Energy Sources and Trends

By Don Gasper

Alternatives to fossil fuels are today a small but a faster growing part of the global energy source. Information gathered by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Worldwatch Institute indicate a resurgence of interest and funding on the part of some states to clean up their air. Think what our progress might be if we had leadership from Washington also.

Since the oil crisis of the mid-1970's, policy makers and industry officials have argued over how best to reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels. In 1978, Congress enacted the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, requiring electric utilities to buy renewable energy whenever it is less expensive. Millions of dollars went into developing such power sources, which went from zero to two percent of total U.S. energy output by 1990.

Today, renewable energy constitutes three percent of US energy use -- thanks, in large part, to states wanting to deregulate the electric industry, promote competition, and improve the environment. After a decade-long lapse in interest and funding, efforts to find alternatives to fossil fuel energy have reignited from Massachusetts to California. But unlike years past, the major impetus is not from Capitol Hill, but rather from individual states. In fact, states’ commitments to wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass power is up 40 percent from 1997 levels, with 22 states now offering customers a green-power choice. That’s akin to taking 3.4 million cars off the road notes Worldwatch.

In fact, at $381 million, Massachusetts is second only to California in the money it plans to invest in renewable energy projects. The list of states making large commitments keeps growing. Last week, for instance, Arizona became one of the first states to require its utility companies to produce a percentage of the electricity from solar power. These actions won’t solve all our energy problems, but they’ll help insure that the renewable energy industry keeps growing and that its costs of production keep dropping.

Some of the ways states are promoting green power include:

D Renewable electricity standards. Twelve states have set standards for power companies regarding how much of their power sale must come from renewable sources.

D Renewable electricity funds. Thirteen states have established funds for the development of renewables. Combined, they will collect an estimated $2 billion by 2012.

D Net metering. Thirty states have adopted policies to make it easier and more affordable for customers to generate their own power from renewable energy systems.

D Disclosure of fuels and emissions. Fifteen states require electricity providers to disclose on utility bills the environmental impacts of their products.

Only three states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, have adopted all four policies. By contrast, 20 states don’t have even one. Such uneven progress can be expected without federal leadership. Over-all progress is slowed.

"The business community has traditionally been skeptical of renewables" reports Worldwatch, "But it’s clear this industry is here to stay." Even companies built on fossil fuel are warming to renewable energy. This month, Texaco, the third largest US oil company, invested $67.3 million in an alternative energy company developing technologies such as fuel cells. A day later, BP Amoco, the world’s third largest oil company, agreed to invest as much as $100 million in GreenMountain.com, a firm that sells solar and wind-generated electricity.

Recently, Energy Secretary Bill Richardson announced that all federal buildings in Colorado will be powered partly by wind -- the largest US contract ever for green power. Earlier, he awarded $5 million in grants to develop geothermal energy in six Western states. Such announcements can not make up for the overall lack of federal leadership. Today only a small part of our energy comes from clean renewable sources, though we noted that the average annual growth rate in the last 10 years of wind energy is nearly 25%, and photovoltaic solar cells is 17.3%. Growth of other renewable sources: geothermal, 4.3%, natural gas and hydro just under 2% each; oil under 1%, nuclear ˝%. Coal declined 1/2%.

Last year the use of wind energy world-wide grew by 39%. The US is way behind Germany and Japan. Although growing, renewable energy sources account for less than 5% of our energy today. Globally last year coal declined by 3%.

The Business Council for Sustainable Energy notes "The Federal government is almost certainly not doing enough (with renewable energy), even when poll after poll shows that’s what people want."