Archive for July, 2008

Global warming and nuclear proliferation are two of the biggest problems of our day. The efforts to solve both of them, though, continue to be hampered by stubborn adherence to an outdated worldview, in which the West is dominant and the rest of the world subordinate.



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Jesse Jenkins and I published two op-eds this week, one in the San Francisco Chronicle and one in the Baltimore Sun, outlining a proposal for a National Energy Education Act:

An Energy Plan We Can Believe In,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 31st.

Realizing His Vision,” Baltimore Sun, July 30th.

Adam Zemel, BTG Fellow, covered the op-eds on the Breakthrough blog.  And Genevieve Bennett, BTG Fellow, wrote up a summary of the proposal, including a 2-page fact sheet (PDF).

Here is our piece in today’s San Francisco Chronicle:

An energy plan we can believe in
Teryn Norris & Jesse Jenkins
Thursday, July 31, 2008

Energy is now the No. 1 issue in the 2008 elections, with both candidates touting new plans to deal with soaring energy prices. Meanwhile, Congress is at a standstill, arguing over the renewal of critical clean energy incentives and a push for more offshore drilling. But above the partisan cacophony is a proposal all Americans can get behind: a new national education initiative to meet the energy challenge.

The United States is in energy crisis. Oil and electricity prices are rapidly escalating, our dependence on imported energy is increasing, and global warming continues unabated, each presenting grave threats to our national interests and security. Solving these interlinking crises requires large strategic investments to spark a clean energy economy and develop cheap and nonpolluting energy for every American.

But let’s pause for a moment to imagine what a clean energy economy would actually look like: tens of thousands of new highly skilled designers and manufacturers reassembling America’s auto fleet and producing the next generation of wind turbines and solar panels. An army of new engineers and contractors rebuilding America’s electrical grid, erecting wind farms and solar plants, and retrofitting our homes to save on energy costs. Lab researchers inventing cutting-edge, low-carbon energy technologies, which entrepreneurial startups and venture capitalists take into the marketplace.

Now contrast this with today’s reality: nearly half of our current energy workforce is expected to retire over the next decade, our manufacturing and construction sectors are in steep decline, and American universities are graduating fewer students each year in the crucial fields of science, mathematics and engineering.

We cannot allow these trends to continue, if we are to confront today’s energy crisis. It is imperative that we transform our nation’s universities, colleges and vocational schools into multidisciplinary hubs of clean energy innovation that will develop solutions to revitalize our economy, end our dependence on imported oil, and address global warming as well as train a new workforce to develop and deploy low-carbon technology and infrastructure.


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A quote from Breakthrough fellow Zach Arnold appeared in an article in the Boston Globe yesterday, reporting on the newly released list of the nation’s “greenest colleges” by Princeton Review. Universities that received top scores include the University of New Hampshire, College of the Atlantic in Maine, and Harvard University. (more…)

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Some climate strategies are sexy. Energy efficiency is certainly not one of them. Despite this, I am thoroughly convinced that a concentrated push for global energy efficiency is the most productive direction for the climate movement. The opportunities are truly massive: energy efficiency measures could halve US projected energy consumption in 2030. Globally, energy efficiency improvements could profitably reduce 2020 energy consumption by 1/4. And because increased energy efficiency is primarily blocked by political, not technical, barriers, activists could achieve huge results if they unified around this goal.

In this article I’d like to bring attention to a few key points concerning energy efficiency, and suggest some directions advocacy could take. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a public dialogue on the potential of energy efficiency, and how the climate movement can coordinate its long term goals with near term, cost-effective pragmatism.


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Look behind many of the key technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries, and you’ll see a long history of military involvement. The U.S. armed forces kick-started American dominance in civil aviation through their demand for planes during WWI, and later drove the growth of the computer industry by buying every microchip and supercomputer in sight during the 60’s. Military scientists and military-funded researchers developed the ideas behind the Internet, nuclear power, and personal computing. Indeed, the U.S. military has arguably been the greatest force for technological growth in modern times. And now, it’s time for renewable energy to get the Army treatment.

Let’s look back to the 1960s. Jack Kilby, a scientist at Texas Instruments, had pioneered an innovative circuit design a few years earlier by packing several transistors onto a single conductive “chip,” creating a “microchip” that stood to be more reliable, better suited to mass production, and far faster than existing circuitry. It was the military – not the consumer market – that quickly realized the strategic value of Kilby’s achievement. Throughout the early 1960’s, military agencies bought virtually every microchip manufacturers could produce. These purchases enabled big advances in military technology, facilitating projects like Minuteman and Apollo and cementing America’s position as a military power.

And a funny thing happened along the way. (more…)

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Here at the Breakthrough Institute, we have held that making clean energy cheaper, rather than “dirty” (i.e. carbon intensive) energy more expensive, is the most effective way to spur the innovation we need to transition our energy dependence to new sources. In the absence of cheaper renewables, however, ever-rising oil prices are already prodding innovation into effect.

Let’s acknowledge the uncreative response to higher energy prices and voter turmoil at the outset: yes, drilling for more oil in Alaska is neither innovative nor interesting, nor a way to lower America’s oil bill. But more has arisen out of $147/barrel oil (the most recent high; as of today it has dropped back down to $123/barrel) than the routine of panic. Thomas Friedman wrote today that

The only good thing to come from soaring oil prices is that they have spurred innovator/investors, successful in other fields, to move into clean energy with a mad-as-hell, can-do ambition to replace oil with renewable power.

Here’s some examples of recent interesting, astonishing, and innovative ideas that have arisen largely due to higher energy costs.

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Over a week has passed since Al Gore made his bold call for 100% renewable energy in the next 10 years, initiating a wave of response.  Conservatives called him crazy—ridiculous, even. Enviros applauded his vision and bold determination. Some Democrats cringed at his timing, afraid of the response of gas-sensitive voters. Some media barely covered him.


Now, with the standing ovation long over and the media for now satiated, it seems appropriate to take a look at how Gore’s speech was received and what its initial reception means for the story we must tell about the energy challenge.  In the applause and critique, I find the kernels of that elusive narrative that will somehow galvanize the nation into bold action on energy.


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