More Power? No, More Empowerment! - Pacific Standard

More Power? No, More Empowerment!

Nobel laureate Walter Kohn is bullish on renewable energy but sees the answer to global energy woes as population stabilization through the education of women.
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Few sectors have weathered the economic storm as well as renewable energy.

During 2009, America's wind power capacity increased by an enviable 39 percent, and the global wind energy market was expected to grow 25 percent. Wind energy has been on the up and up for years now, and solar power has made similarly impressive gains.

If those trends continue, wind and solar power could together be the world's dominant energy source by 2021, according to Nobel laureate-turned-clean-energy-crusader Walter Kohn.

"It's something I foresee and hope for," says Kohn, a nuclear physicist who has spent the last decade or so pushing solar and wind power. (He dismisses nuclear energy because of the potential for proliferation, and biofuels because they require so much water to produce).

Kohn's vision — which he'll discuss in a forthcoming book — isn't some far-fetched greenie fantasy, he argues, but a feasible goal that would mark "a real revolution."

His 2021 estimate is based on calculations that assume no new technology or plunging prices, just that the supply of wind and sun and the raw materials required to transform them into megawatts is essentially inexhaustible, and that the capacity for renewable energy generation continues to grow at the rate it has in recent years.

"We're coming to the end of an age of oil," Kohn said during a speech in the building at the University of California, Santa Barbara, that bears his name: Kohn Hall, which houses the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, which he founded.

Getting there won't be easy, Kohn acknowledges.

"It will make enormous demands on our economy," he says, and with all the work required to roll out the necessary infrastructure, "there won't be any unemployment."

It will be a tough road, for sure, but Kohn's optimism is buoyed by news of groundbreaking clean energy projects like the European Union's "Desertec" plan to deploy solar arrays and wind turbines in the Sahara desert to supply power to Africa and Western Europe.

Yes, energy conservation and increased energy efficiency are important, Kohn says, and technologies like carbon sequestration could someday help, but he sees one standout strategy for addressing 21st-century energy needs and curbing climate change: population stabilization.

Kohn isn't pushing a dictatorial approach like China's one-child edict, or some "totally unacceptable, undemocratic way" of halting population growth. The most cost-effective strategy, he says, is to give women around the globe just as much education as men. Since women with more education have fewer children, "the rest takes care of itself."

Kohn sees most of the progress in that area coming from within women's home countries, although he believes the United States can help by educating women-carefully chosen for their potential to effect change-from developing countries.

Despite predictions that 9 billion people will share the planet by 2040, Kohn believes it's possible to stabilize the world's population by the middle of this century. Achieving that by giving women a better education, he says, "is hard to argue with."

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