We need a renewables roadmap


If anybody had any doubt that clean energy has arrived, President Obama's speech to Congress Feb. 24 should dispel those concerns. Obama told Congress and the nation that clean energy, along with education and health care, are central to our economic revival. Obama recognized that if the United States can "harness the power of clean, renewable energy (we) will lead the 21st century."

A week earlier, with a solar array soaking up the sun on top of Denver's Nature and Science Museum as his backdrop, the president also signed a farseeing economic recovery plan. One of its most important components was an $80 billion commitment toward clean energy.

But though the bill is historic in its scope and ambition, it isn't historic enough. That's not because it doesn't spend enough money -- though some have argued that more money is needed to awaken our economy. The problem is that the bill's spending isn't linked to a national vision. 

Although most everyone agrees that renewable energy must be a cornerstone of our economic recovery, we lack a renewable energy plan, with goals that would cement this cornerstone into place. In a sense, the recovery plan has hit the road, but we still have no map to show us where this road is taking us. Some will argue that you can't solve the economic crisis and the climate crisis together, at one fell swoop, because that's not how conventional policy works. Creating a National Renewable Energy Plan is unrealistic, they say. Yet imagine if anyone had told you two years ago that the federal government would spend more than $800 billion to rescue our ailing economy.  You would have said they were crazy.  Our point is that in crisis -- whether because of poor economic or archaic energy policy, and in this case it's both -- pre-conceived notions of what is possible in a policy context dissolve.

President Obama may have failed to link his economic recovery law to an energy blueprint, but he could still take a vital step forward by calling for a bold national renewable-energy standard. Already, nine of the 11 Western states have adopted renewable portfolio standards. They ensure that utilities generate a portion of their electricity from a suite of renewables. So far, this has proven to be an important incentive for developing clean energy.

Oregon leads the pack with a 25 percent renewable portfolio standard. California, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada are close behind with a 20 percent standard. Idaho and Wyoming, the West's fossil-fuel junkies, are the only states that have failed to establish any renewable energy mandate, and although Utah technically has a 20 percent standard, it is only voluntary. Nationally, only a little more than half of the states have adopted standards.  

It's clear that the West is starting to provide timely leadership on renewable energy on the federal level. Democratic Senators Tom Udall of New Mexico and Mark Udall of Colorado introduced a bill in mid-February that -- for the first time in our nation's history -- would establish a national renewable portfolio standard.  The bill mandates that 25 percent of our nation's energy must be "clean" -- free of carbon dioxide emissions -- and renewable.

This is a start in the right direction, but we need to push the frontier further to protect our planetary wellbeing. The urgency steadily increases as fossil-fuel combustion continues to take a toll on the environment, the economy and public health. Just last week, scientists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the pace of global warming is likely to be much faster than previously predicted due to higher rates of fossil-fuel burning.  

The Obama administration's $787 billion economic recovery plan promises to intensify our nation's transition to renewable energy. But, as we've learned from the Wall Street bailout, spending money is not enough.  We need a roadmap as well as genuine accountability and transparency, and everything must be anchored to a vision that is both inspirational and aspirational.

We are borrowing mightily from our children's future. Let's hope this time is remembered not just as the time when we started to solve a crisis that has shaken every sector of our economy and thrown millions out of work, but also as a time when we began to put our nation on the path to greater reliance on renewable energy. This is not only about creating the economic engine of tomorrow; it's about securing a safe climate and livable planet for future generations.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). John Horning is executive director of WildEarth Guardians in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Jeremy Nichols directs the group's climate and energy program in Denver, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

A view from the San Luis Valley
Hanna Sykes
Hanna Sykes
Mar 07, 2009 10:56 PM
Many of us in the San Luis Valley, CO agree with the need for a "genuinely accountable and transparent roadmap" to guide our nation’s renewable energy policy. But exactly what does that mean? If we are serious about achieving a clean, green and sustainable “new energy” future in time to avert a global climate crisis, we need a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we think about energy use, generation and distribution that transcends "business as usual".

Our rural agricultural Valley has become “ground-zero” for industrial renewable energy development. Utility company and industry “experts” with the Governors Energy Office, Western Governor’s Association and National Renewable Energy Lab have targeted the San Luis Valley as Colorado’s premiere “solar renewable energy zone.” According to these studies, the sun shines more brightly on the San Luis Valley. Plans are afoot to “inject” gigawatts of sunshine to “energy markets” on the Front Range and beyond. We’re not alone. Rural communities across the country are being “staked out” for industrial-scale energy development in the good name of “renewable energy” and "climate change".

Viewed from here, renewable energy development looks pretty much like “business as usual.” As usual, industry ignores or understates the cost to society of hundreds of thousands of acres of wetlands, agricultural lands and wildlife habitat needed to site the 2,500-10,000-acre industrial solar plants currently being proposed. Multi-million dollar high-voltage transmission lines (paid for by tax and ratepayers) are not factored into project costs. Decisions are being made behind closed doors by industry and utility bureaucrats. If lucky, we in the Valley may get some temporary low-paying construction jobs while solar industries benefit from generous government tax credits that deprive our already impoverished rural counties of vital revenues. Yes, C02 reductions are a benefit to society and the world and the Valley will certainly contribute its fair share. But is "business as usual" the most efficient, equitable and quickest way to reduce fossil fuel dependency? Is it fair that industry reaps the profits while rural communities, ratepayers and the environment (as usual) absorb the cost?

We are at an energy crossroads. Without a fundamental paradigm shift we will continue to be driven by “old energy” models, mindsets and vested interests. Because we’ve been pushed into reading the “fine print” on Colorado’s emerging “new energy” policy, many here understand the need for stimulus size investments in efficiency, conservation, smart-grid and distributed generation technologies matched by training programs in every community. All we are seeing so far are token gestures, shelved reports and “business-as-usual” (read inefficient, speculative, environmentally destructive, corporate controlled, industrial scale) development. Climate activists must overcome their “anti-renewable” fears and step up demands for a transparent and accountable energy policy that is clearly defined, empowers people and communities, infuses our malnourished economy with new livelihoods (not just low-paying temporary jobs) and fast tracks our way to a truly clean, green and democratic NEW energy future. We can't afford to miss this one.

Hanna Sykes
Crestone, CO