GREEN CITY Environmental groups have voiced cautious optimism about the California Air Resources Board's new draft plan for fulfilling the legislative mandate of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent from 1990 levels by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050. It relies primarily on greater conservation and efficiency, and a push for new technology.
But skeptics await the forthcoming details behind the plan's vague outlines and openly worry that the complex "cap and trade" system for selling the right to pollute, an approach favored by industry executives, could be counterproductive. Many experts say we need a more radical reevaluation of the current system, such as that proposed by California's S. David Freeman in his book, Winning Our Energy Independence: An Energy Insider Shows How (Gibbs Smith, 2007).
Freeman has advised presidents and governors on energy policy, run the Tennessee Valley Authority and major municipal utility districts, and recently activated a fleet of all-electric vehicles as head of the commission overseeing the Port of Los Angeles.
His book lays out a plan to phase out Big Coal, Big Oil, and nuclear (which he dubs "the Three Poisons") over 30 years while meeting the needs of our high-energy society by implementing renewable technologies that already exist: sun, wind, and renewably generated hydrogen, supplemented by small hydroelectric, geothermal, and certain biofuels.
"[I]t is entirely practical and feasible to get all our energy from renewable resources and to do so with today's technology," Freeman writes, contradicting energy industry spin that beginning the switch would take decades. Footnoted calculations and renewable resource maps show that renewables will cost the public less, with supply "over twice as large as what we may need," if used efficiently.
The transition he proposes could eliminate many of the physical, economic, and political risks of our current unsustainable oil addiction, but only if environmentally concerned Americans which, he posits, are a majority close ranks and demand a national renewable energy policy that started immediately.
Freeman's plan also relies heavily on conservation: it recommends federal government-mandated efficiency programs for utilities, auto companies, manufacturers of energy-using equipment, and homebuilders to offset rising consumer demand. Increasing fuel mileage standards by 1 mpg per year for 24 years (to 48 mpg), for example, would push automakers to steadily improve their products.
His second step: retire aging, highly polluting coal and waste-generating nuclear plants, outlaw new ones, and phase in renewable power-generating alternatives using sun, wind, geothermal, biomass, and municipal waste (going from 9 percent renewable now to 60 percent in three decades, at five-year intervals). Forest, agricultural, and municipal waste are preferable to food-based ethanol.
Freeman encourages consumers to get vocal with manufacturers and demand flex-fuel and plug-in hybrid cars (with batteries you can recharge at home) and, ultimately, all-electric cars. Rechargeable types require less gasoline, freeing us from reliance on foreign oil, a militaristic foreign policy, and habitat destruction at home. An excess-profits tax can supply consumer and manufacturer incentives to speed production within a decade.
Because green cars mean more demand for electricity, Freeman looks beyond new thin-film solar rooftop panels, calling on the federal government to develop "Big Solar": desert installations capable of generating 500 MW of power (the largest US solar farm now generates 16). Such a facility could fuel the energy-intensive electrolysis process needed to free clean-burning hydrogen from water (to replace gasoline), which can then be piped and stored.
Sure, this kind of approach will be expensive.