12 Jan 2009: Opinion

As Europe Fiddles, U.S. May
Take Lead on Climate Change

Europe’s backpedaling last month on toughening its carbon trading system may have signaled the end of its leadership on climate change. Now, with a new administration and Congress, America appears ready to commit itself to tackling global warming.

by fred pearce

Is global climate leadership about to pass from Europe to the United States? It seems so. And Barack Obama’s plans to rejoin international climate negotiations, green American energy policy, and build an electricity super-grid to bring renewable energy out of the West could be a planet-saver.

Europe’s leadership on fighting climate change seemed unassailable until just a few months ago. It had grabbed that position more than a decade ago, when Germany’s then environment minister, a former East German chemist named Angela Merkel, negotiated the groundwork for the Kyoto Protocol in Berlin in 1995. Two years later, Europe basically pushed Bill Clinton to send Al Gore to Kyoto to sign up to the first emissions targets — which were never ratified by the U.S. Senate and subsequently repudiated by George W Bush.

Early last month, Merkel — now German Chancellor — signaled Europe’s retreat. She successfully lobbied on behalf of her coal-burning and car-making industries to water down European Union plans for carbon
Critics say German Chancellor Angela Merkel caved in to the coal-burning industry during recent EU energy talks.
emissions trading in a new EU energy package. It is now unclear whether EU promises to cut emissions by 20 percent by 2020 — and 30 percent if other developed nations will go along — can be met.

This is not to say that Europe’s climate policies are bust. But its leadership role certainly is. At international climate talks in Poznan, Poland last month, environmentalists took to calling the once-revered German leader “Darth Merkel.”

The inauguration of Barack Obama now looks like the world’s best chance to break free of the climate trap. The incoming U.S. president says meeting the challenge of climate change and ensuring America a secure energy supply are top priorities that can both be achieved by weaning the country off its dependence on imports of foreign fossil fuels.

Among the climate cognoscenti, the sense that a really important shift may be about to happen was accentuated when Obama announced in December that he had chosen Steven Chu as his energy secretary.

The Nobel prize-winning head of the Lawrence Berkeley National
The inauguration of Barack Obama now looks like the world’s best chance to break free of the climate trap.
Laboratory has helped pioneer research on energy efficiency, solar energy, and cellulosic “second generation” biofuels. Last year he announced a $500 million deal with BP to fund a new Energy Biosciences Institute at Berkeley. “We are seeking industry partnerships,” he said then. “We seek solutions. We don’t seek, dare I say, science papers anymore.”

Chu is also an advocate of a national high-voltage electricity super-grid to distribute renewable energy across the United States. In 2005, he went to Washington to pitch the idea — none too successfully, it seems — to Bush’s energy secretary Samuel Bodman. And now it fits right in with Obama’s campaign promise to establish “a new digital grid... to make effective use of renewable energy.”

It also fits in as part of the new, green, job-creating, economy-reviving, American infrastructure that Obama promises — his 21st century version of the New Deal’s Grand Coulee and Hoover dams.

In September I visited California, where they are already test-driving some of Obama’s plans under the unlikely gaze of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The state legislature has passed a key law to enact emissions reductions programs through regulation and carbon trading. The laws are intended as a model for federal action.

Even more striking are the green energy entrepreneurs tooling up in California. “If Barack Obama wins,” David Mills, the bicycling-mad boss of solar energy pioneers Ausra in Palo Alto, told me, “then it’s going to be boom time here.” He was cheering even louder with the news of Chu’s appointment.

Mills and Ausra are in the vanguard of what many believe will become the critical renewable technology for America — solar thermal energy. Unlike photovoltaics, which convert solar heat directly into electricity, solar thermal concentrates solar energy using mirrors to heat water, which is then used to drive conventional steam turbines. One of the advantages of solar thermal is that it allows the energy to be stored for when it is needed, in the form of hot water.

Mills, a Canadian, developed his system in Australia. But a couple of years ago, frustrated by government indifference there, he shipped out
Solar thermal
Companies are looking to put solar installations across the American West. This solar thermal plant near Las Vegas produces 64 megawatts of power.
to California. “It has a state plan for renewables; it has the technologists to deliver; and it has the venture capital,” he told me. Backers in Silicon Valley have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars already into start-up green tech companies like Ausra. In the fall, Mills opened a robot-run factory outside Las Vegas ready to cover the deserts of the American West with glass mirrors that catch the sun’s energy.

“This is not mad scientists any more,” Mills said. “In the next decades, clean energy is going to be ten times bigger than the internet and IT combined. The energy business is the largest business in the world, and with climate change, it all has to be replaced. We are just waiting to deliver to the boom.”

Industry analysts say up to $50 billion in capital is waiting to be invested in solar projects in the Nevada desert. On his arrival at the Oval Office, Obama will find in his in-box applications for permits to put solar panels and reflectors across 400,000 hectares of the West — enough for 40,000 megawatts of electricity generating capacity.

And utilities are willing to buy. All they need is the green light from Washington: a few tax breaks, permission to erect mirrors on federal desert land, a cap-and-trade system that puts a price on carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, and a transmission system to get the new green power to market. Mills has published peer-reviewed papers showing how the United States could get 90 per cent of its energy from covering just 10 per cent of the Nevada desert with mirrors.

Could it happen? Renewables like solar and wind have two problems. First, they are intermittent. Some days there is no wind; every night there is no sun. Second, unlike coal or oil, the fuels are not transportable. And most of the U.S.’s renewable potential is west of the Mississippi, whereas most of the demand is east of the Mississippi. The United States currently has no national grid capable of moving the power east.

Industry advocates say that a new high-voltage direct-current grid, using superconducting materials to minimize transmission losses, could transform the potential of U.S. renewables. And by connecting wind and solar energy (not to mention some nuclear and fossil fuel, too), it would minimize the risk of an outage of any one source of power due to the weather crashing the system.

This is not just about the United States. The technology that drives
If green tech is good enough for Americans, then everyone will want not just to make it but to use it as well.
America usually ends up driving the world. If Obama goes for a smart super-grid, you can almost guarantee that Merkel and her fellow Europeans will suddenly get more enthusiastic about a super-grid scheme quietly being promoted there to hook up to solar energy from the Sahara desert. A grander version would also tap geothermal energy from Iceland, hydropower from Scandinavia, and wind power from the North Sea.

And China? Whisper it quietly, but China is already the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines. Any industrialist sitting in China and watching the U.S. government open its wallet to rebuild the country’s energy infrastructure will be thinking contracts, contracts, contracts. China will want to manufacture the wind turbines and solar panels and superconducting cables.

The U.S. market is so big it could have huge implications for R&D and energy manufacturing around the world. And if green tech is good enough for Americans, then everyone will want not just to make it but to use it as well.

Climate scientists believe we have to cut global greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent by 2050, with cuts of 80-90 percent in industrialized countries. If so, then the decarbonization of our economies has to be completed within the lifetime of power plants being designed and financed now.

In Germany, once the darling of the greens, they are talking right now about building a new generation of coal-fired power stations. In America, the talk is different. The talk is about delivering energy security AND climate security. But talk is just talk. Let’s hope Obama delivers on what he says.

POSTED ON 12 Jan 2009 IN Climate Climate Policy & Politics Europe North America 


I agree with you - and the fact that the USA is one country, makes legislation so much easier than in the EU. There are all types of competitive pressures (such as with aviation (UK), auto sectors (Germany)) where dealing with climate change hurts one country at the expense of another.

This is not to say that there are not tremendous interest group pressures within each country - such as dealing with coal in the USA (and elsewhere). For a discussion about public opinion to do with coal, you can see a recent press release we have produced ..


Posted by Peter Winters on 12 Jan 2009

I hope you're right, Fred. It would be great to see the US take the lead in solving a global problem rather than in bombing places.
Posted by Spencer Fitz-Gibbon on 13 Jan 2009

The potential is huge.

I find it strange that the media focuses on photocells, which are currently an inferior technology (except for small scale applications).

Solar Thermal is cheaper, and comes with built in storage, so as to better manage demand volatility.

By my calculations, the 40,000 MW you quote is too small. Just in California, there is 52,000 MW. (See: http://cleanfutureenergy.com/modules/wordpress/?p=45 )
Posted by Clean Future Energy on 13 Jan 2009

Obviously this is better than coal-fired power plants, but it ties us even more to large-scale generation systems. I hope that any move we make towards a mega-scale solar thermal system for the US is part of a coordinated effort to significantly reduce demand. If all we do is replace current supply with greener sources, we will have missed the biggest opportunity. And we'll use way more land, and way more fossil fuels building the solar thermal installations, than if we start with some serious conservation measures.

I cut my own home energy use to less than a quarter my provincial average for a household of four - without buying any fancy technology other than a Kill A Watt meter (see http://www.green-energy-efficient-homes.com/kill-a-watt.html) to figure out where my electricity was getting used. If there were proper incentives (read full-cost accounting of electricity prices) in place, and a bit more funding for home energy audit subsidies to help people figure out how to conserve, we could close down many coal fired power plants for good before a single new solar thermal plant opens.

Fix the demand side first. It's usually cheaper than fixing the supply side.

Posted by Robin Green on 13 Jan 2009

I think the lack of strong measures in EU demonstrates the reality of climate change action during a period of economic depression. Its also difficult to get anyone to jazzed about global warming while hell freezes over.

Now is a really good time to do nothing.

Also the green jobs being touted tend to be lean heavily on tax payers. That will only hurt the economy down the road.
Posted by Ray on 14 Jan 2009

I hope you're right, and Obama is certainly saying all the right things, which is a good start. But his actual proposals are a bit limp, with the smell of too little, too late.

The last 8 years have been really tough on American companies in the alternative energy space, and not just the manufacturing, but the intellectual leadership has dispersed all over the world.

I like renewable energy portfolio standards, and wish we had a higher CAFE standard, but unless we price the external costs (climate change, terrorism, etc) into carbon fuels, we're not going to see the behavior change that will drive the private sector investments that this is going to take.

Obama has the political capital, but he's going to have to spend a bunch of it to tax carbon, and this isn't nearly the only thing on his plate.

I'm hopeful, not yet convinced.
Posted by Ski Milburn on 15 Jan 2009

The beauty of solar thermal is that the output peaks with the load. So in the morning when we all get ready for work, or in the summer evenings when all the AC gets switched on, the solar power is ready to go. I heard Mr Mills speak recently in Australia and Austria is also very interested in energy storage technology. They are apparently developing one technology that is cheaper than molten salt. If they pull this off as well, then the so called intermittancy problem vanishes entirely. Bring it on.
Posted by Arjan Wilkie on 15 Jan 2009

The PBS interview today with House Minority leader John Boehner got me worried. Claiming to be working in a bi-partisan spirit and to support the President Elect, he was nonetheless contemptuous of the very kinds of proposals -- "tired old Liberal ideas that somebody took out of a drawer after 14 years" -- advocated above.

Take a look at his voting record and tell me whether you think the above initiatives will be a shoe in.

Posted by on 15 Jan 2009

Let Europe rest a while: Let America take the lead. The leadership of Barack Obama deserves it. "America must lead" is the clear and well-wrought concept since the 2nd World War. Till now it was leading in weapons, wars, trade, industries economy, space... but forgetting the earth and around. Now, as The States got a leadership that has roots in the common ground, it must look to the ground reality.
Posted by Padam Pande on 28 Sep 2009

hats off to you obama .I think this step would bring revolution not only in US but in whole world and shift the momentum towards clean energy.
bye bye global warming......

Posted by pankaj on 08 Apr 2011

Comments have been closed on this feature.
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff (Beacon Press, 2008). Pearce has also writtern for Yale e360 on world population trends and green innovation in China.



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