L. Hunter Lovins knows we can go 100% renewable. Here's what it will take.


California State Senator Kevin de Leon has to be pleased: After a summer of wildfires ravaging his state, he finally got his proposal to power California with 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 through the legislature and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. Brown also issued an executive order to take the state carbon neutral over the same time frame. Great optics for the state hosting the Global Climate Action Summit, which brought scientists, government officials and activists together to lay the plan for implementing similar programs around the world.

But is it really possible to go 100 percent renewable? Yes.

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Transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy is smart economics. As University of California, Berkeley professor Dan Kammen puts it: Green energy is gold for California, and for the U.S. Kammen is one of the world’s experts on the job creation potential of renewable energy, having previously shown that a dollar spent on renewables generates 10 times the number of jobs than money spent on fossil or nuclear power.

“A dollar spent on renewables generates 10 times the number of jobs than money spent on fossil or nuclear power.”

Another Californian argues that going 100 percent renewable is not only entirely possible, it is inevitable. Stanford University Professor Tony Seba describes how the convergence of disruptive technologies and business models will make the world renewable by 2030 in his book, “Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation.” Four factors will drive this change, Seba says: the fall in the cost of renewable energy, the fall in the cost of energy storage (batteries), the rise of the electric vehicle and the advent of the autonomous electric vehicle (AEV).

“Another Californian argues that going 100 percent renewable is not only entirely possible, it is inevitable.”

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The business model of delivering renewable-powered, electric vehicle transit as a service will be 10 times cheaper, he says, than paying to buy, fuel, maintain and insure a private internal combustion car. This shift to autonomous electric vehicles will move us to a completely renewable energy system.

He reminds doubters that experts totally underestimated sales of mobile phones. In the 1990s, McKinsey told AT&T Inc. to expect 900,000 mobile subscribers by the year 2000. They were off by 108 million. By 2014, there were more mobile phones than the 7 billion people on earth, and they were increasing five times faster than the human population. As Bill Gates put it, "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.”

But, really? Can the whole world be renewable in a little over a decade?

Here’s what I’ve been following:

A new solar array goes up in the U.S. every 2 1/2 minutes. And when the Kentucky Coal Museum puts solar on its roof rather than plugging into the coal-fired electric grid at its doorstep, you know that the fossil era is over.

In 2017, China announced that it had already eclipsed its 2020 goal in solar installations. The country adds 45 gigawatts of solar every year (more than the entire installed solar capacity of Germany).

Why? Because, nearly everywhere, renewables are now cheaper to build than fossil energy, and their fuel is free ever after. In fall 2017, Saudi Arabia announced a world record low price for solar in an auction bid at 1.79 cents per kilowatt-hour. Just running a natural gas plant costs more than that.

“Nearly everywhere, renewables are now cheaper to build than fossil energy, and their fuel is free.”

OK, it looks like Seba is right on his first point: We can run our society on solar energy.

But what if the sun isn’t shining, or the wind isn’t blowing?

Storage technology (batteries) can make renewable energy available 24/7. This industry is only in its infancy, but its prices are falling, too.

In late 2017, the coal-dependent Xcel Energy, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based utility holding company, released the numbers from its request for bids to supply energy for its utility customers. Thousands of megawatts of wind, solar and battery storage were offered at prices far below competing fossil options. When you combine renewables with battery storage (or other cool options, such as compressed air energy storage and Redox flow batteries) you get fixed, firm, 24-hour power — just like with a coal plant but without the pollution.

When the Aliso Canyon natural gas well blew out, spewing 100,000 metric tons of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, the local utility feared it would be unable to keep the lights on in Southern California. In record time, Tesla and others brought more than 70 MW of energy storage online for less than it would have cost to build a new gas peaking plant — plants that run only when energy is in high demand — and vastly faster. Tesla’s audacious CEO, Elon Musk, immediately promised that he could build an even larger, 100 MW battery in South Australia, even faster to prevent their electric grid from crashing.

Tesla. Little Tesla. It sells 300 times fewer cars than General Motors, but it is challenging them for market capitalization. How can that be? What business is Tesla in? Are they a car company? No, they’re a battery company. And more, a diversified energy company. And this is very bad news for fossil competitors.

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“What business is Tesla in? Are they a car company? No, they’re a battery company.”

The Financial Times reported that Fitch Ratings, a big three credit rating agency, warns: “Widespread adoption of battery-powered vehicles is a serious threat to the oil industry,” noting that transport accounted for 55 percent of total oil use in 2014. In the U.S., transportation accounted for 71 percent of oil use, according to 2016 figures from the Energy Information Administration.

Two for two for Seba. And it’s going to get worse. Or better, if you favor a habitable Earth.

In September 2017, China announced it was going to phase out internal combustion vehicles. China represents a quarter of the world’s car market. India, France, the U.K., and Norway have made similar announcements – it is an existential crisis for both the oil and car industries.

General Motors, which reclaimed its status as the world’s biggest car manufacturer on the strength of its Bolt electric car, announced that its future is electric. Meanwhile, Daimler, Volkswagen and Volvo have committed to electrifying their product portfolios.

In November, Musk released an all-electric, long-haul truck, and China announced the launch of the world’s first all-electric cargo ship.

Hmm, that makes us three for three on Seba’s predictions. But in his scenario, it’s the autonomous electric vehicle that drives the real reduction in cost that he claims will make the disruption inevitable.

Are AEVs more than just science fiction? To get the straight story, I talked to Tom Chi, one of the designers of the self-driving Google car, and the head of Product Experience at Google X.

“Within 10 years?” Tom mused, “Easy.” Tesla, he said, released its driverless vehicle when it was as safe as a human-driven car. Remember, hundreds of thousands of people die every year in car crashes. Teslas have driven more than 5 billion miles in autonomous mode, en route to the company’s 10-billion-mile safety proof point. In fact, all Teslas are now capable of full autonomous mode. The Google car has driven 4 million real miles and an additional 2.5 billion simulated miles. GM just announced that it is pivoting its business model to offer driverless vehicle transit as a service by 2019.

Does that make it four for four? Is Seba right? You decide.

But realize that if the evidence laid out here is true, it has profound implications for, well, everything. It will mean the dissolution in value — and likely complete loss — of the oil, gas, coal, uranium, nuclear, utility and auto industries, the banks that hold the loan paper for all of these companies, and the pension funds and insurance companies that are invested in them.

It will mean an economic collapse within about 10 years on a scale we have never seen before.

Consider coal and oil. In 2011, Carbon Tracker calculated that at least 80 percent of the fossil deposits still in the ground would have to stay in the ground if the world is to avoid warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Given that those fossil assets are on the balance sheets of some of the world’s wealthiest companies and form the basis of the sovereign wealth funds of many nations around the world, John Fullerton of the Capital Institute predicts that stranding the fossil industries implies a write-off of at least $20 trillion dollars. In contrast, Fullerton warns, the 2008 financial collapse was triggered by the stranding of only $2.7 trillion in mortgage assets.

What can you do?

First, you might want to pay attention to what your money is doing. If you own stock in fossil fuels, you own climate change. You also own an industry that will be disrupted. Bevis Longstreth, former Securities and Exchange Commissioner, observed: “It is entirely plausible, even predictable, that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence.”

“Pay attention to what your money is doing. If you own stock in fossil fuels, you own climate change.”

Even without controls on carbon, a backtested analysis of fossil investments by the New York Common Retirement Fund, the third largest pension fund in the U.S., found that the fund “lost” $17.5 billion over 10 years for failing to divest from fossil fuel companies.

This endangers the banks, as well. Bloomberg News reports that a quarter of all corporate debt, perhaps as much as $3.4 trillion, is related to utility and car company bonds that are tied to fossil fuel use.

Change Finance is one of a variety of companies that offers an exchange traded fund on the New York Stock Exchange that is truly fossil fuel-free. Its goal is to track the S&P 500 Index, while enabling investors to drive social and environmental justice through investment. The investment thesis of such companies is that fossil-free products will outperform traditional investments, because companies that take these values seriously tend to pay more attention to all aspects of management and are less likely to have the risks associated with climate change or bad behavior. For the price of a pizza, the exchange-traded fund allows anyone to divest from fossil ownership.

Where does your energy come from? Are you dependent on an industry that is at risk? Make your home as efficient as you can afford. Then, consider switching your energy source to the power of the future. Millions of people, communities and cities are going 100 percent renewable. Currently, though most solar systems feed renewable energy into the grid, they cannot stand alone in a disaster. This is just bad design. My ranch is powered by solar. Excess power is stored in batteries in my garage and in the battery in my electric Leaf. When the power goes out, we party on.

“My ranch is powered by solar. Excess power is stored in batteries in my garage and in the battery in my electric Leaf. When the power goes out, we party on.”

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Is your job at risk? Companies will either become part of the solution, or they won’t be a problem because they won’t be around. Emerging industries are creating millions of jobs, but millions are at risk. Talk to your boss, and ask if your company has a plan to become part of the transition. It will cut your costs and improve your bottom line.

Throughout your life there are opportunities to choose a more renewable future.

We have the technologies to solve the worst of the crises facing us and to buy the time to deal with the rest. The crises we face and the inevitability of change means that we will also have the opportunity to reinvent everything. In many ways that is incredibly exciting; it will also be an immense management challenge.

To guide this transition, four of us have just released a book: “A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life” that details how to build a world that works for everyone.

When rabbits are threatened, they freeze. When humans are threatened, we entrepreneur: We create the solutions we need. As wildfires sweep through our cities and hurricanes batter our coasts, we can wring our hands and whimper.

Or we can get to work and build that finer future.

L. Hunter Lovins, Time magazine’s “Millennium Hero for the Planet,” is a business professor, the president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, and a co-author of the best-selling book, “Natural Capitalism.”

Her newest book, "A Finer Future," is aimed at business leaders, entrepreneurs, activists and anyone who cares about the future of the planet. Rich with stories of communities implementing solutions, it describes the exciting news in the work to transform finance, business, energy agriculture and many other areas of our society to create an economy that works for every one of us.

Learn more: ourfinerfuture.com

Follow: @hlovins

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This essay appeared in The Regeneration Issue No.4. Like what you read? Support us and order a single issue or purchase a subscription.