Thursday, April 10, 2008

Shift from oil to renewables: sexy enough for prime time?

The conversion from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based on renewables will be expensive and could severely depress the American economy, right?

Not only is that wrong, but it's WAY wrong, according to speakers at last week's Blue Planet Summit in Honolulu.

(Photo: Lights using energy-efficient LEDs, for light-emitting diodes.)

The evidence, including entire national economies that have made the switch, is that renewable energy invigorates economies rather than depressing them.

Robert Kennedy Jr. likes to use the example of Iceland, at one time oil-based and the weakest economy in Europe. The nation fought off naysayers and converted to hyroelectric and geothermal energy. Today, it has a thriving economy—the fourth strongest in Europe, he said.

Sweden has had similar success, he said.

All the speakers at Blue Planet who addressed the issue agreed. The first Blue Planet Summit was convened to help move Hawai'i and the world from fossil fuels toward an economy that does not depend on carbon-based fuels.

They envisioned, as Dennis Hayes said, “a super-efficient national economy powered by renewable resources.” Hayes was national coordinator of the first Earth Day.

“In the 21st century, green business is good business,” said Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona.

How to get as green as needed?

“We need an Apollo-like project on a national level,” said Sierra Club Hawaii director Jeff Mikulina.

“You have to equip young people with the idea that their decisions have consequences,” said Ramsay Taum, of the University of Hawai'i's School of Travel Industry Management.

“You've got to educate people on how to save money in their pocketbook every single month,” said Bill Paul, managing editor of

“You get transformation by transforming yourself,” said Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism Solutions.

Kennedy said that oil, coal and nuclear power are only cost-competitive with renewables today due to immense government subsidies—meaning folks are paying for much of their electrical power and gasoline through the Internal Revenue Service rather than through the electric bill and gas pump.

“None of these could survive in a truly free market...We do not have a free market economy in the energy sector,” he said.

Moving to renewables is far from an economic miss, but rather a big potential plus, others argued.

“This is the defining economic opportunity of our century,” said Mark Brownstein, managing director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

It's not just the environmental crowd that feels this way.

James Woolsey, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said America's economy and its national security are clearly improved by moving away from oil.

“We have to move away from oil. Not just import less—destroy its strategic position,” Woolsey said.

Gal Luft, of the Institute for Analysis of Global Security, said it is as much a matter of survival from a security standpoint as an environmental issue.

“There are two clocks ticking here: the melting of the icecaps, and the melting of the West,” Luft said.

Since much of the nation's oil is burned in transportation, several speakers argued for flexible fuel cars, including ones that run on electricity.

“The transportation sector is 97 percent oil, dominated by oil in all of its parts,” Woosley said.

“It is a legitimate national security enterprise to develop cars that don't run exclusively on petroleum,” said Martin Hoffert, an emeritus professor at New York University.

Moving away from oil, said Lovins, “is simply better business.”

Using existing technologies, the nation can cuts its use of fossil fuels in half, at a profit, she said.

Lovins said what's needed is simply the commitment to move in that direction.

We need a BHAG: A Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal,” she said. In case you hadn't heard the term before, she pronounced it “bee-hag.”

One of the existing technologies that can immediately save people money and reduce fossil fuel use in Hawai'i is solar water heating.

“It is an immediate low-hanging fruit,” said Robbie Alm, Hawaiian Electric's vice president for public affairs.

The question is whether people in Hawaii and the nation will make the commitment to move away from fossil fuels.

“ needed for progress,” said Eliot Assimakopoulos, of GE Global Research and Development. In Hawai'i, he said, “certainly there is pain, but is there enough?”

© 2008 Jan W. TenBruggencate