BOSTON — The Kyoto treaty doesn't mean that windmills will sprout on the Dakota plains overnight. Or that the car being built in Tennessee to run on french-fry grease will soon go on sale at the local Ford dealership.
But this week's global-warming agreement, whether Congress ratifies it or not, does put alternative energy sources on a footing not seen since the 1970s oil crisis, when Detroit discovered fuel efficiency and rooftop solar-heating panels became status symbols.
How far and fast the world's powers move this time to reduce dependence on pollution-prone fossil fuels remains to be seen. But more and more countries are seeking ways to produce cleaner power.
"There are 2 billion people in the world who have no electricity," says Nancy Bacon of Energy Conversion Devices in Troy, Mich., which produces solar fuel cells and rechargeable batteries for electric cars. Solar cells that produce electricity will become an increasingly viable option, she says, especially in isolated areas. "We think this [Kyoto conference] is going to be very good for the industry, with or without a binding treaty," she adds.
While economists are worried abrupt reforms could push up inflation and cost American jobs, industry experts note that new markets for clean energy are already opening up. Deregulation of United States public utilities, for example, is creating new competition and a reevaluation of energy options. Also, the costs of producing solar, wind, geothermal, biomass, and other energies have fallen dramatically in the past 20 years.
To meet the Kyoto call to reduce the emission of carbon dioxide to 7 percent below the level produced in 1990, most countries will start by cleaning up their electric utilities. In the US, utilities generated nearly a third of the nation's total carbon emissions in 1996. Despite the potential environmental harm, most utilities rely on plants that burn coal because it's cheap.
"At $15 a ton, it's cheaper than dirt," says Rich Ferguson of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento, Calif. Like many environmentalists, Mr. Ferguson calls for special taxes on dirtier fuels such as coal to help subsidize solar, wind, and geothermal methods. "As long as you can take fossil fuel out of the ground and burn it, it'll be very difficult for anything else to compete."
But even without subsidies, many utilities are already switching over to natural gas, which produces half as much carbon emission as coal. Gas supplies are cheap and plentiful, and gas-fired power plants are inexpensive to build. In California, for instance, five power plants have been built in the past year, all of them gas-fired.
"But natural gas is still a fossil fuel, and there are better alternatives," says Paul Jefferiss, energy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Mass.
Turbines in the Dakotas, volcanoes in L.A.
Alternative energies are likely to vary depending on the region. The upper-Midwest states of North and South Dakota and parts of Wyoming, for instance, could meet nearly all their power needs with wind turbines. The West Coast could use geothermal plants to tap volcanic activity. The Northeast and Southeast might encourage biomass, in which special crops are grown, harvested, and burned. The Southwest could harness the sun. But while solar energy has grown into an $850 million industry, it has proved to be too expensive to produce on a large scale. The best fuel cells produce power at $14 per kilowatt-hour, compared with 3.5 cents per kilowatt-hour at a new gas-fired plant.
Solar has biggest potential
"In the long term, solar has the most potential of all," says Mr. Jefferiss, "but in the short term, it's the most expensive of the the bunch."
Reluctant to impose carbon taxes, the federal government may pump more money into clean-energy research. And some of the Kyoto goals can be achieved in the US through cutting waste. "There's a lot of low-hanging fruit in the area of energy efficiency," says Warren Leon of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "The refrigerator today is a lot more efficient than it was 20 years ago, and that hasn't bankrupt the economy."