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An optimistic look at ways regulation and the profit motive, together, can inspire entrepreneurs and engineers to fight climate change.

Earth: The Sequel
The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming
by Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn,
W.W. Norton & Co., 256 pps.

With both presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama signaling their support, the push for federal oversight of carbon emissions is gaining momentum. Several U.S. states have already set carbon limits, and companies are cutting emissions in anticipation of stricter regulation. Yet the disagreement over how to regulate these limits — through a tax or cap-and-trade system — helped defeat a recent bill in Congress. Joining the debate, the authors of Earth: The Sequel. The Race to Reinvent Energy and Stop Global Warming offer an argument for cap-and-trade. Limiting the emissions allowed to companies while permitting those who stay below the limit to sell unused allotments would introduce a strong market dynamic to galvanize green activity, Fred Krupp and Miriam Horn believe.

As president of the Environmental Defense Fund, Krupp helped formulate a similar initiative to combat acid rain. When the resulting 1990 Clean Air Act mandated a 50 percent reduction in sulfur dioxide, U.S. firms were moved to act. But it was the possibility of trading allotments that “completely transformed the paradigm that had historically pitted environmentalism against economic growth,” the authors write. Once fighting pollution became profitable, utilities began funding research, and within five years had cut emissions by a full 80 percent, even as they increased productivity.

Krupp and Horn assert that a new cap-and-trade climate law could be equally effective. The evidence they offer is persuasive, demonstrating both the tremendous potential of green technologies and the financial boost trading could provide small-time entrepreneurs.

While espousing the benefits of cap-and-trade, Earth: The Sequel mainly focuses on current efforts underway to harness clean forms of energy or reformulate existing coal technology. Chapters on solar, biofuels, ocean and geothermal energy and coal conversion showcase attempts to produce revolutionary solar “thin films”; capture coastal wave energy; and gasify, then sequester emissions from coal plants, the country’s largest polluters. The authors’ examination of each project and the specific science and technology involved — as well as successive attempts, failures and reformulations — makes for compelling reading.

Engineers are at the helm of many of these developments. Take, for instance, Bill Gross, whose company, Energy Innovation, seeks to slash the cost and expanse of photovoltaic systems by producing optic devices that concentrate the sun’s power. With the current technology, powering a city the size of San Francisco would require four square miles of silicon, but Energy Innovation’s solar concentrators would reduce that mass to less than two city blocks.

Another engineer, Neil Renninger of Amyris Biotechnologies, has teamed with a biochemist and biologist to transform yeast cells into a biofuel that is cheaper, more efficient and less polluting than ethanol. The profile of these three researchers takes us from their graduate days at Berkeley to creation of a breakthrough malaria drug and subsequent quest to tackle America’s fuel problem.

Throughout the book, the authors pay attention to companies’ business models, exploring innovative solutions to the high cost of going green. In California’s Silicon Valley, for example, several solar companies formed the SolarTech consortium to arrange “power purchase agreements” for their customers. Under this system, Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and others sign long-term electricity leases with banks, which assume the ownership and cost of operating these firms’ solar panels.

Bernie Karl’s story provides another kind of model, that of constructive failure. The first two times this die-hard entrepreneur sought to build an Alaskan ice resort, millions of investment dollars simply melted away. The third time proved the charm, when Karl harnessed the power of the local hot springs to generate 15 tons of refrigeration per day. Along the way, he became a true believer — and pioneer — in geothermal energy, eventually helping United Technologies Corp. to manufacture a local power plant. UTC has gone on to develop other small-scale commercial plants, while Karl is taking his geothermal advocacy all the way to the White House.

Although readers may find it difficult to keep up with all the examples in this book, their sheer number underscores the authors’ hopeful point that worthwhile energy-saving models abound. The concluding chapters of Earth: The Sequel quickly highlight numerous modest efforts, from cities’ replacement of incandescent lights to energy-efficient flat-screen TVs and software that powers down idle computers in schools and businesses.

But time is running out for the country as a whole. The U.S. remains the only developed nation that fails to cap carbon emissions even as it contributes heavily to the world’s greenhouse gases. Despite the challenges, the authors remain optimistic. Americans “have the talent and a brief window of time to create the world of possibilities,” they conclude. “All we need is the resolve.”


Robin Tatu is a senior editor of Prism.




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