EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 12. Turning to Renewable Energy: Introduction

Just as the nineteenth century belonged to coal and the twentieth century to oil, the twenty-first century will belong to the sun, the wind, and energy from within the earth. In Europe, the addition of electrical generating capacity from renewable energy sources in 2006 exceeded that from conventional sources, making it the first continent to enter the new energy era. Meanwhile, in the United States electrical generating capacity from wind increased 27 percent in 2006, while that from coal decreased slightly. 1

We can see the Plan B energy economy emerging in many areas. In Texas, the state government is coordinating a vast expansion of wind power that could yield 23,000 megawatts of new generating capacity, an amount equal to 23 coal-fired power plants. In China, some 160 million people now get their hot water from rooftop solar water heaters. In Iceland, almost 90 percent of homes are heated with geothermal energy. In Europe, 60 million people rely on wind farms for their electricity. And in the Philippines, 19 million people get their electricity from geothermal power plants. 2

In the last chapter, we described how to offset the projected increases in energy use to 2020 with gains in efficiency. This chapter addresses the challenge of harnessing renewable energy on a scale that will help reduce worldwide carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 80 percent. The first priority is to replace all coal- and oil-fired electricity generation with renewable sources.

The Plan B goals for developing renewable sources of energy by 2020 that are laid out in this chapter are based not on what is conventionally believed to be politically feasible, but on what we think is needed to prevent irreversible climate change. This is not Plan A, business as usual. This is Plan B—a wartime mobilization, an all-out response proportionate to the threat that global warming presents to our future.

Can we expand renewable energy use fast enough? We think so. Recent trends in the use of mobile phones and personal computers give a sense of how quickly new technologies can spread. Once cumulative mobile phone sales reached 1 million units in 1986, the stage was set for explosive growth, and the number of cell phone subscribers doubled in each of the next three years. Over the next 12 years the number of people owning a mobile phone more than doubled every two years. By 2001 there were 995 million cell phones—a 1,000-fold increase in just 15 years. As of 2007, there were more than 2 billion cell phone subscribers worldwide. 3

Sales of personal computers followed a similar trajectory. In 1983 roughly a million were sold, but by 2003 the figure was an estimated 160 million—a 160-fold jump in 20 years. We are now seeing similar growth figures for renewable energy technologies. Sales of solar cells are doubling every two years, and the annual growth in wind generating capacity is not far behind. Just as the information and communications economies have changed beyond recognition over the past two decades, so too will the energy economy over the next decade. 4

There is one outstanding difference. Whereas the restructuring of the information and communications sectors was shaped by advancing technology and market forces, the restructuring of the energy economy will be driven also by the realization that the fate of our global civilization may depend not only on doing so, but doing so at wartime speed.

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1. Christoph Podewils, “There’s a Lot of Water in the Wine: Renewable Energy Lobby Criticizes the EU’s Highly Praised Goal for Alternative Energy,” PHOTON International, April 2007, p. 14; Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC) and Greenpeace, Global Wind Energy Outlook 2006 (Brussels: 2006); U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Energy Information Administration (EIA), Electric Power 2006 (Washington, DC: October 2007), p. 26.

2. “Texas Decision Could Double Wind Power Capacity in the U.S.,” Renewable Energy Access, 4 October 2007; coal-fired power plant equivalents calculated by assuming that an average plant has a 500-megawatt capacity and operates 72 percent of the time, generating 3.15 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year; an average wind turbine operates 36 percent of the time; Iceland geothermal usage from Iceland National Energy Authority and Ministries of Industry and Commerce, Geothermal Development and Research in Iceland (Reykjavik, Iceland: April 2006), p. 16; European per person consumption from European Wind Energy Association (EWEA), “Wind Power on Course to Become Major European Energy Source by the End of the Decade,” press release (Brussels: 22 November 2004); China’s solar water heaters calculated from Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century (REN21), Renewables Global Status Report, 2006 Update (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2006), p. 21, and from Bingham Kennedy, Jr., Dissecting China’s 2000 Census (Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau, June 2001); Philippines from Geothermal Energy Association (GEA), “World Geothermal Power Up 50%, New US Boom Possible,” press release (Washington, DC: 11 April 2002).

3. International Telecommunications Union, “Mobile Cellular Subscribers per 100 People,” ICT Statistics Database, at www.itu.int/ITU-D/icteye, updated 2007; Molly O. Sheehan, “Mobile Phone Use Booms,” Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2002 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002), p. 85.

4. Personal computer data from Computer Industry Almanac Inc, “25-Year PC Anniversary Statistics,” press release, at www.c-i-a.com, 14 August 2006; solar cell production (sales) from Worldwatch Institute, Vital Signs 2005, CD-Rom (Washington, DC: 2005); Paul Maycock, Prometheus Institute, Photovoltaic News, vol. 26, no. 3 (March 2007), p. 6, and previous issues.


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