Energy answer, many say, is blowin' in the wind

In the 1970s' energy crisis, sources like solar and wind were novelties. Now, even Big Oil is into 'soft energy.'

Dorothy Melville of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., thinks she has just the idea for solving California's current energy unpleasantness.

"Bring back the clothesline!" she suggested in a recent letter to the Los Angeles Times. "It would save huge amounts of electricity and gas and would be excellent exercise as well if we hung our laundry out to dry rather than use clothes dryers."

In a nutshell and in the long run, the combination of wind and solar power that would dry Ms. Melville's clothes may also be the best hope for an economy and a society lashed to an electrical grid whose power sources won't last forever.

In fact, to a greater degree than many people may realize, that "decarbonized" future is already arriving. Although fossil fuels still power the bulk of the world's economy, and the incoming Bush administration lists oil exploration among its top priorities, renewable energy has entered a period of rapid growth that is likely to last for decades.

It's not just green-tinged activists who are saying this. Hard-nosed business executives from - of all places - the petroleum and auto industries are plotting a post-fossil-fuel future as well, investing billions of dollars in alternative energy sources.

BP Solar (part of oil giant BP Amoco) builds photovoltaic modules in the United States, Spain, Australia, and India. Such modules turn sunlight into electricity, and BP Solar builds more solar-power generating equipment than anybody else does.

Shell Renewables, a new "core business" for the Royal Dutch/Shell Group, is developing energy from solar and biomass (plant material). The outfit recently joined a consortium to build an offshore wind-turbine farm in the North Sea.

A subsidiary of Florida Power & Light, one of the largest electric utilities in the country, recently announced that it would build 450 windmills along the Oregon-Washington border. Scheduled to come on line by the end of the year, the project will generate enough power to service the equivalent of 70,000 homes.

Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) calls the project "just the sort of thing we need for the region's energy shortage," adding that the windmills "can be brought on quickly to meet our immediate needs."

At a time when Westerners are being asked to conserve energy in order to prevent blackouts, the short time frame is important. It contrasts with the years of public tussle over air quality typically associated with fuel-burning plants.

The Midwest has always been dotted by water-pumping windmills, but these days it is sprouting sophisticated energy-generating wind turbines like corn stalks. This can be a very good deal for farmers, since utilities typically pay annual royalties of $2,000 to $3,000 per turbine - many times what an acre of corn brings in a year.

In addition to being renewable - unlike fossil fuels - solar, wind, biomass, and other renewable energy sources are growing more economically viable, thanks to improved technologies. The cost of wind-generated electricity has fallen from 38 cents per kilowatt-hour in the early 1980s to 3 to 6 cents today, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

As a result, the use of wind power has been increasing at a rate of 24 percent a year over the past decade. Use of solar photovoltaics, meanwhile, has gone up 17 percent a year.

Even transportation, where one-fourth of all energy is used today, is feeling its way toward a future independent of fossil fuels.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, an international research and consulting organization in Snowmass, Colo., is working on a fuel-cell-powered "Hypercar" that would get the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, water, and heat.

One of the major initial investors in the Hypercar? BP Amoco.

Meanwhile, auto designers aren't sitting in idle while waiting for such vehicles to be ready for freeway on-ramps. Scrambling to catch up with Honda and Toyota, Detroit carmakers are developing (relatively) gas-sipping sport-utility vehicles with hybrid gas/electric engines.

For Mr. Lovins, efforts to guzzle less energy are nothing new. Back in the oil crisis of the 1970s, when he was the first to advocate a "soft energy path," Lovins coined the term "negawatts" for savings that result from energy efficiency.

Now, many companies are successfully generating negawatts - in consumer products, manufacturing processes, and office facilities. Refrigerators, for one, now use one-third the electricity they did in 1974.

Some experts - including oil-industry researchers - expect renewables to catch up to fossil fuels within one lifetime. Seth Dunn of the Worldwatch Institute points to a study by Shell showing that "by 2050, over 50 percent of primary energy supply comes from renewables."

Such a shift won't come easily. Subsidies for fossil fuels (price supports, tax breaks, and direct financial aid) total more than $120 billion a year worldwide, Mr. Dunn estimates. Translation: a big incentive to preserve the status quo as long as possible. Official attitudes will have to change in other ways as well. For Dorothy Melville to use her clothesline, for example, San Juan Capistrano would have to reverse a ban on the practice.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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