Electric Currents: As Americans Worry about Oil Prices, Global Warming and a Disintegrating Nuclear Industry, Renewable Energy Is Making a Comeback

By Rembert, Tracey C. | E Magazine, November-December 1997 | Go to article overview

Electric Currents: As Americans Worry about Oil Prices, Global Warming and a Disintegrating Nuclear Industry, Renewable Energy Is Making a Comeback


Rembert, Tracey C., E Magazine


This just in from the Cato Institute: Renewable energy is "expensive, environmentally counterproductive and unsustainable." Cato President Robert L. Bradley says that electricity from renewable energy plants "is, on average, twice as expensive as electricity from the most economical fossil-fuel alternative."

There's a reason for that, and Cato - an influential libertarian think-tank - should take some of the blame. Renewable prices go down as production increases, and it was Cato's allies in the Reagan and Bush administrations - great friends of the coal and nuclear industries - who cut the subsidies that were nurturing a fledgling industry. As quickly as President Carter could install solar panels on the roof of the White House, Reagan had them taken down and relegated to a Virginia warehouse to collect dust.

Solar architect Steven J. Strong says that Reagan's policy of slashing funding for renewables cut the industry off at its knees. "I'm very bitter about what Reagan did to the solar industry," he says. "I saw a lot of my friends lose their businesses, go bankrupt, lose their homes. It was not just a lack of enthusiasm for renewables. It was a deliberate, vindictive and orchestrated campaign to snuff it out in as forceful and as vehement a manner as they could." Strong has a point - the official neglect virtually killed a growing industry. In 1980, the U.S. had 233 solar collector manufacturers, shipping 19,398 units; by 1992, there were only 45 manufacturers, shipping 7,000 units.

Hal Harvey, executive director of The Energy Foundation, points out that relatively low fossil fuel prices don't reflect their true costs. Fossil fuel plant stacks emit carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]), methane and nitrous oxide. C[O.sub.2], for instance, accounts for over 5.5. billion tons of greenhouse gases discharged globally each year. Per capita emissions in the U.S. are 500 times those of China and India. "Renewable energy has minimal environmental impact," Harvey says. "The question is, should we make an investment to make these technologies fully competitive? The cost for that would be only a few billion dollars, not that much for a nation whose annual energy bill is $500 billion."

After almost 20 years in the wilderness, renewable energy is making a comeback, fueled by rising oil prices, a disintegrating nuclear industry, concern over global warming and increased demand abroad.

More than 1,700 shiny, black solar panels surround the now-defunct Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Plant, sparkling under a steady Sacramento, California sun. The concrete cooling towers stand idle, awaiting a new life as a solar cell manufacturing plant. In Rancho Seco's wake, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) operates the largest municipal solar energy plant in the world, generating enough electricity for 700 U.S. homes. SMUD's combination of renewable energy sources - including wind turbines, biomass facilities, geothermal stations, solar cell (photovoltaic, or PV) arrays and solar thermal heating - provide half of the county's energy needs, which is saying a lot for the fifth largest utility in the country. "Our customers really focused us on renewables, and the timing was good," says SMUD's Stephanie McCorkle.

SMUD is a realistic, modern model for America's renewable energy future. As electric utilities nationwide undergo a dramatic conversion under new deregulation legislation (see the accompanying "Power Struggle" story), most utilities are scrambling to find cheaper sources of energy to compete for customers. But some, supported only by public interest and the promise of bottomless pools of non-polluting power (found in decaying matter, sunlight, wind and ground heat) are paving the road to our energy future.

Today, renewable energy contributes less than one percent of U.S. energy capacity. Fossil fuels and nuclear power provide the overwhelming majority - about 90 percent (a whopping 57 percent of America's energy comes from coal alone). …

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