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Meeting Review: New Energy For A New Era

By Charley Pow

On June 4, Prof. Dan Kammen spoke about “New Energy For A New Era” to conclude Acterra’s Beyond Fossil Fuels lecture series. Kammen holds an endowed Chair of Energy and is Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley.

Kammen played NASA’s Sea Ice Yearly Minimum 1979-2012 (SSMI data), which shows the Arctic ice cap has decreased 50% in the past 30 years, a trend that’s accelerating.


Kammen showed the Arctic ice cap has decreased 50% in the past 30 years and that the trend is accelerating.


Many people wonder, is this climate change due to human activity?

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has studied this since 1988. In 2007 the IPCC concluded most warming is very likely (>90%) due to human activity, though studies continue.  The World Bank predicts more falling crop yields, less water, reef damage, species extinction, extreme weather events, and more risk of irreversible weather changes as the earth warming continues.

A graph of US investment in energy research since 1978 shows that any significant funding increases is always accompanied by a rapid decline in funding. Kammen noted that it takes 8-10 years for a person to get a PhD, work for a company, then start up a company. US funding always declined before people could complete this process. The ramp downs damage people and programs seeking to grow.

“The World Bank predicts more falling crop yields, less water, reef damage, species extinction, extreme weather events, and more risk of irreversible weather changes as the earth warming continues.”

Kammen showed graphs illustrating human development (literacy, education, child and infant mortality, poverty, and sanitation) increases as more electricity becomes available. There is a knee in the curve showing human development dramatically improves when a nation achieves a certain level of energy availability. Lighting Africa has LED lights powered by small photovoltaic panels that sell for $12-$20. Currently, most people use tin lanterns that cost $.20 to purchase and $50 a year to operate.

Kammen showed the relative efficiency of various approaches for CO2 abatement. The five most cost-effective approaches are

  1. switching residential lighting from incandescent to LED,

  2. residential electronics,

  3. commercial insulation retrofit,

  4. residential appliances

  5. motor systems efficiency.

But the potential for improvement is relatively small. (Elton Sherwin, the second speaker in this series, gave specific examples and results from his family’s experience in tackling the four residential changes.)

Coal accounted for nearly half of the new energy sources put online in the last decade, with most coal power produced by emerging economies.  Burning coal produces a lot of CO2, so this trend accelerates climate change.

California’s AB32 requires increasing standards in order to cut emission by 25% by 2020. RAEL produced a model showing a path to low-cost and low-carbon futures. Solar energy continues to grow, and all-electric vehicles are entering the marketplace. More energy research, innovation, and funding are required.

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