Visions of a post-carbon civilization

From Planning Magazine April 2011

Jeremy Rifkin’s Revolution

By Timothy Beatley

Few individuals have thought more carefully than writer Jeremy Rifkin about how our planet will make the transition from fossil fuels to more renewable forms of energy. In books like The Hydrogen Economy, The European Dream, and most recently, The Empathic Civilization, he has shown us where we need to go — and how hard it will be to get there.

I had the chance late last year to talk with Rifkin about his ideas for what he calls the Third Industrial Revolution. He believes that we must move quickly to lay the foundations for a post-carbon civilization that is less materialistic and more centered on the health of the biosphere. Time is running out on our oil-based global economy, he says. He refers to the growing consensus that peak oil is a real phenomenon, with most experts disagreeing only about the time frame (10 years? 20 years? sooner?).

For Rifkin, the most telling event took place in 2008, when the global price of a barrel of oil rose to $147, causing widespread food riots, followed soon after by the collapse of the financial markets. To him, this was a powerful signal of the beginning of the end for our current oil-soaked life style.

We tend to forget how profoundly oil affects our lives: “Most people think of it as petrol for the car. But all the construction materials are petrochemical. … It’s all carbon,” he says. A more important concept than peak production is peak production per capita. The average amount of oil available per person has been in decline since 1979. “We have found more oil since then, but population grew quicker,” he adds.

With declining oil, everything will change, and we have a narrow window to head off disaster. The first step in Rifkin’s plan is to shift to a “distributed network” of renewable energy. That means we must reimagine every office building and every home as a mini power station. The result will be the “democratization of energy.” He argues against the approach that relies on large, centralized production facilities (solar arrays in Greece, wind farms in Ireland) that require energy to be transmitted over long distances. He believes instead in looking for renewable energy closer to home.

There are 191 million buildings in the European Union, he says, and all of them could be producing power. The trick is to find ways to store and share this energy. The first is accomplished through a variety of potential storage technologies, although he believes hydrogen holds the greatest promise. Plug-in vehicles will also help with storage. Sharing energy will be accomplished through highly interconnected smart grids (what Rifkin calls an “intergrid”) that function like the Internet, decentralized and collaborative. In his vision, “millions of buildings are collecting energy, even a little bit of surplus. They store it and ship it.”

One striking example is the Elithis Tower, in Dijon, France (headquarters of Elithis Engineering), which is purported to be the world’s first “positive energy” office building. The 54,000-square-foot structure, completed in 2009, was designed to use a miniscule amount of energy compared with conventional office buildings (only about 20 kilowatts per square meter, or five percent of the French average). A distinctive “solar shield” on the south facade reduces summer heat loads, and the relatively narrow 10-story building allows cross-ventilation and admits daylight throughout. The roof is entirely covered with photovoltaic panels that produce the electricity needed for the building. By 2020, all new buildings in France will be similarly positive-energy.

What it means for planning

The implications for planning in all this are considerable. Adjusting codes and facilitating rooftop and neighborhood energy production remain significant tasks. In addition, much investment in infrastructure is needed, and incentives must be put in place to move us toward this new global model. Rifkin endorses the sort of feed-in tariffs that exist in Europe and parts of Canada (a guaranteed price that utilities must pay small energy producers), and he envisions new housing finance instruments such as “green mortgages” that will encourage homebuyers to produce power.

There is a social vision here as well, including a marked shift away from lifestyles dominated by material consumption to ones that emphasize relationships, quality of life, and community (themes Rifkin explored in The European Dream). He points to evidence that humans are more inherently cooperative than we commonly think, and he has amassed a convincing set of data and trends (from religion to language to travel) that suggest that global empathy is on the rise.

It’s no surprise that Rifkin’s ideas have had more traction in Europe than in the U.S. Indeed, he has developed a Third Industrial Revolution strategy for the European Union. He has also worked on an ambitious master plan for Rome, which aims to become the “world’s first post-carbon biosphere city.”  At least some elements of his vision have a foothold in such diverse American cities as San Francisco, Houston, and New York, where support for distributed forms of renewable energy is growing. And on a national scale, we have made much progress in green building. A significant achievement is the requirement that all new federal buildings must be net-zero (producing as much energy as they require) by 2030. That’s not quite as sweeping as the French requirement, but certainly it pushes new office design in the direction of Rifkin’s vision.

Whether we can make the transition to Rifkin’s Third Industrial Revolution soon enough to do any good is still unclear. There is no doubt, however, that we need to begin in earnest very soon.

Timothy Beatley is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities at the University of Virginia.

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