Electric Currents

This just in from the Cato Institute: Renewable energy is “expensive, environmentally counterproductive and unsustainable.” Cato President Robert L. Bradley says that electricity from renewable energy plants “is, on average, twice as expensive as electricity from the most economical fossil-fuel alternative.” There’s a reason for that, and Cato-an influential conservative think-tank-should take some of the blame. Renewable prices go down as production increases, and it was Cato’s allies in the Reagan and Bush administrations-great friends of the coal and nuclear industries-who cut the subsidies that were nurturing a fledgling industry. As quickly as President Carter could install solar panels on the roof of the White House, Reagan had them taken down and relegated to a Virginia warehouse to collect dust.

Solar architect Steven J. Strong says that Reagan’s policy of slashing funding for renewables cut the industry off at its knees. “I’m very bitter about what Reagan did to the solar industry,” he says. “I saw a lot of my friends lose their businesses, go bankrupt, lose their homes. It was not just a lack of enthusiasm for renewables. It was a deliberate, vindictive and orchestrated campaign to snuff it out in as forceful and as vehement a manner as they could.” Strong has a point-the official neglect killed a growing industry. In 1980, the U.S. had 233 solar collector manufacturers, shipping 19,398 units; by 1992, there were only 45 manufacturers, shipping 7,000 units.

Photo © Rosenfeld Images Ltd/Rainbow

Solar cell production is once more on the rise, and prices are coming down as efficiency goes up. Photo Rosenfeld Images Ltd/Rainbow.

Hal Harvey, executive director of The Energy Foundation, points out that relatively low fossil fuel prices don’t reflect their true costs. Plant stacks emit carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. CO2, for instance, accounts for over 5.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases discharged globally each year. Per capita emissions in the U.S. are 500 times those of China and India. “Renewable energy has minimal environmental impact,” Harvey says. “The question is, should we make an investment to make these technologies fully competitive? The cost for that would be only a few billion dollars, not that much for a nation whose annual energy bill is $500 billion.”

After almost 20 years in the wilderness, renewable energy is making a comeback, fueled by rising oil prices, a disintegrating nuclear industry, concern over global warming and increased demand abroad.

From the Ashes

More than 1,700 shiny, black solar panels surround the now-defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant, sparkling under a steady Sacramento, California sun. The concrete cooling towers stand idle, awaiting a new life as a solar cell manufacturing plant. In Rancho Seco’s wake, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) operates the largest municipal solar energy plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 700 homes. SMUD’s combination of renewable energy sources-including wind turbines, biomass facilities, geothermal stations, solar cell (photovoltaic, or PV) arrays and solar thermal heating-provide half of the county’s energy needs, which is saying a lot for the fifth largest utility in the country. “Our customers really focused us on renewables, and the timing was good,” says SMUD’s Stephanie McCorkle.

SMUD is a realistic, modern model for America’s renewable energy future. As electric utilities nationwide undergo a dramatic conversion under new deregulation legislation (see the accompanying “Power Surge” story), most utilities are scrambling to find cheaper sources of energy to compete for customers. But some, supported only by public interest and the promise of bottomless pools of non-polluting energy (found in decaying matter, sunlight, wind and ground heat) are paving the road to our energy future.

Photo © Dan McCoy/Rainbow

The Solar One project in Barstow, California. Solar technology generated $850 million in domestic sales last year. Photo Dan McCoy/Rainbow.

Today, renewable energy contributes less than one percent of U.S. energy capacity. Fossil fuels and nuclear power provide the overwhelming majority-about 90 percent (a whopping 57 percent of America’s energy comes from coal alone). World dependence on fossil fuels reached an all-time high in 1996, providing 85 percent of the world’s commercial energy. Today, 22.5 percent of America’s energy comes from nuclear reactors (a figure that is expected to shrink), while hydroelectric provides 9.3 percent, and natural gas, nine percent.

Renewable energy has its drawbacks, both inherent and political, that have hindered its development, including unpredictability (when dependent on wind or sunshine), high upfront costs, higher per watt costs and a lack of government subsidies (especially when compared to the fossil fuel industry, which receives $101 billion annually in developing countries). Producing electricity from natural gas currently costs three cents per kilowatt-hour, compared to 14 cents for solar and five to seven cents for wind. But the generating costs for renewable energy are shrinking rapidly, and opinion polls show Americans are increasingly supportive of non-polluting power. Global climate change may be the catalyst to spur new renewable investment. At the United Nations conference on global warming last summer, President Clinton announced the “Million Solar Roofs Initiative” as an offensive against global warming gases. Clinton hopes to put one million photovoltaic systems on the roofs of homes and commercial buildings by 2010.

Global Power

Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention, is indeed the main force behind the spread of renewable technology in Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. A deficit of technology and funding hasn’t stopped the development of everything from solar ovens and personal wind turbines to human waste-generated electricity. In the remote village of El Higueral, El Salvador, a school gets its electricity from two 48-watt solar panels on its roof. Outside Gaviotas, Colombia, a series of compact windmills stirs the air, and a seesaw on the school playground doubles as a pump to provide the village with clean water. In the Northern Province of Costa Rica, where logging has made firewood expensive and scarce, the Women’s Solar Oven Group has produced hundreds of highly efficient fuel-free cookers at a cost of only $5 each. Reykjavik, Iceland, whose skies were once blackened by chimney smoke, now gets most of its heat from geothermal energy and is touted as one of the cleanest cities in the world.

Over two billion people globally live without electricity, and renewable markets are finding plenty of buyers in remote areas where grid access is impossible or expensive, and where photovoltaic systems, or small wind farms produce just enough electricity to meet a village’s needs.


Over two billion people around the world live without electricity, and renewable markets are finding plenty of buyers in remote areas.


In Asia, the energy market is growing 10 percent annually, while the U.S. demand increases by less than two percent. Meanwhile, few Americans would guess that the world’s number one market for sola

r cells and the number two market for wind energy is India.

“Markets overseas value renewable technology higher,” says Ed Smeloff, executive director of the Pace University Energy Project and co-author of Reinventing Electric Utilities. “If you have no electricity right now, it’s more difficult to run wire from a power plant to a remote area. Indeed, we’re seeing a lot of the sales going to places like China, Indonesia, India, Brazil and Mexico. And that’s positive.” Technology and need aren’t the only driving forces for the renewables market, though. India’s emerging renewable energy industry can be traced to its favorable changes in public policy, tax incentives and the loosening of restrictions on foreign investments.

Solar: The New Game in Town

In 1958, solar cells-semiconductors which convert sunlight into electricity-were powering America’s first satellite, Vanguard I. Because of their light weight, reliability and fuel-free operation, they soon became standard on satellites, both military and civilian. The space solar cell industry finally gave way to the commercial solar industry of today. In 1954, such cells could only boast an efficiency of six percent. In the mid-1990s, efficiency is 25 percent. Global shipments of solar cells increased by 11 percent from 1995 to 1996 alone. PVs today convert sunlight directly into electricity to run 160 megawatts worth of electric power in the U.S., enough to power over 80,000 homes.

Solar energy is being used around the world for the extraordinary and the mundane. Highway call boxes, streetlights, bus depots, shopping center and parking lot lighting, highway message boards and traffic signals, warning sirens, school zone flashers, lighthouses, heated swimming pools, and even pocket calculators and wristwatches use solar cells to power them. Solar technology accounted for $850 million in domestic sales last year. But the greatest demand for U.S. technology is still overseas. Some three-fourths of American-made PVs are exported to top destinations like Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. “The greatest potential for expansion is in developing countries, where more than 400,000 houses already use PV systems,” says Molly O’Meara of the Worldwatch Institute.

The national parks are in the vanguard of what could be a solar renaissance in the U.S. The Dangling Rope Marina in Utah’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area recently installed a 115-kilowatt PV system to eliminate the use of over 65,000 gallons of diesel fuel every year; Arizona’s Grand Canyon, San Francisco’s Presidio, the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico and the Haleakala National Park’s ranger station in Maui have also added solar systems to their facilities to power visitors’ centers, rest rooms and purify water systems. As an added bonus, the solar industry provides 12,000 jobs in America; by 2010, that’s expected to increase to 70,000.

Geothermal: The Hot New Source

Photo © Tom Carroll/Tom Carroll Photography

The world’s 250 geothermal plants provide electricity to a million people in 22 countries. Photo Tom Carroll/Tom Carroll Photography.

Geothermal electricity-tapping heat from the center of the Earth-provides electricity to a million people in 22 countries. But these 250 power plants only make up one percent of total world power. The U.S. remains the world’s leading user of geothermal power. The Philippines, the world’s second-largest user, and Mexico, the third largest, each plan on adding at least 200 million more watts of geothermal power by 2000.

Despite its natural source, geothermal generation has some drawbacks, particularly in the form of poisonous hydrogen sulfide emitted during the extraction process. But producers are confident those problems can be overcome, and capacity is increasing. “In Europe, growth is small but steady,” says Worldwatch’s Seth Dunn.

Wind Power: A Breath of Fresh Air

Wind power generation surged 26 percent last year, reaching six billion watts, enough power for three million homes. It is now the fastest-growing energy source worldwide, even though it produces less than one percent of the world’s electricity. Germany is the largest market for new wind turbines. India is second, adding some 244 million watts of power in 1996. Denmark doubled its 1995 generation capacity, to place third in this emerging industry. And with electricity demand far outpacing its supply, China is expected to become the world market leader by the next decade because of its abundant wind resources and surging energy needs.

Wind power costs dropped from 30 to five cents per kilowatt-hour between the late 1970s and 1995. John Berger, author of Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means to America, says the U.S. is a veritable “Saudi Arabia of wind.” The contiguous U.S. has enough untapped wind energy to produce 4.4 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity a year-more than one and a half times our total electricity generation in 1990.

The U.S. wind industry has been hampered not by a lack of windy sites, but by a lengthy and daunting approval process, says Berger. But the international wind industry is booming; installed wind capacity grew 35 percent to 5,000 megawatts in 1995, and is expected to more than triple within a decade. The European Community is putting substantial funding into wind technology, surpassing American efforts for large turbines and wind farm sales. Some European countries, like Denmark, have set government standards for wind turbines, and offer subsidies for manufacturers that meets those standards.

In the Midwest, several states, including Iowa, are having success with jointly-owned municipal wind farms. And Ashland, Oregon’s municipal utility recently passed a resolution to purchase power from small-scale wind and solar systems installed by its customers. Since the 1980s, California’s wind industry has had a bumpy ride, but its pioneering work did help launch the increasingly healthy industry in Europe.

Biomass: Waste Not, Want Not

The Department of Energy predicts that the nation’s biomass resources are plentiful enough to provide liquid fuel for more than our nation’s cars, buses and trucks can use. Biomass, drawn from manure, human sewage and plant matter, provides 35 percent of developing countries’ energy needs.


Wind power is now the fastest-growing energy source worldwide, even though it produces less than one percent of the world’s electricity.


Electricity from biomass-like the harvesting of willow trees to power New York state plants-is anticipated to cost only 4.6 cents per kilowatt-hour by 2000, making it more competitive with fossil fuels. From western Minnesota farmers growing alfalfa to feed their livestock and producing energy with the remaining stems, to Iowa’s Switchgrass Project, which harvests that hearty perennial to produce 35 megawatts of power, American farmers are turning the potential of biomass energy into a thriving industry.

Biomass can be salvaged from compost facilities and landfills and burned to create low-pollution power. “Collectively, biomass is the largest source of renewable

energy used in the U.S. after hydropower,” explains Berger. The U.S. biomass industry provides 66,000 jobs and contributed 11,000 megawatts of capacity in 1996, but the industry has nonetheless suffered severe blows lately. Well-publicized plant closings in Maine and California have made some investors dubious about the technology’s future.

Possible Energy Futures

If current trends continue, some energy watchers predict, the U.S. will be dependent on imports for virtually 100 percent of its oil in just 15 years. Tax breaks and other government oil subsidies cost us $20 billion a year; we spend another $56 billion on imported oil; and $150 billion goes to damages from fossil-fuel air pollution. Fossil fuels will eventually increase in price as their supplies dwindle, but solar energy and other renewable energy sources will remain abundant—as their technology improves, prices will steadily decrease.


The generating costs for renewable energy are shrinking rapidly, and opinion polls show Americans are increasingly supportive of non-polluting power.


The U.S will have to fight to remain a renewable energy leader in the coming years. President Clinton requested $343.9 million for renewable energy programs in 1998, a 28 percent increase over 1997. There are increases for solar buildings, biofuels and wind technology, but will it be enough? There’s no question that government support is needed.

“Rather than one or two utilities trying to carry the load for lowering the price for renewables, there needs to be a national policy,” says Smeloff, who manages to maintain his optimism about governmental intentions. In his UN speech, President Clinton “embraced binding standards for the U.S., and also said for the first time that there is no doubt about the science of global warming,” he says. Smeloff adds that what’s needed now are “policies that penalize the use of fossil fuels. The most efficient way to bring about the development of renewables and energy efficiency would be to tax pollution.”


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TRACEY C. REMBERT is Mangaging Editor of E