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Why aren't we harnessing waste heat?

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And yet, change is not impossible. In fact, judging from past examples, Sean Casten, Tom Casten's son and CEO of Recycled Energy Development, argues that rapid change — quicker than what's proposed in the climate bill currently in the Senate — is quite possible.

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In an online essay, he points out that in the 1970s after various government programs went into effect, oil use fell by 17 percent. In the same period, economic production increased by 27 percent. The US's consumption of foreign oil dropped by half in a little over five years.
New policies sparked a similar, radical shift in 1998, he says, when government "mandated non-discriminatory access to the transmission grid." Private companies could finally transmit energy they generated.

In just 10 years, these entrepreneurs added almost 200 gigawatts capacity to US electrical generation potential. That's double what US nuclear reactors supplied. Therein lies a lesson, says Sean Casten: The country's first 800 gigawatts of capacity took nearly a century to get up and running. But after deregulation, it took only decade to increase that to 1000 GW.

And this acceleration happened without any public investment whatsover. Private money fueled the growth. Simply opening up the electric grid to the private profit incentive — a first in US history — could work wonders. These same lessons apply to the current debate around energy and mitigation of climate change, says Casten.

And he concludes his essay by calling for more ambitious energy policies:

[O]ur climate debate remains mired in the swamp of diminished expectations. Policymakers seem to think they have to treat energy companies with kid gloves — as if demanding big changes will somehow be too much for them to bear, resulting in a devastating blow to our economy. But this view simply doesn’t square with history. With even minor reforms, enormous changes can occur.
The climate debate tends to be framed by armies of lobbyists who support specific technologies — coal, nuclear, renewable, carbon sequestration — and argue about which of these approaches should be near-term winners and losers of government largess. Yet more dramatic change is clearly possible. History suggests that the pace of greenhouse-gas reductions can be vastly quicker and cheaper than we anticipate. Why couldn’t we replace 2% percent of today’s fleet with cleaner technologies each year, as we already shown possible after the 1992 EPACT? Why couldn’t we move even faster and replace 5% per year as New England has demonstrated? Might it be possible to move faster still?
History provides us optimistic answers to these questions, and suggests that our optimism is much more likely to be limited by our ambition than any capital, technical, thermodynamic or commercial constraint. Tackling climate change and changing the electricity system can be easier, cheaper, and faster than we think. Once we start.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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