Two Offshore Scenarios: Clean Wind and Burning Oil

The contrast between the promise of renewable energy and the perils of fossil fuels was on full display yesterday, and it could not be more stark.

Hours before Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced approval for the nation’s first offshore wind farm, which will generate as much as 454 megawatts of clean, limitless energy, the US Coast Guard said it would begin a controlled burn on a massive oil slick floating towards the Louisiana coast from the remains of an oil rig which caught fire and sank last week, likely killing 11 platform workers.

In a post earlier this month — Do Fossil Fuel Disasters Help Renewable Energy? — I hypothesized what the effect on the renewable energy industry would be from an Exxon Valdez-style disaster. The Deepwater Horizon accident has not reached such epic proportions, nor is it likely to (although it’s getting worse). But it is in a more heavily populated portion of the country, and it comes at a time when fossil fuels are under increasing criticism and competition from clean energy.

Alternative energies

No one is suggesting the wind or solar industries are or should be gloating over the deaths and environmental destruction ensuing from the oil rig fire (or the Massey coal mine accident earlier this month). But when the dust settles, the fact is these disasters have a tangible upside for clean power.

Like political attack ads, what these made-for-TV contrasts are doing, I would argue, is giving clean energy a boost in the public’s perception by further diminishing the reputation of fossil fuels. This change in perception is valuable in real dollars (think of it as advertising and lobbying money not spent), especially given that a cap on carbon seems increasingly unlikely in the near or even medium term.

But while it might be comforting to believe we can simply exchange oil rigs for turbines, the reality is we may need both. Non-hydroelectric renewable energy, including wind and solar, still accounts for a mere 2 percent of total electricity generation nationwide. And while the electric vehicle industry is starting to break into the mainstream, the fact is the vast majority of Americans will be driving gasoline-powered cars for a while to come.

So here’s hoping clean power can capitalize, in a respectful way, on the opportunities presented by such contrasts by pushing their fundamental message — that we need to find a new way of providing energy — further into the minds and hearts of Americans.

BC (Ben) Upham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He has written for the New York Times, and was a writer and editor for News Communications, Inc., a local paper consortium serving Manhattan. When he's not blogging on green issues -- and especially renewable energy -- he's hiking in the Angeles Mountains or hanging out at El Matador.