Sunday, July 20, 2008

Renewable Energy May Be the Answer

Al Gore on July 17th delivered a truly remarkable speech outlining his vision for a proposed energy policy that would not only mitigate global warming but also make the US energy independent by generating 100% of our electricity from non fossil fuel sources. But if that weren’t enough, he wants us to get there within the next 10 years! I have included some of Gore’s speech excerpts below, but for those who are interested, here are links to the video and the transcript of the speech.

We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that has to change.

For those who admire Gore, this was a long awaited good thing. As much as they praised his Oscar winning documentary on global warming An Inconvenient Truth, one of the problems with the film is because so much of it is about convincing us about the reality of global warming, he gives little in the way of practical suggestions on what we can do about it until the ending credits are rolling. But now this speech finally addresses that missing element of the film.

But ironically, what is also most discouraging is that it had to come from Al Gore. That means that there is a significant portion of those mostly on the political right who will dismiss what he had to say without even bothering to find out what the speech was about. And that’s a shame because I believe what he has said at least deserves to be heard.

For those who didn’t notice our energy crisis before, $4 per gallon gasoline here in the US got their attention. And while there are a number of reasons for this, the most likely is the increased demand from emerging industrial nations like China where more and more people are giving up their bicycles for automobiles. And because oil is often needed to produce and transport food, prices at the supermarket are rising too. So we have to do something! The main choices are to either look for more oil to try and meet the ever growing demand. Or look for alternatives to oil.

But in addition to the rising cost of energy, we also need to address the issue of global warming a.k.a. ‘climate change’ which although it still has some (mostly) conservative skeptics has finally been acknowledged as a problem by both President Bush and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. However, the good news is that there may be an answer to BOTH problems — the expanded use of renewable energy.

Renewable energy is energy generated from natural resources — such as sunlight, wind, rain, tides and geothermal heat — which are renewable (naturally replenished). Renewable energy technologies range from solar power, wind power, hydroelectricity/micro hydro, biomass and biofuels for transportation. Right now, the lion’s share of our electricity and transportation needs come from coal and oil respectively with a small (but growing) share coming from renewables. There are two main reasons for this. One is that coal and oil have historically been relatively abundant and cheap. This made renewable energy impractical from a cost standpoint. But things have changed. Coal, while still being abundant is a major environmental offender and the price of oil has skyrocketed. While the short term effects of high oil prices may hurt like hell, it could be a blessing in disguise if it forces us to seriously look for alternatives to break our addictions to oil and other fossil fuels.

When I first went to the Congress 32 years ago, I listened to experts testify that, if oil ever got to $35 a barrel, then renewable sources of energy would become competitive.

Well, today, the price of oil is over $135 a barrel. And sure enough, billions of dollars of new investment are flowing into the development of concentrated solar thermal, photovoltaics, windmills, geothermal plants, and a variety of ingenious new ways to improve our efficiency and conserve presently wasted energy.

The second reason for the relative lack of renewable energy use is the perception by many that it is only useful for small scale uses and will always be a bit player compared to power plants to produce our electricity. But this is changing too. For example, when we used to think of windmills, we would think of the charming Dutch windmills. But many of us who have traveled around the country have now seen wind farms with collections of modern wind turbines for generating surprisingly substantial amounts of electricity. Likewise, solar electricity was once seen as a gimmicky idea of ‘green’ homeowners who wanted to show the world how environmentally conscious they were. But solar energy is now our fastest growing form of energy production.

Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the Earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world's energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses. And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of U.S. electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America.

And to try and replace oil, most of us are now familiar with biomass in the form of corn ethanol as a supplement to our gasoline supply. Because of political considerations, corn was chosen as the main crop for our government to subsidize into the making of ethanol. But the law of unintended consequences prevailed and the price of corn for food skyrocketed. However, there are believed to be superior non-food ethanol alternatives we can grow like switchgrass which can be grown on prairie lands.

There have been a few other false steps in the development of alternative forms of energy. For example, some wind farms are in locations where many consider them to be eyesores — but there are plenty of windy locations both on land and off the seacoasts that are remote enough that they should not bother people.

As appealing as many of these alternatives may be, no single one can be the answer to all of our energy needs. But they can well work together as pieces of the complete energy puzzle. Although nuclear power is safely used throughout the world and doesn’t contribute greenhouse gases that are considered to be the cause of global warming, it is still controversial to many. So one solution could be to provide as much of our energy needs by renewable sources and then go with nuclear for the remaining needs if necessary.

And let’s not forget about conservation as an essential piece of the puzzle. Insisting on fuel efficient automobiles and energy efficiency for lighting, heating and cooling helps a lot too!

But do we really need an energy policy? With all of the complex and sometimes interacting pieces of the energy solutions puzzle, we need a coordinated effort to make sure all of these pieces fit together properly. And in addition, many of the renewable energy sources can have relatively high up front costs. But with proper policies, these sources will eventually pay off big time! For one thing, the demand for this renewable energy infrastructure will create a tremendous number of needed jobs here in the US. And instead of drilling in environmentally sensitive locations for increasingly harder to find oil or dangerous coal mining we can get our raw materials from agricultural sources or maybe even unwanted waste. And once we have paid for the wind turbines and solar cells, the wind and the sun are free forever after that!

But is Gore realistic about the 10 year time frame to get this all done? It’s hard to say but about 10 years from now is believed to be the ‘tipping point’ after which we may find the consequences of global warming to be not only devastating but also unstoppable no matter what we do later if we do nothing now. Sending a man to the moon within the decade of the 60s was accomplished because JFK felt it was important enough to be a national priority. Is the saving of our environment for us and our future generations any less important?

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