Earthday 2014: Hangout with thought leader, Alex Lightman

Robert Jacobson: Hi, this is Robert Jacobson, and I’m with my friend Alex Lightman.  He’s a noted author, entrepreneur, and thought leader based in Santa Monica, California. Happy Earth Day, Alex!

Alex Lightman: Happy Earth Day, Robert! How are you?

Robert Jacobson: Very well. Thanks for doing this last minute hangout today. What does Earth Day mean to you today, here on April 22nd, 2014, as we –

Alex Lightman: I think it’s a day for people who care about making the world more sustainable for human life, for animal life, for nature, so that we have as many living things, different living things, able to live in ecosystems that won’t experience predictable, catastrophic crashes. I think it’s very poignant and sad that we’re having an Earth Day during the midst of the sixth great extinction and we don’t put those things together. So, I think everyone should ask themselves, at least on Earth Day, at least once every 365 days, hmm, if we’re in the middle of the sixth great extinction, should we, are we doing all that we can to stop leading to our own extinction, and the extinction of the vast majority of all species? Over 99% of all the species that have ever lived are extinct, and so, the odds aren’t all that great for Homo sapiens sapiens if we don’t actually ever ask ourselves that question. And if we don’t ask ourselves that question on Earth Day, what other day do we ask it together as a group?

Robert Jacobson: Wonderful. So, Alex, what is one thing that each person could do to make a difference as they go forward from Earth Day and beyond?

Alex Lightman: Well, I’m not sure how this looks, you’ll have to tell me, ’cause I’ve never done this before. Believe it or not, this is my very first –

Robert Jacobson: Bring it a little south. Yep. Okay, up. It says, U.S. Power Capacity By Source at End of March 2014, and I see these figures are in gigawatts, and at the top I see natural gas, but I cannot read the number, and then, I see natural gas, coal, I think that says nuclear, this is very –

Alex Lightman: Yes.

Robert Jacobson: – and then, and then, you’ll have to read the rest to us, Alex.

Alex Lightman: Sure. Okay. Basically, the natural gas, this is in gigawatts, so for natural gas, it’s 484 gigawatts, for coal, it’s 330 gigawatts, nuclear 107 gigawatts, hydro, it’s about 100, wind, it’s 61, oil, it’s 46, and then, way down here at solar, we have 8.86, and we look at this, I don’t know if it’s possible to see. You’ll have to tell me whether, how do I hold it?

Robert Jacobson: A little closer, a little closer. Okay, stop. Okay, so I see that says we’ve got coal at, coal installed capacity in percent of total capacity, and then at the bot-, it goes through the list of different energies, so maybe you can turn it around and –

Alex Lightman: So, the main I wanted to show here is that, right now, 28% of our total capacity is for coal, about 42% is natural gas, about 9% is nuclear, 4% is oil, about 8.5% is water, 5.25% is wind, and then we get down to solar is 0.75%, so it’s down there towards the bottom, okay?

Robert Jacobson: Yep, just above waste, just above waste heat.

Alex Lightman: Yeah, just above waste heat, exactly. Now, here’s what’s interesting. So, that’s the whole capacity. Now, if you look at what we did last year in 2013, you’ll see that natural gas is by far the most, natural gas is number one, solar’s number two. Now, isn’t that very interesting. And then, number three is coal, number four is wind, number five is biomass. Okay, with me so far? Now is where it gets interesting. Now this says first quarter 2013, it’s actually a misprint in the internet posting, but it’s actually 2014, and what you see is solar is 594, can you see that? Is that clear?

Robert Jacobson: Yup.

Alex Lightman: Solar is there, number one, far and away more than anything. And then, number two is wind at 427, and then there’s a little bit of new natural gas going in at 90, and then we have geothermal, biomass, water, other. Coal, zero. Nuclear, zero. Oil, zero. So, I just wanna say that, on Earth Day, ’cause I started with a downer, that this is pretty good news. The new sources of the United States are overwhelmingly, for the whole country, solar and wind. And if we wanna go and look at those numbers, and we wanna look at them by state, we see something interesting. This is a picture of the major solar projects happening in the United States and –

Robert Jacobson: Can you bring it just a little closer, Alex?

Alex Lightman: Sure. The California number, like where all the little dot-, the blue, light-blue, kind of mauve-ish color –

Robert Jacobson: Yup.

Alex Lightman: – I’m not completely –

Robert Jacobson: It looks like there’s a bunch in the southwest.

Alex Lightman: Yes, if you see that, the vast majority, that’s all new projects, the vast majority are California. And you might wanna say, wow, are those projects getting finished, is stuff happening? And the answer is, hells yeah. So, if you look at U.S. power plant capacity additions by state, what you’ll see is the top one is California, and even if you can’t see all the details, you can see that, basically, California only has about 12% of the population, but we accounted for more than half of all the power plant additions, and that yellow part is solar. So the solar –

Robert Jacobson: Wow. It looks like it’s almost a little more than a third.

Alex Lightman: Yeah. It’s incredible, it is. And then we can even see this a little bit closer. So this is the power plant additions in 2013 top five sources by state. So what you see is the natural gas part, notice that natural gas in California is more than all the other, you know, four next leading states combined, and the solar from California is more than the next states combined. The little black stuff in the upper right corner is coal, and then we have over here, is wind. So, because the tax credits for wind expired, we had a big jump, and then we’re not having so many. But my point is that, from this point on, the vast majority of power plant additions in the United States will come from solar. Now, why is that interesting, you ask? Would you like to ask? Would you like to know?

Robert Jacobson: Yeah. Why, why is it, why should we know?

Alex Lightman: Because the more solar that’s there, the lower the marginal cost of electricity from solar will be. So, right now, the average cost for electricity in the United States is 13 cents a kilowatt-hour. There are power purchase agreements with the utility that’s at the heart of Silicon Valley, Palo Alto, which is adjacent to the Stanford University campus. I would argue that, because of Stanford and the Sand Hill Road, that that’s one of the main money-pumps for Silicon Valley. And they have a long-term purchase price contract that’s about 6 cents a kilowatt hour.

Now, that number’s pretty damn important for a single reason. Electricity has three components: generation, transmission, and distribution. So, imagine you have a Hoover Dam generating power from hydropower. Then, you have to take it on the power lines and bring it into LA, and then you have to take it to the homes, meter it, and then charge each individual home. The average cost in the United States for transmission and distribution is 7 cents. So if you have a coal-fired plant, a gas-fired plant, or a nuclear-fired plant, you have to actually charge zero. In fact, you have to charge negative rates to go and have transmission and distribution cost 7 cents, but the overall cost be less than that.

So basically, solar has already won, and it’s just a matter of people getting the news. William Gibson said, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. The future in which 100% of America’s electricity comes from solar is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. Now, that’s not even the lowest price. While you could have in Hawaii 30 cents, 35 cents a kilowatt hour, or peak hours in Texas in the summer can be up to five or six dollars a kilowatt hour, you already have a Texas utility, El Paso Electric, getting solar for 5 cents a kilowatt hour.

Now, there’s this thing called the learning curve that was developed in the ’30s, and Moore’s law is one instance of the learning curve, so, the idea that, basically, things get less expensive. Lithium-ion batteries are getting cheaper at about 22 to 25% a year. Solar gets cheaper at about 30 to 35% a year. So basically, you have what amounts to a reduction of about half every two or three years in the cost of solar, and you have a doubling of solar installations. So, let’s just say that we picked a time in the past when solar was 0.1%, tiny, tiny fraction. Seven doublings gets you to solar at 1%, and that’s where we are right now. So we’re at 0.75% of U.S. power as of Christmas of last year, 2013. Now, April, right now, we just hit that milestone of 1%.

Now, that may not sound like much, but the good news is, if you looked at doublings, if you looked at 0.1% and then seven doublings, from there, there, there, there, to one, it’s only seven more doublings into the future before solar provides over 100% of all the electric power in the United States. It’s already won. In the human genome project, they had a fifteen year timeline, and they got to about 1% seven years in, and people said, oh my god, it’s behind schedule. No, because they were doubling their capacity every two years. So basically, they finished ahead of time.

What’s exciting about solar is that we could provide 100% of the electricity of the United States, over one terawatt a year, from an area that’s 108 miles on a side, so 108 miles by 108 miles. That can all be in one place, it could be one county, it could be in Los Angeles county, we wouldn’t even notice it. It could be in any county in Nevada, it could be in any county in Arizona. But, that could provide all the electricity in the United States. You go, okay, well, but the United States is using about five terawatts a year, only one of that is electricity, the rest is oil, and coal, and all that.

Well, you actually can produce a liquid fuel in the form of ammonia, NH3, from air, water, and electricity, and so, right now, you can get solar at 5 cents a kilowatt-hour, in a couple years you’ll get it at 4 cents, a couple years more, 3 cents, 2 cents, you can theoretically get down to 1 cent a kilowatt-hour. There’s no reason we can’t get there, and once we’re there, we’re talking about producing ammonia for less than $100 a ton. We’re talking about something that will fit in your existing gas tank with a slightly better seal, that costs maybe 20, 30 cents a gallon, made from air and water. And it can be recycled water, it can be salt water, it can be water that is run off, you know, that’s from a eutrophied lake that’s been reclaimed.

So, the whole point I’m making here is that we can be 100% renewable, and we can be 100% renewable by 2030, not only in the U.S., but also worldwide. So, that’s the message I’d like to give on Earth Day.

Robert Jacobson: Well, that’s sixteen years from now, that’s the sweet sixteen, that’s pretty amazing.

Alex Lightman: Yeah. So, what industries will be crushed by this? Oil, natural gas, coal, nuclear, biofuels, which are not very green, they use 1.8 million times as much water as solar does, traditional automobiles, internal combustion engines, and the traditional utility model. All these will be crushed, and either transform themselves or basically give their investors big losses in their portfolios by then. Most people who have IRAs, individual retirement account or pension funds, who are working today, have to think sixteen years ahead, and those investments will be terrible, which is why groups like Ceres, C-e-r-e-s, which represent people who manage about $11 trillion have sent letters to the leaders of fossil fuel companies saying, if you burn all those fossil fuels that are in your balance sheet, you’ll actually heat up the world and cause climate change such that it would wipe things out. Now, then they’ve asked for an answer, like, how do you guys deal with that? They haven’t got an answer.

But my point is, I don’t post about global warming, I don’t care about global warming, because it’s a waste of time debating it. It takes away the chance to look at the fact that solar already beats natural gas and all these other things. Even though they have 150 acres of effectively stolen federal land and all this water that they take, thousands of times more water than solar uses, and I think if people realize that they’re arguing about Bundy’s cattle, and whether that federal land is a good land and stuff, like, if you care about that cattle, why aren’t you worried about 150 million acres?

Now, the reason that you might want to care about that 150 million acres is that if you used only 8% of it for solar, you could provide all the electricity in the United States, and if you used 20, 25% of it to provide solar that would feed and create fuel in the form of ammonia, or hydrogen, but ammonia can actually go into tanks without cryogenic hydrogen, you don’t need special freezing capabilities, you don’t wanna have the risk of freezing your hand off and breaking a finger, then you basically have the ability to power all the United States just with a tiny fraction of the land that the oil and gas companies are using on public lands, and with maybe a hundredth to a thousandth the amount of water that’s taken out. All these droughts? It’s caused by the fossil fuel industry. We wouldn’t have all these droughts if we weren’t using all this water for fossil fuels. So, most of the major big problems that seem unsolvable will be solved if people were just aware of the land and water subsidies given to oil and gas producers.

Robert Jacobson: So, going forward, for an Earth Day resolution, what type of resolutions would you like to see individuals making?

Alex Lightman: Well, I had a conversation with a famous military historian, who’s a famous conservative, and he’s been famously skeptical about renewable energy because he feels it hurts people in the central valley of California where he lives. And I asked him, I saw him on Sunday for two and a half hours, and I asked him, well, why don’t you get solar? Because there’s so much sun in the central valley of California, and all these farms that don’t have water, they could be making money from solar. And he said, because I don’t want a subsidy. I want someone to tell me what it would cost to get solar without federal subsidies, without state subsidies and stuff.

So I just would ask people to say, what does it take for you to get solar, or to get a friend of yours to get solar, or a place where you shop. For instance, Ikea, or some people pronounce it Ikea, Ikea, I pronounce it Ikea because I lived in Sweden for a while, wants to have more than 100% of all of its electricity from solar and wind renewables. Well, if Walmart put solar on the roof of all the Walmart stores, that would provide 20% of all of America’s electricity. So, I guess the resolution I would have is ask the stores where you buy products, why don’t they install solar? Or the people who run malls where you shop. Or people who have roofs.

In Australia, between 2008 and 2012, they installed solar on over one million residences. Australia only has 23 million people. That’s incredible. America has about 318, 320 million people. So Australia – and we only have 320,000 or so solar installations – so Australia has less than a tenth of the people, what is it, maybe about a fourteenth of the people, but they have 300% more solar installations. People in Adelaide, the city of Adelaide in south Australia, some neighborhoods have 100% of the homes with solar. So just ask, why not put solar? Because every single roof we put solar on gets us closer to that 108 mile by 108 mile square that provides all of our electricity, and means we don’t have to have any pollution.

I would be remiss, though it’s not exactly an Earth Day if I didn’t say that the studies that I’ve seen show that the use of fossil fuels are responsible for one third, $886.5 billion a year, of U.S. health care spending. Why on earth would we want to waste $886.5 billion trying to deal with the poisoning and the cancer caused by fossil fuels, when today we could replace them all? I don’t get that. So, go and either install solar, or get a quote, or help someone else get a quote, and encourage people to do it. I personally would love to be able to say that I buy 100% of my products and services only from vendors that get 100% of their energy from renewable resources, and if people came up with resolutions like that, or something even better, we’ll get there so fast it will make people’s heads spin. Certainly, we should at least match Australia in total solar, which we don’t yet.

Robert Jacobson: So, what does it look like in 2030? What does April 22nd, 2030 look like?

Alex Lightman: Oh, well, we produce more electricity from solar than we do from all sources today. The oil companies have gone out of business in America. The natural gas companies are out of business, the coal companies are out of business, the nuclear reactors are all shut down. Nobody’s buying internal combustion engines. In fact, nobody even knows somebody who, in recent memory, has bought an internal combustion engine. About 7 to 8 million cars are sold a year in the world, but they’re all electric, and they’re all auto-driving cars, because every auto-drive car, every self-driving car, replaces 15 internal combustion engine cars that require drivers. Cars take kids to school and bring them back again. Accidents are down. There’s no need to build additional highways, because the auto-drive cars can increase throughput by 273%.

People are riding bikes everywhere. People are running, walking everywhere. There’s showers almost everywhere, so when people get someplace, if they’re sweaty they can just shower off. America has solved its obesity crisis. America never has a fuel crisis. The U.S. dollar is still the dominant currency. China will have gotten bigger than the U.S. in economics for a couple of years, but then collapsed in a haze of choking smoke, as they caused all their population to lose about 20 years of life through pollution. And the contrast between a company that has wiped out use of coal like the United States, and one like China or India that gets two thirds of energy from coal, could not be more stark.

Robert Jacobson: Wow. That’s something to think about, and it’s gonna be great to look back at this video sixteen years from now, and to celebrate all of these accomplishments that we potentially have for the world. It’s not just the United States, but it sounds like there’s many opportunities globally to kick the fossil fuel habit.

Alex Lightman: I agree.

Robert Jacobson: Alex, well, thank you very much for joining us today. It was fun, and we should do this more often, because I think, you know, you’re a pioneer in getting, hopefully getting the word out. You’re just, you know, ringing the bell that we need to solarize and energize ourselves with the electrons that we all have access to.

Alex Lightman: Well, if I would give one recommendation to people, I would say it would be –

Robert Jacobson: Oh, excellent, a book recommendation.

Alex Lightman: Get this book, ‘Solar Trillions’, by Tony Seba. He has a new book coming out called ‘Clean Disruption of Energy and Transportation’, and most of the information that I have here about which industries are doomed comes from Tony Seba. So, thank you for this, and I look forward to talking to you soon.

Robert Jacobson: Okay, thank you Alex Lightman, everybody. Bye, Alex!

Alex Lightman: Bye, Robert!



About Robert

Entrepreneur, musician, urban yogi
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