High Energy Why Renewables Are Still Just Around the Corner

Pat Robertson is conservative Christianity’s charismatic spokesperson. Reverand Al Sharpton is the outspoken activist leader of black America. They are very different leaders for very different followers: the sharp right and the sharp left; the conservative “values’ versus the liberal “truths.” But lately, they’ve been sharing the same message: Stop global warming.

Robertson and Sharpton appear together in a slickly produced commercial from Alliance for Climate Protection, an organization founded by former Vice President Al Gore. Last March, the alliance began a three-year, $300 million marketing campaign aimed at encouraging real emissions reductions, one of the most costly public advocacy campaigns in U.S. history. You’ve probably seen the spot: “If these polar opposites can come together on this important and moral issue,” it asks, “why can’t you?”

If it were just a question of consumer approval, renewable energy would be home free by now. Voters overwhelmingly believe that oil companies are gouging them, and they support taxes on the windfall profits these companies reap, with the money going to fund renewables. Most Americans now accept that global warming is real, and they want to do something about it.

The problem is the overwhelming inertia in the energy economy, and continued inaction in Congress. Today, 85% of our overall energy use comes from fossil fuels, which also generate 70% of U.S. electricity. The latter number would be much higher if abundant hydropower was removed from the mix.

While Robertson and Sharpton were making nice, the U.S. Senate voted down a windall profits tax for Big Oil and extension of tax credits for renewable energy (despite widespread bipartisan support for them).

Why did this happen? Ask Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the senator from Big Coal. Realizing that the tax on oil profits would easily win Senate approval, he led a successful filibuster to block any vote. So 44 conservative Republicans, voting with McConnell, thwarted the majority will. The tax, which would have repealed $17 billion in oil subsidies over the next 10 years, was also blocked along party lines. Republicans want more oil drilling, and are still calling for exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

A study by Navigant shows that killing renewable energy credits threatens $19 billion in investment, plus 78,000 wind and 34,000 solar jobs. The Department of Energy (DOE) believes that wind could provide a fifth of U.S. electricity by 2030 (halting the growth in carbon emissions from electricity), but for growth to continue those expiring credits are vital. In 2007, the U.S. added 45% more wind to the grid than it did in 2006, despite the well-funded opposition that has stalled big-ticket installations such as the Cape Wind Project in Massachusetts. Wind currently accounts for 1% of U.S. energy.

Chris Miller, a senior energy aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) says a cap-and-trade carbon program could bring in $300 billion for renewables and other positive uses, but that needs political will, too.

A 2007 Scientific American study estimates that solar could provide 69% of U.S. electricity and 35% of its total energy by 2050. Of course, to make that happen, Congress would have to invest $400 billion over the next 40 years. But it would be money well spent.

“Solar energy’s potential is off the chart,” says the magazine. “The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year.” The U.S. has 250,000 square miles of available land in the Southwest that could be converted to utility-level solar plants. Just 2.5% of the 4,500 quadrillion British thermal units (BTUs) of energy that could be generated there would meet total 2006 U.S. energy consumption.

Groups such as the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) are trying to achieve bipartisan consensus for solar, wind, geothermal, biofuels and the rest with buy-in from 500 organizations to “build a greater sense of common purpose.” It convenes conferences with, among others, the American Bar Association, developers, entrepreneurs and financiers. It’s working, but slowly.

The 2008 election is certain to produce a stronger consensus for renewable energy, and probably enough votes to overcome filibusters by the likes of Mitch McConnell. Electing Barack Obama would make a big difference, too, since he’s called for $150 billion in green energy investment over the next 10 years. In a speech last June, he called for a low-carbon fuel standard and major investment in wind and solar.

Dialing Down Demand

Renewables alone aren’t enough to solve our enormous fossil fuel dependence. Analysts agree that reducing oil dependence and carbon emissions requires big cuts in demand. That was happening, even without Sharpton and Robertson, because of rising oil prices. The Federal Highway Administration reported that Americans actually drove less in March 2008 (11 billion miles less, a 4.3% drop) than they did in March 2007. That may not sound like much, but it’s the first time since 1979 that the agency observed a decline in vehicle miles traveled. And it’s the sharpest monthly drop in the agency’s history.

People are actually studying mass transit schedules and inflating tires on their bicycles. “Smart grid” technology can make a difference, too. By cutting electricity use during peak hours the U.S. could save $120 billion on estimated costs for new power plants and transmission lines, say researchers and government officials. Appliances with “smart grid” circuit boards could be grid-connected to shut down for short periods during heavy load times.

Even more futuristic is the idea of connecting hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius to the grid to provide backup power from onboard battery packs. Pacific Gas and Electric is just one utility experimenting with that technology in a collaboration with Google.

And California is a country-wide leader. Since its grid crisis and blackouts of 2000 and 2001 it has embarked on a crash course of conservation. It worked: Kateri Callahan of the Alliance to Save Energy says that the state, at least for a while, had lower per-capita energy consumption than any industrialized country in the world.

California utilities spent $2 billion through 2008 on conservation programs, resulting in $3 billion in reduced utility bills (and reducing emissions to the equivalent of taking 650,000 cars off the road). Despite major population gains, California avoided the construction of three large power plants. That’s real progress.