Time To Think Big

Date: 4 Mar 2004 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Time To Think Big

by David Morris

Originally published on TomPaine.com, March 4, 2004

For advocates of renewable energy, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The good news is that renewable energy is growing in spectacular fashion. Wind electric production in the United States alone is up more than 200 percent since 1998. Solar cell rooftop installations have more than doubled in the same period. Ethanol production has doubled since 2002.

The bad news is that these spectacular increases haven’t made a dent in the problem. This sobering observation was announced in a January report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the keeper of federal energy statistics. Since 1998, the EIA reports the amount of energy generated from renewables has actually declined. The dramatic rise in energy generated from just-emerging technologies was more than offset by a drop in energy generated from more mature resources like hydroelectricity and biomass.

The fossil fuel press has cited the EIA figures with the I-told-you-so attitude that has so endeared it to the environmental community. The Oil & Gas Journal tells us that renewable energy peaked in 1996 and “a growth spurt is not expected any time soon.” Robert Bradley Jr., president of the Institute for Energy Research in Houston, declares that Al Gore and Bill Clinton unsuccessfully tried to impose a “government-engineered post hydrocarbon energy future.” The O&G Journal seemingly gladly explains, “Six years later, the vision of a ‘new energy future’ is in serious doubt.”

The Oil & Gas Journal is right, and wrong. It is right that if trends continue as they have we can’t get there from here, if there is a sustainable future in which greenhouse gases are reduced. They are wrong, however, in thinking that trends are destiny. We can do better—but only if we think on a much larger scale.

The very success of the renewable energy industry may be causing some problems. For entrepreneurs, a doubling and tripling of markets in three or four years has them thinking they’ve died and gone to heaven. They’re trying desperately to raise the capital, access the expertise, and build the manufacturing plants to meet the growing demand. They’re supportive of larger goals but their plate is full.

Consider, for example, the renewable fuel standard contained in the much-debated and not-yet-passed federal energy bill. It requires that 5 billion gallons of ethanol be consumed by about 2012. It appears to be the ethanol industry’s highest objective. Yet it would increase ethanol consumption by only about 1.5 billion gallons over 2004 consumption and in the same time frame gasoline consumption will increase by some 7 billion gallons.

Ethanol investors may be happy, but the percentage of renewable fuels in our gas tanks will change hardly at all.

Wind energy is another case in point. In 2002, the United States installed 410 MW (megawatts) of new wind energy capacity and according to the American Wind Energy Association, some 1500 MW was installed in 2003. Yet the total wind energy capacity installed in those two years is less than the electricity generated by just two coal-fired power plants that came on-line in 2002—a 300 MW plant in Duval, Fla. and a 540 MW plant in Lima, Ohio.

An excellent step forward is the rapid expansion of renewable portfolio standards in more than a dozen states. These require electricity suppliers to increase the proportion of electricity generated by renewables. According to a recent report by Platts Research & Consulting the renewable portfolio standards, assuming the production tax credit is extended, will result in an additional 30,000 MW of wind power by 2015. By way of comparison, more than 50,000 MW of fossil fueled power plants came on line in 2002.

We need two orders of magnitude increase in renewable energy production in the next 20 years—which means we need to think on another scale. Although there are several strategies, the one I like the most is focusing on expanding the number of people who are using renewable energy. This means focusing on rooftop solar installations.

Solar electricity is very expensive. And each installation generates only a tiny amount of electricity. But every rooftop installation brings with it two votes for renewable energy. And those who install solar cells tend to be those who have the highest voter turnout rates and give the most to political campaigns.

The U.S. solar cell program, at least on the federal level, is all but dead. California leads the way, with Arizona, New Mexico and others making headway. But they must do more and more quickly. California, for example, installed 9 MW of solar cells in 2002. The entire country installed 22 MW. Japan, on the other hand, with a population a little over twice that of California and about a third of that of the United States, installed 140 MW in 2002. More importantly, Japan installed this capacity on 40,000 rooftops. More than 75,000 households are now partially powered by direct sunlight in Japan. This is a strong political constituency for rapidly expanding that to a million and ten million households.

In California, the governor has proposed to build a hydrogen highway. It is a bold, even audacious gesture and he should be congratulated for proposing a solution commensurate with the scale of the problem. But a hydrogen highway is a terribly expensive, disruptive and long-term proposition, especially if it is dependent on the introduction of fuel cell vehicles.

For a fraction of the cost of building a fuel cell-powered, hydrogen-fueled transportation system, California could build a hybrid vehicle, biofueled transportation system. In the last three years, the proportion of California’s transportation system using renewables like ethanol fuels has gone from 0 to almost 6 percent. Hydrogen advocates don’t envision that kind of penetration rate for decades. Ethanol is cheaper than hydrogen even without subsidies. Ethanol advocates should push for an ethanol highway that will dispense fuel consisting of 85 and 95 percent ethanol. It should look to claim California’s transportation market for its own.

Bringing renewables to drivers and households is the key to developing a political constituency that can demand a national energy policy that not only increases the use of renewable energy, but that makes renewable energy our primary source of energy.

Entrepreneurs and environmentalists should take credit for the impressive growth in renewable energy. But they need also to recognize that unless the increase is much more rapid, renewables will never become a true alternative.

David Morris is vice-president of the Minneapolis and Washington, D.C., based Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org) and author of A Better Way to Get From Here to There: A Commentary on the Hydrogen Economy and a Proposal for an Alternative Strategy.

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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.