False Fronts, Straight Shots, and a Clean Energy Future
We all know that combining renewables with distributed energy—as part of either a small-scale project or a larger smart energy network—adds to the security and reliability of that power system. By now, we are also painfully aware of all the arguments against further funding for the development of renewable energies as a means to wean us from our dependence on fossil fuels. At the top of the list is cost—that ever-present bogeyman that always pops up whenever checks need to be written to pay for past mistakes and future progress.
Events that swept through North Africa earlier this year served to highlight our complicated relationship with foreign oil. When unrest in Egypt pushed the price of oil above $100 a barrel, the untenable nature of current US energy policy became clear: Prices rise, and we are all impacted in ways large and small—and not just at the gas pump.
“The current political unrest in Egypt and its unstable neighbors strongly reinforces America’s need to reduce our dependence on turbulent regions of the world and produce more energy at home,” says Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, and we all nod in agreement.
The call for a greater domestic energy production is not an altogether unfamiliar battle cry. But unfortunately, agitation often produces a froth of opportunism, and so began the clarion call for greater domestic oil production, using the threat of high gas prices as the great equalizer.
While many of us will not soon forget the images of millions of barrels of crude oil flowing unimpeded into the Gulf of Mexico last summer, others have decided that the only way to ease our fossil fuel woes is to increase offshore drilling. But to argue for a continued dependence on fossil fuels, one must first discount other possibilities—like renewable energy.
Renewable energy is frequently cast as the pricey, niche cousin of “legitimate” power generation and its opponents often argue that current and future projections all point to one certainty: Renewable energy will never be able to meet half of our nation’s energy needs.
This despite the fact that other countries have been quite successful incorporating wind, solar, hydropower, and biofuel into their national energy supplies: In Sweden, 39% of the energy comes from renewable energy sources; in Iceland, 70% of the country’s energy demand is supplied by renewable sources; and as of 2009, 73% of New Zealand’s energy is supplied by renewable energy.
I think it is essential to understand that those opposing further funding for renewable and clean energy research and development rely on models and estimates based on a centralized, inefficient energy system—like the one that currently serves most of the nation. Without taking into account ever-increasing efficiency, smarter technologies, and the ability to jump back and forth between the grid and onsite power, many of the arguments against increased investment in renewable energy are based on false assumptions. And it’s interesting that with all the talk about future energy needs and the ability of fossil fuels to meet those needs, there’s very little discussion about the reduction of future demand due to increased efficiency and consumer outreach and education.
Finally, our reliance on fossil fuels has created a false marketplace wherein we avoid paying the real cost for our energy because that cost is subsidized (via tax breaks and government aid provided to oil, gas, and coal companies) and deferred to future generations. Even as the cost of fossil fuels increases—due to increased regulation and the vagaries of international politics—government intervention creates an unfair playing field. Without the ability to track capital, it becomes increasingly difficult to counter the argument that renewable energy is prohibitively expensive—especially when fossil fuels are subsidized 12 to 1 over clean energy alternatives.
Funding renewable R&D, extending tax breaks to clean technology companies, even funding training and education for future clean energy workers—it all requires real dollars right now. And until we get the cost/benefit ratio right, we won’t get the policy support that’s needed to push this fundamental change of our traditional power hierarchy, deposing gas and oil for wind, solar, biofuel, geothermal, and hydropower. Like most things in life, paying up front now means greater security (and savings) in the long run.
Author's Bio: Elizabeth Cutright is the Editor of Distributed Energy magazine and Water Efficiency magazine