A Bottom Up Energy Strategy

Date: 16 May 2001 | posted in: Energy | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

This was originally published in Twin Cities Star Tribune, May 16, 2001

VicePresident Cheney has told us that to address the electricity crisis, the nation needs one new power plant a week for the next 20 years. President Bush has told us that to address the gasoline crisis the nation needs one new petroleum refinery a month for the next 4 years.

We do need new energy supplies, although aggressive efficiency improvements could reduce the amount needed by half or more. What we don’t need is the kind of energy future championed by the Bush Administration. For theirs is a top down, centralized, undemocratic vision, one in which we would become even more dependent on remote energy sources and remote energy decision makers.

WhileDick Cheney envisions one new giant power plant a week, we are currently installing thirty new small power plants a DAY. Each of these plants generates a tiny fraction of the electricity generated by a coal or nuclear plant. Yet collectively they can make an important short-term contribution. Consider the phenomenal increase just in microturbines, tiny environmentally benign power plants that serve small businesses or office buildings.

In 1999 only 300 microturbines were shipped. In 2000 this increased to 1,200, with a total capacity of 53 MWe. This year more than 5,000 units will be shipped, with a total capacity of 300 MWe. At this rate of increase, by 2005 we could have the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants of electricity generation capacity installed in a million basements and backyards.

On-site power plants expand supply and reduce demand. Why? Because only about 30 percent of the fuel consumed in coal and nuclear plants is converted into useful energy. Meanwhile on-site power plants can be as much as 90 percent efficient by making use of the heat as well as the electricity generated.

PresidentBush worries that no new petroleum refinery has been built since 1978. It is true that the number of petroleum refineries has dropped precipitously, from a peak of 324 in l981 to 157 today. But the President fails to tell us is that since 1978 some 57 ethanol refineries have been built, and another 50 may become operational by 2002.

The President will unveil his energy plan in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He should inform the nation about Minnesota’s own strategy for dealing with gasoline crises. Ethanol made from crops comprises about l0 percent of the state’s gasoline supply. Fifteen biorefineries produce that fuel. Two thirds are owned by farmers. About 15 percent of all full time grain farmers in Minnesota are shareholders in one or more ethanol plants. This year some of them will make almost as much money from dividends from these manufacturing enterprises as they will make selling their corn on the open market.

Bush’s centralized energy policy demands that the federal government intervene in local and state affairs. His energy plan would have the federal government exercise its authority to impose high-voltage transmission lines over the objections of the affected community and local and state agencies. His energy plan would force Nevada and Utah, two states without nuclear reactors, to become permanent home to nuclear wastes from the 26 states that do have nuclear reactors.

Thereis a better way, a bottom-up rather than top-down strategy that looks to communities and households and businesses and farms as energy producers, not simply energy consumers. Let me offer the President two policy suggestions that would move us in this direction.

First,issue an Executive Order that requires all federal buildings to install environmentally benign electricity generating capacity whenever the investment repays itself in less than 10 years. Ask Congress to provide the money to finance these money-saving investments.

Second,deny California’s request for a waiver from the Clean Air Act requirement that oxygen be added to gasoline in those communities where pollution exceeds certain levels. In Minnesota, the oxygenate of choice is ethanol. But two thirds of the nation opted for MTBE, an additive made from natural gas and petroleum. We now know that MTBE contaminates ground water. Eleven states have banned MTBE. California is asking the White House for permission not to use oxygen but rather to continue to rely on a 100 percent fossil fuel-derived gasoline.

TodayAlaska supplies about 9 percent of the nation’s oil. The President wants to expand the oil supply by permitting extensive oil drilling on federal lands in Alaska. A better strategy would be for the President should to embrace a 10 percent renewable energy standard for transportation fuels. This could consist of ethanol made from crops or from grasses and straw and corn stalks, or vegetable oils made from soybeans and other oilseeds, or hydrogen made from agricultural residues or urban organic wastes.

If combined with an emphasis on farmer ownership of these new biorefineries, the President would be addressing not only the energy crisis but the agricultural crisis as well.

George Bush has the opportunity to offer America, a new energy vision, one that offers not only security but self-reliance. It is a vision uniquely compatible with the American spirit.

David Morris is vice president of the Minneapolis-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.