A Sustainable World

From the Foundation's 1996 Annual Report

Who would have imagined that by the beginning of the 21st century, the human need for energy would have contributed to a small but measurable change in the rotation speed of the Earth? That change, according to geophysicists, is the consequence of the collective impact of reservoirs in northern latitudes, many of them constructed to supply energy and water for the human economy. How it works is simply the physics of a spinning ice skater applied at a planetary scale: More and larger reservoirs have been built in the temperate zone than in the tropics. Millions of tons of water are stored in them. Their net impact is to shift the global distribution of water, subtly but significantly, toward higher latitudes and also closer to the rotation axis of the Earth. Then, exactly as a skater spins more rapidly because she pulls her arms in closer to her own axis of rotation, the Earth spins faster because of the repositioned water.

This increase in rotation speed is tiny—insignificant in any practical way except to scientists and telecommunications experts concerned about the precise position of satellites in orbit around the planet. Its symbolism, however, is immense. Humans no longer merely move mountains; we alter the movement of planets. This is the legacy of the 20th century.

The impact of human demand for energy is of more than symbolic importance. Other aspects of this demand contribute mightily to changes unfolding at a global scale. The effect of greenhouse gas production on the Earth’s temperature balance is now established in science. Production of gases continues to grow. Indeed, worldwide carbon dioxide emissions in 1996 reached a new, record high for the second year in a row. Many consequences of this continued production, particularly the rate and magnitude of climate change, remain difficult to gauge precisely. Enough is now certain, however, to be confident that we are shifting the climate to an unknown degree, creating an increasingly less stable environment. Similarly, the widespread distribution of particles and gases from power plants, cars and other sources are changing soil chemistry, altering important geochemical cycles and degrading agricultural activity widely around the globe.

Even as these impacts accumulate, however, bold confidence is emerging that human energy development does not need to follow an ever more destructive and unsustainable course. Energy can be employed in ways far more efficient than are in common use today. Indeed, energy efficiency is the cheapest source of new energy now available on world markets: Every watt of energy not used in one source can be applied somewhere else much more cheaply than creating a watt from new supplies. Renewable energy from inexhaustable sources that do not impose insupportable environmental harm are available today and can compete effectively against traditional energy sources, especially if government subsidies for petrochemical and nuclear energy are removed. These resources will be even more competitive if traditional energy sources are forced to bear the economic costs of their harm to health and the environment.

The transition to this new environmentally friendly energy economy is happening far more quickly than most people are aware. Since 1973, Americans have saved $200 billion per year in energy costs compared to what they would have spent without increases in efficiency. Additional savings are readily available and justified economically using stringent investment return criteria. Energy experts estimate that in existing installations (buildings, homes, workplaces), energy consumption can be reduced 20% to 50% at a minimum, while in new installations it can be reduced 50% to 90% (compared to average efficiency in existing applications). Implementing these reductions is usually cheaper than finding ways to increase energy supply. Such reductions can be applied across the entire range of human economic activity, from basic industry to commercial and residential buildings, agriculture and materials, private transportation or transport in the service sector. The potential for economic benefit through investments in energy efficiency continues to grow.

Movement toward renewable energy sources is also advancing, although more haltingly than increases in efficiency. Important progress is being made across the full spectrum of renewable energy sources, most notably in the following areas.

Wind: In areas with good wind resources, the cost of wind energy in the United States is comparable to the cost of energy generated by coal, even without charging for coal’s environmental damage. By 1995, some 4,800 megawatts of wind generation capacity were installed worldwide, and installation is growing rapidly in developing countries.

Solar: World sales of solar photovoltaic units have almost tripled since 1988, reaching over 90 peak megawatts per year in 1996. Uses of PV units are expanding from specialized consumer items and applications remote from utility lines to central PV power plants, now in planning in Hawaii and India. High temperature power generation—using the sun to heat a fluid that is used to drive a generator—is also becoming cost-effective. It is now possible to buy photovoltaic cells built into roofing tiles for home construction.

Fuel cells: These potent devices use electrochemical reactions instead of burning an energy source to produce electricity directly from hydrogen. They are highly efficient, producing much more electricity than can be extracted by burning from the same amount of fuel, yet they produce almost no pollution, have low maintenance requirements and operate unobtrusively. Acknowledged in theory since the 19th century, used intensively in space applications for 30 years, fuel cells are about to burst upon energy markets for a wide diversity of competitive uses, including use in cars, buses, hospitals and perhaps, within a decade, in local residential developments supplying decentralized electricity cheaply and cleanly to end-users.

Even with these advances, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be neither fast nor easy. Continuing work to reduce the environmental burden of fossil fuel use remains important. There is dramatic progress. Natural gas is increasing in importance, while the contribution of oil and coal (both far more damaging than natural gas) to the global energy economy is declining. And new findings in research show ways to use China’s abundant coal reserves, its biomass, natural gas, gasoline and oil for producing hydrogen to supply energy to fuel cells without releasing carbon into the atmosphere and thus aggravating climate change.

These advances in efficiency, in renewable energy and in less harmful ways of using fossil fuels define an energy path for the human economy that has some real hope of providing the energy needs for human prosperity without undermining the ecological integrity of our planet. Over the last twenty years these developments have become more than theoretical possibilities. They have become practical imperatives. The challenge we face in these final years of the 20th century is how to work through a transition, from old ways to new, quickly enough to avoid irreparable environmental harm and with sufficient wisdom and creativity not to cause undue economic displacement. The foundation’s grantmaking across many of its programs tackles different parts of this challenge, especially in work to advance fuel cell technologies, remove destructive economic subsidies, shift tax burdens appropriately, and find ways to allow economic markets to internalize the costs of health and environmental damage.

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