Progress Toward a True-Cost Economy Now Comes From Developments in Renewable Energy

by Brent Blackwelder

Brent BlackwelderA renewable energy revolution is sweeping the planet. This revolution has profound implications because it signals that the global economy is moving to stop the growth of our human carbon footprint.

The global economy has run for a century primarily on fossil fuels but is now undergoing a rapid transition to a global economy based significantly on rooftop solar, wind, and efficiency. This is a tangible movement toward a steady state economy because with wind and solar, the amount we use today does not affect tomorrow’s supply; and unlike fossil fuels, the pollution externalities are small and do not harm fellow competitors or the public.

This revolution is more than a technical fix because it is shifting the ingredients of the material products and services of the economy from toxic, polluting, non-renewable substances and ingredients to ones that are renewable and dramatically lower in pollution. It is demonstrating that renewable energy can avoid imposing dangerous impacts onto the public or onto future generations.

Skeptics over the last two decades have argued that renewable sources such as wind and solar are trivial and simply incapable of providing the power needed by the global economy—that all they will ever do is provide only a small percentage of the world’s electricity. I remember the days when utility executives belittled renewables, warning that more than about 5% of wind or solar electricity in a region would crash the grid!

Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

The renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable true-cost economy. Photo Credit: janie.hernandez55

I want to present a few startling and uplifting facts that demonstrate the dramatic progress recently made by solar and wind power around the world. 1 These facts give the lie to the phony assertions made by utilities in their efforts to block renewable energy.

Rooftop solar is growing worldwide by 50% per year. In 1985 solar cost $12 per watt, but today’s prices are closer to 36 cents per watt. Every five hours the world adds 23 MW of solar—which was the global installed capacity in 1985.

In January of 2014 Denmark got 62% of its electricity from wind. In 2013 Ireland got 17% of its electricity from wind, and Spain and Portugal both exceeded 20% from wind. Today China gets more electricity from wind (91,000 MW) than it does from nuclear reactors. The United States is second in the world in installed wind turbines, with South Dakota and Iowa obtaining over 26% of their electricity from wind.

As we look to achieve a true-cost, steady state economy, questions are constantly raised about the behavior of other powerful nations that might appear to have no interest in a sustainable economy. The renewable energy revolution provides breakthrough opportunities here. China is already putting its energy future into more and more renewable energy. It plans to more than double its current wind capacity with an expansion goal of 200,000 MW by the year 2020.

Even the French, who rely on nuclear reactors for 75% of their electricity, are planning on increasing their wind generating capacity to 25,000 MW from their present 8,300 MW.

The renewable energy revolution will enable civilization to stop the growth of highly polluting fossil fuels. It will enable society to leave the majority of the remaining reserves of fossil fuels alone and unburned. Acceleration of this revolution helps in solving many problems and is a key to restoring and maintaining the life support systems of the earth.

For a number of reasons, this renewable energy revolution is a stepping stone toward a sustainable  true-cost economy. First, unlike fossil fuels, the footprint of wind and rooftop solar is minimal. Wind turbines erected on farmland use very little land and allow farming to continue. Rooftop solar can be placed on flat commercial and industrial roofs in metropolitan areas where connections to the grid are available.

In comparison, extraction of fossil fuels can create some of the worst pollution and habitat destruction ever seen. Consider the devastation being caused in the biologically diverse mountain forests of West Virginia by mountaintop removal coal mining. Or look at the obliteration of Alberta’s landscape and contamination of its lakes and rivers from tar sands mining.

This point is substantial because far too many of the products of the global economy involve externalization of enormous pollution costs.

Second, the usage of wind and solar today does not affect the amount of wind and solar available tomorrow. They are renewable. Furthermore, wind and rooftop solar are basically waterless technologies, whereas fossil fuel and nuclear power plants use enormous quantities of water for cooling. As water shortages multiply worldwide as a result of population and industrial growth, and climate disruption, this benefit will become even more significant.

Third, wind and solar are big job creators. In Germany the number of jobs in wind and solar is about 400,000 versus 200,000 in coal and conventional fuels. This amazing boost in clean energy jobs has happened in the last decade. Job creation is a major concern in any transition to a sustainable economy.2

Those who are serious about getting to a true–cost economy should help accelerate the renewable energy revolution as a way to achieve it.



  1. See The Great Transition by Lester Brown and colleagues at the Earth Policy Institute for a superb account of the global renewable energy revolution that offers hope to all.
  1. See Energiewende for the job figures; see also Peter Victor in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth for a discussion of transition scenarios and jobs.

The Role of Cities in Moving Toward a Sustainable Economy

by Brent Blackwelder

The story of a hippy flower-child who leveraged big economic decisions that ushered in renewable energy and sensible land-use for Austin and the State of Texas.

BlackwelderI encounter many young adults who are discouraged by America’s failure to respond to big issues affecting the future of Planet Earth and human civilization. They do not see much opportunity to make major changes, especially at the governmental level. But empowering examples can illustrate how significant changes can be made in governance at many levels. Cities can and have provided some model changes, but we will never get to a sustainable, steady state, true-cost economy when major energy and land-use decisions continue to take us in the opposite direction.

Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Portland (Oregon), and Chicago have led the way with enlightened environmental and economic policies. In Washington, DC, I served on Mayor Gray’s “green ribbon” panel to help fashion a comprehensive green plan for the nation’s capital.

This post focuses, however, on a lesser known city, Austin, Texas, that made big economic decisions that changed the dynamics in energy, transportation, land-use, and self-reliance.

The post is about what a hippy flower-child was able to do in Austin by getting elected to the city council. Max Nofziger left his family’s farm in northwest Ohio over 40 years ago and went to live in Austin. He was a hippy and initially made his living selling flowers on street corners, but managed to get elected to the city council and his persistence and rationality helped lead the way for some significant changes.

Working at first with the leaders and organizations in Austin who were advocating wind and solar power, Max began an improbable run in the 1980s for city council on an anti-nuclear, pro-solar platform with a “Run-for-the-Sun” campaign theme. Even though he lost four races–two for city council and two for mayor–he kept educating the public and used common sense logic when he spoke.

His popularity with the voters grew and he got 20% of the vote in his second run for Mayor. Recognizing Max’s growing support, the newly elected mayor appointed him to the advisory board for the local utility. Max helped in some basic clean energy efforts, such as defeating a lignite coal power plant proposal, getting solar panels placed over the 3-M Company’s parking lot, and helping close the antiquated and dirty gas plant in one of Austin’s poorer neighborhoods.

The key long-term action was to get Austin to build the first wind farm in Texas in 1994-5. The success of this city-owned facility helped convince the State legislature in the late 1990s to pass a five-year plan to incentivize wind power in Texas. Governor George Bush signed this legislation, which proved so successful that it was renewed for a second five-year period while Bush was President of the United States. Today, Texas is the number one state in wind power, with 12,755 megawatts installed and 7,000 currently under construction.

Max was influential in two big land-use decisions–the Austin International Airport and the Convention Center. He helped avert land-use idiocy and save hundreds of millions of tax dollars.

In the 1980s, there was widespread support for a new city airport to replace the half-century-old small airfield that abutted increasingly crowded neighborhoods. Voters approved a new site, but it was one that wealthy developer interests had purchased in anticipation of making big money.

Then a momentous global surprise occurred as the Berlin Wall came down. One immediate repercussion was that the Air Force decided its Bergstrom base in Austin was no longer needed. Max realized that Austin owned the land the Bergstrom airport was on and the city could now reclaim it. With the Air Force’s decision to close the base, the city could have use of the fully functional airfield with its 10,000-foot runway. This choice would save the city at least $500 million in land and runway construction costs.

The problem was that all the politicians had received contributions from the developer interests and were not about to change; however, Max was able to obtain a referendum on the siting choice and it won easily.

Austin-Bergstrom Airport - Shay Tressa DeSimone

More than a sensible land-use decision, the Austin-Bergstrom Airport reflects the city’s culture and commitment to local food and artists. Photo Credit: Shay Tressa DeSimone

Not content with a victory on the siting decision, Max led an effort to make sure the new airport terminal reflected Austin culture, featured local food, and provided facilities for local artists to perform. Despite initial opposition by agribusiness food lobbyists, the plan went ahead and continues to be a success. There have been over 7,000 music performances to date.

This example illustrates a significant reuse of perfectly good resources, as well as prevention of a waste of taxpayer money on developer enrichment schemes. Incorporating good architecture for the terminal and boosting the city economy with local food and performances by local musicians points to the importance of looking comprehensively at all the changes that are possible with major land-use decisions.

The second important land-use decision was on the siting of the Austin Convention Center. As a city council member, Max knew the developer lobby had “pre-selected” the place they wanted for the Center, and had greased the pockets of decision makers to ensure that it was selected, even though it was a poor site from the standpoint of requiring a lot of driving and creating congestion. Max proposed a sensible location that would help avoid traffic jams and unnecessary driving, and would be near the evening entertainment zone. Top architects were hired to design the facility and solar collectors were put on the roof, which had the additional advantage being visible to interstate auto traffic and educating the public on the efficacy of solar.

The energy and land-use decisions that Austin made enabled progress to occur toward a prosperous, sustainable economy. Had they gone in a different direction, there would be less hope for achieving a sustainable, steady state, true-cost economy.

Insanity Reigns at the World Bank

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderThe finance ministers of the world convened in Washington for the annual meeting of the World Bank. Their goal: high risk/high reward mega-infrastructure projects (big dams, power plants, pipelines, grids, etc.). The two big questions: aren’t there better approaches to infrastructure today? And won’t the ministers’ plans put a sustainable economy further out of reach? The happy answer to the first question is “yes,” but “yes” is also the sad answer to the second question.

The World Bank’s plan to build such gigantic projects contradicts its stated objective to end poverty. This plan resurrects nightmarish approaches that have increased poverty, disempowered women, devastated life-sustaining ecosystems, and created massive debt burdens.

That is why International Rivers, Amazon Watch, and many other groups gathered outside the World Bank on October 12th to protest the plan for high risk/high reward projects and promote “Power 4 People.” In a true-cost economy the objective for infrastructure would be low risk/high reward projects. Such an economy would avoid casino-style investments and embrace infrastructure that leapfrogs the costly, destructive, and outdated approaches favored by the World Bank.

Despite serious mining and health issues, construction of cell phone infrastructure has been more environmentally sound than the old standard of installing high-cost telephone lines in remote areas. Today over 400 million people have cell phones but lack access to electricity. Taking a cue from the cell phone revolution, there’s an opportunity to construct a low risk/high reward energy infrastructure consisting of dispersed solar and wind projects. These renewable technologies can reduce the need for long and expensive transmission lines, and they don’t require water to generate electricity. Furthermore, with the cost of rooftop panels having rapidly dropped, solar energy has clear cost advantages for supplying electricity to rural communities.

In Africa about 600 million people lack access to electricity, and most are unlikely to be served by the dams and coal power plants proposed by the world powers because the transmission lines from central power stations would cost too much. That’s why the International Energy Agency reports that 70% of the world’s un-electrified areas are best served through mini-grids or off-grid solutions.

The advantages of a dispersed energy infrastructure include ability to reach the poor, reduced cost, less risk, and fewer socially and environmentally harmful impacts. Bangladesh, where something like 35,000 rooftop solar systems are being installed each month, is demonstrating these advantages.

The release of Bruce Rich’s book, Foreclosing the Future, comes at a critical moment, for it provides an insightful, well-written history of the World Bank’s inability Bank to learn from its past failures. Rich exposes the shocking first year of Jim Yong Kim’s term as Bank President, even though Kim came to the job with knowledge of the harmful impacts of past Bank projects.

Solar array at a Gambian hospital

This solar array at a Gambian hospital demonstrates a better way to generate electricity (photo credit: Daltoris).

In September of 2012 Kim extolled the work of the Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) in South Africa where only three weeks earlier, the worst massacre since the apartheid era occurred as 34 workers on strike were shot to death at the IFC-supported Marikana platinum mine.  On his Africa trip Kim lauded the Bank’s $3 billion loan to South Africa for the dirty Medupi coal project, the fourth largest new coal plant in the world with annual greenhouse gas emissions greater than 100 of the world’s countries.

Kim also promoted the gigantic Inga III dam in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), even though the Inga I and II dams have been operating for decades with poor results for the citizens of the DRC. 85% of the electricity from these two previous World Bank projects has flowed to the mining industry. At the same time, less than 10% of the population has access to electricity.

The good news is that promising, low risk solutions are available to construct a sustainable energy infrastructure, achieve humanitarian goals, and move the world toward a true-cost economy. But the clear message is to forget about the G-20, the World Bank, the Chinese, the U.S. export-import banks, and the finance ministers to support these solutions.

Power politics drives the decisions of these power players. Big construction companies scheme with governmental ministries to develop larger and larger projects where lots of money can be skimmed. Under such corrupting conditions, the risk that mega projects could have disastrous consequences for life-support systems on earth doesn’t seem to matter to the people in charge.

The ecological concerns of proposed infrastructure projects are substantial. Sediments from the Congo River have created a 300,000 square-kilometer fan on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean. The high sediment load and oxygen content produce huge amounts of phytoplankton — phytoplankton that sequesters carbon and is a key factor in enabling the Atlantic Ocean to act as a carbon sink. The Inga III dam would damage the sediment fan. Do we want finance ministers ignorantly proposing plans to interrupt the crucial climate-regulating dynamics of the lower Congo River with a mega-dam project?

Hopefully the finance ministers heard our answer of “no” on October 12th, but now is not the time for self-satisfied silence. In fact, it’s a good time to continue protesting the insane ideas emanating from the World Bank and promoting alternatives from organizations that value people and places above profits.