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.
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 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
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 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
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.