Ramp up renewables

Now that power shortages and energy crises are no longer making headlines in the fire-scorched West, the nation has a chance to lay sensible plans, for a change, to meet its growing energy needs.

Currently, we get 92 percent of our energy from fossil fuels and nuclear power. The administration's energy plan and bill tilt steeply toward these established industries. Meanwhile, less than 1 percent of our primary commercial energy comes from solar, wind, or geothermal sources.

Yet these renewable energy sources are our best options. They are clean, safe, abundant, efficient, domestic, secure, and stable (or falling) in price. Moreover, they are reliable, quickly constructed, virtually inexhaustible, and free of fossil fuel. Therefore, they are exempt from most fuel- price volatility, and the environmental damage that fossil-fuel burning causes. Not a bad pedigree. So why don't we use them more?

Other advanced nations have long known the advantages of renewable energy. Iceland and Norway get almost all their electricity from renewables. Since 1990, the European Union has increased its nonhydro renewable- power capacity more than 200 percent - 10 times the US growth rate. Yet while we rely on coal for more than half of our power, we have the technology and wealth to generate all of our energy safely and cleanly from inexhaustible domestic energy supplies.

All US regions except the Southeast have areas with high, persistent winds that can be commercially developed. Prospective wind-plant sites in the US could generate three times our 1990 electricity demand. Solar power plants could produce plentiful electricity at desert sites in the Southwest. Edwards Air Force Base, plus the White Sands Proving Grounds of New Mexico, could produce as much power as the US consumes in a year. Solar electric panels can level peak air-conditioning loads - the proximate cause of most California blackouts. They boost power supplies just when the hot sun provokes demand peaks. Large energy contributions can also come from geothermal energy, biomass, and repowered hydro facilities.

The main reason we don't have more clean power is unimaginative policies. Wind power is the world's cheapest new source of energy. It can be produced for as little as 5 cents per kilowatt-hour in favorable areas. The cost falls another 1.7 cents when a federal tax credit is included. The net cost is a fraction of what states like California now pay under new long-term contracts.

Contracts for geothermal power are also being inked cheaply now in the West for as little as 5.5 cents a kilowatt-hour, and biomass power costs only 6 to 7 cents. But state and national regulations penalize renewables and fail to clear roadblocks from their paths.

Because wind- and solar-power-plant electrical outputs depend on wind and sunlight, power cannot always be delivered to the grid on demand. Yet wind and solar power plants are often subjected to onerous scheduling penalties by power system operators. These penalties need to be lifted. Renewable electricity often must be sent long distances across several utility grids to reach its market. Utilities today "pancake" their charges one atop the other, making the delivered power unnecessarily costly. We need a system of fair regional and national transmission rates.

A national commission could swiftly provide recommendations for removing roadblocks to renewables, to propel America rapidly toward a clean-energy economy.

We can learn much about these measures from West Europe. In Germany, wind-energy developers received up to 9.5 cents per kilowatt-hour from 1991 to 1999. Little wonder Germany has surpassed the US in installed wind power. We ought to offer our clean energy producers more than 1.7 cents to reward them for each carbon-free or carbon-neutral kilowatt they produce.

An ambitious national minimum renewable-energy standard also should be set, requiring all power sellers to provide a steadily increasing proportion of their power from renewable sources. Until that is done, federal and state governments should fill the breach by shifting their energy purchases from conventional to green energy.

Greater reliance on domestic renewables and conservation will cut fossil- fuel demand and restrain fossil-fuel prices. Our trade balance will improve. Our renewable energy industries will flourish. Our national security will be enhanced. Why wait to make creation of a clean-energy economy a top priority?

John J. Berger is an energy and natural-resources consultant, and author of 'Charging Ahead: The Business of Renewable Energy and What It Means for America' (University of California Press, 1998).

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