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Renewable Energy Can’t Be an Afterthought in the Quest to Meet Climate Goals

Jeff Siegel | Wednesday August 5th, 2009 | 0 Comments

transmissionA new report from the Electric Power Research Institute noted that in order to meet climate goals, the U.S. power industry must implement a full portfolio of technologies.

While we agree that we’ll have to pull out all the stops in the race to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must not trade one problem for another.

In the EPRI report, an awful lot of attention was focused on cleaner coal technology and more nuclear development. Certainly this is one way to decrease CO2 emissions – but it’s also a way to further liquidate our natural capital. Things like healthy soil, clean water, minerals, clean air, and living systems.

Now understand, I’m not saying we shut down all of our coal-fired and nuclear power plants. But going forward, it does not make economic or environmental sense (both are connected, by the way), to short-change the potential of renewables. In other words, instead of trying to figure out how to capture carbon from coal-fired power plants or find the massive amounts of capital to build new nuclear power plants while still having absolutely no safe place to store all the waste, we should be focusing on utilizing our robust renewable resources – which are clean, free and abundant.

Listen: The DOE has already stated that wind could produce 20 percent of the nation’s total electricity needs by 2030. A recent report released by McKinsey & Company showed that by 2020, the U.S. could reduce its energy consumption by 23 percent, simply by deploying an array of efficiency measures. And the USGS has estimated that the United States has enough megawatt-hours of geothermal resources to satisfy 10 percent of U.S. demand – using current, off-the-shelf technologies.

So there’s 53 percent of our power – using only wind, energy efficiency and geothermal. And that’s based on today’s technology. And no coal or uranium has to be mined for fuel, there’s no need to build another $96.2 billion repository to store radioactive waste, and these solutions are not carbon-intensive.

Now I realize there are some folks here that are stewing right now, getting ready to draft their “solar and wind don’t run all the time” arguments. But that argument is losing steam, as pretty much everyone by now should be familiar with the fact that we are not relying solely on wind or solar. We are relying on everything, utilizing all of our options – including renewables, smart grid development, infrastructure upgrades and energy conservation and efficiency measures. Combined, these solutions can allow us to meet a huge chunk of our energy demand – without liquidating large amounts of natural capital.

In fact, Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, recently said that if we can shape our renewables, we don’t even need fossil fuel or nuclear plants to run all the time. He also noted that most plants running all the time in the system are an impediment because they’re very inflexible, saying, “You can ramp up and ramp down a nuclear plant. And if you have instead the ability to ramp up or ramp down loads in ways that can shape the entire system, then the old concept of baseload becomes an anachronism.”

Now I know some may not agree with the chairman, but his argument is not without merit. And either way, integrating renewables on a large scale is no longer about “Can this be done?” It’s about doing what we already know can be done – and must be done if we plan to leave future generations cleaner, safer power generation that will not be held hostage by fossil fuel depletion or heavy natural capital costs.


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