U.S. Renewable Energy Fueled By Local Efforts

By J.R. Pegg

WASHINGTON, DC, April 17, 2003 (ENS) - The House energy bill passed last week contains some $20 billion in tax credits for oil, gas and nuclear power, and offers little to bolster the nation's development of renewable energy. But this disinterest in renewable energy at the national level is not matched by U.S. states and local communities, many of which continue to demonstrate increasing interest and commitment to developing and purchasing energy from renewable sources.

The country's bottom up adoption of renewable energy is detailed in a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG), which finds that these small steps taken at the state and local levels provide a ready blueprint for a national strategy to accelerate the nation's development of renewable energy.

"While Congress is promoting legislation that would make our energy problems worse, the states are leading the way and generating solutions," said U.S. PIRG clean energy advocate Katherine Morrison.

The report, "Generating Solutions: How Clean, Renewable Energy is Boosting Local Economies and Saving Consumers Money," examines renewable energy in 35 states and provides policy suggestions to accelerate the national embrace of renewable energy.

PIRG's report finds the United States has the potential to generate four times its current electricity use just from domestic wind, geothermal and biomass resources.

Solar power, which is not yet as competitive as these other renewable sources, has even more remarkable potential - the energy from the sun that hits the Earth's surface each minute is greater than the total amount of energy the world uses each year. turbine

Wind energy is the fastest growing segment of the U.S. clean, renewable energy sector. (Photo courtesy U.S. Bureau of Land Management(BLM))
But the United States has been slower than others around the world to embrace renewable energy and only two percent of the nation's electricity is generated from clean, renewable sources.

The nation continues to depend heavily on coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear power, and environmentalists are frustrated by the federal government's continued focus on subsidizing these industries.

PIRG and other enviromental groups are lobbying the U.S. Senate to include renewable energy in its energy bill and a good place to start, Morrison said, would be with the adoption of a renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS).

Fifteen states have these standards, which require a percent of electricity be generated from renewable sources, and at least a dozen have shown interest in developing their own RPS.

"States have demonstrated that this can work," Morrison said, "but leaders at the national level have not been following through."

A national RPS that called on the nation to shift 20 percent of its electricity supply to renewable sources by 2020 would not just benefit the environment, Morrison, explained, it would provide a lift to the U.S. economy.

Such an RPS could create three to five times as many jobs as a similar investment in fossil fuels, consumers by saving $4.5 billion by 2020, and the environment by reducing global warming emissions from power plants by 19 percent in 2020, according to PIRG's report.

In addition, mandating the diversification of the energy supply would reduce the threat and impact of price spikes, Morrison explained, and consumers would not be held "captive to the volatility of the fossil fuel market." geothermal

One study cited in PIRG's report finds the energy potential in one percent of the heat in the top ten kilometers of the Earth's crust is 500 times more the energy than all the planet's oil and gas reserves. (Photo courtesy BLM)
The report recommends the U.S. adopt national net metering standards, which offer financial incentives to individuals who generate their own electricity from renewable energy sources. Thirty eight states have already adopted some form of net metering standards.

The other policy recommendations outlined in the report are the creation of a public fund to provide money for energy efficiency programs, investments in promising renewable energy technologies and low income assistance programs, and the extension of the Production Tax Credit for builders of renewable energy for at least five years.

Fifteen states have public benefit funds, 19 have some kind of production tax credit. The House bill extends the federal production tax credit for wind, but added in credits for municipal solid waste incinerators, a renewable energy source considered by environmentalists to be too polluting to pursue.

The Bush administration has opposed forcing utilities to buy energy from renewable sources. And its latest budget plan cuts funding for most renewable energy programs and virtually eliminates $23 million in grants and loans to farmers, ranchers and small businesses for the development of renewable energy projects.

Still, the Bush administration has taken some steps to encourage renewable energy development, primarily through new reports that document the availability of resources on public lands. But even this approach has been criticized by some environmentalists, who fear the administration is simply trying to further open public lands to all energy development and is not all that serious about the renewable side of the equation.

"There are still some places too wild to open," Morrison said.

Tensions over the environmental impact of clean, renewable energy has the potential to put environmentalists on opposing sides of the fence, something that is playing out in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A plan to build a 130 turbine wind farm five miles off the coast of Cape Cod is opposed by some environmentalists because of concerns about the impact on the ocean floor, migrating birds and marine species, but is supported by others who favor the development of this clean energy source.

It is incentives for development and purchasing of renewable energy that will drive the market forward, according to PIRG's report, and there are plenty of examples at the state and local level that indicate Americans are becoming more serious about renewable energy.

Late last year the Nevada Power Company signed six contracts that will add some 200 megawatts of renewable generating capacity to the utility's power supply. More than half of the new generating capacity will come from wind power, with the remainder coming from geothermal. biomass

Some environmentalists are concerned that some biomass projects leave land looking like this. (Photo courtesy American Lands)
In December 2002, Tucson Electric Power expanded its solar capacity to 2.4 megawatts, enough to power 420 homes, and plans to expand the system to 4 MW by 2004.

Earlier this year, New York Governor George Pataki set in motion a process that will require 25 percent of the electricity sold in the state of New York to come from renewable sources within the next decade.

At the county level, Maryland's Montgomery County pledged to buy five percent of its energy from wind sources.

In March, a power company controlled by billionaire investor Warren Buffet announced it plans to build a 310 megawatt wind farm in Iowa. The $323 million project could generate electricity for more than 300,000 and would be the world's largest land based wind farm.

Wind is the renewable energy source that looks set to blossom sooner, rather than later, in the United States. PIRG's report finds that the wind resources in just four states - North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas and Nebraska - are enough to meet the electricity needs of the entire country.

According to the American Wind Energy Association the United States added some 1,700 megawatts of new wind energy capacity in 2002, and the organization predicts 2003 will see even better growth.

And although there appears limited appetite for renewable energy investment at the federal level, that does not mean some are not trying. Democratic Representatives Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado introduced a bill last month that would require electric utilities to increase their use of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources from to 20 percent by 2025.

"This bill will develop our nation's cleanest and most abundant energy resources," said Alan Nogee, director of the clean energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Renewable electricity is the key to reducing power plant pollution and diversifying our energy supply in the near term. In the long term, renewable electricity could produce hydrogen to run fuel cells and replace imported oil."

For a copy of PIRG's report, click here.