COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | DANIEL COFFEY

Energy expert Lester Brown and ‘The Great Transition’

Lester Brown leads the Earth Policy Institute (EPI). Its publications may be found at earthpolicy.org. For decades Brown has examined the world’s energy and resource landscape using the rules of mathematics and science as altered by intervening human nature, agencies and actions. His views are well worth the time to carefully consider.

Brown, 80, and three co-authors from Earth Policy Institute, which unfortunately will close its doors July 1, recently wrote “The Great Transition,” published by W.W. Norton & Company.

At nine chapters and 178 printed pages in a compact format, it holds a good many ideas and observations about modern renewable energy systems to which thinking people should pay close attention.

Especially noteworthy are the thoughts pertaining to China’s astonishingly rapid and massive deployment of non-polluting large-scale solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind projects. China has made huge strides, dwarfing those imagined by even wild-eyed Western visionaries.

For those who think that renewable energy is not important or economical, consider this tidbit in Brown’s book: “One reason for wind’s explosive growth in China is that wind farms scale up to a size not seen with coal-fired units or nuclear reactors. China is building several wind mega-complexes as part of its Wind Base program, each of which will have up to 6,800 megawatts of generating capacity. These projects are part of an effort to develop a path-breaking 200,000 megawatts of wind capacity by 2020.”

In some respects, “The Great Transition” reads like a brief, breezy synopsis, citing examples and extolling possible lessons, but its selected observations, arguments and conclusions are based in large part on years of observational data and deep research.

It holds kernels of what the best and most optimistic future might look like if we pay attention and act in sensible ways with the tools and resources now available. Ironically, it’s a good read for travelling long distances by air.

That said, it contains elements of wishful thinking that are not borne out by physical circumstances, resting instead upon articles of faith advanced by certain special-interest groups, especially as it envisions a world relying heavily upon locally owned rooftop solar PV equipment.

Deploying miraculous solar PV technology one rooftop at a time behind the electricity meter without management and integration, while interesting, simply distracts from the magnificent opportunity that large-scale solar PV and energy storage increasingly present.

Small and slow incremental solar PV deployment creates more interim jobs for private installers but it also sustains the status quo fossil fuel energy paradigm far longer, significantly increases electricity costs and more slowly reduces greenhouse gas emissions.

One cannot help but applaud the scale and breadth of Brown’s effort, but brevity introduces some peculiar perspectives.

For example, Brown writes on Page 16: “Today the United States has more than 3,000 electric utilities, but a decade from now the electricity landscape will likely look very different. Some utilities will be forced to merge; others will be dismantled as rooftop panels take over more and more of the electricity market.”

This view is recast on Page 134 when Brown writes: “This century, as the world shifts to solar and wind, the energy economy is localizing. Our power source can be as close as the roofs over our heads. Instead of a small group of corporations and countries producing and controlling most of the world’s energy, people everywhere will be in the energy business, meeting their own energy needs with solar panels.”

These two structural perspectives raise questions over how we should manage our affairs and who will actually own the means to produce energy. Will it be regulated utilities, individuals or obscure private Wall Street entities?

The popularized premise that rooftop solar installations will magically democratize energy production is belied by the reality that rooftop installations are often obtained via admixtures of leases, subsidized rates, arbitrage strategies and securitized Wall Street instruments that hope that electricity rates will rise systematically in the future. Yes, it’s your roof, but it’s a big company’s profitable property.

A rather easy, even pleasurable read, in many respects the book is a primer on energy that will acquaint an audience that might not otherwise take the time to steep itself in the nuances and transformations in modern energy production, management, sales and regulation.

While instructive in many respects, it does not engage in the kind of spirited debate that we sorely need at this historical juncture.

For example, will regulated pricing be applicable to renewable sources or ultimately replaced by unregulated monopoly pricing? Will shared benefits conventionally supported by regulated utilities become concentrated profits running to a narrow group of outside owners? These challenging questions are immediately before us but remain essentially quiescent in “The Great Transition.”

Unanswered: Will battles over monopoly power involving electricity hard-fought and won in the early 20th century be lost in the 21st century?


Coffey is an attorney based in San Diego. He can be reached at daniel.coffey@sddt.com. Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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