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
This is the old industrial model? The centralized model?
That’s right. Well that’s why it was old-time thinking because it was based on centralized elite energies. And so we kind of asked a question which sounds embarrassingly simple now but one we haven’t really asked in the U.S. yet, which is: “If the new energies are found in every square inch of the world and they're totally distributed, then why the hell are we only going to collect them in only a few central points?” That was a pivotal key. We realized we can collect them everywhere, but where do you collect them? Infrastructure, buildings. So we have 191 million buildings in the EU: homes, offices, buildings, every kind of building. They’re the number one cause of climate change because they use a third of the energy and most, a majority of the CO2. Parenthetically, I always mention this when I’m doing interviews, as you know, the number two cause of climate change is beef production and consumption and animal husbandry. Three is transport.
The reason I always mention that is because not a single world leader, including the ones that I advise, have made a single statement on the number two cause of climate change. Never. Not one. It’s amazing. Anyway, so the idea here is to take all the existing buildings in Europe, and Germany is moving very aggressively and I can tell you how their doing it, and convert them to partial power plants, mini power plants. Sun off the roof, wind off the walls, and geothermal heat under the ground; convert your garbage with an anaerobic decomposition; oceans tides and waves if you live on the coast. The new buildings going up are zero-emission and we now have positive-power buildings. They just finished the first positive-power [building], a massive office complex in Paris three months ago. It actually collects enough sun alone that it can not only take care of its own energy needs but send power back to the grid. The idea of this Pillar Two is that this jump-starts construction. Now think about what Obama said last night, it’s all about construction. That means not just retrofitting, which is key to us as efficiency, but efficiencies are just the starting points so that we can get our buildings up to speed so that we can maximize the thermodynamic efficiencies as we move to the new energies. You follow me? So with us, we see massive construction across the 27 member states to convert as many buildings as we can over the next 40 years in the existing stock, and all the new ones, into micro power plants. This will bring huge amounts of work and millions and millions of jobs, it’s a massive undertaking and Germany is leading on this. Pillar 3, we ran into this issue back in 2002 when Romano Prodi [former president of the European Commission and prime minister of Italy] was president, I was advising him and we knew were going to 20 percent renewable energy at this point. We thought we would. And I said to Romano when we met in Washington at one point, I said, “You know we got a little problem because let’s say we get 20 percent renewable energy across Europe by 2020, a third of the electricity.” I said, “What happens if it’s a hot summer, we have an overload on the air conditioning, we have cloud cover for two weeks, and the water tables are down for hydroelectricity because of drought, and the wind stops blowing?” Romano’s really a wonderful man actually and a great prime minister, he said, “Well, that’s interesting.” What that meant for him was that he was going to try to solve it. And three months later he put a 2-billion-euro hydrogen R&D together.
Frankly, I’m for all forms of storage: water pumping, flywheels, capacitors, and batteries, they’re all necessary. But the reason we like hydrogen as the centerpiece is it can take bigger loads, batteries can’t. It can be involved in infrastructure and take big loads, and it’s modular — the lightest element in existence and it’s a carrier. So it will carry renewable energy as a system, that’s Pillar 3. Then Pillar 4 is the internet communication revolution merging with the new distributing energies which is really off-the-shelf internet technology. The idea is to … transform the power and transmission lines into an energy internet, that way millions and millions of buildings are collecting on site that distributed renewable energy stored in hydrogen like you store digital and media? Same thing. And then what you don’t need your software can direct it across entire continental land masses with that technology. Then Pillar 5 is electric plug-in transport. We're very worried. Diamond is in our group, GM, and electric cars are out, fuel-cell cars in 36 months, and you'll need to plug them in. You’ll see cars in 35 months and we need to plug them in so you can get your green energy anywhere in the infrastructure and plug in across the infrastructure to either get energy or send it back. But here is why we're concerned: If these 5 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. And the way we found this out was the hard way. Even though we had this plan, the EU put out a document last year and they said, “Oh my god, we need a trillion Euros right now for the smart grid between now and 2010.” Think about that compared to what we're talking about smart grid. They’re talking a trillion, and the reason they need this is we put in feed-in tariff across Europe.
So we asked all the countries in Europe to put in feed-in tariff’s, right? So now we have thousands and thousands of people, you know, homeowners, businesses that are trying to feed-in renewable energy in the grid but the grid can't take it. It’s designed to serve a mechanical or unidirectional [function], and it’s old and falling apart. So were losing the possibilities. Then we realized, “Oh my god, some of our regions now, like Nava and Aragon, Spain, are so successful, they’re 70 percent renewable. Places like Germany are now over 20 percent. And that means we’ve got a problem because they're intermittent energies and we don’t have the storage yet. So we're literally like California where they lose 3 out of 4 kilowatts of wind because they don’t know how to store it. We're realizing now that we're moving so aggressively towards intermittent renewables if we don’t move as aggressively with Pillar 3, with storage, we lose 3 out of 4 kilowatts. We just lose it. Then we get a little bit of a backlash because consumers are paying slightly more on their electricity charges, very little, tiny but they’re not getting any of the benefit on the feed-in tariffs. So now we realize we have to incentivize Pillar Two so we're introducing green loans and green mortgages really quickly across Europe and it’s working.
So what I am saying is, we're beginning to find out — that’s why we did this master plan for San Antonio, which was the first one in the world we did — you’ve got to bring them all in at the same time or as you said at the beginning you end up with more temperate, little isolated projects and you don’t go for it, and you really don’t create the new infrastructure. Sorry to go on and on.
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