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The Next Decade: Renewable Energy

 Posted by on January 5, 2010
Jan 052010

By Shermakaye Bass
Green Right Now

The clock has just struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, 2020, and your rooftop cocktail party is in full swing. An urban garden, with potted evergreens and fruit trees, carpets the top of your downtown apartment building. The structure itself is vintage – a 1960′s brownstone that’s been retrofitted, by city-wide mandate. It operates on the new multi-source national electrical grid, which is supplied by wind, solar, geothermal power, as well as fossil fuels whose emissions are trapped underground.

Rooftop Garden (Photo: Adpower99/Dreamstime.)

Rooftop Garden (Photo: Adpower99/Dreamstime.)

In your apartment, appliances and plumbing fixtures are energy- and water-efficient – something you were able to afford with the help of government incentives that started in 2010.

As the New Year turns, friends sip mojitos with mint freshly cut from your herb garden, nibbling locally made goat cheese, accented by your own roof-grown tomatoes and cukes. A rainwater-collection system irrigates your vegetable garden, and the rooftop’s community compost fertilizes it. Solar-heated water percolates through your plumbing, and a mobile rooftop solar system heats and cools your home. Several stories below, in the building’s underground parking lot, the family car is getting its nightly re-charge.

It’s a smart, self-contained life, one that consumes no more than it requires, and produces some of its own food and energy on-site. And believe it or not, you are paying less for utilities, transportation – for life, in general – than you did a decade ago. That’s because U.S. policy-makers and legislators pushed so hard ten years before to put the country on an aggressive path toward a sustainable, renewable-energy future.

Imagine if they hadn’t pushed through the Energy and Power Bill in 2010, or the emissions Cap and Trade plan or later, the Carbon Tax bill… Imagine if progressive, quickly instituted policies and incentives hadn’t reassured manufacturers and factory owners that it was a good idea to retool and hire and train all those “green-economy” workers. …

This is the future we could see, the best case scenario we might see, if the White House and U.S. Congress and the rest of us act aggressively – now – to grow a green economy and reduce carbon emissions.

Is it Possible?

Most conservative think-tanks and government agencies foresee a longer-term conversion to green energy. According to one DOE report, the fastest we could move would be to attain 20 percent wind by 2030, while still relying on fossil fuels for up to 78 percent of  our overall power as late as 2035.

There are quicker conversion scenarios offered by groups ranging from the Union of Concerned Scientists to the American Wind Energy Association , from the Worldwatch Institute and the Renewable Energy and a Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) to former Vice President Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection/Repower America plan.

The latter suggests the U.S. could be at 100 percent renewable in 10 years,  but that roadmap doesn’t give a breakdown on which types of energy would provide what percentage of our overall electricity needs.And Gore’s and similar plans have been criticized as requiring the economy to travel at a warp speed not possible on this planet. They’ve also been challenged as risky, because they’d be based totally on today’s technologies, when solar and geothermal and biofuels are rapidly improving and coming down in price. Of course this could help us get there more quickly, but it also warns against locking in commitments.

In fact, if there’s one thing all parties agree upon, it’s that there is no single, truly reliable breakdown for a ten-year scenario that predicts specifics for how the energy pie would be divided in 10 years; 20 percent solar? 30 percent wind? 40 percent conventional fossil fuels like natural gas? Where does nuclear power fit?
No one has a crystal ball.

According to Mark Z. Jacobson, a Stanford University civil engineering professor and co-author of a recent report in Scientific American – “Evaluating the Feasibility of a Large Scale Wind, Water and Sun Energy Infrastructure” - in theory, the United States shouldn’t have a problem converting all “new production of electricity to renewable by 2020. The issue is, what’s ‘new’? It’s not going to be a high percent of the total. Each year you can replace a certain percent, but a (pre-existing) power plant can last 40 years.”

However, Jacobson adds,  ”It’s certainly feasible in ten years - if everybody put their minds to it – to say  all new power has to be renewable. We could be at 50 percent wind, 40 percent solar and 10 percent everything else, including geothermal, hydro-electric, even some tidal wave power.”

But converting our total energy production to renewables in 10 years is not a likely scenario, he says, because that would require the U.S. government to “take away all the subsidies from fossil fuels and shift them over to renewables” – unlikely, even with a progressive President and Congress.

“These coal plants that are grandfathered in, the way to make those go out of business is to change the subsidies, change the laws, but we’ll have a battle! Getting rid of the old stuff is easier said than done. We have all these people working in the industry and they are going to complain that we’re costing the country jobs, putting their companies out of business. And we’d need a job training program to shift them into other industries.”

But is it technically possible to have all new energy be renewable by 2020?

Yes,  says the professor, adding that we might already be at 25 percent renewable for new power now.

“Right now, wind is the second largest source of all new energy, after natural gas, and if we slowly get rid of the ‘old’ power, how fast that could occur depends on”  introducing things like new laws and incentives, aggressive policies that don’t change with each election, as well as shifting subsidies to green power interests and ridding the powers-that-be of outmoded mindsets.

Jacobson concludes:  ”The scenario of 100 percent conversion to renewables in 10 years is very slim. A 90 percent conversion – maybe a little less slim. … That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. All forces should be aligned to do these things. But given there are so many confliciting interests – there are lobbyists, naysayers, competing financial interests, the economic cycles, the political cycles – so many potential roadblocks. … You can’t just shut down the existing plants and have new generation on-line in 10 years. You could imagine the law suits. The goal is there, but if you think about it as retiring existing things as they go down, there’s probably less of a fight on that front.”

And, as the civil engineer points out, ” electric power is not the only thing you’re trying to change. You’re trying to change the entire infrastructure, so you want to go down the path of least resistance. It’s better to get 25 percent across the board – for everything, for other sectors, and not just (go for) 100 percent for electric power. Those other sectors include industrial, transportation, energy efficiency” for our built-environment.

As for which type of renewable energy will create the largest chunk of power in America, no one can say. So let’s take a look at the three main ones  consistently mentioned by renewable-energy proponents. First up, wind power.