I have been meditating — an occasionally dangerous past time for reporters – on the metaphor often used to describe the United States’ overdependence on fossil fuels, addiction, and what that might mean in terms of envisioning and implementing a recovery strategy.
The classic, 12-step recovery model requires putting the plug in jug — or in this case, the barrel — going cold turkey and learning to live life on life’s terms without one’s drug of choice.
Applied to fossil fuels, the standard argument against such an approach is that it’s not feasible. We don’t have the alternatives up and running to replace oil. True, for now.
That said, the model from another 12-step program — one that deals with eating disorders — might be a more useful approach, providing a number of intriguing directions to pursue. Food addictions are not well understood and, compared to alcohol, can be much more difficult to deal with because, of course, one cannot stop eating.
One has to, instead, adopt different attitudes and behaviors around food and eating.
What would it look like if we decided to similarly change our relationship to fossil fuels? Yes, we need energy, and fossil fuels are a major source for now, but the goal should be to reduce their use to a bare minimum – to those uses where nothing else will do — as quickly as humanly possible.
Even as our weather becomes increasingly erratic – and more clearly connected to fossil fuel-driven climate change – we’ve got a lot of oil heads in Congress and corporate America in major denial about the impact of the U.S. and world’s fossil fuel addiction. And I don’t think anyone out there really wants to find out what it’s going to look like if and when we hit bottom — 12-step speak for all heck breaking loose.
One group looking for workable, timely solutions is the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, an international group with members ranging from high-level government and business representatives to nonprofits and local government groups.
Their mission is to stand up as much renewable energy as possible as quickly as possible worldwide, in both developing and industrialized countries. Their most recent publication, the Renewables 2012 Status Report, shows to what extent that is and isn’t happening.
The main take-away here is that ramping up renewables is a matter of a nation’s vision coupled with policy and commitment. The report notes:
At least 118 countries, more than half of which are developing countries, had renewable energy targets in place by early 2012, up from 109 as of early 2010. Renewable energy targets and support policies continued to be a driving force behind increasing markets for renewable energy, despite some setbacks resulting in a lack of long-term policy certainty and stability in many countries.
Last year, 71 percent of new power generation capacity in the European Union came from renewables, bringing the EU’s total renewable electricity production to 31.1 percent.
Compare those figures to the U.S. where renewable energy projects accounted for 39 percent of our new generation last year, bringing our total nationwide renewable generation — not including hydropower — to 4.7 percent, up from 3.7 in 2009.
Meanwhile, China has surged ahead with renewable development, leading the world with 282 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity. More than 20 percent of its new generation last year was non-hydro renewables.
Efforts by individual states also show that accelerated renewable ramp-up is possible. South Dakota now produces 22 percent of its power from wind, followed by Iowa at 19 percent. In California, where utilities must generate 33 percent of their power from renewables by 2020 — the state’s three main utilities, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric, have hit 20 percent or higher in power from renewable sources.
Of course, renewables are only one part of the bigger picture which must also include energy efficiency and major changes in our consumer culture and behavior around energy use.
Coming up with new ideas and approaches to such challenges will be at least part of the agenda at a high-level energy conference I’ll be attending Tuesday in Las Vegas. The 5th annual National Clean Energy Summit is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and as one might expect, he draws some big name speakers.
The opening keynote will be given by U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar — I’m hoping to get in a few questions about solar development in Riverside East — and President Bill Clinton will be giving the closing keynote and having an on-stage conversation with Reid.
In between there will be panels on getting off oil, fostering innovation and providing consumers with more and better energy choices.
I’ll also be visiting BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah solar project – thousands of mirrors circling big solar concentrating towers — to get an advance peek at what the company has planned for its Rio Mesa and Palen projects in eastern Riverside County.
And yes, I’ll be blogging and tweeting from the conference and writing articles for The Desert Sun, so this time at least, what happens in Vegas definitely won’t be staying there.