Renewables: 25% of energy use in '25?

A broad coalition of politicos, activists, and businesses united this week to try to put greener energy on a fast track.

With gas prices at $3 a gallon as far as the eye can see, plus increasing prospects of global warming and war in an oil-rich part of the world, the heat is on to wean the nation from fossil fuels.

In Washington this week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers, industry leaders (including the three Detroit automakers), farm groups, governors, county officials, and environmentalists launched an effort to have the nation get 25 percent of its total energy from renewable sources by 2025.

This ambitious proposal - dubbed "25x'25" - goes well beyond what Congress and the White House have enacted so far, and it's likely to encounter environmental and economic speed bumps along the way.

The goal of securing one-fourth of the nation's total energy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, biomass, and biogas by 2025 was introduced this week as a concurrent resolution in both houses of Congress. So far, it has at least 30 cosponsors with the number growing daily.

"I think that this goal is definitely achievable," says Rep. Collin Peterson (D) of Minn., the ranking member of the House Committee on Agriculture. "I think we're going to beat this 25 percent in 25 years."

Seen one way, this new energy effort is a coalition of well-known special interests like ethanol producers, tree farmers, and solar equipment manufacturers. But boosters believe a critical mass of public support has developed that puts a strong political wind at their backs.

One example: The kick off session for the annual meeting of the Western Governors Association this weekend in Sedona, Ariz., focuses on clean energy. The WGA, whose 18 state executives (11 of whom are Republicans) oversee the fastest growing states in terms of population and energy consumption, will propose the development of 30,000 megawatts of "clean and diverse energy" across the American West by 2015 while increasing energy efficiency 20 percent by 2020.

Meanwhile, 14 states participating in the Clean Energy States Alliance have set up special funds to promote commercialization of renewable energy technology.

Prominent backers of "25x'25" span the political spectrum, from former US House Speaker Newt Gingrich to John Podesta, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. So far, seven governors (four Republicans and three Democrats) have signed on, as have state legislatures in Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and Vermont. A list of some 140 supporting organizations ranges from the National Wildlife Federation to the Texas Farm Bureau to the American Bankers Association.

The public seems to like the idea as well. A recent poll by Public Opinion Strategies of Alexandria, Va., shows that 98 percent see shifting to domestically-produced renewable energy sources as important for the country with 74 percent agreeing that it is "very important."

Meanwhile, there are new indications that such an effort could work. The Worldwatch Institute this week reported that biofuels can significantly reduce global dependence on oil.

Oil still accounts for more than 96 percent of transportation fuel use, but biofuel production has doubled since 2001 and it is poised for even stronger growth as the industry responds to higher fuel prices and supportive government policies, Worldwatch reported.

The result, the research organization predicts, is that advanced biofuels could provide 37 percent of US transport fuel within the next 25 years, and up to 75 percent if automobile fuel economy doubles.

Given the rather tortuous history of energy legislation, translating ambitious goals for renewables into specific legislation with adequate funding will take considerable political effort. The six senators and representatives (three Republicans and three Democrats) who introduced "25x'25" as a national goal Wednesday acknowledged as much.

Meanwhile, the various elements of clean energy each have their own challenges.

Wind turbines, for example, have sprouted at an accelerated rate around the country in recent years. But opponents say the giant bladed towers (some reaching as high as 40 stories) create visual pollution and can kill bats and migrating birds by the thousands.

As part of a military spending bill, Congress ordered the Pentagon to study whether wind towers mask radar signals, allowing small and possibly threatening aircraft to penetrate restricted areas.

As a result, the FAA has blocked new wind farms that might interfere with military radar, including more than a dozen in the Midwest.

Last week, the six US Senators from Wisconsin, Illinois, and North Dakota wrote to Defense Department and FAA officials asking that the agencies "not unnecessarily obstruct the implementation of this major source of domestic, clean energy."

"Since much of the nation is in radar line of site, this interim policy has a sweeping effect," the senators' letter stated. "Prohibiting, even temporarily, the development of wind energy facilities within those areas would be a considerable setback for efforts to increase our country's energy independence."

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