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by Lester R. Brown

 

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about climate change cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new energy economy is emerging in the United States. The old energy economy, fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas, is being replaced by one powered by wind, solar, and geothermal energy. The transition is moving at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even a year ago.

Wind power
Consider Texas. Long the leading oil-producing state, it is now also the leading generator of electricity from wind, having overtaken California two years ago. Texas now has nearly 6,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity online and a staggering 39,000 megawatts in the construction and planning stages. When all this is completed, Texas will have 45,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 45 coal-fired power plants). This will more than satisfy the residential needs of the state’s 24 million people, enabling Texas to feed electricity to nearby states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

After Texas and California, the other leaders among the 30 states with commercial-scale wind farms are Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, and Colorado. Still are emerging as wind superpowers. Clipper windpower and British Petroleum are teaming up to build the 5,050-megawatt Titan wind farm, the world’s largest, in eastern South Dakota. Titan will generate five times as much electricity as the state’s 780,000 residents currently use and will, via a transmission line along an abandoned rail line across Iowa, feed electricity into Illinois and the country’s industrial heartland.

Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz is developing a 2,000-megawatt wind farm in south central Wyoming. He already has secured the rights to build a 900-mile, high-voltage transmission line to California. With this investment, the door will be opened to developing scores of huge wind farms in Wyoming, a wind-rich state with few people.

Another transmission line under development will run north-south, linking eastern Wyoming’s wind resources with the fast-growing Colorado cities of Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado Springs. Wind-rich Kansas and Oklahoma are looking to build a transmission line to the U.S. Southeast to export their wealth of cheap wind energy.

California is developing a 4,500-megawatt wind farm complex in the Tehachapi Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. In the east, Maine--a wind energy newcomer--is planning to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity, far more than the state’s 1.3 million residents need. Further south, Delaware is planning an offshore wind farm of up to 600 megawatts, which could satisfy half of the state’s residential electricity needs. New York State, which has 700 megawatts of wind-generating capacity, plans to add another 8,000 megawatts, with most of the power being generated by winds coming off Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. And soon Oregon will nearly double its wind generating capacity with a 900-megawatt wind farm in the wind-rich Columbia River Gorge.
Wind appears destined to become the centerpiece of the new U.S. energy economy, supplying several hundred thousand megawatts of electricity.

Solar power
Solar power is also expanding as the nation’s wealth of solar energy is harnessed by photovoltaic cells and solar thermal power plants that convert sunlight into electricity. California, with its Million Solar Roofs plan, is far and away the leader. New Jersey is also moving fast, followed by Nevada.
The largest U.S. solar cell installation today is a 14-megawatt array at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, but photovoltaic electricity at the commercial level is about to go big time. PG&E has entered into two solar cell power contracts with a combined capacity of 800 megawatts. Together, these plants will cover 12 square miles of desert with solar cells and will have a peak output comparable to that of a large coal-fired power plant. Solar power plants are appealing in hot climates because their highest output coincides with the peak demand for air conditioning.

Solar thermal power
Solar thermal plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight to heat a fluid to 750 degrees Fahrenheit to generate steam and produce power have become an enormously attractive technology. The United States has the world’s only large solar thermal complex, a 350-megawatt project completed in 1991. But there are currently 10 large solar thermal power plants under construction or in development in the United States, ranging in size from 180 megawatts to 550 megawatts, eight in California, one in Arizona, and one in Florida. In three years, the United States will go from 420 megawatts of solar thermal generating capacity to close to 3,500 megawatts, an eightfold jump.

Geothermal power
Geothermal energy is also developing at an explosive rate. The United States now has nearly 3,000 megawatts of geothermal generating capacity, 2,500 of which are in California. Some 96 geothermal power plants under development in 12 western states are expected to double U.S. geothermal generating capacity. California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah lead the way, setting the stage for massive future geothermal energy development.

The possibilities of renewable energy
The new energy economy will be powered by electricity from renewable sources that will light, heat, and cool buildings and power our plug-in hybrid cars, light rail transit systems, and high-speed electric intercity trains. Many interests are converging to support the development of renewable energy resources in the United States. Shifting to renewables increases energy security simply because no one can cut off the supply of wind, solar, or geothermal energy. It also avoids the price volatility that has plagued oil and natural gas in recent decades. Once a wind farm or a solar thermal power plant is built, the price is stable since there is no fuel cost.

Turning to renewables will also dramatically cut carbon emissions, moving us toward climate stability, thus avoiding the most dangerous effects of climate change. The shift also will staunch the outflow of dollars for oil, keeping that capital at home to invest in the new energy economy, developing national renewable energy resources, and creating jobs here.

At a time of economic turmoil and rising joblessness, these new industries can generate thousands of new jobs each week. Not only are the wind, solar, and geothermal industries hiring new workers, they are also generating jobs in construction and in basic supply industries such as steel, aluminum, and silicon manufacturing. To build and operate the new energy economy will require huge numbers of electricians, plumbers, and roofers. It will also employ countless numbers of high-tech professionals such as wind meteorologists, geothermal geologists, and solar engineers.

To ensure that this shift to renewables continues at a rapid rate, national leadership is needed in one key area: building a strong national grid. Although private investors are investing in long-distance high-voltage transmission lines, these need to be incorporated into a carefully planned national grid, the electrical equivalent of President Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, in order to unleash the full potential of renewable energy wealth.

Finally, this energy transition is being driven by an intense excitement from the realization that people are now tapping energy sources that can last as long as the earth itself. Oil wells go dry and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the industrial revolution we are investing in energy sources that can last forever. This new energy economy can be our legacy to the next generation.




 

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