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Climate change: a threat and a chance at change

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By Mary Kuhlman

A renowned climatologist and public science educator says, in a sense, climate change is an opportunity.

Richard Alley, geosciences professor at Penn State University, was the host of the PBS miniseries Earth: The Operators' Manual. While he says climate change poses a significant threat to the planet, he adds that we now have a chance to change the entire way humans make and use energy.

According to Alley, humans have spent hundreds of thousands of years burning through a series of energy sources - wood, whale oil, and now fossil fuels.

"We're the first generation that knows how to get off the treadmill," says Alley. "We know how to build an economical, sustainable energy system without changing the climate and without running out of trees or whales."

Alley says one way to help make sure the transition happens is to implement the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan. Under the proposal, Indiana will reduce carbon emissions from existing power plants by 20 percent - compared with 2005 levels - by the year 2030.

Some coal and oil executives say climate change is a hoax. Alley says among scientists there's no question that climate change is not only real, but is very serious and demonstrably caused by humans. He adds that small-scale, decentralized energy production is starting to do for the electricity grid what the Internet did for telecommunications.

"You can make power on your house with your solar cells, make power with wind, and you can have some batteries," he says. "You can be a buyer, you can be a seller. A lot of sources, a lot of diversity. And that is robust against fluctuation."

Alley says the transition can be seen as a profound step in human history. He compares it to when humans stopped being hunters and gatherers, and instead shifted to agriculture.

"When our ancestors switched to farming food, they learned to make the earth give a whole lot more food," he says. "We can make a whole lot more energy that really can do a lot of good for a lot of people in a lot of places."

Engineers looking to make the grid more stable and flexible are considering several creative ideas, including using electric cars and water heaters as a giant, distributed battery. Alley says these could provide a way to get energy when demand temporarily outstrips supply.

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