Outgrowing the Earth: The Food Security Challenge in an Age of Falling Water Tables and Rising Temperatures


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 7. Stabilizing Climate: Turning to Renewable Energy Sources

There are also many options for cutting carbon emissions by harnessing renewable sources of energy, including wind energy, solar energy, geothermal energy, and biomass. Each of these can be developed in many ways. On the solar front, there are solar electric cells, solar thermal power plants, and the direct use of solar energy for water and space heating. The most immediately promising short-term source of new energy is wind. It is a vast resource, one that could meet all the world’s electricity needs. As this chapter aims simply to give a sense of the possibilities for cutting carbon emissions, the discussion here will focus only on wind as a renewable source of energy.

The use of wind power is growing fast because it is abundant, cheap, inexhaustible, widely distributed, clean, and climate-benign—a set of attributes that no other energy source can match. Consider the U.S. potential. In 1991, the U.S. Department of Energy published a national wind-resource inventory. It concluded that North Dakota, Kansas, and Texas alone had enough harnessable wind energy to satisfy national electricity needs. For many people this was a surprise. They had no idea wind was such a vast resource. 30

In retrospect, this was a gross underestimate because it was based on the wind energy that could be harnessed by the wind turbine technologies of 1991. Design advances since then enable turbines to operate at lower speeds, to convert wind into electricity more efficiently, and to harvest a much larger wind regime. Whereas the average wind turbine in 1991 might have been 40 meters tall, today turbines are closer to 100 meters, reaching heights where winds are stronger and steadier than they are at the earth’s surface. While in 1991 the government concluded that wind power in just three states could satisfy national electricity needs, it may now be that these three states have enough harnessable wind energy to meet national energy needs. Although it is helpful to use these three wind-rich states to illustrate the scale of U.S. wind resources, many of the other 47 states are also richly endowed with wind energy. 31

Europe is the model for developing wind power. Although its wind resources are modest compared with those of the United States, it is moving much faster to harness them. In its late 2003 projections, the European Wind Energy Association (EWEA) shows Europe’s wind-generating capacity expanding from 28,400 megawatts in 2003 to 75,000 megawatts in 2010 and then 180,000 megawatts in 2020. By 2020, just 16 years from now, projections show that wind-generated electricity will be able to satisfy the residential needs of 195 million Europeans, half of the region’s population. 32

Europe is tapping its offshore wind resources as well as those on land. A 2004 assessment of Europe’s offshore potential by the Garrad Hassan wind energy consulting group concluded that if governments move aggressively to develop their vast offshore resources, wind could be supplying all of the region’s residential electricity by 2020. 33

Wind-generating capacity worldwide, growing at over 30 percent a year, has jumped from less than 5,000 megawatts in 1995 to 39,000 megawatts in 2003—nearly an eightfold increase. (See Figure 7–3.) In comparison, natural gas use leads the fossil fuels, with an annual growth rate topping 2 percent during the same period, followed by oil at less than 2 percent and coal at less than 1 percent. Nuclear generating capacity expanded by 2 percent. 34

The modern wind-generating industry was born in California during the early 1980s, but the United States, which now has 6,400 megawatts of generating capacity, has fallen behind Europe in adopting this promising new technology. Germany overtook the United States in 1997; within Europe, it leads the way with 14,600 megawatts of generating capacity. Spain, a rising wind power in southern Europe, may overtake the United States in 2004. Tiny Denmark, which led Europe into the wind era with the development of its own wind resources, now gets an impressive 20 percent of its electricity from wind. It is also the world’s leading manufacturer and exporter of wind turbines. 35

When the wind industry first began to develop in California, wind-generated electricity cost 38¢ per kilowatt-hour. Since then it has dropped to 4¢ or below in prime wind sites. And some long-term supply contracts have been signed for 3¢ per kilowatt-hour. EWEA projects that by 2020 many wind farms will be generating electricity at 2¢ per kilowatt-hour, making it cheaper than other sources of electricity. 36

The United States is lagging in developing wind energy not because it cannot compete technologically with Europe in manufacturing wind turbines but because of a lack of leadership in Washington. The wind production tax credit of 1.5¢ per kilowatt-hour, which was adopted in 1992 to establish parity with subsidies to fossil fuel, has lapsed three times in the last five years—most recently at the end of 2003, when Congress failed to pass a new energy bill. The uncertainty about when it would be renewed disrupted planning throughout the wind power industry. 37

The United States—with its advanced technology and wealth of wind resources—should be a leader in this field. Unfortunately the country continues to rely heavily on coal, a nineteenth-century energy source, for much of its electricity at a time when European countries are replacing coal with wind. Europe is not only leading the world into the wind age, it is also leading the world into the post-fossil-fuel age—the age of renewable energy and climate stabilization. By demonstrating the potential for harnessing the energy in wind, Europe is unveiling the new energy economy for the rest of the world.

The impetus for that new energy economy to unfold quickly may come from an unexpected source: agriculture. The effect of rising temperatures on crop yields fundamentally broadens the responsibility for food security. Historically, food security was the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture, but now the Ministry of Energy also bears responsibility. Decisions made by ministries of energy on whether to stay with carbon-based, climate-disrupting fossil fuels or to launch a crash program to develop renewables may have a greater effect on food security than do any of the decisions made in ministries of agriculture.


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