An en­ergy rev­o­lu­tion

Rifkin fore­sees a jobs boom fu­elled by re­new­able power linked to an in­tel­li­gent grid

Ottawa Citizen - - BOOKS - TOM SPEARS

The Third In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion: How Lat­eral Power Will Trans­form the Econ­omy and Change the World By Jeremy Rifkin, Pal­grave Macmil­lan, $31

Jeremy Rifkin changed the way the West thinks of meat when he wrote Be

yond Beef, an ag­gres­sive ar­gu­ment that rais­ing meat pol­lutes and causes hunger, and eat­ing it makes us sick.

Now he’s back to deal with the fu­ture of en­ergy — and food, and cap­i­tal­ism, and the world as we know it.

If we had two in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tions al­ready — fac­to­ries and trains in the 1800s, au­to­mo­biles and global trade in our own life­times — he sees a third just start­ing. This third rev­o­lu­tion will be one of green en­ergy and greener economies. Join it, he ad­vises, or step out of its way.

This is of­ten an an­gry book, start­ing with the Tea Party and go­ing on to more im­por­tant tar­gets such as big oil com­pa­nies, cor­po­rate greed, un­car­ing gov­ern­ments.

You never have to waste time won­der­ing which side of an is­sue Rifkin will come down on, and he also leaves you in no doubt about what the fu­ture holds. He claims a rare abil­ity to sum up our en­tire civ­i­liza­tion and de­ter­mine what’s go­ing to sur­vive and what won’t. But he also pro­vides a high-en­ergy book, and he’s rig­or­ous about back­ing up his opin­ions with ev­i­dence.

Let’s start with the stuff that’s doomed, mainly fos­sil fu­els and the prod­ucts that de­pend on them. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing state­ment, as auto mak­ers were in such ter­ri­ble shape fi­nan­cially dur­ing the re­ces­sion yet at the same time cars are ev­ery­where. So are heat­ing sys­tems that burn gas and oil, and elec­tric­ity grids that de­pend on coal.

Never mind, he ar­gues: Oil is un­sus­tain­able be­cause it’s en­vi­ron­men­tally aw­ful and it’s in short sup­ply. We’re go­ing to run out, which is why it hit $147 a bar­rel be­fore the stock mar­ket crash of 2008, and the fu­ture can’t keep de­pend­ing on a fuel sup­ply that won’t be around any more.

“Drilling for more oil, how­ever, won’t get us out of the cri­sis be­cause oil is the cri­sis,” he writes. “The re­al­ity is that the oil-based Sec­ond In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion is ag­ing and will never re­bound to its former glory.”

He makes a lot of ab­so­lute state- ments along the way: “Glob­al­iza­tion came to a stand­still” in 2008. Or, “The United States is now a failed econ­omy.” Or the claim that the BP well blowout of 2010 “threat­ened to turn the Gulf of Mex­ico into a dead sea.”

I would bet that a lot of peo­ple with good cre­den­tials don’t be­lieve glob­al­iza­tion stopped com­pletely, or that the U.S. is quite that hope­less. And very few en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists pre­dicted the loss of all life in the Gulf. It’s too bad that he takes this ap­proach; the Gulf does have sea­sonal dead zones (from fer­til­izer, not oil) and the BP spill did kill a lot of wildlife, and could have killed more. But not every­thing.

In re­sponse to hu­man pol­lu­tion and van­ish­ing oil, he pro­poses an in­trigu­ing fu­ture, start­ing with this per­cep­tive way of think­ing about in­fra­struc­ture. In­fra­struc­ture is just bricks and pave­ment, right? He pro­poses other­wise: It’s a dy­namic re­la­tion­ship be­tween en­ergy sources and com­mu­ni­ca­tions tech­nolo­gies. Blend those, and you have the Third In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion of his ti­tle, in which hundreds of mil­lions of peo­ple will be­come small-scale gen­er­a­tors of en­ergy.

This will be green en­ergy: So­lar, geo­ther­mal, wind. It will come from homes and of­fices and be dis­trib­uted on a grid with zil­lions of con­nec­tions, mod­elled on the In­ter­net. A par­al­lel re­build­ing of our homes and com­mer­cial build­ings would ac­tu­ally save money, he be­lieves. (Cost to the United States: $100 bil­lion a year; en­ergy sav­ings: $163 bil­lion a year.)

If only gov­ern­ments would sub­si­dize small so­lar projects, he wishes. He’d be in­ter­ested to see the so­lar panels all over On­tario farm fields, sub­si­dized in the sense that they earn 80 cents a kilo­watt hour on 20-year con­tracts. (Nu­clear plants are paid about six cents.)

We’ll need an in­tel­li­gent grid, he notes. That’s be­cause in the old days when On­tario Power Gen­er­a­tion ran a rel­a­tively small num­ber of big plants, the coal or nu­clear en­ergy just hummed along with a steady sup­ply. Small wind and so­lar projects start and stop sup­ply­ing en­ergy in a much more on-and-off way and in huge numbers, mak­ing a smart grid nec­es­sary.

And he also fore­sees boom­ing job growth. There will be mil­lions of new jobs in the United States when re­new­able en­ergy re­places coal and nukes.

Well, we sure hope so. That’s the prom­ise in On­tario, where back­ers of the Feed-in Tar­iff (FIT) plan are hop­ing for 20,000 green en­ergy jobs. It re­mains to be seen how many ac­tu­ally ma­te­ri­al­ize. This sum­mer I was in Bruce County, home to ma­jor wind pro­duc­ers, some so­lar power and the con­ti­nent’s big­gest com­mer­cial nu­clear project. There were new lay­offs in the wind sec­tor (for lack of new tur­bine sales) at the same time as lo­cal pa­pers car­ried want ads from nu­clear con­trac­tors search­ing for work­ers.

Un­for­tu­nately, hu­man­ity is dis­mally un­suc­cess­ful at one favourite pas­time: Pre­dict­ing the fu­ture. We can’t even call a horse race or hockey game of­ten enough to make money. We’re worse at the po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic fu­ture.

I was re­minded of this by an ag­ing Reader’s Di­gest. Don’t laugh; the Reader’s Di­gest of 1940 was a very dif­fer­ent mag­a­zine, with con­trib­u­tors in­clud­ing Dorothy Parker and Stephen Vin­cent Benét, and ex­cerpts from the New Repub­lic, Harper’s, the New York Times.

The edi­tion of March 1940 deals ex­ten­sively with the war from the view­point of a neu­tral but ner­vous U.S., and there’s an odd mix of writ­ing: It’s very good when it de- scribes cur­rent events in the war, but it all goes to hell in anal­y­sis of what it means for the fu­ture. There’s an es­say on “Why Rus­sia Can’t Fight.” Hon­estly. It con­cludes that the Finns prob­a­bly can’t win in­def­i­nitely, but that “Rus­sia, de­spite her boasts of mil­i­tary might, is nei­ther an ally to be counted on nor an en­emy any first-class power need fear.”

There’s an anal­y­sis of the crack French gen­eral and the mighty Maginot Line that will hold back the Ger­mans. It’s not just that the mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gentsia of the day made the wrong bets, like bet­ting on a pair of twos. It’s more that they didn’t even un­der­stand what cards were in the deck while the game was un­der­way. Hav­ing all the in­di­ca­tors doesn’t make pre­dict­ing an ex­act sci­ence.

More re­cently, en­vi­ron­men­tal pre­dic­tions are dan­ger­ous too. The pop­u­lar State of the World an­nual re­port used to say in the 1990s that the Earth was los­ing hundreds of thou­sands of square kilo­me­tres of farm­land through ero­sion each year. If that had been true, we’d all be very hun­gry now.

The way to judge Rifkin is by the re­sults. He of­fers Utrecht as a work­ing ex­am­ple of how cit­i­zens band to­gether through a prac­ti­cal al­tru­ism to make a sus­tain­able city. If we can all make en­ergy in­stead of buy­ing it from a nu­clear plant (and who doesn’t like that idea?) per­haps he’s right, and per­haps the fu­ture will re­turn to ur­ban­ites buy­ing from lo­cal farm­ers in small mar­kets or di­rectly at the farm. Rifkin has worked on en­ergy (and eco­nomic) mas­ter plans all over — for the city of Rome, for Monaco, for San An­to­nio. And the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment pub­licly backs his ideas.

On­tario has had projects on smaller scales: From the retrofitting of the en­tire town of Es­panola in the 1990s to the more re­cent over­haul of Ot­tawa pub­lic schools, and fi­nally FIT. Some­how, our tra­di­tional en­ergy con­sump­tion keeps ris­ing any­way. It would take a rev­o­lu­tion, and not some On­tario-style pi­lot projects, to make that change.

Let’s hope Rifkin has made the right call, but whether he’s right or wrong our so­ci­ety needs books like this to make us think about the tough en­ergy ques­tions we would rather ig­nore.


Jeremy Rifkin’s lat­est book The Third In­dus­trial Rev­o­lu­tion en­vi­sions mil­lions of peo­ple be­com­ing small-scale gen­er­a­tors of elec­tric­ity.

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