(If only they’d allow some environmentalists to help write the rules.)
By Brian Vanneman
In late November, the Senate narrowly voted down the Bush administration’s
2003 Energy Bill. The pork-stuffed legislation came in with a $37 billion price
tag—the coal industry alone would have collected $4.5 billion in tax credits
and "clean" coal research investments, and the oil, gas, ethanol,
and nuclear industries were similarly favored.
The cost of the bill was so monstrous that we couldn’t help but wonder:
Couldn’t we find a better use for that money? The Planet asked energy
experts which projects they would favor to move the country toward a reliable
future without sacrificing our air, water, health, national security, and
We anticipated suggestions like: "A $5 billion fund to build enough wind
turbines to halve our imports of Middle-Eastern oil." But what we heard
instead was people like Jim Caldwell of the American Wind Energy Association
telling us, for example, that, "All we really want is a level playing field." In
other words, either subsidize all sources of energy, or don't subsidize any.
Just as surprising was the assertion by many on the Sierra Club’s Energy
and Global Warming Committee that the best way to use billions in federal funds
would be to first concentrate on smart technologies that can drastically reduce
our energy consumption, and then invest in new sources of energy like wind turbines
and solar panels. Increasing auto fuel economy is the single biggest step in
curbing global warming—but stopping environmental destruction caused
by electricity use starts with conservation.
Most of us are aware of the emphasis the environmental community places on
energy conservation. We tend to put on a sweater before cranking up the heat,
in compact fluorescent bulbs in place of old incandescents. But what’s
less widely known is that government can, through well thought-out conservation
policies, encourage smart energy use and chop kilowatt use in homes, businesses,
and schools. Fred Heutte of the Club’s energy committee passionately believes
that with such policies, a little human energy can create energy use reductions
in the range of 10 to 20 percent nationwide—a return not likely to
be matched by any amount of power-plant building.
Vice President Dick Cheney, leader of the administration’s 2001 Energy
Task Force, dismissed conservation as a "personal virtue." But robust
conservation and efficiency measures managed by the federal government—and
states like Oregon, Vermont, California, and New York—flatly contradict
that view and show that conservation can be a public benefit.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program is one such measure.
Energy efficiency saves the U.S. economy an estimated $150 billion each year,
and Energy Star plays an important part. Many of the energy-saving products and
features we take for granted, like LED traffic lights and low standby energy
use for personal computers, were introduced to the market by Energy Star. The
program partners with 1,600 construction companies around the country to build
energy-efficient homes. And it helps to educate factory owners nationwide about
energy saving and cost-cutting electric motors. Yet while President Bush publicly
praises the Energy Star program, his administration moved to cut its funding
by 30 percent.
Diana Enright, of Oregon’s Department of Energy, offered evidence of efficiency’s
efficacy for small businesses. "In Portland," she says, "Hot
Lips Pizza was awarded a tax credit for installing a high-efficiency oven
In Corvallis, dentist Greg Soriano bought bikes for his two employees. They
drove their cars 255 fewer days per year and saved 178 gallons of gas. Soriano
awarded more than $100 as a tax credit."
The state’s DOE is also working to propel large energy consumers toward
greater efficiency. Through a partnership with corporations and schools, companies
that lower their energy consumption are awarded a tax credit, which they can
then pass on to schools. After nixing wasteful processes at its headquarters,
Nike passed on $1 million for energy-efficiency projects at 100 Oregon schools.
One recipient, Principal Tim France of Powers High School, says his energy bill
has been reduced by 60 percent. "And due to new lighting," he adds, "the
illumination has also improved. Our small town really appreciates the help."
Significant savings on energy means more money for teachers and school supplies," affirms
Fred Heutte of the Club’s energy committee. According to the Alliance to
Save Energy, schools pay more for energy than for textbooks and computers combined.
Oregon’s new High Performance Schools Program offers $50,000 grants to
school districts that are planning to build new facilities using the highest
level of energy and resource efficiency. That’s a powerful incentive
to embrace energy efficiency while lowering operating costs.
The Energy Trust of Oregon, which Huette helped to found, gathers $45 million
from electrical rate-payers throughout the state, then reinvests the money
in programs that encourage efficiency and renewable energy development. "Part
of its goal," he says, "is to save 300 megawatts of electricity by
2012, which will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and delay or avoid the need
to construct new fossil fuel plants." (One megawatt is enough to power
600 average American homes.)
Energy efficiency also puts money back into communities, while increasing
energy production often disperses funds to remote utilities. "Efficiency stimulates
local labor," contends Heutte. "You have people installing insulation
around town, not in an oil platform offshore."
A million bucks here, a kilowatt there—it might sound like small potatoes
compared to the Bush administration's $5.5 billion proposal for "clean" coal
technologies or the 1.7 million gallons of oil we import from the Persian
Gulf every day. But programs like those run by Oregon's Department of Energy
Energy Trust could be expanded to work on a national level, in which all
are encouraged to build efficient classrooms, and all small businesses are
offered tax credits for conservation measures.
Obviously, we can’t meet all our energy needs by maximizing energy efficiency—we
will need to build new power sources. When we do, we should turn increasingly
to wind, solar, and other types of renewable energy, not fossil fuels and
nuclear power plants. Federal energy policy can take the lead and encourage
energy sources in numerous ways. The most effective and immediate would be
establishing a Renewable Portfolio Standard, which would set a percentage
of the country's
energy use that must come from renewables.
Again, the states are leading the way. California has mandated that 20 percent
of its energy must come from renewables by 2017. Twelve other states, including
New York, Minnesota, Texas, and Nevada, have set their own standards. The Bush
Energy Bill, however, was silent on the issue.
In 1980, the wind and solar industries were barely sustainable business propositions
that survived due to the convictions of a dedicated few. Today, they have the
momentum to compete with fossil fuels as reliable and inexpensive energy sources,
and renewable portfolio standards can ensure that they keep driving forward.
The cost of generating power from a wind turbine has fallen dramatically-from
nearly 40 cents per kilowatt hour two decades ago to as low as 3.5 cents today.
Some of the Midwestern states that currently use the highest percentage of coal
also have the greatest wind potential due to their vast stretches of blustery
plains. According to a 2003 Union of Concerned Scientists report, Minnesota could
produce 20 times its annual energy usage from wind alone.
Christopher Childs, air toxics co-chair for the Club’s North Star Chapter,
has seen good things come from the renewable standards adopted in Minnesota.
In 1994, when the state first directed Xcel energy to produce a portion of its
power from renewables, wind power there was virtually nonexistent. Today, more
than 470 turbines rise from the farmland southwest of Minneapolis, providing
enough power for 100,000 homes and prompting Childs to dub his state "the
Saudi Arabia of wind." It hasn’t been easy, he admits, for citizens
to cajole the utility and legislature into setting standards for renewable production.
But with the smoke stack of a coal-fired power plant visible from his living
room window, he’s constantly reminded it’s a worthwhile job.
Solar energy’s future is also bright. It's not yet as economical as wind
power, but because it’s so easy to install an array of rooftop panels that
power lights and air conditioners below, organizations from the U.S. Postal Service
to Lowe’s home improvement centers have recently made major commitments
to solar. And solar has quietly proven its utility-scale viability based
on the success of installations like SEGS in the California's Mojave Desert,
power for approximately 240,000 homes serviced by Southern California Edison.
For the past 15 years, SEGS has basked in the sun, and pumped out power,
with very little maintenance or pollution. And by all accounts, the technology
When Congress reconvenes in the new year, energy lobbyists will be back at
their doorsteps, pushing them to exhume 2003’s Energy Bill and give it another
run. "But President Bush's energy plan won’t work," caution’s
Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "We can’t drill, dig, or
destroy our way out of our energy problems. That’s why we’re
pushing for an honest policy that promotes energy efficiency and renewable
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