Greenpeace energy report projects cheap, clean power -- and more jobs

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An environmentalist-sponsored report claims that by 2050, the United States could sever ties with coal and nuclear power, draw nearly all its electricity from renewable sources and cut its greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80% –- all with existing technology and with a net gain of 14 million jobs to the domestic economy.

The report, commissioned by Greenpeace and the European Renewable Energy Council and conducted by Germany’s equivalent of NASA, was released this morning at a press briefing in Washington. It is heavy on charts and supporting data and transparent on some key assumptions. And its sponsors call its findings “conservative.”


At its core, the report envisions a steep drop in the United States’ energy use, both in absolute terms and compared with International Energy Agency predictions -- driven by strict efficiency standards. It also projects dramatic changes in the nation’s electricity mix, with wind and solar power mushrooming to replace coal, oil and nuclear sources that would gradually go offline.

The report includes some fairly stark trade-offs. (The following sentence has been corrected; it originally said more than 10 million coal-related jobs would disappear by 2050). The scenario includes the creation of 9 million efficiency-related jobs, 11 million solar-related jobs and 4 million wind-related jobs by 2050. It also projects about 620,000 coal-related jobs would disappear in that time; another 9.6 million coal-related jobs, which would be created if the nation’s current fossil-fuel-dependent energy use continues per IEA projections, would not be created.

Because solar and wind plants don’t require recurring fuel costs to operate, the authors say, the long-term fuel savings would more than double the up-front investment needed to spur those changes. And they’re not counting what they call massive additional savings from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to avoid what many scientists warn could be catastrophic economic effects from global warming.

“The criticism that we get for this study,” said Steven Biel, Greenpeace’s global warming campaign director, “is that we’re low-balling the benefits.”

Now for the caveats.

The report makes several critical assumptions about America’s energy future. It excludes additional nuclear plants, for example, because Greenpeace opposes nuclear energy on several grounds. It assumes utility companies will retire coal-fired power plants as they reach the end of a typical 40-year lifespan (but not before). It also assumes renewable sources -– solar, wind, biomass -– will follow current trends and become progressively cheaper over the next 40 years. It assumes the federal government will levy some sort of greenhouse gas emissions tax, which the Obama administration is advocating, and that the tax will amount to an estimated $10 per ton of carbon emissions in 2010 and ramp up to $50 in 2050. And despite today’s globally depressed oil prices, it predicts a permanent return to $100-plus-per-barrel crude very soon.

And it assumes the nation will eventually solve what many critics call the “base load” problem of wind and solar: how to get energy when the sun is not shining and the wind is not blowing. In the short- and medium-term, the report assumes natural gas will take up a lot of that slack. But without a long-term solution, Biel said, the report’s projections “would be bunk.”


Read the full Greenpeace energy report here.

-- Jim Tankersley