Paul Hawken is one of America’s most respected environmental thinkers, as well as a successful entrepreneur, journalist, and best-selling author devoted to changing the relationship between business and the environment, and between human and living systems.
Hawken has founded numerous ecologically-oriented businesses while continually writing and teaching about the impact of commerce upon the environment, often consulted by world leaders on economic development and environmental policy. Hawken also coined the term “comprehensive outcome”, or full-cost accounting (that takes environmental considerations into economic calculations) as well as the concept of triple bottom line standards for sustainability.
He is the author of six books, including The Next Economy, Growing a Business (subject of a 17-part PBS series) Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution with Amory Lovins (described by President Bill Clinton as one of the five most important books in the world today), and the landmark The Ecology of Commerce, the latter of which was voted in 1998 as the #1 college text on business and the environment.
I spoke with Hawken a few months ago after he addressed the Sustainable Industries Economic Forum in Portland.
Q: A recent study found this region could achieve most of its future power needs over the next 20 years through energy efficiency. What do you see as the accompanying challenges and opportunities carrying forth this message to the public?
A: I think the demand side is still not well understood. 20 percent of all oil consumed was during the Bush administration, 50 percent during the last 20 years. But sometimes energy efficiency measures like double-glazing and insulation and sealants just don’t carry the day. You can’t write a big press release about a breakthrough in a sealant. Demand side is also very decentralized, so you’re not going to get a charismatic corporation that’s going to soar its stock values.
But the most energy we’ll ever get in the whole US is from building retrofits. It’s not going to be any other source. There is no other source that can supply as much energy as that, because it pays every year, delivers energy every year in the classic megawatt way.
So why isn’t the retrofitting wave bigger, or why don’t people fully understand the opportunity?
What I see missing is a real lack of organization and communication that really collages jobs, energy, security and prosperity. That circle has not been drawn up in such a way that the so-called person on the street without background in any of those areas can understand that is the way towards security, saving money, and creating jobs—those cascading benefits. People touch upon it, everyone from President Clinton to Van Jones. They talk about it in ways that are true and helpful and even inspiring. But I think it takes more than that to actually really make the case. It takes hard data, hard metrics, hard measurements that really show everything from individuals to institutions to governments to businesses and building owners and really where the money is.
There’s no job that creates more dollars per job than retrofits. It’s mostly labor and little material: it’s more labor intensive than material intensive. And yet the amount of energy per hour or per unit of work put in is the highest yield of any type of activity, including creating new power plants. Right now it’s just a lost opportunity.
In the building industry, a lot of attention has gone to new buildings, to living buildings, to Platinum this and that. But we can only build so many new buildings. We don’t even really need so many new buildings. The technology that we really need to be most interested in is retrofit technology. How do we make existing buildings as efficient as the best LEED Platinum building, or better? How do we make the first net-zero retrofitted buildings? Those opportunities are, I think, lacking because the case hasn’t been made well at a national, congressional levels or any other levels. It has been made, but I don’t think it’s been made in a very compelling way.
As I recall in the Northwest, saved energy costs 1.4 cents a kilowatt-hour. In California it’s 1.3 cents a kilowatt-hour because of variations in temperature and climate. So where can you get energy for 1.4 cents a kilowatt-hour? Nowhere in the world. And yet, there it is, and there’s more of that here than any other form of energy.
I just feel like whether it’s a coalition of groups, with businesses and nonprofits…there needs to be a coming together of people who want to do it, care about it, benefit from it, and really make the case powerfully, intensely and passionately so the public understands that we have, basically, five Saudi Arabias (worth of equivalent energy to oil) sitting in our buildings.
How much does the average person need to reduce his or her energy consumption?
Well, In order for us to make this transition, we cannot go over 2000 watts per person. That’s your total energy budget for the day. [The 2005 US average is 7,885.9 watts.]
People want to make a contribution yet often face disincentives. A renter, for example, living with drafty windows and an old furnace, may be bound by an owner unwilling to make those upgrades. Or a company’s efforts to green its supply chain can face a number of impediments.
There’s obviously disincentives. As a renter, maybe you’d be able to justify it if you thought about it, but you don’t really have the metrics to really understand what the payback would be if you were to change out the windows and the fueling system. What would be absolutely necessary to me is to get those incentives lined up so it’s a no-brainer, so the payoffs and the rate of return on investment are there. Right now the banks have their knickers all tied together. And so it seems to me that we have to look at what former governor John Kitzhaber has proposed here, and others, which is inter-generational financing. Basically we’re talking about spending money to save a lot of energy in the future and create jobs now. And yet nobody will finance it. A select few like Shorebank will, but it also tells you what everybody else is doing.
But the financial benefit is there.
If you look at the whole systems numbers, there is reward there. There is savings. There is a return on investment that is better than a CD or probably any equity investment. You’d have been better off changing out that furnace or those windows. It just isn’t apparent.
Looking ahead, what kind of future do you see for solar, wind and other alternative energy markets? Or what barriers do you see for those industries in making positive progress?
I think you’ll see a real growth in solar thermal, excepting that the siting issues are so complicated. It’s going to be slowed down by that. I think you’re seeing some breakthroughs in terms of storage, whether it’s molten salts or others. So I think solar thermal is going to be hampered by the fact that it’s centralized. Centralized means big footprint, and big footprint means permitting issues and all that sort of stuff.
What about wind?
I think wind is going to continue to get better and better, but it’s already running against what you’d call the best limit. You’re not going to get a lot more efficiency out of them. You can only make them bigger, which has its own problems. And there are some technologies coming that will be effective. But the biggest movement you’re going to see, or are seeing, is in solar photovoltaics.
But not necessarily silicon-based photovoltaics?
A square meter of land receives the same amount of energy in a year as a barrel of oil. Sunshine could power the whole world with 70 minutes a day. We have more capacity to make solar than the world needs.
Five and a half days of newsprint printed in the world, if it was printed as solar film, would be enough to substitute for all the energy needed in the world, once you get it up and wired. That’s how close we are.
But I think you’re going to see a move away from silicon because it’s too expensive and it’s too energy intensive, and towards thin film. On the PV side, you need intense energy to make it. It’s not really renewable and sustainable. It’s kind of like a dirty little secret.
There’s still a place for silicon panels because they can approach 100 percent efficiency. But you’re going to see thin-film probably creep out to about 12 or 14 percent over the next 10 years or sooner. But the cost of production is severely reduced versus silicon with very little heat and cheaper materials. What we’re working on is a little different from all those. It is thin film, and it’s printed like Nanosolar, but it can be self-assembled, all of the semiconductors are nontoxic, there’s no heat at all. Right now we’re looking at raw material production costs for a finished a panel at about 75 bucks. There’s nothing to it. You don’t need something that weights 15 pounds to collect a square meter of photon-particle waves.
I don’t think there’s any question that within five years solar power will be the cheapest electricity in the world. No question. I put hydro aside, because what really is the price of hydroelectricity? What do we really lose in the Columbia in the Snake with salmon runs? The meter is cheaper, but putting that aside, whether it’s renewable or non-renewable, I think the cheapest energy in the world is going to be solar photovoltaic. And I think it’s thin-film technology that more than any other that will be able to ramp up the quickest in terms of replacing carbon-based energy. You still have storage problems with solar, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on solar photovoltaic.
How low on fossil fuels is the world getting today?
20 percent of all oil consumed was during the Bush administration, 50 percent during the last 20 years. The biggest oil field discovered 30 years ago. It took 31 years to bring that field up in the Caspian Sea. Now there’s a field in Brazil. It’s 16,000 feet down. There’s almost a mile of salt. We’re talking 200-300 billion dollars to get down there, and it’ll be gone in 16 months.
But we also need fossil fuels to make the transition away from. We’re in the “red green dilemma”. We’re going deeper to get water, we need more electricity and fuel. As we materialize in the world, we need more copper, zinc, iron. The problem is we’re in the marginal areas in terms of minerals as well. The first class mines have been mined out. These demands…the faster we go, the faster we’re going nowhere. It’s taking more energy just to stay where we are. The transition has to be really well thought about.
What you said about hydroelectric power and uncalculated environmental costs resembles a term you first coined several years ago, the “comprehensive outcome” principle: - taking account of the entire result of an event or process to all parties, not just the immediate participants. Has much progress has been made in this kind of economic reform?
I think progress is being made everywhere. I think the question is whether the rate is speeding up as fast as the rate of degradation. The answer still is no. That increased understanding, though quite phenomenal, is masked heavily by the media. If you watch it, you’d think nothing’s changed. Because it is advertiser-driven. It’s masked heavily by the US Congress. Are we up a creek without a paddle? I don’t think that’s true. If those are your sole sources of information, I can understand the confusion. What I see in my work with governement, NGOs and corporations is an explosion of understanding and literacy that is systemic, that is systems based, that is looking at, as you say, comprehensive outcome. I see a generation coming out of specialized schools like Bainbridge and more non-traditional high schools and coming out with clear understandings of the problems at hand.
What do you enjoy the most about your job and what, if anything, keeps you awake at night?
It’s always great to go out in the world, like today, to meet people and find out that prior books had helped people. When you’re writing, you’re alone and sometimes it’s kind of a lonely thing. But the thing that probably most excites me is working with John Warner and Janine Benyus called OneSun. There are 1.6 billion people in the world who don’t have electricity, and we think we can provide a very inexpensive form of electricity that, with microfinance, would cost them pennies a day to run all the basic needs they would have in terms of a laptop and cell phone and lights and ceiling fan and whatever else. That’s the most exciting thing right now. What I love right now is the singularity of what I’m doing.
If we fail, which we might, at least I’ll still feel good about it. I’d rather fail at something important than succeed at something that’s trivial. But I think we will succeed. And we’re having a lot of fun doing it.
The capacity for human beings to mobilize can be quite astonishing. I work in a building that was built by Bechtel during World War II for shipbuilding. At a certain point they were turning out one per day, a 7 thousand ton steel boat, using unskilled workers, no computers, just blueprints and pencils. That capacity is there. What’s missing is that sense of peril or imperative that would drive us to do that. I say, “Bring it on.” We have the capacity and the science to do this.