Posted by: Tony Carson | 2 December, 2009

Good news: we’re changing

Four trends are reshaping America — and I’ll bet the vast majority of us are totally unaware of them.

They are huge changes that will restructure society and the economy — and they are well worth getting excited about.

1. “State-by-state, renewables are taking over”

Across America, coal plants are closing. They’re being replaced by natural gas and – increasingly – renewables. It’s all being driven by some demanding goals from state governments.

New York is shooting for 24% renewables by 2020; California for 33%. Maine is the most ambitious, at no less than 40% – most of which will come from wind. Thirty-five states in all have now set these ‘renewable portfolio’ standards.

Texas in particular is thinking really big. If you add up all the wind plants currently under construction or in development in the state, the total comes to around 50,000 MW. That’s equivalent to 50 coal-fired plants. It’s huge stuff – that’s more than the state’s 24 million people can consume! So Texas will actually become a net exporter of renewable power!

If you look at the US as a whole, we brought 102 new wind farms online last year (2008), with a capacity of over 8,000 MW.

t’s not just wind. Solar thermal [concentrating solar power – CSP] is taking off, too. One thing I’m really excited about is the new molten salt technology. This uses the sun’s heat to melt salt, and as it cools it continues to drive the turbines for another six hours, taking them through from sunset to midnight – a peak period of electricity demand.

Then there’s geothermal energy, and biomass, fired by woodchips. All of this has continued through the recession. Investment levels have held up pretty well. The rate of growth slowed a bit, but the growth itself did not. They’re still surging ahead at a hefty rate.

Meanwhile, 22 coal plants are slated for closure or conversion [to other fuel sources].

2. Government is getting tough

All the attention at the moment is focused on the cap-and-trade debate – but there are a lot of other things going on behind the scenes.

Within days of taking office, Obama sent a directive to the department saying, in effect: “You guys had better get cracking!”. So now, every few weeks, there’s another standard released – on lightbulbs, on air conditioners, and so on. There’s a huge backlog there, and it’s all going to come at once…

Then there’s [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson’s order that every US business above a certain size must calculate and publish its carbon footprint on an annual basis. This will do two things: first, it will focus attention on the company’s environmental performance; and second, it will provide ammunition for campaigners, both local and national.

If you look at the policy pipeline, it’s surprising how much is there.

3. America’s falling out of love with the car

Car sales have slumped, from around 17 million annually in the mid-90s to about 10 million this year – when the total US automobile fleet is expected to shrink by about 2%. It’s not just the recession: I believe there’s a major rethinking under way, which is changing the place of the car in American culture.

For kids today, socialising isn’t centered around cars – it’s around the internet, and that’s a very different world. Young people just aren’t aspiring to own a car in the same way my generation did. I first picked up this trend in Japan – now you’re seeing it in the US.

Car sales are falling, but car clubs are becoming more common. People are realising that owning a car full time becomes a nuisance – finding parking, doing repairs, insurance, payments, gasoline price uncertainties…. I think the automobile industry realise that they are in the early stages of a really major restructuring of the transport system.

4. Local food from local farms

The number of farms in the US has been declining ever since the Civil War. At least, it had until very recently. However, between the censuses of 2002 and 2007, farm numbers started to rise. We’re seeing more small farms – of 20, 30 or 40 acres – producing food for local consumption. A disproportionate share of the new farmers are women. And these aren’t ‘hobby farmers’. They are making a living from it; it’s their prime source of income.

This is part of a trend that will see food production become more localised. This will partly be driven by the high price of oil and agricultural imports, but also through a growing desire on the part of people to have fresh food – whether it’s from urban farming or farmers’ markets…

For over 30 years, Lester Brown has been tracking emerging trends in energy and environment – and working out what they might mean for the future.

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