Award-winning economist addresses energy crisis

Today from the Contra Costa Times, reporter HEATHER HACKING

The world is poised for the third industrial revolution, said economist Woodrow Clark, a keynote speaker at Butte College’s third annual Sustainability Conference, which continues today. woody-clark-214x300

Clark was among members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

That effort, which included members from 130 countries, created greater understanding of man-made climate change and shared information about what remedies are needed.

Before the report to the United Nations, there was not consensus that climate change was due to human activity, and the United States (then under the Clinton Administration) provided the most vocal opposition to that idea.

With the report and stronger consensus among leaders across the globe, those protests have waned.

The second industrial revolution relied on fossil fuels and has lasted 100 years, Clark said during an afternoon presentation.

The third industrial revolution will involve renewable resources and “leveraging resources in a way that doesn’t keep violating our environment,” he said.

“We live in a world where what we do here impacts other parts of the world,” and vice versa, he said.

And the way that developed countries use resources is affecting the world climate.

But things can change.

He used the example of Mongolia. The area is rich in coal, a resource used throughout the world for energy production. Clark said that current discussions are about “clean coal,” which he said is an oxymoron.
Mongolia is intriguing because the area does not need to transition from coal to fossil fuels, he said.

Mongolia, with natural resources including wind, geothermal and sun, has the opportunity to leap-frog past the fossil fuel era and go right into what Clark envisions as the third industrial revolution.

He cited Germany, which most Americans do not realize is the leader in solar energy.

The country is cold and rainy, but the nation’s willpower to use solar has put it at the top of the solar list.

He said the rest of the world should not wait to shift over to renewable resources merely because existing energy sources are cheaper right now.

The hybrid car is nothing new, Clark continued. However, as the use of automobiles grew there was a decision that fossil fuels would be the route taken.

“We have now reached the peak of oil and gas” supplies, Clark said, showing charts of current dwindling supplies.

Some people argue that nuclear power generation is the next step, but there, too, known supplies are dwindling. Clark’s slides stated that uranium supplies would only last another 61 years.

The current state of resources “allows us to all have a paradigm change,” he continued.

Recent history has shown us that supply-side economics does not work, Clark said. If it did, the current economic recession would not have hit world leaders by surprise.

Another recent economic disaster was California’s energy reform, which was, in theory, to increase competition and lower prices. Instead, profits for energy suppliers skyrocketed, Clark noted.

He lauded the community colleges, including Butte, that have invested in renewable energy and have not waited for the rest of the world to lead the way.

Businesses, such as the car industry, have failed to capitalize on new innovations. As an example, Clark pointed to technology used in the Toyota Prius. The car has a regenerative braking system, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy, which allows the battery to be recharged through the vehicle’s braking system.

The U.S. auto industry was given first right of refusal on the technology, he said.

Now, Japan is selling the Prius to consumers in the United States.

“We have to stop this,” he said.

He predicted China will soon become the biggest producer of electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Clark also said that the current energy grid system, with central production and mass distribution, should become history.

For renewable energy, different technologies should not be isolated, but can be considered as a whole, he said. Each building can be considered for how it can be self-sustaining — solar panels on roofs, wind generators along freeways.

Other options, not yet fully developed, could include anaerobic digesters that create fuel from waste products.

He also said in California, water districts could be working with the energy sector on how to move water while generating power.

Clark also criticized the state government leadership. Four years ago, the state had Proposition 98 on the ballot, which narrowly failed in a state vote. The measure would have taxed oil and gasoline in ways similar to what is done in Texas and Oklahoma.

If that had been done, the state would have an estimated $4 billion to $6 billion in tax revenue, he said.

Instead, the state is now bankrupt, Clark continued. “Chevron funded the opposition.”

He also was critical of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s actions to lower automobile licensing fees, which would have generated billions in revenue.

For a national approach to a new energy path, Clark said he would like to see the president create a new department of sustainability. This would take an overall look at things such as energy, agriculture, transportation, defense, economics and the environment, so that these issues do not overlap, and all have a sustainable goal.

Clark’s book “Qualitative Economics: Toward a Science of Economics,” was published in 2008. His next work “Sustainable Communities” will be published in November.