March 15th, 2014
in Op Ed
by Stephen Petranek, Daily Reckoning
The most disruptive technological force on the planet is happening quietly and relatively unseen by most of us.
When you plug your cellphone charger into a wall socket, you are probably connecting to one of about 500 coal-fired power plants in the United States.
What if all 500 coal-fired power plants were shut down by 2050?
What if instead of getting your power from a centralized source, you got it from a small generating plant on top of your house or business or car?
What if everywhere you went, no matter when you needed electricity, it came from a small local source, instead of a giant power plant?
That is exactly what is starting to happen in the U.S., China and other nations around the world, including oil-rich Arab countries in the Middle East.
And it is a tremendous opportunity to invest.
The reasons behind this radical and disruptive change are many, but they all focus on changing the way we get power.
Two months ago, at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, you could feel the tension surrounding the oil companies. I overheard conversation after conversation about when the hammer was going to fall.
Everyone stands as Sheik Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the UAE, enters the World Future Energy Summit on January 20.
At one point in the conference, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, was interviewed on stage and asked how much longer we could continue to make energy the way we do now.
He pointed out that a stable Earth atmosphere can consume a large amount of carbon dioxide, but that there's a limit, and we far exceed it now:
"We're emitting about 35 billion tons of CO2 this year. By 2050, in a much larger world economy, we have to be emitting less than 15 billion tons. So the world economy is going to grow by three times, but we have to cut back by more than half our carbon emissions.
"What does that mean?
"It means keeping the coal under the ground.
"It means changing to electric vehicles.
"It means radically different building codes.
"It means facing the fact that our energy, when we produce power, has to be emitting about 100 grams of CO2, rather than 700 grams per kilowatt hour [of electricity generated] that is now emitted when we produce electricity.
"In a way, this is straightforward arithmetic. But our political systems do not want to face straightforward arithmetic because it means making choices.
"It means telling the coal industry that unless you have carbon capture and sequestration, the coal must stay under the ground.
"It means saying to the oil industry that by 2030, our vehicle fleets must be electric powered; they cannot be internal combustion engine if we're serious about this problem.
"So far, we're not serious about the problem. I pity our children, and I'm scared for them because we're not facing the honest carbon budgets of the planet."
The moderator, BBC anchor Nima Abu-Wardeh, challenged any oil company representative in the audience to address how the world could reduce carbon emissions by more than two-thirds by 2050. Although dozens of representatives were present, not a single person stood up to answer.
Sheiks at the conference whose entire countries are dependent on selling oil are investing in renewable, nonpolluting, sustainable sources of energy.
Here we were in the United Arab Emirates, a country that is pretty much floating on a sea of oil, and hundreds of sheiks were avidly taking in a world summit devoted to not burning oil and coal and even gas.
They have built an entire modern country in only 50 years, a country that had no paved roads in the 1960s and supported its population with date palm plantations in desert oases and by diving for oyster pearls in the Persian Gulf. If they acknowledge that global warming is real and they are worried about the consequences, everyone else soon will be too.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai, two extraordinary United Arab Emirates futuristic cities with a combined population of nearly 3 million, are dominated by lofty cranes building new skyscraper after new skyscraper.
At 2,717 feet, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the tallest building in the world and almost 1,000 feet higher than One World Trade Center in New York.
Fortune magazine has declared Abu Dhabi the richest city in the world. Yet both cities could be underwater by the end of the century if global warming increases at present rates.
Abu Dhabi's leader, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, is so concerned about global warming that he has backed his son's initiative to build the world's first carbon-neutral, nonautomobile city, called Masdar.
The first stage of Masdar focuses on the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a university of nearly 500 graduate students that is advised by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Apartment buildings in the city are powered by solar cells and cooled by wind towers that suck air from 50-foot heights to ground level, lowering temperatures the same way nomadic Bedouin tribes cooled their tents in the desert for centuries.
We need a lot more power a lot sooner than many people could guess.
Africa is entering an industrial revolution and is starved for power. Brazil and many nations in Latin America are projecting huge demand increases for power. China's amazing growth is actually retarded by an inability to build power plants fast enough. Rachel Kyte, vice president of sustainable development at the World Bank, said:
"The idea that people have a right to energy is growing. Less than one-third of Africans have access to energy. You can't get growth when businesses can't get access to energy."
Sub-Saharan Africa has some of the world's fastest-growing economies. Senegal, for example, grew at a rate of 45% in 2013 and is expected to continue that rate or better through 2018.
In fact, the focus of growth in the next decade is likely to shift from Asia to Africa. Here is what an Exxon Mobil display at the World Future Energy Summit declared about the near future just three decades away:
- There will be 2 billion more people on the planet.
- The global economy will be more than double its present size - 130% larger.
- We will need at least 34% more energy than we produce now, a figure that assumes extraordinary growth in efficiencies or it would be more than double that amount.
- The growth in demand for electricity will nearly double.
Jim Cramer, the host of Mad Money and co-founder of TheStreet.com, likes to say every so often that there are two things the world is going to need in the near future that he can bet on: energy and food. Except he often doesn't say "energy"; he says "oil." And therein lies a faulty perception - equating energy with oil.
Simple economics will rule. Even though the real costs of energy are not equalized, with coal, oil and gas burned without being charged for the harm they do to the environment and people's health, sustainable sources of energy are rapidly achieving what is called "grid parity."
That means solar and wind sources of energy are actually about to cross the threshold of being cheaper than anything else.
We are cashing in on change itself, change that will come faster than the Internet came upon us and faster than cellphones snagged us.
It is difficult to overstate how dramatic the change will be for every person's lifestyle. Whether a sheep herder in Uzbekistan or a soccer mom in Pasadena, this is going to make your life different.