Commentary: Go ahead, Putin, make my day
So the latest news is that President Vladimir Putin of Russia has threatened to turn off gas supplies to Ukraine if Kiev doesn’t pay its overdue bill, and, by the way, Ukraine’s pipelines are the transit route for 15 percent of gas consumption for Europe. If I’m actually rooting for Putin to go ahead and shut off the gas, does that make me a bad guy?
Because that is what I’m rooting for, and I’d be happy to subsidize Ukraine through the pain. Because such an oil shock, though disruptive in the short run, could have the same long-term impact as the 1973 Arab oil embargo — only more so. That 1973 embargo led to the first auto mileage standards in America and propelled the solar, wind and energy efficiency industries. A Putin embargo today would be even more valuable because it would happen at a time when the solar, wind, natural gas and energy efficiency industries are all poised to take off and scale. So Vladimir, do us all a favor, get crazy, shut off the oil and gas to Ukraine and, even better, to all of Europe. Embargo! You’ll have a great day, and the rest of the planet will have a great century.
“Clean energy is at an inflection point,” explains Hal Harvey, CEO of Energy Innovation. “The price reductions in the last five years have been nothing less than spectacular: Solar cells, for example, have dropped in cost by more than 80 percent in the last five years. This trend is under way, if a bit less dramatically, for wind, batteries, solid state lighting, new window technologies, vehicle drive trains, grid management, and more. What this means is that clean energy is moving from boutique to mainstream, and that opens up a wealth of opportunities.”
New houses in California now use three-fourths of the energy they used 25 years ago, Harvey added. Chevrolet, Dodge and Ford are in a contest to make the most efficient pickup — because their customers want to spend less on gasoline — so they are deploying new engines and lighter truck bodies. Texas now has enough wind to power more than 3 million homes. New Jersey generates more solar watts per person than California.
And check out Opower, which just went public. Opower works with utilities and consumers to lower electricity usage and bills using behavioral economics, explained Alex Laskey, the company’s co-founder, at their Arlington, Va., office. They do it by giving people personalized communications that display in simple, clear terms how their own energy usage compares with that of their neighbors. Once people understand where they are wasting energy — and how they compare with their neighbors — many start consuming less. And, as their consumption falls, utilities can meet their customers’ demand without having to build new power plants to handle peak loads a few days of the year. Everybody wins. Opower just signed up the Tokyo Electric Power Co. and its 20 million homes.
Putting all its customers together since it was founded in 2007, said Laskey, Opower has already saved about “4 terawatt hours of energy” and expects to be soon saving that annually. The Hoover Dam produces about 4 terawatts hours of energy a year. So we just got a new Hoover Dam — for free — in Arlington, Va.
A gas embargo by Putin would also reinforce the message of the United Nations’ latest climate report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which warned with greater confidence than ever that human-created carbon emissions are steadily melting more ice, creating more dangerous sea level rise, stressing ecosystems around the globe and creating more ocean acidification, from oceans absorbing more C02, posing “a fundamental challenge to marine organisms and ecosystems.”
Showtime on Sunday began airing a compelling nine-part series, called “Years of Living Dangerously,” about how environmental and climate stresses affect real people. The first episode featured Harrison Ford confronting Indonesian officials about the runaway deforestation in one of their national parks, Don Cheadle following evangelicals in Texas wrestling with the tension between their faith and what is happening to their environment, and this columnist exploring how the prolonged drought in Syria contributed to the uprising there. The ninth episode is an in-depth interview with President Barack Obama on environment and climate issues.
I asked Harrison Ford, a longtime board member of Conservation International, whether working on the documentary left him feeling it was all too late.
“It isn’t too late; it can’t be too late,” he said. “Is it too late to teach our kids the difference between right and wrong? If we are not ready to redress something happening on our watch, how can we expect our kids to do something about it?” Remember, he added, “nature will be just fine without us. Nature doesn’t need people. People need nature. That is why we can’t save ourselves without saving nature.”
Ford is right. We can still do this. We are closer to both irreversible dangers on climate and scale solutions on clean tech than people realize. Just a little leadership now by America — or a little scare by Putin — would make a big difference.