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The Climate Crisis: Breaking the Fossil Fuel Habit

The promise, and challenge, of shifting to alternative energy

In this weeklong series, BU researchers explore the science behind Earth’s environmental changes, and what they mean for our future.

Think of it as worldwide addiction. At least 80 percent of the energy people use to drive, heat their homes, and power gadgets comes from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas, and the consumption of all of the above contributes to global warming.

Kicking that addiction will be hard. Cutler Cleveland, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of earth and environment and director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Studies, says the transition from fossil fuels to low-carbon alternatives like wind, solar, and nuclear power will require speedy technological advancement, huge capital investments, and the political—and personal—will of ordinary people. Cleveland, who has written or edited six books on ecological economics and energy transitions and is the founding editor-in-chief of the online reference source Encyclopedia of Earth, is convinced that if we hope to “avert the more dire scenarios, there needs to be radical surgery now.”

Cutler Cleveland, Encyclopedia of Earth, Encyclopedia of Energy, Professor of Earth and Environment, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, Boston University

Cutler Cleveland, a CAS professor of earth and environment, says the time is now to convert to alternative energies. Photo by Christine Ward

Cleveland’s convictions come not only from his own research, but also from a series of eight seminars that brought environmental experts from universities in the United States and Europe to BU throughout the 2010–2011 academic year. The John E. Sawyer Seminars on Energy and Society were sponsored by the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future and supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“We will have to engineer the transition,” says Cleveland. “And we’ve never really done that in the history of humanity.”

Some countries, however, have done better than others. In 2011, China invested $51 billion in alternative energy technologies and led the world in renewable power capacity with 70 total gigawatts, according to the international nonprofit Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century. That same year, the United States put $48 billion in such technologies and achieved total generation of 68 gigawatts. Germany, the third greatest investor in alternatives, spent $31 billion and reached total capacity of 61 gigawatts. Most other countries lagged far behind. No country has sworn off fossil fuels.

Germany’s production of alternative energy, which provides nearly 11 percent of the country’s energy needs, leads G-20 (a group of finance ministers and central bank governors from 20 major economies) members, states a 2012 report by the National Resources Defense Council. Indonesia follows, with roughly 6 percent, and next is the United Kingdom, at about 4 percent. The United States came in seventh, with only 3 percent of its electricity coming from renewables.

Ketura Sun solar field, Arava Power Company, Yosef Abramowitz, Kibbutz Ketura Arava Valley, Israel 

Worldwide investment in solar power has increased sharply in recent years, including in places like Israel, where the Arava Power Company, headed by Yosef Abramowitz (CAS’87), installed 18,500 photovoltaic panels. Photo courtesy of Arava Power Company

Cleveland’s research suggests that not a single country will flip its dependency completely to renewables within the next 50 years. Still, he says, there is encouraging growth in some sectors. Government subsidies and technological improvements in the manufacture of turbines have lowered the cost of wind energy, so that it now competes with energy produced by natural gas and burning coal. But solar, which has also benefited from subsidies and technological advancements, and wind account for only a couple of percentage points of total power generation in the world.

And while the federal government has not established benchmarks for wind and solar production, many states have. Here in Massachusetts, the legislature passed the Green Communities Act in 2008, requiring that 15 percent of the commonwealth’s electricity come from renewable energy by 2020. Massachusetts plans to generate 2,000 megawatts of wind energy within the next seven years and 250 megawatts of solar power by 2017. While far from reaching its wind energy goal, the commonwealth reports that it’s 90 percent of the way to accomplishing its solar goal. The commitments have helped Massachusetts tie with Texas for fifth place nationally in a 2012 Ernst & Young report on promising renewable energy markets.

2010 World Energy Consumption by Fuel Type, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012

A look at world energy consumption by fuel type in 2010. Source: Energy Transitions by Cutler Cleveland

Nuclear power, another low-carbon energy source, currently provides 3 percent of the world’s energy, Cleveland says, but its hazardous waste disposal and safety risks make it less desirable than wind and solar. “Nuclear energy has a higher life-cycle cost than wind and fossil fuel, because it’s very capital-intensive,” he says. “A routinely operated nuclear plant is benign, compared to a coal plant, but it does have this small possibility of going Fukushima on you.”

The United States has 65 operating nuclear power plants, most of them concentrated along the East Coast and in the Midwest and all of them built more than 30 years ago. Cleveland says that makes planning a new one relatively unknown territory, because there are no current price comparisons. It’s also politically risky, as most communities don’t want one in their backyard and are hesitant to adopt a technology that produces radioactive waste with a half-life of thousands of years.

Biomass—such as switchgrass, corn, or sugar cane converted to biofuel—is another alternative source of energy, but Cleveland is discouraged by the carbon exchange of the biomass process. “It involves removing vegetation from the Earth’s surface,” he says, “and humanity has a very poor track record of causing lots of other environmental problems when you start monkeying with changing land cover.” As a source, he prefers energy-rich sugar cane to corn-based ethanol, because corn is grown industrially with large inputs of oil, which increases carbon emissions.

2010 World Renewable Energy Consumption, BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2012

A look at world renewable energy consumption in 2010. Source: Energy Transitions by Cutler Cleveland

“When you compare the energy in the ethanol and all the energy it took” to plant, cultivate, transport, and process it, “it’s only a very modest win,” he says. “It’s certainly way less than the energy gain you get from just producing oil directly from crude.”

What does Cleveland’s research tell him about the best way to break the fossil fuel habit? The first step, he says, should be using fossil fuels to build a sustainable energy infrastructure. “You need to shift away from coal and oil to natural gas in the short run, and probably leave a lot of coal in the Earth’s crust,” he says. “And you need to use fossil fuel to radically ramp up renewables and/or nuclear.”

That means “sticks and carrots, a lot of them,” he says. “If you want the transition to happen faster than it otherwise would, you’re going to have to alter incentives. And you’re going to have to change the price of carbon.”

Gas tax hikes, like the one Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick recently proposed, or divestment from fossil fuels are moves in the right direction. Cleveland thinks federal legislation taxing carbon or an international cap-and-trade system would put a bigger dent in emissions.

Finally, he says, politicians have to address the “third rail of U.S. energy policy”—demand. People need to know that their choices can have a negative impact on the environment. “Working 30 miles from home and driving a Hummer to work alone in the morning is probably one of the most absurd, extravagant behaviors,” he says. “We’ll look back and say, ‘Oh my God!’ The excesses of the Romans will look like Romper Room.” Commuters can do that only because “energy is dirt cheap. People are going to in the long run live closer to where they work and play.”

And perhaps more people should start thinking like Howard T. Odum, Cleveland says. The ecologist and author of A Prosperous Way Down argues that to survive, the human species must learn how to decline prosperously.

“No one wants to think that way, because we connect happiness and well-being with increases in the physical consumption of goods and services,” Cleveland says. “It’s a conversation that should be had, but good luck getting elected on that platform.”

The Climate Crisis

Tomorrow, in part five of our series, professors of environment and economics discuss how taking action to mitigate climate change could affect the economy.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

14 Comments on The Climate Crisis: Breaking the Fossil Fuel Habit

  • A mariner's tale of common sense on 03.28.2013 at 5:37 am

    Mariners especially sailors have been using wind and solar technology to generate electricity for longer than nearly anyone and sadly we have a long way to go. As a mariner I truly wish the technology was better. When they can build an affordable power boat that requires no fossil fuel I will say that this technology has finally arrived.

    On the other hand punishing consumption of fossil fuels by those not inclined not to use alternatives is madness that has a negative impact on the economy. It is far better to target the market that demands the better products that punish the market that is not interested in adopting these prematurely.

    • David Keefe on 03.28.2013 at 10:21 am

      The technology is more than here. Wind and solar are now viable, affordable technologies, and will only become more so with greater deployment.

      The electricity in my apartment is powered by 100% renewable clean energy via a program offered by Mass. Energy Consumers Alliance in partnership with National Grid, NSTAR, and others. For that we pay an extra $25 or so per month than we would running fossil fuel generated electricity. That’s a small fraction of my cell phone bill and chump change when you think about the good it does and the cost of other things you put your money towards.

      Germany, a country almost double the size of New England in area and far greater in population, has had days in the past year where they’ve met 1/3-1/2 of their electricity demand using only solar.

      Spain (double the area, triple the population of New England) met 26% of their electricity demand with wind power during the time period of Nov 2012-Feb 2013.

      Here is research from U. of Delaware demonstrating that we can meet or exceed demand of 1/5 of the US grid with 100% renewable energy 90-99.9% of the time at prices comparable to present if we optimize our fuel mix and storage:

      Here is research from Stanford U. demonstrating it would be technically and economically feasible for New York State to switch its all-purpose energy infrastructure to being powered by wind, water, and solar meeting the entirety the state’s power demand by 2030. Just read through the some of the highlights in the published research and article here:

      The only thing standing in the way (in the U.S.) is the fossil-fuel lobby and the politicians in bed with them ignoring the scientific reality of climate change, or those too scared for their re-election and campaign coffers to stand up for their constituents and stop huffing on the tailpipe that lines their pockets.

  • Douglas Zook on 03.28.2013 at 9:08 am

    The earth-advocacy work of Cutler Cleveland, Nathan Philips and others in the Boston University community as well as the current useful coverage by Boston University Today deserves much applause. However, alternative energy emergence will likely be limited as long as the accessibility of below-ground petroleum is so prominent. Large corporations use their excess profits to continue to reinvest in additional massive extraction. Thus, any talk of alternatives must be coupled with new, bold initiatives, such as the “keep the oil in the soil” efforts taking place in Ecuador. There the government with massive citizen support and in collaboration with the United Nations established a fund to receive monies that would be close to the equivalent of the annual fees they would receive from the major oil companies who are removing that “resource” from their land. Receipt of such funds from the world community will substitute for the dependency on the petroleum industry. If the movement of fossil fuels from below-surface sources continues unabated as it is presently is, the greenhouse gas release as well as biome destruction will extend so severely that alternative energy can become a moot point. The “keep the oil in the soil” policy in Ecuador has the extended benefit of preserving its vast rainforest regions, for much of the oil is under those ecosystems. Thus, preventing oil extraction allows also for continued sequestration of carbon by the vast vegetation of the rainforest. Allowing tropical rainforest demise for any reason, but particularly for fossil fuel extraction, is equivalent to humanity killing off its best friends. This Ecuador rainforest region has, incidentally, close connections to the Boston University community in that hundreds of students and many researchers here have benefitted and even had life-changing experiences and learning through the annual University-arranged visits to the Tiputini–Yasuni wilderness regions — the precise regions where petroleum companies seek to further extract. The idea of keeping petroleum inaccessible is not only reasonable but essential. If cocaine is readily accessible in any community, it is more likely to be used and often with dire consequences. The fossil fuel addiction is this plus many times more consequential. Even in the United States, fossil fuel extraction must be not be encouraged. The currently proposed keystone pipeline cutting through the country from Canada and related proposals will of course only foster more greenhouse gas emissions and a continuance of the addiction. A second similar global strategy is institutional and personal financial divestment from those large and powerful petroleum companies that foster continued climate-altering fossil fuel emissions. Alternative energy advocacy as discussed in this article must consistently be teamed with making fossil fuels inaccessible, much as if a killing plague would be halted by first isolating it and then securing it away from the biosphere.

    Douglas Zook, Global Ecology Education Program, SED

  • klem on 03.28.2013 at 12:04 pm

    Wow, that’s just great.

    Um, but I’m a citizen and I have a vote, and I do not want solar or wind anything. I want fossil fuels. I want coal, oil or gas derived electricity, I want lots of it and I want it as cheaply as possible. This is what I want, ok?

    I’m not interested in fruity solar or wind power, I want cheap power. That’s it. So you can sit around and talk all you want about the joys of solar and wind, you can praise one another and slap each other on the back for all your great ideas and work, I don’t care. Not one bit. The bottom line is this; I want cheap power and I will vote for the person who can deliver it to me.

    Chew on that.



    • victor on 01.25.2014 at 1:35 pm

      Ok, after reading all of this you still want cheap energy? Can’t you see in the future? if money is invested in wind and solar energy, it will become cheaper and cheaper, and after there is a good infrastructure of renewable sources, like wind, solar, and hydroelectric, it will become much much cheaper than extracting and burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels you need to extract and have it pass through a whole process before you can use it, and thats what makes it price augment. Wind energy for example, you need no refineries of extraction, you just build the wind turbine and it does all the work for you. Solar, instal the solar plant and it does all the work for you. Hydroelectric, the river flows without you moving a muscle. Therefore, if you now just a little bit about making project be cost beneficial, you should know much better that the renewables are much cheaper because there is no extraction of refinery involved.

  • Woodstone Lee on 03.28.2013 at 12:14 pm

    Not everywhere can have enough wind resources to generate stable electricity. Sunshine however is almost everywhere. So it seem solar energy is a preferred green alternative to current fossil fuel. However the production of solar panel can actually cause serious environmental pollution. The largest solar panel manufacturer in Wuxi, China recently announced its bankruptcy. Not sure if pollution solution failure is anything related to the fall of this manufacturer. But I just think it’s important how we weight the benefits and costs especially the environment costs around solar energy. How many solar panels used in the world are produced in China? How many in the states? And how long can a solar panel last being usable and how often do we need to keep the production with some sort of pollution there though I believe technology is advancing to reduce the pollution risk.

  • John David on 03.28.2013 at 2:00 pm

    Read “The Answer” by Reese Palley. About 2/3 of the book is about the impeding climate disaster. His “Answer” is “mini” nukes. These self-contained small reactors are said to be “inherently safe,” require almost no maintenance, and are modularly transportable; one design “the size of a boxcar.” They could replace diesel generators in many rural locations, or connect to existing grid where a coal plant is shut down. Babcock & Wilcox is building a demonstration unit. Apparently there is some federal R&D funding being spent to explore this concept and various design approaches. The main advantages over traditional giant nuclear plants would be rapid deployment, greatly reduced siting and environmental issues, low capital and operating costs. Some are designed to consume their fuel “completely,” reducing or eliminating waste. Also these designs do not produce plutonium. Given the resistance to large-scale land wind farms and the variability of solar (and the expanded grid service lines these require), small-scale nuclear generators could play an important role in helping to reduce our use of fossil fuels, except, perhaps, for transportation.

  • John David on 03.28.2013 at 2:15 pm

    Klem, above post at 12:04 today… you want cheap power? We all do. You don’t really care, I think, where it comes from. But using up the most available and cheapest power resources may just mean you don’t get to live in a world that provides what humans need: enough food, fresh water, clean air to breath, land and oceans that sustains life. Such a short-sighted and selfish perspective might just be suicide for the human race, while you happily enjoy your cheap power (until the lights go out).

  • Andrew Wolfe on 03.28.2013 at 6:36 pm

    I am still looking for a straight answer on why a bunch of incomplete measurements taken over a ridiculously short period gives us enough certainty to upend the world economy. Scientific certainty comes from reproducible controlled experimentation, not this stuff.

  • A mariner's tale of common sense on 03.29.2013 at 8:03 am

    Why does no one ever talk about planting more trees which serve a multiplicity of purposes not the least of which is absorbing carbon dioxide? It seems like people just want to force regulations on other people rather than having a real discussion about how we as humans can have less of an impact on our environment.

    The USA has been using fossil fuels since their inception and will continue to do so unabated until truly affordable alternatives are available.

    In the mean time trying to force people to do something they do not want to via higher taxes will only serve to slow economic growth.

    I am a mariner and despite the responses to what I have said if alternative renewable energy had really arrived we would be among the first to adopt it as the cost of fuel for a large power boat is exorbitant.

    We also like more range when at sea and again would be the first to adopt any renewal system that really worked. I cannot plug my boat into an outlet at sea to recharge the batteries like you can with a car and the size of the solar panels is too great to make these suitable for powering much more than small trolling motor.

    People currently have to cover the entire roof on their home with solar panels to generate enough electricity to substantially reduce their costs which exemplifies the square foot requires of these devices.

    Yes we have made “some” progress but we are not there yet.

    • joe blow on 08.10.2013 at 6:50 am

      I think they made boats and ships for thousans of years without using carbon. Called sailing vessels?

  • John lau on 04.19.2013 at 12:20 am

    New energy is only solution to solve the crisis in the future.BU have done sometings that help we to know more.I come from CHIAN and moane over the death of LU lingzi.We will rember you forever.

  • Hulsey Environmental on 05.31.2013 at 10:59 am

    Bio fuels from ethanol crops and bio fuel from recycled used cooking oil ought to be in two different categories under the pie chart.

  • M on 07.11.2013 at 9:42 am

    Awesome work by Prof. Cleveland and others! Really want to see all of this stuff take front-center stage, and would TOTALLY be behind higher taxes on carbon and fossil fuels – the freedom to choose to destroy the planet shouldn’t belong to anyone. We have such a short amount of time left to curb our emissions before we enter feedback loops (ie. melting of the permafrosts and release of all the methane they store) and things are taken out of our hands, and that will affect the whole of humanity, not just those selfish individuals who do not make an effort to change their ways.
    And it is so easy to make an effort! I just signed up to Energy plus’ green option for my electricity, and now have electricity from a 100% renewable source (wind power). Bills are less than they were before too :) http://www.energypluscompany.com/conservation/greenoption.php So glad these programs are becoming more mainstream, accessible and better priced.

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