Out With the Old, in With the New

A positive outlook on life after oil.

 For anyone interested in alternative energy and curbing global climate change, these are exciting times. President Obama campaigned on ambitious proposals to invest $150 billion over the next 10 years in clean-energy jobs, to put a million plug-in hybrid cars on the road by 2015, to implement a cap-and-trade program on greenhouse gases, and to increase our renewable electricity portfolio to 25 percent by 2015.

But is it ambitious enough? As the euphoria over Obama’s election began to wear off, environmentalist Bill McKibben sounded a grim note into the blogosphere: Citing NASA scientist James Hansen, he reminded readers that if we want to maintain a planet “to which life on Earth is adapted,” we’re going to have to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 385 parts per million to 350 parts per million—and fast.

This task, according to McKibben, “might well wreck [Obama’s] political future.” And the job becomes more complicated every day, as the global financial crisis deepens.

Peak oil fatalists will insist that it’s probably too late anyway to make a graceful transition to a post-oil economy, since any alternative (such as photovoltaic cells or wind turbines) will require an ocean of petroleum to fabricate and bring online.

But whether graceful or cataclysmic, the transition has begun, and most of the dozens of scientists, environmentalists, policy analysts and green-energy entrepreneurs we spoke to for this article are optimistic about the future.

We asked the experts a deceptively simple question: What technologies, programs or policies in place today would make the biggest difference for post-oil energy and global climate change if they were adopted on a wider scale? In other words, if our country invests $15 billion a year in clean energy for the next decade, where will we get the most bang for the buck?

Rather than a list of green gadgets or alternative fuels, the answers include a set of loose principles that can see us at least through the end of oil and into a post-fossil fuels society. Simply put, the premises of this new energy doctrine are efficiency, decentralization and integration.

All in all, that’s good news, because while cash and ingenuity will be required—and a lot of both—the foundations and models for this paradigm are already in place. What follows are six practical steps we can take as a nation to usher in the new era.

Get Weatherized

It probably won’t show up in a glossy photo spread in Dwell magazine, but merely increasing the energy efficiency of the country’s existing housing stock is probably the easiest, most cost-effective and job-intensive step we can take. Basic weatherization, tightening windows and doors, insulating attics and basements, is both inexpensive and remarkably effective.

“It’s the lowest hanging fruit we have,” says David Johnston, a leading green builder, founder of the Boulder, Colo.–based organization What’s Working, and author of Green from the Ground Up: Sustainable, Healthy and Energy-Efficient Home Construction.

According to Johnston, an older home exchanges indoor air with the outside a couple of times per hour, a rate that can be improved dramatically with very little cash outlay. “I can take almost any house in America and reduce its load by 50 percent without spending a ton of money,” he says. “It’s not sexy, but it works.”

Moreover, many of the homes most in need of retrofitting are situated in low-income and working-class neighborhoods where jobs are in short supply and where energy savings of 30 to 50 percent would make a significant difference in household budgets.

A patchwork of local, state and nonprofit programs provide weatherization for low-income families, sometimes combined with a job training mission. The U.S. Department of Energy funds these efforts through the Weatherization Assistance Program, a federal block grant program created in 1976 that has improved the heating and cooling efficiency of more than 6 million homes.

In Minnesota, for example, about 3,000 families have received assistance through the program. According to national research by financial consultants Fisher, Sheehan & Colton, there are now more than 60,000 Minnesota families with incomes below 50 percent of the federal poverty level, qualifying them for the program. These families pay approximately 60 percent of their available income for home energy costs.

“It’s important for those families that weatherization can achieve energy savings of over 33 percent, especially for the highest energy burden households,” says Marilou Cheple, direct programs supervisor for the Minnesota Office of Energy Security.

“We take a whole house systems approach with each home and carefully look at furnace efficiency, wall and attic insulation needs and indoor air quality,” Cheple explains.

Minnesota uses a DOE-designed software program that generates cost-effective conservation measures for each unit served by the weatherization program. The Minnesota version of the software has become a model for other states and has received national awards.

 Nationally, the DOE calculates that every dollar invested in weatherization returns more than $2.72 in benefits, including reduced heating costs, pollution control, job growth and so on. In spite of this return on investment, the Office of Management and Budget decreased the national funding for the WAP by 15 percent in 2007. And, while funding increased by 11 percent in 2008, the Bush administration cut the program’s funding entirely for next year.

Discussions within the Obama transition team indicate that the WAP will be an integral part of his stimulus package and larger energy alternatives program. Given the renewed national interest in weatherization—and the obvious payoffs in terms of jobs, energy savings and cost savings—it seems this program could expand even further, both by income guidelines and into commercial properties.

Johnston imagines a nationwide effort on the scale of the victory gardens of World War II. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt helped launch the civic movement to plant victory gardens to ease demands on our war-time food supply. By the end of the war, around 40 percent of the country’s produce was homegrown. Johnston pictures neighborhood associations and block clubs taking on home energy savings with the same zeal. “That’s the initiative and scale that’s necessary.”

Illustrations: Subhas Rai

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Invest Wisely

America’s leading voices in energy and the environment share their thoughts on where the “green greenbacks” should—and shouldn’t—go.

Bill McKibben, writer, environmentalist and author
“Home insulation: It’s cheap, it’s quick, it creates jobs (you’re not going to send your house to China to get it done), and it not only saves carbon, it also saves folks money right away—and winter after winter.”

Jeff Goodell, contributing editor, Rolling Stone and author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America’s Energy Future
“In a world that takes global warming seriously, coal is public enemy No. 1. If the industry can figure out a way to burn coal without melting the planet, great. But if not, it’s time to say goodbye to coal.”

Ann Vileisis, author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get It Back“Regional food systems based on sustainable farming practices would bring excellent benefits: Energy savings, reduced carbon emissions, more jobs and better food.”

Alex Steffen, co-founder and executive editor of Worldchanging
“I’m a huge fan of renewable energy, smart grids, clean tech, green building and sustainable design, but without a fundamental shift in our land-use patterns away from sprawl and toward bright green cities, none of these other strategies will be enough.”

Lester Brown, president, Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
“The key to further growth in investments in renewable energy and efficiency is incorporating the cost of climate change in the price of fossil fuels. One way to do this is to simply restructure taxes, lower income taxes and offset this with a tax on carbon to reflect the cost of climate change in a way that does not raise taxes.”

David Roberts, staff writer, Grist
“The federal government is one of the biggest consumers in the world, with enormous vehicle fleets and a vast array of buildings. It should immediately pledge to purchase only fuel-efficient cars and trucks, to renovate all its buildings to increase energy efficiency, and to bias all its procurements heavily in favor of low-carbon alternatives. This would create guaranteed markets for clean technology and reduce the government’s own footprint.”