Energy Independence or Clean Energy Self-Reliance?

Date: 4 Jul 2012 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 3 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Update August 7, 2012: I’d like to this this qualifies as Friedman’s response to this column.

In Thomas Friedman’s latest column, he praises Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts because he “took one for the country.”  Friedman sees that “America today is poised for a great renewal” if only it can get some “big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership.”

Logically, there would be some renewable (energy) in America’s renewal, right?

Wrong.  Here’s Friedman’s vision for America:

Our newfound natural gas bounty can give us long-term access to cheap, cleaner energy and, combined with advances in robotics and software, is already bringing blue-collar manufacturing back to America. Web-enabled cellphones and tablets are creating vast new possibilities to bring high-quality, low-cost education to every community college and public school so people can afford to acquire the skills to learn 21st-century jobs. Cloud computing is giving anyone with a creative spark cheap, powerful tools to start a company with very little money. And dramatically low interest rates mean we can borrow to build new infrastructure — and make money.  [emphasis mine]

I’m generally a fan of Thomas Friedman.  He’s got an everyman way of writing about big issues, with a passion for practicality, especially when it comes to rebuilding America.  But for a man who regularly talks of the opportunity of 21st technology, this is a very 20th Century vision.

Here’s an alternative:

The stodgy National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that renewable energy like wind and solar can meet at least 80% of our electricity needs by 2050.  (note: most forecasts of renewable energy generation by “reputable sources” lowball it, by a lot).  This isn’t just long-term energy, it’s infinite.  There are no refills on natural gas.

Two thirds of American states have the local resources to meet their entire electricity needs with renewable energy like wind, water, and solar.  Within a decade, 100 million Americans in the largest metropolitan areas will be able to get cheaper electricity from solar on their rooftop than from their utility.  

And what about the economy?  Solar and wind create several times the jobs per megawatt of electricity capacity (data below from Putting Renewables to Work published by UC Berkeley).  Local ownership of distributed renewable energy resources can double and triple, respectively, the jobs and economic impact of our energy generation.

Big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership isn’t found in last century’s energy sources.  We aren’t going to frack our way to a cleaner, brighter future.  We need a bold, 21st century vision for energy.

If President Obama wants to lead on energy, he should declare independence from a fossil fuel past and give Americans a vision for clean energy self-reliance.

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John Farrell
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John Farrell directs the Energy Democracy initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and he develops tools that allow communities to take charge of their energy future, and pursue the maximum economic benefits of the transition to 100% renewable power.

3 Responses

  1. JoeJoe
    | Reply

    Would you rather have 50% of our power coming from Coal or Natural gas? I prefer natural gas. Minimal particulate, SOX, NOX, mercury and half the CO2 compared to Coal. Coal is filthy. We’ve all seen the pictures of entire landscapes butchered by coal mining. It’s the worst sort of industrial destruction. Right up there with the dead zone in the Gulf, clear cutting, the Exxon Valdez and so on.

    The market share we should be focused on is Coal. It’s the big fat target that’s right in front of us. Let’s kill off the oldest dirtiest coal plants and replace the power with cleaner power. Natural gas is way cleaner than coal. Natural gas integrates with solar and wind better than coal.

    A practical goal is to have renewables take up over half of increase in annual demand. I’d prefer natural gas be carrying most of the remaining increase in demand. The renewable community (solar and wind) should be teaming up with the natural gas community and working together. Focus on the dirtiness of coal. Focus on the mountain top removal, the lakes we can’t fish in and so on. Focus on the fact that coal plants don’t integrate with wind and solar very well. Focus on the fact that natural gas is cheap and renewables are getting cheaper.

    Note that Friedman specifically focuses on the cheapness and the relative cleanliness of natural gas. He sees it for what it is. Regular people all over the place do too. Renewable advocates have a knack for alienating people with their idealism. Stop, think, compromise.

    • John Farrell
      John Farrell
      | Reply

      I have no problem with being realistic about the relative benefits of natural gas to coal, nor the role gas can play in supporting renewable energy (although there’s an unfortunate distinction between efficient natural gas plants and those that are flexible enough to back up variable wind and solar). On the other hand, if we are articulating a big vision for America’s energy future, a mention for renewable energy is probably merited, at the least.

  2. JoeJoe
    | Reply

    The “unfortunate distinction” you speak of is applicable to legacy combustion turbines. Some of the newer turbines have been specifically engineered with wider operating bands to accommodate wind/solar AND still maintain high thermal efficiency. If we build the market regulations in a certain way the engineers should follow with turbines built to match. If Solar/Wind are to team up with the Natural Gas we would specifically want these new sorts of gas turbines. There’d be a quid pro quo deal. You help me and I’ll help you.

    You say you don’t have a problem with the relative merits of gas but that’s not the way I read this article.

    “We aren’t going to frack our way to a cleaner, brighter future.”

    Actually, I think we can. The 100% renewable scenarios are like imagining a new bridge that you snap your fingers and there it is – a product without a process to build it. That’s not the way things get built. You have to build the new bridge running next to the old one and then slowly transfer over lanes and finish off over passes and whatnot. Takes a long time and it’s expensive. It takes so long that you have to keep fixing the old bridge while you’re building the new one. NREL is talking about 2050 – I’m thinking about today. What do we need to do today? We need to work together John. Renewables can’t do it alone. Every time you think to knock natural gas think about a mountain top removal site. Who would you rather team up with? I’m flabbergasted that the green community can’t get in a line on this.

    Friedman didn’t mention renewables in that ditty because he was talking about manufacturing and renewable manufacturers are taking it on the chin right now. Most won’t survive. How many TVs are made in the US?

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