SOLAR, wind, and other renewable energy sources are ``feasible today,'' and could soon compete head-on against oil, coal, natural gas, and nuclear power, says a leading public utility official. Greg Rueger, general manager of the nation's largest investor-owned utility, Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), says that the newest generation of wind-power turbines already can match fossil fuel facilities on price.
Mr. Rueger, whose firm buys electricity from independent suppliers of wind, solar, and geothermal power, says the Bush White House shortchanged renewable fuels in its recently released National Energy Strategy. Federal officials gave only ``lip service'' to renewable energy, Rueger says.
``They seem to have a belief ... that renewables are not going to be cost-effective in this country for many years,'' he told the Monitor in an interview. But ``many renewable-generation options are technically feasible today, and with encouragement can prove to be fully cost competitive ... within 10 years.''
Rueger says quick action on renewables is essential. By the year 2000, hundreds of power plants built in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s will be wearing out. Companies will replace them with power plants using coal, oil, gas, nuclear, or renewables.
Rueger says demonstration projects are urgently needed during the next several years to prove that renewables are a viable option. Otherwise, power company officials will shy away from renewables, and their firms will be wedded to fossil fuels for another 40-year period.
An army of windmills
Unlike most utilities, renewable energy is nothing new to Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Already, PG&E generates 47 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, including 22 percent from hydropower, 10 percent from geothermal steam, and the rest from wind, solar, and biomass, such as municipal trash.
Some 7,300 windmills, half the world's total for electrical generation, are located in PG&E's service area at the Altamont Pass east of San Francisco. U.S. Windpower Inc., which owns 4,000 of those mills, sold PG&E 760 million kilowatt-hours of electricity last year, or enough to power 125,000 homes.
Rueger argues that renewable energies like wind and solar need a ``technology push'' and a ``market pull'' during the next 10 years to reach widespread use.
The technology push would come from research - privately funded and government funded. Already, research projects are lowering the costs of renewable energy. But that effort needs to be followed up with demonstration projects which prove that wind and solar energy are cost-effective and dependable.
The pull would come from a growing market for the machines, perhaps with federal subsidies. ``Renewable technologies [unlike fossil power plants] depend much more on the economies of mass production,'' Rueger explains. In other words, the more windmills that are built, the cheaper they get, just like cars or TV sets.
Rueger estimates that the newest, third-generation windmills, if mass produced, could make electricity at a lifetime cost of 5.5 to 6.5 cents per kilowatt-hour in good wind areas. That compares with 7 cents an hour for a new gas/oil-fired plant in the PG&E service area.
Solar generation, however, still costs around 10 cents per kilowatt hour, although that is dropping. A recent project may have produced equipment that lowers the cost to 8 cents.
``Most casual observers assume that renewable technologies are exotic, performing with limited reliability only when the sun is shining or the wind blowing,'' Rueger notes.
Wedded to oil and coal
PG&E is learning how to integrate different power sources so they supplement one another. Its solar sources, for example, hit their peak just as electrical demand crests around 4 p.m. Windmills take the load as solar tapers off.
The biggest problem for renewable energy sources may be government officials who are wedded to other technologies, like oil and coal.
``Federal and state agencies and regulators have not generally endorsed renewables as a significant part of their energy policy objectives,'' Rueger says.
``This has created a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of the role of renewables. Because they are unrecognized, they are under-used. And because they are under-used, they remain unrecognized.''