HERE COMES THE SUN
Energy policy became a hot issue when electricity prices skyrocketed and blackouts occurred in the West in 2000; then came the Enron debacle and concerns about national security after 9/11. Whether or not Congress passes comprehensive energy legislation this year, the energy problems this country faces will not be resolved. National security, air and water pollution, public health, economic development and energy security are all linked to the way in which the United States currently uses energy. Using energy more efficiently—in our buildings, cars and appliances—and tapping our vast renewable energy resources can bring about a clean, healthy energy future for the United States.
National security, which is threatened by tensions in the Middle East, is exacerbated by America’s thirst for oil and its increasing dependence on foreign sources. Two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are in the Middle East. In 1973, when Americans experienced a major oil price shock, the United States imported 37 percent of its oil from foreign sources; now oil imports represent 57 percent of oil use.
The average American consumes six times more energy than the average world citizen. Where does the United States get its energy? Fossil fuels (oil, natural gas and coal) and nuclear energy provide 93 percent of the country’s energy. Only seven percent of this country’s total energy use comes from renewable energy, despite our abundant resources of wind, solar, geothermal and biomass. Furthermore, most of our environmental problems—air, soil and water pollution and global warming—are caused by the combustion of fossil fuels.
The transportation sector accounts for two-thirds of U.S. oil consumption, providing a huge opportunity to decrease oil imports. This can be done in the following ways: 1) replace petroleum with cleaner, renewable fuels, like ethanol and biodiesel; 2) make vehicles more energy-efficient—the electric hybrids marketed by Toyota and Honda are good examples; and 3) encourage smart growth and public transit, thereby decreasing vehicle miles traveled by individuals.
Renewable energy technologies, such as biomass, geothermal, solar and wind, are naturally replenishing sources of energy which offer a multitude of benefits: less pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, stable fuel supplies and prices, non-imported energy and increased economic growth among others.
Biomass, the world’s oldest source of energy, refers to organic matter—trees, grasses, agricultural crops and residues, animal waste and municipal solid waste—that can be converted to fuels, electricity and heat energy. Biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, can be produced domestically in all parts of the United States, keeping energy dollars at home instead of exporting them to the Middle East.
Agriculture can play a vital role in developing renewable energy resources—utilizing energy crops, crop wastes, solar-powered water pumps, wind turbines and methane digesters (to capture the energy in manure). This year Congress recognized the value of agriculture in energy production and climate protection by including, for the first time in the 2002 Farm Bill, an energy title that would help farmers and ranchers make energy efficiency improvements and develop and market their renewable energy resources. Renewable energy can be a new cash crop!
Geothermal energy is derived from the Earth’s heat and can be used to produce electricity or directly as hot water to provide space-heating. The United States currently generates geothermal electric power equivalent to output of four large nuclear power plants. The installed energy capacity of direct-use applications in the United States is equivalent to saving four million barrels of oil for electricity production.
The thermal energy in the upper six miles of the earth’s crust amounts to an estimated 50,000 times more energy than all the gas and oil resources in the world. Geothermal energy is an especially valuable resource in the West, where Nevada, California and Utah currently lead the country in its production. Geothermal energy began supplying a measurable amount of power in 1960 and currently costs five to eight cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).
The geothermal industry is a $1.5 billion a year enterprise. Geothermal projects produce 15 to 20 times less carbon dioxide emissions than the cleanest fossil-fuel power plants, while emitting less sulfur dioxide and particulate matter.
According to solar energy experts, if solar cells (photovoltaics) were put on the rooftops of the 10 largest retail chains (K-Mart, Target, Wal-Mart, etc.), the total electricity produced could power the entire United States. Solar energy is the world’s most abundant energy source and can be used to produce electricity and heat water. Domestic sales of photovoltaics doubled in 1999, and photovoltaic costs have plummeted from one dollar per kWh in 1980 to 20 cents per kWh in 2000. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that costs will be cut in half again in the next few years. Solar water-heating, which is cost competitive in much of the country, is used in 2.1 million buildings in the U.S., while Tokyo, Japan, alone, has more than one million buildings using it.
If you drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike near Somerset County, you will see six large turbines turning in the wind, creating electricity with no pollution, and providing economic growth for the region. There are now “wind farms” in Texas, Iowa, New York, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington and California. According to the U.S. wind industry, they employ more than 2,000 people and contribute directly to the economies of 46 states with power plants and manufacturing facilities.
Currently, the United States generates enough wind energy to power one million average American households. Wind energy could provide 20 percent of the nation’s electricity needs with turbines installed on less than 1 percent of its land area. And within that area, less than 5 percent of the land would be occupied by wind equipment. Wind, a gigantic resource in the Great Plains, is available across the entire country.
Wind is the world’s fastest growing energy resource, up 113 percent from 1989 to 2000, although still a small portion of the world’s electricity supply. The cost of wind energy has declined by more than 80 percent since the 1980s to approximately four to six cents per kWh in 2000, and costs are projected to decrease further.
What will it take to get more renewable energy in everyday use? To help American consumers obtain renewable energy, renewable energy technologies must be allowed access to the electricity grid and a more level playing field with conventional fossil-energy technologies. To achieve this, federal, state and local governments must implement policy changes including: 1) interconnection and net-metering standards that allow connection of renewable energy to the electrical grid; 2) renewable energy technology tax incentives; 3) a renewable portfolio standard, which requires a certain percentage of electricity generated to be derived from renewable energy sources; 4) a renewable fuels standard, which requires a certain amount of transportation fuels to be derived from biofuels; 5) a public benefits fund, funded by a small fee on power transmission for state and local energy efficiency and renewable energy development programs; 6) federal, state and local government purchase of renewable energy for government facilities and transportation fleets; and 7) further federal investment in research and development in clean energy technologies.
Federal investment in renewable energy technologies in the form of research and development and tax incentives began after the oil embargo of 1973 caused a quadrupling of energy prices. After more than 20 years of federal support, renewable energy has yet to achieve a high level of market penetration or a growing market share among other energy sources. According to Resources for the Future, this is mainly because of decreasing fossil-fuel and electricity prices during that period. However, also during this period, costs for renewable energy technologies have declined in amounts equal to or exceeding projections.
In trying to level the playing field, it is extremely important to realize that the federal government continues to provide stronger financial support to mature and highly profitable technologies like coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power in comparison to emerging renewable energy technologies. From 1973 through 1998, the federal government spent $43.2 billion on nuclear energy, $21.1 billion on fossil energy and only $11.7 billion on renewable energy. For each federal dollar spent on renewable energy research and development, five and a half dollars were spent on research and development for fossil and nuclear energy. Fossil and nuclear energy have been heavily subsidized for half a century!
Today’s energy trends show that the United States is continuing down a destructive path of ever-increasing consumption of polluting, conventional sources of energy. In countless polls, Americans have indicated strong support for using renewable energy. American voters of the 21st century deserve a clean, healthy, reliable energy future, and U.S. foreign policy should not be held hostage to dependence on oil imports. Just as investment advisors urge a diversified portfolio, the U.S. energy sector should also be diversified to include large contributions from renewable energy sources—solar, wind, biomass and geothermal. The time has come.
Written by: Beth Bleil & Carol Werner
Beth Bleil is Policy Associate and Carol Werner is Executive Director of the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
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