Coverage of the session “Assisting the World’s transition to a Sustainable Energy Future,” presented by Anne Gillette and Lawrence Staudt. Click here to access the presentation abstract, written paper, and PowerPoint.
By Alissa Emmel
“Assisting the World’s transition to a Sustainable Energy Future” was discussed in a packed room of about 70 people with standing room only. The presentation began with Lawrence Staudt providing an overview of where we have been and where we are in our current consumption of resources. We looked at the percentage change in type of resource used (over a hundred years ago 80 percent of the energy we used was biomass and renewable resources, now that accounts for just 20 percent of our energy consumption.) The situation is quite serious; we are nowhere near any kind of sustainable energy source that will sustain society as we know it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t focus on wind and solar energy, however we know that it can not sustain us with our current lifestyle and consumption demands. In the future everything will be considered in light of sustainability. Sustainability will become our touchstone. The discussions on sustainability are relatively new because in the past we did not have such an ability to act unsustainably.
Shoghi Effendi (the great- grandson of Bahá’ulláh) noted that in the future society will make use of “all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet”. To Staudt there are two very important implications to this statement. First there will be no “energy panacea”. If there was something that would take care of all our needs, then we wouldn’t need to use all available sources. Second, the surface of the planet implies renewable energy. We discussed how even geothermal energy can be considered on the surface. (If you drew the largest circle you could on an 8 _ by 11 piece of paper, the earth’s crust would be represented b y the line, so geothermal really is the “surface.”)
So if we need to focus on renewable energy, however we know that renewable energy can not fulfill our needs if we continue with the same lifestyle, what does this mean for the future? Staudt concludes that per capita energy “needs” can be and will be dramatically reduced, that we will be forced to become a more moderate and less materialistic society. Often a question raised relates to nuclear energy, and Staudt agrees that nuclear energy will play a valuable role as a transition fuel. Since nuclear fission requires uranium, he notes that the current nuclear energy plants can be supplied for several decades, however they only satisfy 6% of current energy needs, so if we needed nuclear energy to satisfy 60% of the world’s energy needs then there might only be enough uranium for a few years.
We then spoke about the strengths and weaknesses/liabilities of using renewable energy. Some of the strengths include:
• Little or no pollution or greenhouse gases (environmental sustainability),
• It is available now and forever,
• price stability in that it is available worldwide,
• Potential for jobs, etc. (big business opportunity for those who have the vision to see where this is going).
However there are weaknesses or liabilities of using renewable energy:
• The cost is higher than fossil fuels (This is related to the next point),
• It comes in relatively low concentrations of energy (Petroleum is very energy dense and we won’t see it in the future),
• It requires a large capital investment in new infrastructure,
• There is insufficient global energy governance to effectively manage the transition. We have a need for a global regulation of energy – and we are institutionally unprepared.
However, even with all of the challenges, Staudt notes that we have to move to more renewable resources, that this is the only answer. In 2008 more wind power generating capacity was installed in Europe than any other type of generating plant. In Ireland there is a goal that by 2020 40% of all energy will be wind energy and they are on track to achieve this. Right now wind energy in Ireland represents 12% of all energy produced. The reason Ireland is pushing for wind energy isn’t altruistic, it is that it is plenteous and in the long run it is cheaper.
Bahá’u’lláh counseled all the people of the world to “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” As an energy professional, Staudt tries to follow this guidance by questioning what he can do to assist with the transition to a sustainable energy future. However this is not just for “professionals”, everyone should and needs to be involved. Everyone has a part to play. There are many things that we can do in our daily lives to move this agenda forward. Many people have the option to subscribe to a “green” electricity tariff. Even though the “green” electricity costs more, it is still much cheaper than the true value of electricity. It might come to $20 more a month. We can teach about sustainability in children’s classes, as they will be responsible for this planet and we can help instill responsible attitudes at an early stage. In a way all Bahá’í activities can help move this agenda forward, as we have a life that is focused on moderation, equity and justice. As Bahá’ís we are guided by a much bigger framework and vision than most of our friends working in this field because we can see how environmental sustainability is one component of an ever advancing civilization.
Anne Gillette then presented California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initative (RETI) as a case study of one state’s attempt to build concensus towards increasing the use of renewable resource energy. California has a statewide mandate to have 33% of its energy consumption come from renewable resources by 2020, it also designated that 20% of energy consumption will be from renewable resources by 2010. They know that they will not reach the 2010 benchmark (currently California is at 13%), however they are trying to think of new ideas to reach the goal of 33% by 2020.
One major issue is “transmission.” Renewable resource quality varies greatly by location, so new transmission lines are cirtical to help transmit renwable energy from where it is of the best quality (and lowest cost to obtain) and transmit it to the rest of the state. The best resources are where they are and now we have to identify them, tap them and then “transmit” it to where people need it. Unfortunatly transmission lines are ugly and unpopular, and yet absoletly necessary for the state to achieve their goal for 2020.
There are many other “costs” to consider, one “cost” is land use requirements. For example solar energy requires miles and miles of solar panels to be covering the ground to produce the amount of energy produced at one small coal plan. Another consideration is when renewable resources overlap with areas that are protected for other reasons. In California one of the best locations for geothermal energy is on Native American sacred ground. Again one of the concerns is that no renewable energy source currently being considered in California (wind, solar, geothermal) will produce the amount of energy that is produced by a coal plant.
As Bahá’u’lláh noted “O son of man! If thine eyes be turned towards mercy, forsake the things that profit thee, and cleave unto that which will profit mankind. And if thine eyes be turned towards justice, choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.” The goal of RETI is to address climate change. But even if they achieve their goal, the environmental impact might be small. Yet to Gillette, the principles at hand and the process is as important as the outcome. Although RETI was created to address climate change, it is also about how everyone is sacrificing for the sake of humanity. No one wants transition lines, but people are willing to give up their own desires.
For RETI the first step was to assess the resources and also the possibility to take action. the first chart looks at where the renewable resources are, the second chart looks at areas where the state cannot access the resources, i.e. “brown” indicates a military area, “red” is an urban or built up area, “dark grey” is a national park or other general blackout area where development is already precluded, “yellow” are areas where development is restricted, etc). When the resource assessments are combined, the third chart was created. Here purple represents wind, and orange solar energy. The various renewable resources were then ranked according to their cost effectiveness and their ability to be developed, and this rank was then used to eventual ranking of the transmission lines.
A key learning in the process was the need for consultation and respect. At times entrenched ideas about sides can be difficult to overcome. Often different groups are used to fighting and clashing (not working together), so getting people to work together and to trust each other can be hard. One of the greatest successes of RETI has been its ability to build consensus, to allow people to have a voice, and to truly consider everyone’s point of view and have everyone make compromises.
There was then a brief time for questions and answers.
1) Can you address transportation systems, since a sustainable energy future is not only about household/business energy use? For example most people flew to this conference and I haven’t seen any planes that can be plugged into electricity. What do you foresee to happen in the future with transportation systems?
In Ireland it is clear that we are talking about electric powered transportation. We have electric vehicles on the campus and a huge wind turbine that powers the campus. However you are right about the planes. Staudt noted that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (the son of Bahá’u’lláh) said that in the future the bay of Haifa will be filled with boats. Therefore one possibility might be that in the future we go back to ocean travel, which is very energy efficient, however it does take more time. Maybe in the future we won’t travel as much and fly as much.
2) In relation to buying carbon offsetting credits, am I better at doing that, or giving the money to the Bahá’í fund?
That is a personal question, however paying a little more doesn’t even approach how much that energy is actually valued (it is priced so far below its value).
3) Are you raising the price of electricity in CA to encourage electricity and energy efficiency?
Electricity is expensive in CA in relation to the rest of the US. We have kept the per capita use the same, however the population has increased so our usage has increased.
4) Has anyone considered other possibilities like harnessing lighting and magnetism?
Energy in the sense of electricity is actually power multiplied by time. Therefore there isn’t much energy in lighting (a few hundred kilowatt hours) because it is for such a short time. Magnetism isn’t a source of energy, you need to wrap a wire around a magnet and then the wire could conduct electricity, however it still wouldn’t produce energy. Magnetism is a force.