Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization


Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Stabilizing Climate: Shifting to Renewable Energy: The World Energy Economy of 2020

As this chapter has described, the transition from coal, oil, and gas to wind, solar, and geothermal energy is well under way. In the old economy, energy was produced by burning something—oil, coal, or natural gas—leading to the carbon emissions that have come to define our economy. The new energy economy harnesses the energy in wind, the energy coming from the sun, and heat from within the earth itself. It will be largely electrically driven. In addition to its use for lighting and for household appliances, electricity will be widely used in the new economy both in transport and to heat and cool buildings. Climate-disrupting fossil fuels will fade into the past as countries turn to clean, climate-stabilizing, nondepletable sources of energy.

Backing away from fossil fuels begins with the electricity sector, where the development of 5,300 gigawatts of new renewable generating capacity worldwide by 2020—over half of it from wind—would be more than enough to replace all the coal and oil and 70 percent of the natural gas now used to generate electricity. The addition of close to 1,500 gigawatts of thermal heating capacity by 2020, roughly two thirds of it from rooftop solar water and space heaters, will sharply reduce the use of both oil and gas for heating buildings and water. (See Table 5–1.) 110

In looking at the broad shifts from 2008 to the Plan B energy economy of 2020, fossil-fuel-generated electricity drops by 90 percent worldwide. This is more than offset by the fivefold growth in renewably generated electricity. In the transportation sector, energy use from fossil fuels drops by some 70 percent. This comes first from shifting to all-electric and highly efficient plug-in hybrids cars that will run almost entirely on electricity, nearly all of it from renewable sources. And it also comes from shifting to electric trains, which are much more efficient than diesel-powered ones. Many buildings will be all-electric—heated, cooled, and illuminated entirely with carbon-free renewable electricity.

At the country and regional level, each energy profile will be shaped by the locally unique endowment of renewable sources of energy. Some countries, such as the United States, Turkey, and China, will likely rely on the broad base of renewables—wind, solar, and geothermal power—for their energy. But wind, including both onshore and offshore, is likely to emerge as the leading energy source in each of these countries.

Table 5–1. World Renewable Energy Capacity 
in 2008 and Plan B Goals for 2020
Source 2008 Goal for 2020
Electricity Generating Capacity (Electrical Gigawatts)
Wind 121 3,000
Rooftop Solar Electric Systems (2) 13 1,400
Solar Electric Power Plants (2) 2 100
Solar Thermal Power Plants 0 200
Geothermal 10 200
Biomass 52 200
Hydropower 945 1,350
Total 1,143 6,450
Thermal Energy Capacity (Thermal Gigawatts)
Solar Rooftop Water and Space Heaters 120 1,100
Geothermal 100 500
Biomass 250 350
Total 470 1,950
                          Source: See endnote 110.     

In June 2009, Xiao Ziniu, director of China’s National Climate Center, said that China had up to 1,200 gigawatts of wind generating potential. This compares with the country’s current total electricity generating capacity of 790 gigawatts. Xiao said the new assessment he was citing “assures us that the country’s entire electricity demand can be met by wind power alone.” In addition, the study identified 250 gigawatts of offshore wind power potential. A senior Chinese official had earlier announced that wind generating capacity would reach 100 gigawatts by 2020, which means it would overtake nuclear power well before then. 111

Other countries, including Spain, Algeria, Egypt, India, and Mexico, will turn primarily to solar thermal power plants and solar PV arrays to power their economies. For Iceland, Indonesia, Japan, and the Philippines, geothermal energy will likely be their mother lode. Still others will likely rely heavily on hydro, including Norway, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Nepal. Some technologies, such as rooftop solar water heaters, will be used virtually everywhere.

With the Plan B energy economy of 2020, the United States will get 44 percent of its electricity from wind farms. Geothermal power plants will supply another 11 percent. Photovoltaic cells, most of them on rooftops, will supply 8 percent of electricity, with solar thermal power plants providing 5 percent. Roughly 7 percent will come from hydropower. The remaining 25 percent comes from nuclear power, biomass, and natural gas, in that order. (See capacity figures in Table 5–2.) 112

As the energy transition progresses, the system for transporting energy from source to consumers will change beyond recognition. In the old energy economy, pipelines carried oil from fields to consumers or to ports, where it was loaded on tankers. A huge fleet of tankers moved oil from the Persian Gulf to markets on every continent.

Texas offers a model of how to build a grid to harness renewable energy. After a survey showed that the state had two strong concentrations of wind energy, one in West Texas and the other in the Panhandle, the Public Utility Commission coordinated the design of a network of high-voltage transmission lines to link these regions with consumption centers such as Dallas/Ft. Worth and San Antonio. With a $5-billion investment and up to 2,900 miles of transmission lines, the stage has been set to harness 18,500 megawatts of wind generating capacity from these two regions alone, enough to supply half of the state’s 24 million residents. 113

Already, major utilities and private investors are proposing to build highly efficient high-voltage direct-current (HVDC) lines to link wind-rich regions with consumption centers. For example, TransCanada is proposing to develop two high-voltage lines: the Zephyr Line, which will link wind-rich Wyoming with the California market, and the Chinook Line, which will do the same for wind-rich Montana. These lines of roughly 1,000 miles each are both designed to accommodate 3,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity. 114

Table 5–2. U.S. Electricity Generating Capacity 
in 2008 and Plan B Goals for 2020
Source 2008 Goal for 2020
            (Electrical Gigawatts)
Fossil Fuels and Nuclear    
Coal 337 0
Oil 62 0
Natural Gas 459 140
Nuclear 106 106
Total 965 246
Wind 25 710
Rooftop Solar Electric Systems 1 190
Solar Electric Power Plants 0 30
Solar Thermal Power Plants 0 120
Geothermal 3 70
Biomass 11 40
Hydropower 78 100
Total 119 1,260
                      Source: See endnote 112.    


In the Northern Plains and the Midwest, ITC Holdings Corporation is proposing what it calls the Green Power Express. This investment in 3,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines is intended to link 12,000 megawatts of wind capacity from North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, and Minnesota with the more densely populated industrial Midwest. These initial heavy-duty transmission lines can eventually become part of the national grid that U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu wants to build. 115

A strong, efficient national grid will reduce generating capacity needs, lower consumer costs, and cut carbon emissions. Since no two wind farms have identical wind profiles, each one added to the grid makes wind a more stable source of electricity. With thousands of wind farms spread from coast to coast, wind becomes a stable source of energy, part of baseload power. This, coupled with the capacity to forecast wind speeds and solar intensity throughout the country at least a day in advance, makes it possible to manage the diversity of renewable energy resources efficiently. 116

For India, a national grid would enable it to harness the vast solar resources of the Great Indian Desert. Europe, too, is beginning to think seriously of investing in a continental supergrid. Stretching from Norway to Egypt and from Morocco to western Siberia, it would enable the region to harness vast amounts of wind energy, particularly in offshore Western Europe, and the almost unlimited solar energy in the northern Sahara and on Europe’s southern coast. Like the proposed U.S. national grid, the Europe-wide grid would use high-voltage direct-current lines that transmit electricity far more efficiently than existing lines do. 117

An Irish firm, Mainstream Renewable Power, is proposing to use HVDC undersea cables to build the European supergrid offshore. The grid would stretch from the Baltic Sea to the North Sea then south through the English Channel to southern Europe. The company notes that this could avoid the time-consuming acquisition of land to build a continental land-based system. The Swedish firm ABB Group, which has just completed a 400-mile HVDC undersea cable linking Norway and the Netherlands, is partnering with Mainstream Renewable Power in proposing to build the first stages of the supergrid. 118

A long-standing proposal by the Club of Rome, called DESERTEC, goes further, with plans to connect Europe to the abundant solar energy of North Africa and the Middle East. In July 2009, 11 leading European firms—including Munich Re, Deutsche Bank, ABB, and Siemens—and an Algerian company, Cevital, announced a plan to create the DESERTEC Industrial Initiative. This firm’s goal will be to craft a concrete plan and funding proposal to develop enough solar thermal generating capacity in North Africa and the Middle East to export electricity to Europe and to meet the needs of producer countries. This energy proposal, which could exceed 300,000 megawatts of solar thermal generating capacity, is huge by any standard. It is being driven by concerns about disruptive climate change and by the depletion of oil and gas reserves. Caio Koch-Weser, Deutsche Bank vice chairman, said, “The Initiative shows in what dimensions and on what scale we must think if we are to master the challenges from climate change.” 119

The twentieth century witnessed the globalization of the world energy economy as the entire world came to depend heavily on a handful of countries for oil, many of them in one region of the world. This century will witness the localization of the world energy economy as countries begin to tap their indigenous resources of renewable energy.

The localization of the energy economy will lead to the localization of the food economy. For example, as the cost of shipping fresh produce from distant markets rises with the price of oil, there will be more local farmers’ markets. Diets will be more locally based and seasonally sensitive than they are today. The combination of moving down the food chain and reducing the food miles in our diets will dramatically reduce energy use in the food economy.

As agriculture localizes, livestock production will likely start to shift from mega-sized cattle, hog, and poultry feeding operations. There will be fewer specialized farms and more mixed crop-livestock operations. Feeding operations will become smaller as the pressure to recycle nutrients mounts with the depletion of the world’s finite phosphate reserves and as fertilizer prices rise. The recent growth in the number of small farms in the United States will likely continue. As world food insecurity mounts, more and more people will be looking to produce some of their own food in backyards, in front yards, on rooftops, in community gardens, and elsewhere, further contributing to the localization of agriculture.

The new energy economy will be highly visible from the air. A few years ago on a flight from Helsinki to London I counted 22 wind farms when crossing Denmark, long a wind power leader. Is this a glimpse of the future, I wondered? One day U.S. air travelers will see thousands of wind farms in the Great Plains, stretching from the Gulf Coast of Texas to the Canadian border, where ranchers and farmers will be double cropping wind with cattle, corn, and wheat.

The deserts of the U.S. Southwest will feature clusters of solar thermal power plants, with vast arrays of mirrors, covering several square miles each. Wind farms and solar thermal power plants will be among the more visible features of the new energy economy. The roofs of millions of homes and commercial buildings will sport solar cell arrays as rooftops become a source of electricity. How much more local can you get? There will also be millions of rooftops with solar water and space heaters.

Governments are using a variety of policy instruments to help drive this energy restructuring. These include tax restructuring—raising the tax on carbon emissions and lowering the tax on income—and carbon cap-and-trade systems. The former approach is more transparent and easily administered and not so readily manipulated as the latter. 120

For restructuring the electricity sector, feed-in tariffs, in which utilities are required to pay more for electricity generated from renewable sources, have been remarkably successful. Germany’s impressive early success with this measure has led to its adoption by more than 40 other countries, including most of those in the European Union. In the United States, at least 33 states have adopted renewable portfolio standards requiring utilities to get a certain share of their electricity from renewable sources. The United States has also used tax credits for wind, geothermal, solar photovoltaics, solar water and space heating, and geothermal heat pumps. 121

To achieve some goals, governments are simply using mandates, such as those requiring rooftop solar water heaters on all new buildings, higher efficiency standards for cars and appliances, or a ban on the sale of incandescent light bulbs. Each government has to select the policy instruments that work best in its particular economic and cultural settings. 


In the new energy economy, our cities will be unlike any we have known during our lifetime. The air will be clean and the streets will be quiet, with only the scarcely audible hum of electric motors. Air pollution alerts will be a thing of the past as coal-fired power plants are dismantled and recycled and as gasoline- and-diesel-burning engines largely disappear.

This transition is now building its own momentum, driven by an intense excitement from the realization that we are tapping energy sources that can last as long as the earth itself. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the Industrial Revolution began we are investing in energy sources that can last forever.


*Data and additional resources have been omitted from this mobile version of our website to ensure the most optimal experience. To view this page with its entire information, please visit the full website.