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Fossilized Policy

Alternative electricity sources are ready; Washington is not.
May 1, 2005

Alternative energy technologies are increasingly effective – in terms of both technological soundness and economic com­petitiveness – and may soon mitigate some of the myriad geo­political, health, and environmental problems rooted in our dependence on fossil fuels. Modern nuclear power plant designs reflect lessons learned from 50 years of reactor operation and could benefit from materials and control systems unavailable in the 1960s and 1970s. Wind turbines and, to a lesser extent, photovoltaics – solar cells that convert sunlight directly into elec­tricity – are on the verge of competing more broadly against conventional sources of energy. Other technologies, like fuel cells, require more research but hold great promise.

All of the above, however, suffer from official neglect in the United States, which lacks a consistent national policy aimed at bringing alternative energy technologies into common use. The data, as shown in this month’s “Data Mine”, tell part of the story. For example, President Bush proposes to spend just $84 million in solar-power research through the Department of Energy next year, while the figure for wind power stands at $44 million – less than one-sixth what he proposes to spend on coal-related R&D. Beyond this anemic R&D commitment to solar, the United States lacks a consistent, long-term plan to give renewables a more secure footing through initiatives like federal financing, tax credits, grid-connection mandates, and streamlined construction rules. This is too bad, because some of these technologies are ready for commercialization. Wind turbines, in particular, are efficient and reliable enough to compete against fossil fuels in some areas. The newest and biggest turbine prototypes – which we describe in “Wind Power Upgrade” – promise even better economics. Wind technology is ready to expand and with some federal help could do so quickly.

As for nuclear power, in the United States, innovative tech­nologies languish, while overseas, plans to build new commercial plants are gathering momentum. As Stewart Brand points out in “Environmental Heresies”, while one utility in the Carolinas talks about perhaps building an unspecified type of new nuclear plant someday in the future, companies in South Africa and China recently signed an agreement to collaborate on building two versions of the innovative “pebble bed” reactor. Brand notes that nuclear power plants don’t produce any greenhouse gases and are viewed by some experts as the best tech­nology for producing the hydrogen we’d need to realize a “hydrogen economy.” But when we talk about nuclear power in the United States, it’s mainly to continue the endless arguments about where to put radioactive waste.

So where’s the government commitment to alternative technologies? It’s true that in March, legislators passed a bill that promotes the adoption of renewable electricity technologies. It includes a national fund to help pay for initial development, favorable lending and tax rates, and a requirement that electrical-grid operators adapt to renewable sources. Trouble is, the bill passed in China’s National People’s Congress. On Capitol Hill, an energy bill has been stalled for years, bogged down by controversial provisions, like one that would free oil companies of liability for health problems caused by a gasoline additive that has in some cases contaminated local drinking water.

With Washington offering no solutions, states have begun forming a patchwork of policies. Some states have enacted standards that require a percentage of electricity to come from renewable sources. And an association of western governors has called for more wind farms, among other clean energy sources. While these are encouraging developments, they are not a comprehensive strategy. Congress and President Bush should provide national leadership.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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