We’re in a “dual energy crisis”, says the author of Clean Energy Nation, and not doing enough about it. He tells us what we must do if we’re to overcome our dependence on oil and limit the damaging effects of climate change
Prior to joining Congress, you were an engineer and executive in the energy industry. What sort of work did you do and what did you learn from it?
The importance of our national energy picture stared me in the face when I graduated from college in the middle of the Arab oil embargo of 1973. It was clear how dependent we were on imported oil and how vulnerable we were as a result of that dependence. So I was motivated to go into clean energy by our national security interests. Although I wasn't aware of global warming in the 1970s, I was very concerned about our long-term impact on the environment. Clean energy was a new and exciting field. The technical work that was being done in the 70s was novel and exciting. The people were fun to work with. Together we developed reliable high-tech products that are now producing a lot of clean energy, and we saw the wind business grow.
You are such an enthusiastic proponent of air-current energy that you named your daughter Windy.
We did. Her first name is Margaret. Windy is her middle name. But she likes it so much that she chooses to be known as M Windy McNerney.
You have calculated that your energy
work contributed to saving the equivalent of about 30 million barrels of oil. Why did you run for Congress when you were doing such a great job in the private sector?
I loved being in the industry. It was a lot of fun, and there was a high personal reward for the type of work that we were doing. But after 9/11 my son signed up for the air force, and when he received his absentee ballot in the mail in 2004 and saw there was no one running against the incumbent congressman in our district, he said, “You know Dad, people need a choice. I'm serving my country and I want you to do the same.” I thought about that a lot and I didn't know how I could say no.
In your book
you posit the notion that the world faces a “dual energy crisis”. Please explain.
The dual energy crisis is a twin problem. First, there's only a finite amount of oil out there to use. We may not be at peak oil now, but our consumption is increasing exponentially. So even if we have twice the amount of oil reserves that we think we have, we'll blow through those reserves within a fairly short period of time. So much of our technology, our society and our civilisation depends on oil. Food production to feed the seven billion people who inhabit the earth, water production for our cities and our homes, transportation, heating, cooling – it all depends on oil. So if we hit peak oil and the supply starts waning, we'll see a huge shock to our markets and our economy.
The other problem is global warming. The more oil we use, the more carbon we pump into the atmosphere. And the atmosphere can only take so much before we start seeing significant changes in the way the climate behaves, like the melting of the polar caps, the migration of species and the acidification of the ocean. These are all problems that we're going to experience. We need to start taking steps to mitigate them. And we need to develop alternative energy sources so that we don't continue to add to the problem.
Let’s start with books that make clear the severity of this crisis. The Limits to Growth, first published in 1972, projected the consequences of continued population growth in a world of finite resources. What is its core argument?
In the book, three scientists from MIT looked at five variables: World population, industrialisation, pollution, food production and resource depletion. They put population and consumption on the existing path of exponential growth, and showed that we’re going to start running out of resources and it's going to start impacting civilisation. They projected pollution, food shortages and so on.
The book was written 30 years ago. I read it in the 1980s and it made a big impact on me. The predictions were pretty accurate. They foresaw the strains of growth, and the wear on our planet is certainly starting to show. So it's a good book, an easy read and it gives you some idea of what we're up against. We must clean up our environment and find cleaner sources of energy.
Some critics argued that the authors loaded their case by projecting exponential population and pollution growth but sporadic technology growth. Isn’t clean energy technology keeping pace?
Any model of society or human behavior is not going to be entirely accurate but nonetheless there is explosive growth, and if we don't find the technology to replace oil we're going to be in trouble. We have the know-how to produce the technology that can keep pace. Solar, wind – these technologies can supply a large fraction of the requirements of our civilisation, as long as we don't keep growing exponentially. So we need to find new clean energy sources and become very, very efficient.
Tell me about Hubbert’s Peak by Princeton geologist Kenneth Deffeyes.
Hubbert was a geophysicist who worked for the oil companies. He created a method of modelling and measuring the American oil reserve back in the 50s. His model predicted what our oil consumption curve would look like. It's very mathematical, but the curves he came up with were pretty astonishing in predicting that the US would reach peak oil between 1965 and 1970. He was within a year or two of being exactly right.
Expanding that model to the whole earth is difficult because we don't know exactly what the reserves are, but the same methodology applies. If we had a good handle on the reserves we would be able to tell pretty accurately when the world will reach peak oil, and what the fall-off of oil reserves is going to look like after that point. So it's a very important work, solidly based in science.
Deffeyes tells the story of how Hubbert developed this model, and he projects that the world will reach peak oil production within the next decade. The book is a warning that we should all heed, but it’s also a brisk read for people who are interested in the substance and science of energy issues.
What are the implications for international relations of reaching peak oil?
It's very challenging – pretty scary actually – because we've become so dependent on fossil fuel that if we run short people are going to demand that we take steps to access more resources. That means potential military operations to secure oil fields and pipelines. It might mean offensive military action to secure our oil future. And the US is not the only country in this situation. China is very dependent on fossil fuels for its industrial growth, and not just China but every industrialised country in the world. So the implications are significant, and we don't want to find ourselves going down the path of competing for scarce resources in worldwide conflicts.
Deffeyes argues that public policy can’t delay the peak of oil production. But your next book, Winning The Oil Endgame, suggests some solutions.
In this book, environmentalist Amory Lovins and his co-writers lay out a roadmap for how we can create a vibrant economy while ending oil dependence. They are very market based, and look at our energy challenges as economic questions. They present ideas about how we can incentivise by using oil more efficiently and replacing fossil fuels with other fuels whenever possible. It's a very forward-looking book. If people were to pay attention to what is recommended in there, I think we could find a way forward without as much risk as we are facing now.
The book is based on a strategy co-funded by the Pentagon, and proposes to cut US oil use in half by 2025. What is the plan and is it possible?
They are suggesting a Manhattan Project approach – a crash programme to develop biofuels. I think concentrating resources around that sort of challenge could really help. Transportation needs in this country consume quite a lot of petroleum resources. If we become extremely efficient, and find biofuels to add to the mix as they suggest, we’ll be in much better shape. Then we need to make our buildings and our airplanes more efficient. There are ways to incentivise the airline companies to do that – it all needs to work together. We need to do several things at once, and if we do then we’ll create jobs and make ourselves more secure while cleaning up the environment. So the book presents a win-win-win strategy for the oil endgame.
That brings us to Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which is a manifesto for a new industrial revolution written by a chemist and architect.
This talks about ways to evolve efficiently. It calls for products that can be circulated infinitely in industrial cycles. It envisions using products in a whole new way. In this vision, consumers become borrowers: You make products with sustainable resources and when you're done using them, you find a way to recycle or to integrate them back into the environment in a healthy way.
How can public policy facilitate the design revolution proposed in Cradle to Cradle?
That's an excellent question. The philosophy is that when you use and discard something, it either gets completely reused or is discarded in a way that's healthier for the environment. So it's really a different philosophy, and it's going to take a pretty significant change in our mindset of how we develop and use resources to get there.
The most important aspect of creating a “zero waste” society is finding ways to encourage the chemical industry to create materials that are durable, recyclable and non-toxic. The book says we can find a way to make all the products we need with fewer and safer resources. It goes through a list of materials that can be used and it's a fairly short list, whereas the list of chemicals out there is in the tens of thousands. Public policy can influence what type of materials enter the industrial cycle.
Lastly, you cite Wind Power by Paul Gipe. Please tell us about this book.
Paul Gipe is a very well-known wind energy personality. He's been in the field a long time, he's traveled a lot and he's written a number of books. This one is fun to read because it's about how ordinary people can harness wind power for homes, farms and businesses. It lays out the basics – it talks about the foundation requirements and how to lift the wind turbine up there. It conveys the idea that you don't have to rely on giant industrial-sized windmills to supply power. It's aimed at the little guy.
Not everyone is looking to erect wind turbines on their property, but Gipe reminds us that there’s more to renewable energy than massive plants. In some countries, turbines are dispersed throughout the countryside instead of concentrated. Household-sized turbines can even generate surplus energy that can be stored and shared. So even if you’re not in the market for a “how-to”, you might be interested in this book’s vision of the potential of wind energy.
What can Congress do to help us become a clean energy nation?
It’s an economic issue. The tools are there, it's just a matter of finding the right policies that will encourage the development and use of new energy technology that is clean and renewable. We need to give incentives for energy efficiency. That means incentives for developing electric vehicles that people feel comfortable with – vehicles that have the same convenience as a gas vehicle, so they have to be able to go 300 or 400 miles on a single charge. It's really a matter of putting the right resources and incentives in place to get people to make investments in clean energy, and to make sure that those investments pay dividends. If we can put those incentives in place without them costing too much, the payback in the long run will be significant.
And we'll create jobs. Right now we're spending about $1bn a day for oil imported to this country. We’re creating jobs overseas. If that billion dollars a day was spent in this country, creating energy with our own ingenuity and our own hard work, that would also create an enormous number of energy jobs. And there's secondary jobs that come with them, too. We need Congress to get the message that the future of this country is in clean energy. I feel proud to carry that message in Congress while I am there to represent all the interests of my constituents.
Clean energy faces a bit of a headwind at the moment. People point to the bankruptcy of the solar panel company Solyndra – which received $535m worth of US government-guaranteed loans during the
administration – as evidence that the government should not guarantee loans to favoured industries, even the clean energy industry. Do you dispute that argument?
Solyndra certainly needs to be accounted for. But in order to develop new sources of energy we need to do research and development, and a well-supervised loan guarantee is one way to achieve that. I think there is a need for loan guarantees, especially considering what's happening overseas.
Solyndra happened to be competing with Chinese companies. The Chinese have absolutely no compunction about putting all kinds of resources into their industry so that they can outcompete our companies. That puts us at a disadvantage. It’s not a good argument to say that the failure of one company is an indication that the whole industry has a problem. Moreover, oil, gas and coal companies have had government subsidies for 100 years or so, so I think it's reasonable that renewable resources companies can look to the government for help both in research and in incentives.
We not only want to develop the resources for our country, we want to develop the manufacturing. We want to develop products to sell both in the US and overseas. Let me give you an example. The wind technology that I developed, as part of a team, we developed in this country. But it is now being manufactured overseas, especially in Germany, because we didn't have the right policies in place in the US – the incentives were over there. So we developed the technology but as they are paying top dollar for energy in Germany, the manufacturing went over there and that's where it stayed.
What were the specific policies that favoured the technology being developed there?
They have good tax incentives for development, installation and production. But the chief policy was that utility companies were required to buy renewable power, and that caused the renewable energy industry in Germany to just explode. They have more windmills in Germany than we have in the United States. So Europe and Asia have both policies and manufacturing capacity. The US still has the know-how to create the next generation of technology, but if we’re going to lead in clean energy then we have to get back in the fight for the future.
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at email@example.com