Regeneration, Justice, and Renewal
The path to a climate-resilient future
We are privileged. Never in history has civilization been blessed with so much abundant energy. Until fossil fuels, energy was provided by fire, animals, and enslaved people. China destroyed most of its ancient forests thousands of years ago. Three-quarters of the world was enslaved in some manner in the 17th century, a perverse and barbaric form of "energy." The way we measure the value of energy is by how much work it can do—in British thermal units, calories, or joules. If you calculate the amount of work a barrel of oil can do compared with a human being, each of us, even in poorer households, has one or more fossil fuel "servants" at hand. The average Indian household has five, and the average American 400. A warm house, the instantaneous action of a clothes dryer, the quick hop to the store in your car—we rarely calculate the time and personal energy required to do these tasks absent our carbon servants.
Although we are fortunate to have abundant supplies of energy, carbon-based energy creates massive amounts of pollution. And not merely pollution, but poison that destroys life. Fossil fuels are toxic to air, lakes, oceans, soil, plants, people, and animals. They create smog, distribute particulate matter into the air, and cause lung and respiratory disease. Coal and oil contain benzenes, mercury, cadmium, lead, methane, sulfides, pentanes, butanes, and dozens more toxins. In addition, most of the energy we use, whether it be coal, gas, or oil, is wasted, meaning the energy does no useful work. Energy, in its thermal or electrical form, powers systems that are badly designed and poorly engineered, including our buildings, cars, and factories. According to the National Academy of Engineering, the United States is approximately 2 percent efficient, which means that for every 100 units of energy employed, we accomplish two units of work.
With the discovery of abundant deposits of coal, gas, and oil in the 18th and 19th centuries, society turned away from animals, trees, and charcoal. Fossil fuels are convenient, concentrated, and inexpensive. They consist of dead plants and organisms produced by ancient sunshine in coal swamps, marine deposits, forest bogs, tar sands, and shales, some deposits dating back 650 million years. Coal, gas, and oil constitute 84 percent of our primary global energy use today.
The climate crisis has been caused by hundreds of millions of years of carbon captured by plants, trees, and marine phytoplankton being released back into the atmosphere in a geologic fraction of a second. Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels total 35 billion tons per year. The goal is to reduce that number to 11 billion tons by 2030. This is a momentous turning point in civilization.
GLOBAL WARMING will not be stopped and reversed without ending the use of fossil fuels. The combustion of coal, gas, and oil creates 82 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. To reduce fossil fuel emissions by 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels, as recommended by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is monumental in scope. To substantially reduce carbon emissions, we need to divide the subject of energy into three categories: source, usage, and application. Where does energy come from? What is it used for? And how do we make use of it?
Thomas Edison built the world's first coal-burning electric plant, on Pearl Street in New York City, in 1882. To serve its customers, the power plant created the first electrical grid—wires strung on poles—and was illuminating 10,000 lamps for 506 customers within two years. His electrical power plant was highly profitable, and more were soon built across America by both Edison and Westinghouse. As the power plants got larger, so did the grid. On-demand electricity revolutionized business, industry, homes, and cities, regardless of whether the electrical generating plants were powered by coal, gas, hydro, oil, or, starting in the 1950s, nuclear. Electric and gas utilities were closed systems, publicly sanctioned monopolies. Access to the grid was tightly controlled, which prohibited decentralized renewable power generation from wind and solar.
In 1976, an obscure and forgotten act of defiance changed the utility world. It took place on a rooftop two miles north of the original Pearl Street plant. A group of renewable energy activists and architecture students, including solar pioneer Travis Price, were restoring an abandoned, fire-damaged apartment block on the blighted and dangerous East Eleventh Street, an area known as Strippers Row, where thieves dismantled parked cars at night and sold the parts during the day. A wind turbine student from Hampshire College named Ted Finch joined what would become known as the Eleventh Street Energy Task Force. He had studied wind power under Professor Bill Heronemus, a former US Navy captain and visionary civil engineer, who coined the term "wind farm," the idea that an array of wind turbines situated close together could act as a single power plant for the grid. Having predicted and witnessed the energy crisis of 1973, Finch proposed the first offshore wind farm, a 13,695-turbine installation off the coast of Massachusetts. It was dismissed as wildly unrealistic and absurdly expensive (which it was, at that time).
In New York, Finch was impressed by the gusty winds that came off the Hudson River. It was 1974, one year after the worldwide oil crisis that saw energy prices quadruple. Like many people, the Energy Task Force was looking for ways to greatly reduce residential energy use, particularly because the local utility, Con Edison, had the highest electricity rates in the country. Finch proposed putting a wind turbine on the roof to directly generate power for their building. They approached Con Edison for permission, but the utility was appalled by the idea, saying it was illegal and dangerous and would likely destroy its equipment. Finch could have ignored Con Edison and let wind power the building independently, but his goal was to force utilities to open up the grid to local renewable energy generation. Con Edison told him he must first file the proper paperwork. However, there was no one at the utility who could tell him what the paperwork was, if the paperwork existed, or who could provide it if it did exist. The Eleventh Street Energy Task Force went ahead without permission.
Finch built a 37-foot steel tubing tower, but he had no crane or hoist to lift it upright. Thirty-five friends and neighbors assembled and slowly pulled the tower up from four directions using ropes attached to the top. Once it was standing, the structure then had to be placed directly onto the anchor bolts. It was an act of faith, especially on a windy day. If the tower had toppled, the potential damage to people and property would have been untold. A used, 12-foot-diameter Jacobs wind turbine that Finch resurrected from a Midwest farm was finally installed. After the group converted the direct current to alternating current, the turbine was turned on, the rotors spun, and 2,000 watts of electricity flowed into the grid. For the Energy Task Force, who'd had their power turned off by Con Edison for late payments, watching the event was joyous. No one had ever seen a utility meter run backward.
As Finch well knew, Con Edison's fears and warnings were meaningless; nothing happened to the grid. Though its towering power plant was two blocks away, the utility did not know about East Eleventh Street for a week, until utility executives read a story in the New York Daily News. A front-page photograph showed the operating wind turbine, with the Con Edison plant in the background. The utility sued. More news stories appeared, and it became a cause célèbre. Ramsey Clark, the former attorney general for the United States, showed up at Eleventh Street and said it was as important a civil rights case as voting, and he offered to defend the group for free. Public sentiment turned against the utility, and Con Edison eventually conceded that people had the right to produce their own power and sell it back to the grid. Utilities, technically, no longer had a monopoly. This was followed by federal legislation that encouraged renewable energy producers and made it mandatory for utilities to purchase and distribute their power. Today, the Empire State Building and its related buildings are powered entirely by wind.
There was a deeper takeaway from this change. When utility companies were first created around the country, they started out and then remained vertical monopolies; this included their transmission lines. Electricity generated in one area was captive and could not be shared. If an adjoining region was experiencing brownouts or power outages, and the neighboring utility had a surplus of energy, that was tough luck. Utilities had to be coaxed and even mandated to open up their electric transmission lines to other power suppliers. Once transmission lines were connected across the country, the best sources of wind energy, which are predominantly in the Midwest, from North Dakota to Texas, could be sold to the biggest markets, which are primarily on the East Coast.
When the Eleventh Street wind turbine went up, energy from the most productive wind turbines cost 20 times more than energy generated by coal, gas, or nuclear. Today, wind power (along with solar) is the least expensive form of newly installed electrical generation in the world. Coupled with solar energy generation, storage, and transmission, wind can completely replace fossil fuels before 2050. To achieve 100 percent renewable electricity production by 2050, assuming 50 percent wind and 50 percent solar, wind turbine power production would need to quadruple by 2030, double again by 2040, and increase by another 80 percent by 2050.
Henrik Stiesdal, who is called the "godfather of wind," wants to make offshore wind as practical and affordable as onshore. "I had some bad moments thinking about climate," he recounts. "The politicians will not solve it. We need to solve it ourselves."
Stiesdal's legacy is impressive. He began experimenting with model turbines in high school, during the 1970s. He was making turbines in his family's rural home, with each successive prototype becoming larger and more effective. When the turbines reached the size of usefulness for a residence, an executive from a local agricultural equipment manufacturer called Vestas dropped by and was impressed. A licensing agreement was signed for his prototypes, which used the same three-blade configuration found on every major wind turbine to this day. Today, Vestas is the largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world, with $13 billion in sales and factories in 12 countries. More than 70,000 of its wind turbines have been installed in 81 countries.
Stiesdal has designed a floating foundation that can be industrially manufactured and repeat the economies of scale achieved by Vestas for onshore wind. Skeptics doubt that costs will drop low enough or subsidies will be high enough to support deepwater wind turbines. But for Stiesdal, the question is not, How can we afford it? The question is, How can we afford not to?
WHEN PACIFIC GAS & ELECTRIC cut power to customers in Northern California during the fall of 2019 to reduce the risk of sparking a wildfire, it plunged 2 million people into darkness. The lights stayed on, however, for the members of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe, located near Eureka. The tribe's casino hotel was able to provide rooms for critically ill patients from facilities that had lost electricity. The gas station and store were among the few businesses to stay open. Ultimately, the tribe helped more than 10,000 people during the crisis, roughly 8 percent of Humboldt County's population. Why did the lights stay on? The tribe had built its own power grid.
The Blue Lake story starts with a massive earthquake near Japan in March 2011. The resulting tsunami crossed the ocean and flooded the California coast near Eureka, forcing many residents to take refuge at the tribe's resort. Realizing afterward how vulnerable they were to a power blackout, tribal leaders decided to build a state-of-the-art microgrid on the reservation with financial support from the state. A microgrid is an assembly of storage batteries, distribution lines, and power sources, including wind, hydro, geothermal, and solar. Although usually connected to the regional grid of electricity transmission, microgrids are run as an independent utility. If power is cut on the big grid, they become "islands" that can supply electricity on their own. To increase self-sufficiency, the Blue Lake Tribe partnered with a German firm to install smart software that integrated weather forecasting with projected electricity demand, creating a sense of certainty in uncertain times.
The advantage of microgrids was reinforced in the fall of 2012 when Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast, knocking out power to more than 8 million people. Lights stayed on where microgrids operated, including the Food and Drug Administration's White Oak research station and parts of New York University's campus. Princeton University's cogeneration microgrid provided electricity to 4,000 apartments, three shopping centers, and six schools for two days after the storm struck. Globally, nearly 800 million people lack access to electricity, more than 60 percent of them in rural areas. Around 14 percent of households on Native American reservations lack electricity, largely as a result of their remote locations. That's one reason why microgrids are now being planned on tribal lands in Oklahoma, Alaska, Wisconsin, and California. In Nigeria, 77 million people—roughly 40 percent of the total population—do not have reliable electricity. The situation is particularly acute in Nigerian agriculture. Electricity is essential to farm activity, including milling grains, refrigeration, and pumping water for irrigation. Traditionally, power has been provided by diesel machinery. However, fuel costs can exceed annual incomes. Microgrids and solar home systems have the potential to change these dynamics significantly by reducing costs to farmers and boosting productivity, while improving human well-being.
Microgrids are not a new idea. The first operational one was created by Thomas Edison in 1882 at his Pearl Street power plant in Manhattan. Before centralized grids were established, small microgrids served cities, providing energy to hospitals, universities, schools, and prisons. These microgrids mostly relied on fossil-fuel-generated heat and power systems, including steam. Today, microgrids are getting another look as risks to conventional grids rise under stresses caused by weather events amplified by climate change. According to the World Bank, 55 percent of US power outages between 2000 and 2017 and over a third of Europe's outages were caused by extreme weather events. In addition to their reliability, microgrids are more efficient than centralized grids. US grids lose 6 percent of generated energy as it travels over high-voltage transmission lines. Grids in India lose up to 19 percent.
As states, cities, and companies set carbon emissions reduction and elimination goals, microgrids are increasingly seen as a way to deliver renewable energy to customers. Microgrids now often source their energy from solar panels or wind turbines, which have fallen dramatically in price and are being used for a wide variety of climate-friendly electrical purposes, including vehicle charging stations in cities. In 2018, Illinois regulators approved Commonwealth Edison's microgrid cluster plan for Chicago, one of the first in the nation designed to integrate microgrids with renewable energy resources.
The US Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of petroleum in the world. To counter this oil dependency, the department has begun shifting from diesel generators to electricity produced by on-base microgrid utilities powered by renewable energy, including large institutions such as the navy base in San Diego. Switching to a microgrid system at the Marine Corps Depot on Parris Island, South Carolina, is expected to save $6.9 million in utility costs each year as it reduces by three-quarters the amount of energy the depot uses from the main grid.
New technology has also inspired novel concepts. In Bangladesh, 4 million households in rural communities have bypassed the conventional options for electrification by installing solar home systems instead—among the highest total in the world. However, these systems have limited capacity and remain prohibitively expensive for large sections of the population. Enter a technology called swarm electrification. In Shakimali Matborkandi, a village south of the capital, Dhaka, a microgrid corporation called SOLshare has installed a peer-to-peer sharing grid that employs the company's smart electrical meter, which allows owners of solar systems to buy and sell electricity directly from other community members. This technology is called "swarm" because it scales up easily and quickly. Individual households link together first, and as the total grows, they are collectively able to take on more electrical tasks. Households that cannot afford a solar system can still participate by installing a SOLshare electrical meter and then buying electricity from their neighbors.
This type of microgrid has an extra climate benefit. By connecting solar home systems together, SOLshare unlocks up to a third more solar energy. Usually, any electricity generated by a solar home system that is not immediately used is lost. When a community is linked together, with some producing excess energy and others consuming it, the community can more fully take advantage of its solar panels. SOLshare estimates that its systems across Bangladesh collectively reduce 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. It also increases resiliency. If one household's solar home system stops functioning, that household can continue to purchase electricity from peers.
By tapping nearly unlimited quantities of renewable energy from nearby sources and redistributing it locally, microgrids can empower communities to be self-sufficient and resilient to climate extremes while reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the same time.
THE AGENT WHO can head off the climate crisis is reading this sentence. Logically, this seems like nonsense—surely individuals are powerless to counter the global drivers and momentum of global warming. That's a fair conclusion if we assume that yesterday's institutions should or will do it for us. There is a debate as to whether individual behavior or government policy is the key to solving the climate crisis. There shouldn't be. We need the involvement of every sector of society, top to bottom, and everything between.
Worried that you are not an expert? Almost no one is. But we understand enough. We know how greenhouse gases function and warm the planet; we are seeing greater climate volatility and extreme weather. We want a stable climate, security, pure water, clean air, and an enduring future we can become ancestors to. Cultures, families, communities, lands, professions, and skills vary with every person. The situations we find ourselves in differ. Who better to know what to do at this time, in this place, with your knowledge, than you?
Nevertheless, solving the climate crisis is an unnatural act, one that human beings are ill-equipped to do. Our minds just don't work that way. The idea of a future existential threat is abstract and conceptual. War metaphors about fighting, battling, and combating climate change don't connect either. Who wakes up in the morning excited about mitigating or getting to "net zero" in 30 years? Most people ignore climate headlines, and for good reason. The overwhelming majority focus on current dilemmas, not distant ones, obstacles that impact one's life now, not in 2050.
On the other hand, humans are notably brilliant at joining together to solve problems. Give us immediate threats like an impending cyclone, flood, or hurricane, and we are all over it. If we are going to engage the bulk of humanity to end the climate crisis, the way to do it is counterintuitive: To reverse global warming, we need to address current human needs, not an imagined dystopian future.
If we want to get the attention of humanity, humanity needs to feel it is getting attention. If we are going to save the world from the threat of global warming, we need to create a world worth saving. If we are not serving our children, the poor, and the excluded, we are not addressing the climate crisis. If fundamental human rights and material needs are not met, efforts to stem the crisis will fail. If there are not timely and cumulative benefits for an individual or family, they will focus elsewhere. The needs of people and living systems are often presented as conflicting priorities—biodiversity versus poverty, or forests versus hunger—when in fact the destinies of human society and the natural world are inseparably intertwined, if not identical.
Social justice is not a sideshow to the emergency. Injustice is the cause. Giving every young child an education; providing renewable energy to all; erasing food waste and hunger; ensuring gender equity, economic justice, and shared opportunity; recognizing our responsibility and making amends to myriad communities of the world for past injustices—these and more are at the very heart of what can turn the tide for all of humanity, rich and poor, and everyone between. Reversing the climate crisis is an outcome. Regenerating human health, security and well-being, the living world, and justice is the purpose.
From Regeneration, edited by Paul Hawken, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Paul Hawken. For more information on Paul Hawken's Regeneration project, click here.
This article was funded by the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.
This article appeared in the Fall quarterly edition with the headline "Regeneration, Justice, and Renewal."