Jeremy Rifkin on San Antonio, the European Union, and the lessons learned in our push for a planetary-scale power shift
Published: September 28, 2011
In some ways the quest to transition off fossil fuels is a race for the future. A race that the United States is losing. (It wasn't the fallout of Cali's Solyndra so much as China's $30 billion injection of domestic solar subsidies that has rattled U.S. renewables.) Yet in other ways it's a dance. To make solar and wind work as a baseload power source that can replace coal, we need some way of storing and using that power over long periods of time. To make electric cars feasible, we need to be able to plug in at work, at the grocery store, at the soccer field (and charge in a flash, not overnight). In other words, it takes advancing what visionary author, teacher, and clean-tech consultant to numerous heads of state Jeremy Rifkin calls the “Five Pillars.” If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it's because Rifkin was the one that took CPS Energy on a “trip into the future” to see the solar farms of Spain before we had our little nuclear meltdown, crashing our planned expansion of the South Texas Project in Matagorda County in a rancorous lawsuit with our partners at Toshiba and NRG Energy. It was Rifkin that assembled an impressive panel of corporate leaders in Mayor Julián Catro's desired clean-tech revolution for a three-day San Antonio summit and prepared his first master plan intent on making San Antonio that national clean-tech leader.
Rifkin's new book, The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World, which partially treats his time spent in San Antonio, was just published by Palgrave MacMillan. Though his direct consulting gig has wrapped, there are still lessons to be learned from the man who has the ear of European Union leaders and is helping to outline the blueprint for Europe's clean-energy shift.
A guiding principle of this major infrastructure and energy shift as outlined by Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., are the “pillars.” These include renewable energy, turning buildings into power plants, a way to store that intermittent energy (Rifkin prefers hydrogen), “smart” grids, and electrified transportation networks. In his new book, Rifkin, interprets the global economic picture as a world trapped between energy realities, a world dangerously stalling out on the high price of oil and the absence of the alternative clean-technology infrastructure.
While San Antonio is quickly asserting itself in the amount of renewable energy we boast (and in our energy savings earned from making our buildings more energy efficient while outfitting them with energy-producing solar panels), we're going to fall into the same bottleneck currently gripping Europe in terms of having a place to store all that energy and deploy it with electric cars and a more sophisticated power grid.
San Antonio isn't tearing up the town in the commercial sector, but residential rooftop solar has gone gangbusters thanks to generous CPS Energy (on top of federal and state) rebates — bursting from four residential arrays in 2007 to 232 in 2011 (with four months to go in the fiscal year). In the same time period we've grown from one commercial solar array to 29. “We're obviously surging ahead in solar, and that gets us points,” said Solar San Antonio Executive Director Lanny Sinkin. “But I think there's probably places that are well ahead of us in how many smart meters are deployed. And I think partly CPS has been sort of waiting and watching to see who has success and who doesn't before making the final leap into one technology or approach.”
The head of CPS Energy's smart grid research and development was not available for an interview, but Kathe Doran, energy management manager for the utility, was ready to brag on the rapid success in energy savings through efficiency. By 2020, the utility has committed to cutting energy use in San Antonio by 771 megawatts, about the amount generated by our newest coal plant, the Spruce II, she said. In three years, CPS has cut 221 megawatts and done it for $59.8 million — $13 million less than it expected. “As we get further on through the years, the savings will get more difficult,” Doran said. “People and companies that were going to do something [to save energy] will have already done it.”
And while competing visions for trolly systems and light rail are developing, they're just that: visions. Same for electric vehicles. Bill Barker, a former VIA official now with the City's Office of Environmental Policy, estimates there are only 50 electric cars in the city, though they're certainly on their way from Detroit and Japan (and Tennessee, come 2013). And though we have a handful of charging stations, we're waiting to see which technology gains dominance before going in any deeper, Barker said.
It's for similar considerations, perhaps, that Sinkin isn't too upset about CPS Energy's delayed announcement on a pending 400-megawatt solar Request for Proposals. “What I heard is: 'It's very complicated,'” Sinkin said. “My position on that is, 'Man, take as long as you need. This is huge deal. We want the best deal you can get and make sure this is a success.”
While the jobs component of whatever solar deal is finally announced, now that we've blown past two deadlines with no word, will certainly get a cheer (manufacturing is part of the deal) — Rifkin's message to us today is that without a grid capable of handling this energy moving into and out of homes and vehicles, this month's rapid expansion may be next month's school-zone traffic jam.
In an interview with the Current last week, Rifkin reported how he is working to help Europe navigate an overabundance of clean energy bottlenecked by an ill-equipped, dated electrical power grid. “If these five pillars don’t move at the same pace with each other in each community, in each city, in each region, then one pillar gets ahead of the other, you lose the entire synergy and you spend billions and billions and you get nothing,” he said.
Below is my conversation with Rifkin about San Antonio, the global energy crisis, and the path ahead.
> Email Greg Harman