The Great Transition: Shifting from Fossil Fuels to Solar and Wind Energy by Lester Brown with Janet Larsen, J. Matthew Roney and Emily E. Adams
Reviewed by David Lorimer
Regular readers of this Review will recall that I have reviewed every major book by Lester Brown over the last 20 years, going back to his prophetic Who Will Feed China? and most recently his autobiography. Here he and his colleagues turned their attention to the energy transition and the emergence of a new economy powered by solar and wind energy beyond the old one fuelled by coal and oil. They draw evidence from around the world, providing a wealth of informative statistical detail. This energy transition forms part of the transition to what Brown calls an eco-economy, even in the face of fossil fuel subsidies in the order of $600 billion annually. The speed of the process is quite striking – the authors suggest that the next decade will produce half a century’s worth of change as renewable costs plummet and those of nuclear power and its disposal continue to spiral.
One significant factor is the quantity of unburnable carbon in view of CO2 targets. In order to stay within the 2° limit we will need to limit our fossil fuel emissions to 1,400 gigatons. By 2013, we had already released 400 gigatons, leaving only 1,000 gigatons to be released between 2013 and 2050. Given that proven reserves of fossil fuels add up to 2,860 gigatons, this entails leaving 1,860 gigatons in the ground – for the companies concerned, these represent stranded assets. All these objections are beginning to have an effect on the share prices of energy companies and redirect investment towards renewables. An interesting example of rearguard thinking is the British government commissioning of new nuclear reactors. In 2005, it was calculated that 10 generators could be built for $3 billion each without subsidy and begin producing electricity by 2017. By the time the EU officials had approved the plan in October 2014, the number had been reduced to 2, whose cost had escalated to $39 billion, 70% of which will have to be provided by the UK government. In addition, decommissioning the Sellafield facility is estimated to cost $130 billion. These figures are quite staggering.
The book covers the full spectrum of energy technologies across oil, coal, natural gas, nuclear power, solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower. It also covers changing lifestyle patterns, for instance the huge increase not only in bike sales, but also in bike sharing. In the US, 21 cities had 8,500 bikes at the end of 2012, and the figure is expected to rise to 70 cities with 40,000 bikes by the end of this year. More than 700 cities in 57 countries have operational bike share programmes. One of the lesser-known energy sources is geothermal, where Iceland is the world capital, generating 29% of its electricity from the Earth. Turkey and Japan are also significant users, while China has the greatest installed capacity at 6,100 thermal megawatts – indeed China has been investing across the board in every type of energy, including coal-fired reactors. There are extensive data on hydropower, with Venezuela, Brazil and Canada leading the way in terms of percentages generated. One infrequently mentioned effect is that building reservoirs and dams can trigger seismic activity, with over 100 earthquakes worldwide linked to this cause. As we know, dams can seriously affect water allocation, none more acutely than the Nile River basin, which is home to 600 million people.
The authors maintain that the shift to renewables is being driven by a number of different key factors. Socially, there is considerable opposition to coal and nuclear power, while geologically, fossil fuels are becoming more expensive to extract. In addition, there is a trend towards localisation (also car and bike sharing) and more efficient fuel consumption as well as the development of electric cars. Governments are now encouraging renewables through subsidies and carbon taxes while also setting targets for renewables as a percentage of total electricity generation. Behind all this is the key question of whether the energy transition will proceed quickly enough for the world to avoid catastrophic climate change. The message of this book is encouraging in this respect, especially as this transition also moves humanity in the direction of a more cooperative relationship with nature.