in these creative solutions will eventually be the new activity of environmentalism. He says the proposals should be achievable, congruent, and meaningful.

The section on women’s rights as an environmental and population mitigation strategy was fascinating. Women who are educated, economically fit, and in control of their own bodies tend to crank out less children – so it is a no-brainer form of population mitigation. Currently the necessary population engagement debate concerns contraception vs. women’s rights. One question is simply - what is a sustainable population level -  and there is disagreement.  One dilemma is that more people means more people will have to live with less yet stifling reproductive rights fringes on free will. The search is for optimum and sustainable levels of both population and consumption, particularly in relation to available resources. Population growth fuels economic growth as companies seek more demand for their products. Japan, Germany, and Italy have all seen reduction in their population as women have fewer children. This has also affected their bottom line in things like pensions and health-care commitments. The challenge is to develop prosperity that is not based on growth. Voluntary population reduction has worked best as people come to realize that smaller is more sustainable. Many women around the world do not have access to contraception and family planning. Reducing poverty and hunger hinge on greater access to these services. Population control measures in the 60’s and 70’s were unfair to women. It is also true that women can bear the brunt of environmental impacts such as caring for the sick. Zehner thinks and I agree, that focusing on women’s rights will do much more for population control than fertilization programs. Higher fertility rates are often the result of economic and gender inequities. Women’s rights are in a dreadful state in many places and cultures around the world. Illiteracy, poverty, violence, child marriages, rampant rape, genital mutilation, narrowly defined and strictly enforced roles, and lack of basic rights are prevalent. This is foremost an ethical problem but also an environmental problem. Worrisome is that population growth has consistently been underestimated. The U.S. has the highest teen pregnancy (and abortion) rates among industrialized nations (many times the rate of some European countries) even though rates of sexual activity are similar. Teen pregnancy and parenting has generally resulted in disadvantages for mother and children. Nearly all of these pregnancies are unplanned and half or more of all pregnancies are unplanned. Social stigmata and religious views have tended to dissuade contraception and medical services related to family planning which are not given high priority. Social acceptance of teen sexual activity has been correlated with lower teen pregnancy rates and lower STDs so rights (socially) and education of teens can be helpful and have likely been neglected here. Childtren’s rights are important as well and universal health care availability is a cornerstone of those rights.

Ecoconsumerism is explored. Zehner, in his slightly condescending, slightly pessimistic style – talks about all the labels that get people to buy, thinking they are helping the planet: natural, sustainable, eco, green, fair-trade, local, and organic. Such green marketing buzzwords may not be as beneficial as they appear, especially if one calculates and compares life-cycle carbon footprints and ingredients. The diaper wars of the 1990’s between disposable and cloth really became a choice between expanding landfills and detergent-filled waterways. Very often, “ecofriendliness” can’t be measured, yet if products get that green stamp of approval they will sell better. Some of those initially optimistic about green consumption have changed their mind these days as it is not so easy to assess how green a product really is. Zehner notes that: “The best material consumption is less material consumption.” He blames advertising for tying us into high-consumption patterns, advertising that begins targeting us when we are children. Curiously he notes that the way we treat childhood began to change in the 1700’s and 1800’s as children’s books became available, birthdays began to be celebrated, and children began to be socially treated much differently than adults. In the late 19th century marketing to children began. Thus youth-consumerism was established with brand names, products associated with social status, and other psychologically exploitative strategies. Such tactics have worked for selling to kids but may well have damaged them in the process – sowing consumptive habits. Americans typically work more hours to buy larger and more expensive homes. “Affluenza” has been described as our desire to own more in a sort of materialistic arms race with others. We are preoccupied with what we own and this is unhealthy. We strive for money to buy short-lived and superficial enjoyments. Striving for wealth and status may undermine psychological health. He talks about the different mindsets of work productivity in Europe and the U.S. since he has lived in several p;aces in both. He notes that since European countries provide health care and elderly care there is less anxiety about having enough money when one gets old and/or sick. One issue for Americans working overtime while others are unemployed is that employers have to pay less health care costs for a smaller number of employees.

In a section called – The Junk Business – he talks about the junk mail cycle and excessive product packaging that acts as another layer of in-store advertising. Getting back to materialism he talks about a group called “downshifters” who change the mentality of “live to work” to “work to live” As ways to improve happiness without materialism he advocates volunteering – which I concur is a great way to make friends. Volunteering can mix people of different socio-economic backgrounds which can be beneficial. He also advocates eliminating advertising to children as a way to short-circuit rampant life-long habituated materialism. Many countries around the world have banned it and claim success. He gives some good arguments for eliminating such advertising. Another thing advocated is social enterprises for youth. These can be bikepaths and walkways near schools, edible schoolyards, volunteering, school media like newspapers or film projects, things like Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots naturalist education, and other creative ways to learn and engage. Next advocated is to shift taxes from income to consumption. Such things will probably happen in a future where scarcity of energy resources gets more real. Luxury taxes and energy taxes loom in the future. Smart packaging would likely save manufacturers money and reduce waste so that is advocated as a no-brainer. He suggests implementing junk-mail choice as in Germany where a sticker on a mailbox means no junk mail. Such a simple change would likely save vast amounts of wasted energy – more than all solar PV energy combined. Ditching the GDP as a market health indicator is also recommended. Other indicators such as a coefficient of wealth disparity and sustainable economic welfare (which is adjusted form of GDP) could be employed. Other things advocated are shifting spending from military to education and energy/environment and promoting vegetarianism. Meat production uses vast amounts of energy and creates far more emissions than agriculture. He notes members of the Union of Concerned Scientists identifying the most harmful types of consumption in terms of greenhouse gas emissions: driving, meat and poultry consumption were the top two. Even part-time vegetarianism would be extremely beneficial.

In a chapter called – The Architecture of Community – he bemoans the sidewalkless monotonous suburban landscapes of America. He also criticizes the environmental movement for promoting rural living and technological fixes. Of course, few people can actually live rural and there are definite environmental costs to doing so even if one is off-grid. Redesigning cityscapes offers much for reducing energy consumption. Cities were re-designed to accommodate cars but now they are being gradually re-designed to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. Nowadays we spend large amounts of time in our cars where we are exposed to toxins, especially in traffic. In town and country everyone mows their yards, using vast amounts of fossil fuels, yet spends little time enjoying them. Maintenance is the principal activity in yards. Often those yards are filled with pesticides and chemical fertilizers that drain directly into our drinking water supplies. Perhaps the suburb was an attempt to balance the pleasures of rural living with the convenience of urban living. I live rural and sometimes bemoan having to go into town while at other times I crave it. Suburbs progress from rural retreats to urban gridlocks. He gives Detroit as an example of failure where one economy – the suburban – expanded outward while the inner city economy was neglected – and just recently the city itself became the first city to file for bankruptcy. It has been revealed that urbanites end up subsidizing suburbanites. Nowadays we think of a maturing suburbia that is adapting and being retrofitted ecologically. Suburban sprawl is depicted as the epitome of energy wastage becoming the psychological norm. He presents New York City, particularly Manhattan, as first in public transportation and walking and last in per capita greenhouse gas emissions. For many reasons urban living is simply more energy efficient. Studies indicate that modern dense living may have many advantages. On average New Yorkers are healthier and longer lived. Europe is far ahead of the US in the walk-ability and the bicycle-friendliness of cities. The US is of course more car-friendly which makes walking and biking more dangerous. Creating safe bike routes is probably more effective in reducing carbon emissions than adding more solar energy capacity but few dollars are set aside for this and other safety issues.  Making biking and walking legitimate and esteemed forms of transportation is what is needed.

Public transportation works best where there is high population density. Greening the cities with trees and parks, car sharing, bike sharing, congestion pricing, and traffic calming are advocated. Zehner also advocates reforming zoning laws so that people can be more creative with warehouses and with retrofitting buildings for other uses. Retrofitting and densifying suburbia is also advocated. Short blocks, mixed-use buildings and refitting vacant big box stores and buildings will help. The biggest challenge may be funding since real estate bankers see such changes as non-traditional and so more risky. Energy efficiency and plugging leaks in energy systems offers many benefits. The degree of energy waste is the real energy crisis. Energy production has come to be associated with well-being but in the future energy efficiency will be more valuable and rewarded. Creating efficiency standards for buildings, the biggest users of energy, just like there are for vehicles, is recommended. He examines LEED certification and concludes that it undervalues simple reductions and overvalues technological fixes. He describes LEED as bureaucratic. He suggests reformatting building efficiency standards along the lines of the Energy Star ratings of appliances – possibly even incorporated them into building codes.

Systems thinking may be beneficial in considering energy use. A carbon tax can be seen as a tax on consumption levied at the production end. The wealthy could more easily adapt to carbon pricing. Such pricing is sometimes termed a free market approach where the carbon market takes care of emissions without regulation but many disagree and Zehner just says it makes another false solution still tied into growthism. But sometimes regulation works wonders. He gives the example of the FTC mandated energy consumption labeling on refrigerators which led to much more energy efficient refrigerators in a short time as the technology was already available. In fact today’s fridge uses less than 20% of the energy used by one in 1974.

“Some regulations introduce transparency or choice. Others place limits on pollutants or an undesired activity. Historically, the most successful pollutant regulations have mandated initially low limits that tighten over time. These not only enable firms to plan ahead but also allow them to brew up their own solutions.”

Ideologues typically see a free market and regulation as mutually exclusive but extreme deregulation can be damaging. Zehner advocates an energy tax rather than a carbon tax. Such a scheme would tax alternative green energy as much as fossil fuel energy.

Rediscovering passive solar is recommended. Houses, neighborhoods, and cities with strategically placed trees increase efficiency, filter air, mitigate runoff, and absorb CO2. Building and neighborhood cogeneration systems save money and wastage by creating local energy. At the federal level Zehner suggests a Department of Efficiency. The bureaucratic DOE is criticized. A Deptartment of Efficiency could save money rather than waste it. He gives Harvard energy specialist Max Bazerman’s five guiding priorities for making energy decisions.

1)      Educate the public on energy trade-offs.
2)      Maximize benefits to society rather than special interest groups.
3)      Seek energy policies that would make sense even if climate change were not an issue.
4)      Identify nudges that significantly influence the behaviors of individuals and organizations in a positive direction without infringing on personal liberties.
5)      Achieve buy-in on long-term policies that require up-front costs and consider a mild delay before policies take effect.

Zehner argues that environmental problems are rooted in social, political, and economic issues and that those most be engaged rather than focusing on training students in alternative energy technologies at university environmental degree programs. Researchers such as the McKinsey and Company consultants ranked the best CO2 reduction schemes by cost and benefit:

1)      energy-efficiency strategies that typically save money.
2)      agriculture and forestry management that either save a little or cost a little
3)      energy-production strategies that cost the most (least?) per ton of “avoided CO2.”

Promoting workers rights, corporate transparency, and socially-based enterprises should yield good results. Focusing now on the economic, social, and cultural issues will yield immediate benefits and help the eventual transition to an alternative energy society.

A key part of this book is changing the focus of environmentalism to reduction of waste and increasing efficiency – even in a watchdog sense – rather than all-out support of alternative energy technology solutions. These reduction solutions may be boring to media and politicians but as Zehner says “Ultimately clean energy is less energy.” The challenge is to formulate a society able to be powered by alternative energy – when fossil fuels run out or much better yet - before projected climate tipping points hit. He makes an interesting comparison of the U.S. and China – even though China is building oodles of coal burning power plants, their per capita energy consumption is about 20% that of the U.S. and their population is stable or waning while that of the U.S. continues to multiply.

At the end Zehner notes the strategy conclusions of several other recent books about energy and environment including those by Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, John Michael Greer, Derick Jennson, David Goldblatt, and quite a few others. There is a section on resources and websites for various ideas in the book and extensive notes.

Overall an excellent, though large book, a bit pessimistic and condescending at times but otherwise very informative and useful.



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