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Worldchanging Interview: Christopher Flavin

This article was written by Jeremy Faludi in September 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Chris Flavin is the president of Worldwatch Institute, a cutting-edge think tank of sustainablity policy and technology which has written books like their annual Vital Signs and State of the World, countless white papers, and the Worldwatch Magazine. Not for the wonk-phobic, they are a hardcore numbers-intensive analysis group. We've linked to them countless times, and are happy to have recently formed a partnership with them.

Yesterday I got the chance to interview Flavin, and he has interesting things to say about the future of renewable energy, climate change, and other things Worldwatch researches.

Where do you think Worldwatch is most successful in spreading useful knowledge? Government policy, commercial enterprise, developing world, etc.?

It's hard to say, because we work in a lot of different fields. I think our contribution is both in terms of policy recommendations and identifying important global issues and trends in development, technology, policy, and underlying science. We're sort of scouts to see what's blowing in the wind and what's coming at us next.

I think we were one of the first to recognize the significance of India and China in energy and environment. That was the focus of State of the World 2006, but it's something we've been working on for a long time. Very recently we've been on the edge in terms of biofuels, looking at biofuels as a global industry and global set of policy issues. We've also done a lot of work recently on factory farming and the meat economy.

Are there any changes going on there? Or is it just a long-standing issue that people just aren't aware of?

There are new developments all the time, most recently of course the whole E. Coli thing. And the scale of factory farming and meat consumption is growing very rapidly now in parts of the developing world. Most developing countries are in a transition in terms of diet, and we think it's a key time for them to think about what kind of food system makes sense.

Climate change is the biggest motivator in a lot of environmental policy and discussion right now. Do you think it's eclipsing some other issues that also deserve attention?

I think it deserves the central focus that it gets, in part because it affects everything else. Biodiversity is affected by climate change, fresh water availability is affected by climate change, human health is affected by climate change, and I could go on and on. But it is a global change, and one that's irreversible for at least hundreds of years, if not longer. So I think it really does stand out from everything else. And I think the other thing is that successful efforts to deal with climate change are going to help us deal with other problems because you're talking about the fundamental nature of the energy economy, and also to some degree the food economy, the forest economy, that type of thing. So if you solve the climate change problem, you by definition have made a number of other things more sustainable.

You've said "signs are now growing that the world is on the verge of an energy revolution." What are those signs?

Well, you see it in the growing investment, you see it in the double-digit growth rates for technologies like solar, wind, and biofuels; you see it in new government policies being passed on a very regular basis now.

The interest and investment and technological momentum in all of these technologies is not only accelerating, but I think reaching some kind of tipping point where the markets really get to be transformed in a way that the next stage of change is actually a lot easier. Even though the amount of growth is going to be a lot larger, it actually gets easier to do, because the whole political equation is different. You've got big energy companies that are supporting renewable energy rather than opposing it, because it's part of their business plan, as opposed to before when they saw it as an unwanted competitor. That in turn changes the political equation, which means that it's easier to get new laws enacted, which in turn tends to speed up investment, so it becomes a real self-reinforcing circle.

How long do you think it will take this revolution to happen (going from a couple percent renewable to, say, 80% renewable)?

The revolution happens long before 80%. We think of today as "the oil age", but oil is actually less than 40% of the energy system. I think we're in the revolution when the growth rate is fast enough that a substantial share--1/3 or more--of new energy being added is renewable. And I think we're within a couple years of that. You don't want to look at the end point of "when do we become 100% renewable", that will take decades--you'll be retired long before then. The age of oil also took well over half a century to unfold. The early stages are actually the most dynamic and interesting part of the revolution. It's not that last few percent that are the most interesting, it's getting that first 5% or 10% where you start to dominate the market. We're estimating that renewable energy's close to 10% of global annual investment. So you're right--in fact, a few percent is probably generous, it's less than that if you take out hydropower and traditional biomass, all the other renewables are probably in the 1%, maybe 2% range. But they're 10% of the investment, and investment is the leading phenomenon's key indicator; total share of the mix is sort of a trailing indicator.

If you want to go further out in front, a true leading economic indicator for a new sector: the richest man in China today is a solar entrepreneur. John D. Rockefeller became the richest man in the world in the 1890's; if in the 1890's you'd gone up to the average person on the street and asked them what they thought of the "oil age", they'd say "what are you talking about? I've never heard of something called the oil age." John D. Rockefeller was already making a huge amount of money, mainly selling kerosene for lighting, because there weren't any cars on the streets in the 1890's. But he was already hugely successful, and looking back we can see the oil age had, in fact, begun by the turn of the 20th century. But at the time, very few people would've recognized it. I think we're actually in the renewable energy age today. We'll look back and say "yeah, by 2006 it had already started."

Retooling the global economy for green power will turn whole industries upside down. What companies and countries do you see emerging as new winners and losers?

Well, it's interesting, the early winners in the energy transition were mainly the Europeans, and Japan has had a very strong solar industry. And that early leadership of the 1990's and maybe the first couple years of this century was driven largely by government leadership, particularly in Europe. Generally Europe is a really slow-growing energy market, they don't tend to be very focused on technological innovation, but in this sector, because there was a political will to do something, they've really been at the forefront. Germany used to be the world leader in wind energy technology, but Germany has mediocre wind resources at best. A single US state (North Dakota, South Dakota, a few others) has better wind resources than all of Germany; and most other countries in Europe, too--France, Great Britain, have much better wind resources than Germany. But in Germany they had the political will to drive that innovation. The US was a renewable energy leader in the 1980's. We've been taking a bit of a sabbatical from the 1990's until now because of policy changes, we've become an also-ran, but now it's coming back and being led from Silicon Valley this time.

A group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who've been very successful in high-tech industries is now seeing it as another high-tech business opportunity. In fact, they've helped lead to the landmark climate legislation that California just passed, the carbon caps. The California Chamber of Commerce was opposed to it, because it has such a big constituency of energy-intensive industries; this small group of Silicon Valley investors couldn't talk the Chamber of Commerce into supporting the bill, but they talked to Schwarzenegger and said, basically, renewable energy is going to happen--do you want the innovation to happen in California, or do you want us to be buying our solar panels from China? And when he signed the bill, despite lots of opposition, he ended the election. He out-greened his Democratic opponent, you can't get greener than basically passing Kyoto for California when the national administration has avoided it; suddenly one of his opponent's biggest campaign points is gone.

India and China will also be very big contenders. As I said before, the richest man in China is a solar entrepreneur, and the seventh-richest man in India made his money in wind energy. They may end up being the leaders in wind and solar. You have to be very careful in the market's early days, because once a market gets established, there's infrastructure and investment and so on, it's very hard to break into that market later.

An Interview With Christopher Flavin is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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