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Mr. Sun goes to China

Part 1 October 2011


Flattered that I had been asked to speak again at the upcoming 2012 Low Carbon Earth Summit, I enthusiastically set about writing my abstract and preparing a new Power Point. The first conference was exactly a year before in Dalian China, a beautiful modern northeast coast city bigger than Chicago but unheard of by most Americans. I easily clocked one hundred hours of preparation to give an audience of world-class energy leaders a perspective that would be appreciated from the high altitude at which they fly.


It was humbling to be among such a distinguished group of renowned experts. Most of them had PhDs after their names and held significant positions in business, industry and science. As a solar contractor from Portland, Oregon I felt like a sapling in the middle of a Redwood forest. Still my presentation entitled, “Super Energy Efficient Buildings” was well received even by the architects from Europe and Asia who were part of the Green Buildings Forum with whom I was clustered. 


I highlighted three projects in Portland: The LEED Platinum OHSU Riverfront building, the Mr. Sun Solar building, a retrofit 10,000 square foot zero-net energy commercial-industrial facility near the Portland Airport, and the newly designed Sun Townhomes project of zero-net energy row houses to be built in John’s Landing. I was proud of what we’re doing in Oregon, especially compared to sunnier places, demonstrating that with good design that puts energy first we can achieve remarkable results. With an audience who knew well that more than half of the energy used in the world is used in buildings, certainly my topic was on point.


Although many were surprised that in Portland we could do commercial, industrial, and residential buildings where 100% of the annual energy used is renewable and is generated on site, several came up to me afterwards saying they had heard good things about Oregon and were happy to see some real examples.  


Far greater than what I presented was what I learned. I was dazzled by the fact that on some sunny days in summer Germany virtually powered the whole country with solar energy. A chemist from du Pont unveiled a new heat transfer fluid, DR2, which offers dramatic efficiencies for industrial processes, heat pumps and geothermal systems.  An aviation engineer announced new jet engines that can fly on bio-fuels. I saw presentations on electric vehicles that operate at 1/10th the cost of fossil fueled vehicles. Imagine paying the equivalent of 40 cents per gallon of gas with clean electricity generated by the wind and the sun. To my surprise I learned that all-electric buses had been introduced in public transportation systems in China and Europe. I saw some of the near whale-sized EVs with my own eyes.


After the weeklong summit, I spoke at several universities in China.  Students were wide-eyed to hear about all I had just learned. I observed while lecturing that Chinese students are polite listeners but I wanted to dialog with them.  So I handed out copies of my book to students who challenged me with good questions.  This sparked some really good discussion.

When I got home people asked,  “How was your trip and how was the conference?”  I answered, “It was the most significant thing I’ve done in my entire career.”  I knew then, if asked, I would go back.


Part 2 October 2012


I just finished attending and speaking at the 2012 Low Carbon Earth Summit in Guangzhou, China.  What an experience!  Speakers, mostly scientists and PhD's from 52 countries, shared their knowledge about solar, wind, wave energy, geothermal, concentrating solar thermal, carbon sequestration, electric vehicles, zero net energy homes, and even zero net energy cities.  The theme was “Pathway to 2020.”


Dr. Mohan Munasinghe ¬– a 2007 Nobel Prize winner from Sri Lanka and Vice-Chair of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - gave the first plenary address. He spoke movingly about the social element of climate change and gave a call for all countries and all people to embrace the challenge.


Then as if standing atop Mt. Everest exhorting the world from a global perspective, Dr. Gustav Grob from Switzerland – perhaps the greatest living solar advocate for his work in Germany, China, and around the world – assured us with his “State of the Planet” address that what we must do can be done. My brain and heart were throbbing from Gustav’s speech. All in attendance resonated on his wavelength throughout the conference.


A dazzling array of speakers followed conducting dozens of workshops. A chemical engineer from MIT has come up with a way to sequester CO2 directly from the exhaust stack of a concrete plant. A 250 mega-watt wave energy project in South Korea delivers base load power 16 hours a day from the reliable gyrations of the ocean. The 4,000 megawatt-hours per day produced are enough to power several cities the size of Eugene. What a resounding rebuttal to naysayers who insist that renewable energy sources such as wind and solar aren’t viable because they are intermittent! The ocean isn’t intermittent; and neither are geothermal and concentrating solar thermal systems, both of which are capable of generating 24 hours a day. These technologies afford enough terra-watts to power the earth indefinitely.  Let’s hear coal, oil, or gas say that!


Besides the big 4 (solar, wind, wave, and geothermal) we learned how hydrogen, ammonia, and methanol could be piped and converted to energy with no carbon dioxide by-product. I came away thinking I should start about 10 new businesses. There are so many good ideas just waiting for entrepreneurs to use them and show what can be done.


The Germans, who were there en masse, continued to amaze me. Germany is by far the world leader with installed solar and wind already providing 30% of the country’s energy.  Now they have a firm plan to be 100% renewable by mid-century even with closing all of the nuclear plants that currently provide 25% of the nation’s energy. 


A scientist from Norway who monitors climate in the far north, where the effects of global warming are more pronounced, reported that this last winter at the North Pole was 11 degrees C (20 degrees F), hotter than average.  He said, "Imagine if where you live was that much hotter."  For us, in Portland, an 85-degree summer would be 105 degrees. The chart that I’ve used in my lectures showing the polar icecap 25% less the size in 2009 as in 1979 has been reduced another 25% of our most recent summer. Yikes!


An elegant and sensitive Frenchman who worked in a refugee camp sponsored by the United Nations wept at one point while delivering his presentation called, “Solar for the Most Deprived.”  He showed us a portable cardboard solar cooker like one of hundreds that were used to cook food for 20,000 refugees who were safely located and attended to in North Africa.  His was a proper and poignant ending to a provocative and exhilarating summit.


I followed the Frenchman and spoke on solar hot water, the relationship between affluence and hot water usage, and the necessity for the world to use solar energy for heating water as worldwide affluent populations grow much faster than the general population. 


I’m off now to Beijing to meet with my publisher.  It’s official:  “FOOTPRINT: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Extinction,” which was written primarily to the American and Chinese audience, will be published in Chinese.  After Beijing I’ll go to Jinzhou to speak at two universities.


The Third Low Carbon Earth Summit is already planned for this time next year in Chengdu, China.  If asked, I know already, “I’ll be back!”

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