Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution

Authors: Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen
ISBN: 0-393-31199-6
382 pages
October 1994

"Nearly unnoticed by government and industry, the world energy economy has entered a period of rapid change that may be as far-reaching as the computer and telecommunications revolutions," according to the book Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution. "The giant oil refineries and coal-fired power plants that energized the twentieth century soon may be relics of the industrial revolution—as obsolete as the typewriter or Model T Ford."

Christopher Flavin and Nicholas Lenssen, authors of Power Surge, write that recent developments point to a new kind of energy system: in Europe and the United States, wind power is now often less expensive than coal; more than 200,000 homes in developing countries already get their electricity from solar cells; and major corporations such as Mitsubishi and Westinghouse have announced investments in advanced fuel cells and photovoltaics.

Power Surge foresees a turbulent next decade, as large energy companies struggle to preserve the status quo, and newer firms and their environmental allies fight to change government policy and open energy markets to greater competition. "Many giant oil, auto, and electric utility companies may find themselves in the position of IBM—overtaken by smaller competitors who are better able to anticipate the coming revolution."

"Pushed by the need to stabilize the climate, and pulled by investment opportunities in the new high-growth energy systems, the transition is likely to accelerate in the next decade," reports Power Surge. The book identifies a number of new technologies that will soon emerge from government and private laboratories, beginning a period of ferment and change.

Among the innovations that could have the greatest impact in the next decade: a new generation of lightweight, quiet electric cars that can be re-fueled at home; the conversion of coal plants to efficient gas turbines; mass-produced wind and solar generators that are cost-competitive with the most advanced fossil plants; tiny fuel cells and rooftop solar panels that allow people to generate their own electricity.

The Worldwatch Institute study contrasts sharply with projections by the industry-oriented World Energy Council and the International Energy Agency, both of which expect skyrocketing oil imports, bankrupting energy bills in developing countries, and unprecedented disruptions to the global atmosphere. Flavin and Lenssen, on the other hand, foresee an economical transition to an efficient and sustainable world energy system.

Using a technique pioneered by analysts at Shell Oil, the Worldwatch research team has constructed an energy scenario in which carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere stabilize during the next half century, as called for in the Rio climate treaty. It envisions highly efficient use of all fuels, extensive deployment of decentralized technologies, and reliance on methane and hydrogen as gaseous energy carriers.

In the Worldwatch scenario, solar, wind, and geothermal energy would grow rapidly in the early twenty-first century, while the use of coal and oil would fall by 73 and 20 percent respectively during the next 25 years.

"Although some large energy companies may fail in the years ahead, new ones are likely to prosper," say Flavin and Lenssen. "Just as the great fortunes of Rockefeller, Ford, and many others flowed from the turn-of-the-century oil boom, the next energy transition promises to create a new generation of successful entrepreneurs."

"Efficient use of energy is one key to the revolution ahead," the authors conclude. As examples, they point to new lightbulbs now available that use 75 percent less electricity than those they replace, and to the many home appliances and industrial motors that are 30-50 percent more efficient than their predecessors. Such improvements are likely to continue for many years.

Power Surge anticipates that reliance on natural gas will expand in the late nineties and beyond, displacing oil and coal in many applications. "As a relatively clean fuel that emits less carbon dioxide, natural gas use is being spurred by tighter air pollution laws. World gas use is likely to double or triple in the next few decades, with strong growth in Asia and Latin America."

As the most versatile of the fossil fuels, gas lends itself to a range of decentralized applications, including devices called fuel cells that may soon allow small businesses and homeowners to generate their own electricity. In the long run, natural gas is likely to become a "bridge" to non-polluting hydrogen fuel.

Much of that hydrogen will likely be derived from solar, wind, and geothermal energy. Rapidly declining costs will make them fully competitive in the near future, states Power Surge. "The emergence of renewable energy technologies marks a transition from mined fossil fuels to manufactured and mass-produced energy conversion devices."

The cost of solar cells, which convert sunlight directly to electricity, has fallen more than 90 percent since 1980, while wind turbine costs have fallen by two-thirds. The past few years have witnessed additional developments signaling the emergence of renewable energy as a high-growth sector:

  • The world had roughly 20,000 wind turbines in operation by the end of 1993, producing 30 times as much electricity as a decade earlier.
  • Among the countries where new wind power projects have recently been announced: Argentina, China, Germany, India, Spain, Ukraine, and the United States. California alone has enough wind turbines to supply all the residential electricity for San Francisco.
  • Solar thermal power plants now being developed in Australia and Israel have the potential to produce economically competitive power "on demand" by employing inexpensive thermal storage devices.
  • Companies in Japan, Switzerland, and the United States are bringing to market "solar shingles" that can replace existing roofing materials and produce electricity.
  • In 1994, the Westinghouse Corporation announced plans to enter the wind power business, while Enron Corp, a major natural gas company, said it would install a huge solar power plant in Nevada and sell electricity at 5.5 cents per kilowatt-hour--less than the cost of many coal-fired plants.

Rapid advances in energy technologies will create large opportunities for developing countries in the next two decades, according to Power Surge. If they can avoid investing heavily in antiquated coal and oil technologies, and instead move forward with fuel cells, wind power, and solar energy, nations such as China and India could bypass outdated technologies, and even move ahead of their industrial country counterparts.

Unlike fossil fuels, resource constraints will not limit renewable energy in most countries, the authors find. "Conservative estimates that exclude environmentally sensitive areas show that three U.S. states--North and South Dakota and Texas--have sufficient windy lands to, in theory, supply all the nation's electricity. And solar power plants covering less than one percent of the deserts of Xinjiang could meet China's current electricity needs."

Flavin and Lenssen anticipate a continuing boom in renewable energy investments during the coming decade, which will make wind and solar industries a leading growth sector.

The automobile industry is also likely to be swept by change. Low-emission cars made of advanced composite materials and running on electric drive trains and electronic controls are being developed by more than a dozen companies. These designs are 3-5 times as efficient as today's, and reduce emissions of pollutants by at least 95 percent, and those of carbon dioxide by 75-90 percent. Such vehicles will likely appear in auto showrooms within six years, according to Power Surge.

Advances in design and materials have also slashed energy use in some buildings by as much as 90 percent in the past two decades; recently, new homes have been built without furnaces in Canada and without air conditioners in California's central valley. A new generation of specially coated "super-windows" drastically reduce heat losses.

Looking further ahead, Flavin and Lenssen believe that hydrogen will emerge as the major energy carrier of the mid twenty-first century. Hydrogen is the simplest fuel, and can be manufactured directly from water, using solar or wind energy. At the other end of the pipe, it can be used directly in efficient factories and a variety of household appliances. Already, hydrogen is used as an industrial fuel and as a rocket propellant, and hydrogen technologies continue to advance rapidly.

Hydrogen can carry energy via pipeline in the way that natural gas does today--and for less than it costs to move electricity. "In the future, hydrogen may be piped from the windy Great Plains of North America to the eastern seaboard, and from the deserts of western China to the populous coastal plain," according to Power Surge. "For Europe, solar power could be harnessed in southern Spain or North Africa, and converted to hydrogen that is transported along existing gas pipeline routes. To the east, Kazakhstan could supply energy to Russia, and in India, the sun-drenched Thar Desert is within reach of the rest of the country."

To begin moving in this direction, Power Surge calls for four main shifts in government policy:

  • Reduce current subsidies for fossil fuels--which directly amount to some $220 billion globally--while raising taxes on them to reflect the emissions-related damage to forests, fresh water lakes, and human health.
  • Redirect research and development spending, which currently puts 85 percent of the money in fossil fuels and nuclear energy, to focus on promising new energy technologies.
  • Accelerate investment in the new devices through market-driven, multi-year government purchases so that companies scale up production and capture greater economies-of-scale in manufacturing.
  • Channel international energy assistance for developing countries toward efficiency, natural gas, and renewable energy sources.

As such policies are implemented, the pace of change in global energy systems may exceed the expectations of most experts. "The basic shape of the modern energy system emerged in the short span of two decades, from 1890 until 1910," according to Flavin and Lenssen. "The conditions are ripe for a second energy revolution, with equally dramatic social and economic effects."