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for people who care about the West

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 [email protected].