Warming to Clean Energy

I’m pleased to announce that the Wild Green Yonder is sprouting new buds: Nelson Harvey, a fellow Gallatino and good friend, will be joining me as WGY’s second contributor. Nelson’s specialties are renewable energy and journalism, and he’s making his debut this week with a four-part series on the case for clean energy.

– Adam

For anyone with doubts that the world of energy is undergoing major change, the newspaper headlines during the last week of February 2007 should have provided pretty convincing proof. On February 25th, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s documentary film about the science of global warming, won an Academy Award. Shortly thereafter, three major electricity industry trade groups who had long opposed any federal limit on carbon emissions flip-flopped, announcing their support for such rules. Then, on February 26th, company officials from TXU Corp., the Texas mega-utility and a nemesis of environmentalists who oppose its polluting power plants, announced that a consortium of private equity firms had offered to purchase and overhaul the company. Under the deal, TXU would abandon aspirations for 8 of 11 coal-fired power plants that had been planned. It would also double its investments in wind energy, and increase energy efficiency spending.

All of this was music to the ears of the clean energy industry, which for the past few years has been on the ride of its life. In 2006, the wind industry grew by 27 percent, solar grew by well over 20 percent, and ethanol grew by 24 percent. Similar figures are projected for 2007. Rapid growth is nothing new for this industry: the Arab oil embargo of 1973 sent U.S. oil prices skyrocketing, and dollars flowed into alternative energy research. The Iranian revolution of 1979 had a similar effect, but in both cases, the declining price of oil dragged the appeal of alternatives with it, and fossil fuel re-assumed its throne as the global energy king.

This time around, things are different. Clean energy is here to stay, and what’s changing the equation is global warming. Concern about the effect of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, combined with a national fixation on the goal of “energy independence,” has sparked a desire for change, and a debate about market-based environmental tools like a greenhouse gas emissions trading system. The fact that Democrats now control both houses of the U.S. Congress makes it likely that such a system will be implemented in the near future, and when it is, renewables will be ready. Over the next three days, I will present the economic, political and technological case for clean energy, as well as the obstacles that could derail this positive shift once again.

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