On June 9th, Greenpeace and the Institute of Technical Thermodynamics at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) released Energy [R]evolution, a blueprint detailing how we can phase out fossil fuels and transition to a renewable energy future before it’s too late to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The document illuminates practical societal changes that could deliver a truly sustainable future, but the question remains as to whether we will boldly forge the critical path to that bright alternative.
The juggernaut obstructing our progress toward the implementation of Energy [R]evolution is an assumption that the world can afford to proceed with business-as-usual, but business-as-usual is operating with outdated assumptions.
The fossil fuel industry would like us to think of a clean energy transformation as a series of sacrifices and losses. But research repeatedly shows that economic savings and energy savings are a two-for-one deal. As recently highlighted in an address by President Obama--we need to break our addiction to fossil fuels. While fossil fuel companies will inevitably lose market share, the rest of us stand to gain the most if we make a concerted societal effort to implement the three steps outlined in the Energy [R]evolution blueprint immediately: efficient consumption, renewable energy, and localization of power generation.
In a comparison of the cost that will be required to fuel (dirty) business-as-usual between now and 2030 and the cost of transforming our economy following the Energy [R]evolution scenario, we actually spend more if we fail to transition the world to clean energy and efficiency. Unchecked growth in energy demand, increases in fossil fuel prices and the cost of CO2 emissions will result in total electricity supply costs rising from today’s US $1,450 billion per year to more than US $5,300 billion by 2050. While a renewable transformation will require an up-front investment in infrastructure, the cost over time is US $6.5 trillion less than if we do nothing to replace fossil fuels with clean energy.
Many of the necessary investments will go to technologies that help us increase the efficiency of our homes, businesses, and transportation, as we build a new system for generating, transmitting and using electricity. Under Energy [R]evolution, we would invest US $782 billion in the power sector between 2007 and 2030. This is equal to global fossil fuel subsidies paid out in just under three years. And if we redirect that spending, the IT sector stands to be a big winner.
The smart grid is one example of an essential component of a sustainable energy system. Power supplied from a range of sources and locations will rely upon advanced data-processing technologies that analyze and deliver data quickly, responding nimbly to changes in load and demand. IT innovations will provide real-time data to energy users, which in turn allows them to improve energy efficiency and use renewable power, such as wind, when it is plentiful.
So, with many IT companies already offering products and services to manage and monitor energy, why aren’t we more rapidly shifting investments from fossil fuels to the IT solutions that can get us the emissions cuts scientist say we so desperately need?
Widespread deployment of clean energy and efficiency innovation requires an injection of capital and political motivation. In the same week that Energy [R]evolution was released, Bill Gates and six other corporate leaders announced their “Business Plan for America’s Energy Future”. Amongst other recommendations, the group, the American Energy and Innovation Council (AEIC), asked Washington D.C. to invest US $16 billion per year in R&D for clean energy innovation.
From the AEIC website: “The benefits of this investment will far outweigh the costs. By comparison, the United States sends $16 billion overseas for petroleum every 16 days. Our recommended RD&D commitment represents about 3 percent of what the nation spent on the 2008 oil price shock in that year alone.”
It’s true that weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels is going to require an increase in R&D spending (Gates and his crew call for it to triple). Upping the budget for energy research is an investment in our long-term economic and energy security. According to Energy [R]evolution, when we shift resources away from dirty fuel and other distractions, such as nuclear power, and direct those dollars toward clean energy innovation, we will create 12 million jobs, 8.5 million in the renewables sector alone.
While R&D is important, it’s only one piece of what needs to occur. IT companies must use their political voice to ask for more than money. These are the eight policy principles from Energy [R]evolution that could get us to where we need to go:
- Phase out all subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear energy.
- Internalize the external (social and environmental) costs of energy production through ‘cap and trade’ emissions trading.
- Mandate strict efficiency standards for all energy consuming appliances, buildings and vehicles.
- Establish legally binding targets for renewable energy and combined heat and power generation.
- Reform the electricity markets by guaranteeing priority access to the grid for renewable power generators
- Provide defined and stable returns for investors, for example by feed-in tariff programs.
- Implement better labeling and disclosure mechanisms to provide more environmental product information.
- Increase research and development budgets for renewable energy and energy efficiency.
IT companies must step up their advocacy efforts immediately to secure a win-win scenario for the sector and the world — a long-term economic growth opportunity that brings the world closer to an energy revolution. There couldn’t be a clearer moral, ecological, or economic imperative for IT to follow.
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