On a conference call Wednesday, I asked Lester R. Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, whether the recent financial meltdown would effect the burgeoning solar, wind, and geothermal industries. He responded that while investment of all kinds will be more difficult, a renewable energy jobs program could provide the same kind of stimulus that the Works Projects Administration did in the 1930s if we slip into a deep recession or even a depression. But beyond that, it seems clear from his view of the current energy scene, that renewable energy will be “The great growth industry of the 21st century,” as he put it, even out-performing the information revolution of the 1990s.

Lester presented quite a bit of evidence to back up his claim — you can see his summary here and the background data here.

Brown thinks that we are moving toward a society that is largely powered by green electricity. In fact, he thinks that transportation can be powered primarily from green electricity as well via plug-in hybrids, high-speed intercity trains, and light rail. He pointed out that while the 20th century mainly saw the globalization of energy, particularly in the case of oil, the 21st century will see the localization of energy in the form of electricity generated from local wind, solar, and geothermal sources.

So what do we need to accelerate this renewable expansion even further? Brown laid out a few big ideas: first, extending the tax credits which went into the bailout bill; second, pushing for a shift of most of the 230 million car fleet to plug-in hybrids, both through programs to junk gas guzzlers and to encourage buying plug-ins; third, developing a national grid, in an effort that would be similar to the one that built the Interstate Highway System; and fourth, using this transition as a way to provide millions of new jobs, both for renewable energy and for efficiency.

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I asked Brown if intermittency problems could be overcome — that is, the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun doesn’t always shine. Brown cited research done at Stanford University which concluded that, if a national grid with nationally distributed wind farms were fully developed, it would in effect act like baseload capacity, that is, there would always be enough electricity being generated somewhere to fill most immediate needs.

He also pointed out that nuclear power plants have their own intermittency problems — there were over 50 shutdowns last year alone — and no one is advocating building backup nuclear power plants. A national grid with a large number of well-distributed electricity generators is constantly experiencing changes in capacity, no matter what the source.

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Brown also suggested that we have not begun to use advances in information technology to manage consumer demand. For instance, we should be able to allow people to do their laundry when electricity is cheapest. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal asked if it will be a problem to use eminent domain to create the corridors necessary for long transmission lines, and Brown said that that could be a problem, but those were overcome during the construction of the Interstate Highway System and could be in this case as well. The reporter also asked whether the decline in oil prices will impact the clean energy expansion; Brown feels that the long-term rise of oil prices in inevitable, and price volatility of oil is high, so wind and solar expansion will not be interrupted by oil price declines, unlike in the past.

Brown ended by relating the story of the legal case of a Greenpeace protest in the U.K., in which the protesters were arrested for preventing the construction of a coal-fired power plant. They were found innocent, because the judge found that just as firefighters are not liable for knocking down a door to fight a fire, people are justified in creating some damage in order to prevent even greater damage to the planet.

Renewable energy is absolutely critical to the long-term functioning of both the biosphere and the global economy. If we do the right thing, we will move as quickly as possible from a fossil fuel-based civilization to one built on wind, solar, and geothermal. This move is not a lost cost, it is an investment, a critical investment, more important than our current financial bailout.

For a thorough analysis of our global problems and solutions, you should read Brown’s most recent book, Plan B, Version 3.0: Mobilizing to save civilization.