You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

The Viability of Alternative Energy

Basia Yoffe
April 27, 2013

Africaby Basia Yoffe

ON THE TRAIN the train to Washington, D.C. for the February 17th “Forward on Climate Change” rally, I was distracted by a toddler talking incessantly to his father. As we were approaching Union Station, I walked over to see what the chatty kid looked like, and saw that the father was carrying home-made protest posters while the boy’s stroller was adorned with slogans. The weather in Washington was under 30º, and the wind made the cold feel bitter, but all day long, much to my surprise, I saw bundled-up protesters accompanied by bundled-up children. In his Shalom Center blog about the demonstration, Rabbi Arthur Waskow described his own encounter with kids and placards: “two kids, about eight years old, sitting on a car. One was carrying a placard saying: ‘When I’m president, it’ll be TOO LATE.’” Waskow “walked up to the kids and said, ‘I swear to you, it will NOT be too late! — We will make it OK!’”

I take such promises to children very seriously. So, it seems, do the nearly forty thousand people who attendedthe rally.

Leadership is a scarce and precious commodity when it comes to climate change: The crisis has been met with a profound lack of leadership by elected representatives, media, clergy, non-profits, corporations, and even environmental groups. "For twenty-five years," said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, which organized the rally with the Sierra Club, "our government has basically ignored the climate crisis: now people in large numbers are finally demanding they get to work."

Michael Brune of the Sierra Club turned his attention to "twenty years from now," when

people will want to know what the president did in the face of rising sea levels, record droughts and furious storms brought on by climate disruption.... Obama holds in his hand a pen and the power to deliver on his promise of hope for our children. Today, we are asking him to use that pen to to reject the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and ensure that this dirty, dangerous, export pipeline will never be built.

As a Jewish activist, I am especially grateful for the leadership of the Green Hevra, the small consortium of Jewish environmental groups that constituted, within my view, the only self-identified Jewish presence at the demonstration. The Jewish Establishment, it seems, still cannot detach itself from the goal of “U.S. energy independence” — and its implications for Israel ­— which has, for the past few decades, prevented Jewish organizations from protesting the global dangers posed by fossil fuels. They are largely absent from the anti-fracking movement, the anti-tar sands movement, the anti-nuclear movement, the renewable energy movement — and absent, therefore, from the view of young activist Jews for whom global climate change is by far the number one issue of their lives.

YET INFORMATION about the viability of renewable energy is readily available today, not only in scientific journals but in lay publications as well. Stanford Professors Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi, for example, wrote an article in Scientific American in 2009 detailing how we could transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. "Our plan calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines and solar installations," they wrote.

The numbers are large, but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle; society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956 the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.... Our plan includes only technologies that work or are close to working today on a large scale, rather than those that may exist twenty or thirty years from now.

Similarly, in 2011 Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute published a book about the plausibility of transitioning to renewable energy.

Most tellingly, the U.S. Department of Defense is planning to transition to renewable energy because it perceives the national grid to be unreliable. According to Sustainablebusiness.com, the Department of Defense, which consumes 40 percent of the oil in the U.S. and spends $20 billion annually on energy, "is positioned to be one of the single biggest drivers of efficiency and renewable energy in the US over the next twelve years."

Renewable energy can power us because the wind is almost always blowing, whether or not the sun is shining. It really is that simple. Unfortunately, electricity cannot be stored inexpensively on an industrial scale, so much more power needs to be generated than is used — but this is true with fossil-fuel electrical generation as well. Another article [PDF] by Mark Z. Jacobson, this one co-authored by Cristina Archer in a peer-reviewed journal, suggested that "there is no fundamental barrier to obtaining half or even several times the world’s all-purpose power [supply] from wind by 2030. The potential is there, if we can build enough turbines." Meanwhile, Dr. Gerhard Knies, a member of Trans-Mediterranean Renewable Energy Cooperation (a project of the Club of Rome), suggested in a 2006 paper that solar-concentrating thermal power from the deserts has even more potential ­— and five years later, in a paper for the Institute for Policy Research and Development, Peter Schwartzman and David Schwartzman concluded that "the creation of a global solar power capacity adequate to providing everyone a high human development index is achievable within several decades using present renewable technology."

In his 2012 book, Solving the Climate Crisis Through Social Change: Public Investment in Social Prosperity to Cool a Fevered Planet, Gar Lipow discusses how energy could be saved by making both commercial and residential buildings more energy-efficient; how our ground transportation needs to be electrified in the long term; and how we need to increase the density and walkability of our cities. Lipow argues that transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy in the U.S. would have a net cost of $250 billion annually — which could be met by cutting the defense budget by a third. An alternative to that would be the tax on financial transactions proposed by James Tobin, winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Economics. Lipow suggests this could raise $300 billion a year.

Reforming agriculture, land use and forestry can bring about huge cutbacks in carbon emissions. More crops should be grown to feed humans instead of animals; animal husbandry should be based on range-land plants that can be sustainably grazed; crops should be grown sustainably without out fossil fuel-based insecticides and herbicides. (Cuba offers one remarkable example of a country that abruptly transitioned from fossil fuels in managing its agriculture.) Alternative energy sources also do not require the vast amounts of water that are used in all phases of the fossil fuel industry, from extraction to generation. At a time when drought across the world is becoming more and more of a problem, we cannot afford to pollute water for natural gas and tar sands oil extraction.

Even in terms of capital investment, Amory Lovins notes that "renewable technologies are modular, mostly mass-produced, and built faster than large coal and nuclear plants," which ties up less capital for shorter periods and offers "more option value for responding to changes. This lowers financial risk for utilities and investors." McKinsey and Company issued a recent study that found the cost to Europe of reducing CO2 emissions by 80 percent would be no more than current energy costs.

In short, the technology is there for a transition to more sustainable energy. The problems are primarily political. Yet even with a difficult Congress, President Obama has the power to make real headway in the battle to slow climate change. An executive order that all federal energy consumption be converted to low-carbon technology, for example, could go a long way toward developing the technology and putting us on the road to 100 percent sustainability.

Basia Yoffe conducts the “Notes from a Small Planet” column in Jewish Currents and is a member of our magazine’s editorial board — and a very active activist.