A political speech the West needs to hear


  • The Western Governors' Association in 2006 called for the region to develop 30 gigawatts of new clean energy by 2015. The association also wants to remove bureaucratic obstacles to enable construction of new regional transmission lines to "renewable energy resource zones" — rural areas with great potential for wind and solar generation. Colorado's 2007 Legislature passed an innovative law allowing utilities to build transmission lines to wind and solar zones, to spur development of wind and solar plants that don't yet exist. Also in 2007, California's agency regulating the electricity grid OK'd an urban utility's plan to build a $1.8 billion line into the Tehachapi area to spur new wind, solar and geothermal projects. Both actions are models for how other states could encourage new lines into wind and solar zones.

  • The federal government responded to the energy crisis of the 1970s by pouring more money into the Department of Energy's research and development projects. But as soon as the crisis ended, and Ronald Reagan took office, the funding faucet was reduced to a trickle, especially when it comes to renewable energy sources. Even as the nation faces another energy crisis, research funds are less than a third of what they were in 1978.

    Gallagher, k.S., Sugar, A, Segal, D, de Sa, P, and John P. Holdren, DOE

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"As president, I'll also do more to provide federal loan guarantees for New Energy projects, which will encourage conservative bankers to finance new projects. The government already offers guarantees for energy projects; the only taxpayer cost comes if projects fail. That's a diminishing risk these days, with the advances in New Energy technology. But the loan guarantee program now favors nuclear and coal over renewables. We need to do a lot more with loan guarantees for renewables. It's a strategy that's proven effective.

"I'll also encourage discoveries - the equivalent of the Lewis and Clark Expedition - by increasing federal investment in energy research. The government is now spending only one-third of what we did each year during the last energy crisis. Researchers say we're on the verge of important breakthroughs in storing wind and solar energy. Engineers have already learned how to store solar energy in molten salts, making power from the sun available up to 18 hours every day. Some say they're close to developing a way to spray photovoltaic films onto panels, which would make solar power a lot cheaper. The West already has research centers in the National Renewable Energy Lab near Denver and the Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, and in the entrepreneurial companies now springing up in the region. In the future, the West will export both energy and discoveries made in its labs.

"Some of the biggest moves I'll make on the New Energy Frontier have to do with the grid of electricity transmission lines. We need to build new lines into the isolated areas where our wind and solar resources are most concentrated. I'll do more to push agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management to site transmission lines to facilitate New Energy development.

"I'll use two gigantic federal tools in the West - the Bonneville Power Administration, which runs hydropower dams on the Columbia River system, and the Western Area Power Administration, which runs more than 50 dams on the Colorado River system and other rivers. Those federal agencies own big transmission lines - the power backbones of the West. They could build new lines aimed at wind and solar and geothermal areas. That would make it easier to hook up. Costs could be subsidized, or fronted and then recovered from New Energy companies as they hook up.

"The more New Energy projects we have connected to the grid across the region, the more reliable New Energy becomes.

"I'll also put more effort into figuring out how to use the federal dams - the cheapest constant source of electricity - to 'firm up' the intermittencies of wind and solar power. When wind or solar cuts out temporarily, hydropower could be used as a backup. It wouldn't be easy, because much of that hydropower is already committed to other demands, but researchers are already studying how to do it. A lot of people are pioneering thinkers on the New Energy Frontier.

"I'll also push efficiency and conservation. The Department of Energy must continue to toughen the efficiency standards for appliances, for instance. There was almost no progress on that front during the current administration until Congress passed new standards in the 2007 Energy Bill. Still, there's room for progress. More than 50 million homes still have gas-fired hot-water heaters that waste half the energy that goes into them, even though companies are already making far more efficient - and affordable - hot-water heaters.

"But as important as conservation is, it's not enough on its own. We need to develop our New Energy resources. We can't just conserve our way out of this crisis.

"New Energy will have impacts and costs. Expanding the grid will cost more than $1 million per mile. Some public land will be crossed with new lines. Wind projects can take a toll on birds and bats. Solar projects have to cover a noticeable amount of land for each megawatt. Some environmentalists will oppose almost any proposal, and some neighbors will inevitably say 'not in my backyard.'

"Critics will argue that the shift toward New Energy will mean higher electricity rates for a while. Some Old Energy jobs will disappear.

"But this frontier will also create new jobs and new income streams. A solar power plant or a field of wind turbines can provide just as many jobs for each megawatt as a smoke-spewing power plant. We'll also have new manufacturing jobs for solar and wind equipment - those kinds of manufacturers are taking root in the West as we speak. The equipment prices will drop, and the power will become even more affordable.

"Many believe, and I share the belief, that New Energy will be the cheapest energy in the future, even if we don't count the environmental benefits. And because much of the New Energy frontier lies in rural areas, including Indian reservations, where wind and solar potential is high, it will give us a chance to address poverty and stimulate neglected economies.

"We won't abandon those who make their living in Old Energy - the coal mines and gas drills will continue running far into the future. But even those companies are already branching out into New Energy, because they're energy companies and they'll take that dedication wherever it may be useful. And who knows, scientists may come up with an effective way to sequester carbon in the West's geologic formations, so Old Energy can be used in a responsible manner.

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