Powering A Revolution: Renewable Energy Technology

When asked whether they would prefer to get their electricity by burning dirty coal and oil or from wind turbines, most Americans would choose wind. And if given a choice between having a nuclear power plant or rooftop solar panels in their community, opinion polls show that almost everyone would vote for solar. A shift toward clean renewable energy technologies — wind, solar, biopower, and others — would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, address the leading cause of environmental damage, and lessen the risk of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

When asked whether they would prefer to get their electricity by burning dirty coal and oil or from wind turbines, most Americans would choose wind. And if given a choice between having a nuclear power plant or rooftop solar panels in their community, opinion polls show that almost everyone would vote for solar.

A shift toward clean renewable energy technologies — wind, solar, biopower, and others — would reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, address the leading cause of environmental damage, and lessen the risk of a catastrophic nuclear accident.

Then why does the vast majority of our electricity still come from fossil fuels and nuclear power, while wind and solar provide only 1 percent nationwide? It would be natural to assume that the answer is simply that renewable energy technologies just haven’t advanced far enough or fast enough. But that would oversimplify matters, and prevent us from figuring out how to change the situation.

In reality, wind and solar have met most of the technical and cost goals that were set for them back in the 1970s when research and development boomed in response to that decade’s oil crisis. Solar panels and wind turbines have become much more efficient and reliable. Their cost has fallen dramatically. Electricity from wind can now be generated for only one-fifth of what it cost just 20 years ago.

So what’s holding renewables back? In great part, fossil fuel prices have turned out to be much less than energy planners predicted. By the time the price of electricity from wind turbines had fallen to five cents a kilowatt hour, electricity from new natural gas plants had fallen below four cents. But now, with fuel prices on the upswing, renewable energy technologies are becoming more competitive.

Nevertheless, at least four barriers continue to hold them back. First, the way the tax structure is set up, a wind farm or biopower facility has to pay higher taxes than conventional power plants. Second, fossil fuel and nuclear technologies enjoy much larger government subsidies and benefits. Third, and most important, owners of conventional power plants do not have to pay for the health problems and environmental damage they cause society.

Finally, the electricity supply system has many long-standing rules and procedures that penalize new, small-scale renewable energy facilities. It has been hard to knock down these four barriers to renewable energy development in large measure because big oil companies and others wishing to preserve the status quo have tremendous economic power and political influence. Those promoting renewable energy have less to spend on advertising, promotion, and political contributions.

But things may be changing. Wind farms are starting to appear across the country, while new buildings from Times Square to Main Street are including solar electricity systems. Many states have established policies to ensure that the use of renewable energy expands.

Do these promising trends mark a major turning point? It’s too soon to tell, since the barriers remain. But you and other citizens can help move things in the right direction. If you live in one of the increasing number of places where there is a choice of electricity supplier, you can make sure to buy environment-friendly “green” electricity.

And no matter where you live, you can let your electricity companies, local communities, and elected representatives know that you want them to support renewable technologies so that America can have an energy supply that is healthier and less vulnerable to escalating fuel costs and foreign supply cutoffs.

– A Brief Bio –

Warren Leon is executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association and co-author of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.

Author: Warren Leon

News Service: TomPaine.com

URL: http://www.tompaine.com/features/2001/06/04/17.html