Through the Looking Glass: Our Renewable Energy Future

2011 was a boom year for renewable energy in the United States. According to the SEIA, the solar industry alone installed a record 1,855 megawatts of PV in 2011; double the previous year’s record of 887 megawatts. Wind’s success must also be noted growing 31% with 6.8 gigawatts connected to the grid from new turbines.

These installation numbers aren’t necessarily indicative of the future of renewable energy, however. In reality, there aren’t enough new renewable projects being contracted to keep pace with the installation progress we’re seeing now. In fact, the construction we’re seeing today is a result of power purchase agreements (PPAs) signed several years ago (as it takes between two and five years to complete them). Now the flow of new PPAs being signed has slowed dramatically, and new renewable projects will inevitably crawl to a halt in the next half of the decade.

There are a few reasons this is happening, one notable one being this is an election year and no one wants to appear too extreme (though the thought of Newt Gingrich getting extreme on renewable energy makes me laugh out loud). But the huge obstacle renewable energy is facing right now is natural gas and the unnaturally low prices fracking has been able to achieve. Even though the cost of solar and wind has dropped (and is the lowest it’s ever been), historically low natural gas prices make it appear as though the gap between fossil fuels and renewables is much larger than it actually is.

Policy makers don’t want to choose anything other than gas that could increase costs to rate payers, putting renewable energy advocates in a bit of a predicament–vehemently opposing natural gas in favor of renewables makes it seem like they support increased costs for the rate payers.

An article in Forbes suggests proponents for renewables should embrace natural gas because of its affordability and its clean(ish) nature (its less polluting than coal) instead of trying to argue against it. Though I think this is the route energy will ultimately take, I don’t think it’s the best course of action.

Natural gas costs aren’t sustainable, and they will inevitably rise. Relying on natural gas only perpetuates our society’s fossil fuel driven mind set and won’t help to drive down the costs of renewable energy to something rate payers across the board find attractive.

We need to achieve a clean source of energy that’s sustainable in terms of both supply and cost. Renewable energy contracts and power purchase agreements need to pick up speed lest our clean energy future gets muddled by natural gas.

“Yes” to Carbon

I went sailing once. Using the inordinate amount of tact I clearly possess, I mentioned to my partner–a girl who happened to have a dramatic lazy eye–that she would be an optimal sailing buddy as she could keep one eye on the tiller while simultaneously watching the ropes.

After reading an article in Inside Climate News on Obama’s “Yes” to tar sands and “No” to coal, I was reminded of my unfortunate comment to my sailing partner: Obama is trying to keep one eye on his election poles and one eye on his long term carbon and energy goals. Unlike my lazy-eyed friend however, his vision seems to be mostly focused on the poles.

People are a bit flabbergasted with Obama at present: he is endorsing the tar sand moving  Keystone XL pipeline and all the while is creating initiatives that will put more stringent regulations for future power planets. A portion of the new regulations would limit carbon emissions from those new plants to 1,000 pounds per megawatt hour. Current coal fired power plants hover around 1,800 pounds.

Opponents of Keystone point out that any reductions seen in carbon emissions from the EPA’s new regulations may be moot if the entire 1,702 mile behemoth pipeline is erected. The predicted 900,000 barrels of tar sand extracted, transported, and refined per day will emit 27 million metric tones more carbon dioxide than emissions from conventional crude oil. The EPA estimates that’s equivalent to to the annual emissions from 7 coal-fired power plants.

As power plants remain in commission usually for 50 some odd years, the EPA’s rules for new plants are key in preparing for what we want future emissions to look like. It’s important to note, however; that the EPA’s rule’s impact will be meager until existing plants are retired as they aren’t required to adhere to the same standards. It’s also important to realize the rules don’t apply to the dozen or so power plants that have already obtained building permits and breaking ground in the next year. As plants breaking ground today will be around for the next 50 some odd years they will still be polluting the same amount into the next few decades.

As of now, there are no new proposals in the queue that would need to be held accountable to the EPA’s new standards.

As Robert Walther, an energy adviser with the think tank Third Way states, “Coal was already falling away as an option. It can’t compete in the marketplace.”  If the EPA is basically ensuring no new coal fired power plants will come online, what is the point of their new regulations that solely apply to future power plants? Walther says it will sow the seeds for new regulations for existing power plants, which would only happen post-November, if Obama is reelected. At this time, it just seems to be a way for the Obama administration to appear to be making headway as far as limiting the emissions from coal fired power plants.

Obama’s support of the Keystone pipeline may just be a symbolic gesture to ease the public’s gas pump woes, but that doesn’t discount the fact that at least half of the pipeline is being constructed and it will create a huge carbon bomb on the planet. Obama supporting the EPA’s new rules to regulate emissions from new power plants may be a way to cut carbon emissions, but it doesn’t discount the fact that no new power plants are being built and the rules don’t apply to the hundreds of carbon spewing electricity generators.

We can’t just switch from one dirty energy source to another and expect to accomplish much. It seems that Obama is just saying, “Yes” to carbon at this point.

Renewable Energy Fact Sheet

It’s fairly easy to make renewable energy look like a pipe dream, and misguided attacks on clean energy is doing just that: making renewables look too costly, too sporadic; not merited because it’s not competitive with fossil fuels, or that it won’t create jobs.

These petty strikes against the renewable energy industry don’t even remotely mesh with what we know is true about clean energy, and Think Progress recently published an article pointing out what you really need to know about the value of renewable energy.

1. Clean energy is competitive with other types of energy: Renewable energy is affordable now. Not tomorrow, not next year. Now. Even with the price of natural gas being inordinately low, these cheap prices are unsustainable, like any nonrenewable resource,  supplies will dwindle, and prices will rise. But renewable is staying competitive: with the help of bigger turbines, and increased reliability, some wind developers are signing power-purchase agreements in the 3 cents a kilowatt-hour range, which is far cheaper than any other new power source. The same industry maturity is occurring in solar with California solar developers signing contracts for power costing less than that of a natural gas plant.

2. Clean energy creates more jobs than fossil fuels: Renewable energy job creation outstrips fossil fuels 3 to 1. Not only does the renewable energy sector create more jobs, they create better jobs: twice as many medium to high credentialed jobs are being created in the clean energy economy with wages being about 13% higher, and almost half of these jobs employ workers with less than a four year college degree. Aside from these facts, the clean energy industry is actually growing by a rate of 8.3% which is more than can be said about the overall economy.

3. Clean energy improves grid reliability: Yes, it’s true that if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining then power isn’t going to be generated. But, that doesn’t mean that renewable energy isn’t a viable option for large scale power production. For instance, predictability of wind power would be easier to manage if there was more of it and energy could be delivered without interruption to the grid. Any additional costs for backup generation would be small (less than 10%) and would have little to no effect on consumer power costs.

4. Fossil Fuels have gotten 75 times more subsidies than clean energy: From 1994-2009 the fossil fuel industry received $446.96 billion in subsidies where as in that same time frame renewable energy received $5.93 billion. A study showed that in the early years of the fossil fuel industry, oil and gas producers received federal subsidies making up one half of a percent of the budget. This amount may seem small, but compare that with the one tenth of a percent of federal spending that’s used for renewables. If more subsidies were dedicated to renewable energy instead of the fossil fuel industry, clean energy would become even more cost effective than it is now.

Renewable energy could be an engine for economic growth and a pathway into a sustainable future, but false information that undervalues its potential could really set up road blocks. It’s important to realize the merit behind renewable energy, not only is it affordable and cost effective, but we can make it reliable on a large scale while creating jobs and with more investments from the federal government, we can more forward into a clean energy future.

The Urgency For Innovation

Innovation is an interesting word. It means introducing something new or different. Depending on what side of the political line you live on, innovation will most likely mean something drastically different than on the other side of the line.

To some, innovation means unconventional gas, tar sands, oil shale. These people most likely believe global warming is a myth, and may even be under the impression that Obama is pushing a “phony theology” on the American people.

On the other hand, innovation means finding new sources of clean, sustainable forms of energy. This group is most likely concerned with maintaining finite resources and keeping atmospheric greenhouse gas levels at bay.

Of course, depending on what side you’re standing on, the other seems to be in the wrong, but in either case the word “innovation” is becoming a source of contention. At present one innovation Obama is being assaulted over is research on algae-based biofuels.

Algae-based biofuels are like any other biofuel whose energy is made from biological carbon fixation. Unlike some biofuels, like bioethanol, which needs a lot of prime land space, algal fuels grow quickly and thrive in any type of water from seawater to sewage. A recent study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory reports that the use of algal-biofuels could replace as much as 17% of U.S. oil imports. With exorbitantly high oil prices and energy security looming, it seems the natural progression of innovation is to invest money into researching the plausibility of algal fuels. Unfortunately, now Republican’s are launching an attack on this “goofy gas”, touting Obama’s $14 million offer towards “weird” algal fuel research.

While the cost of renewable energy (wind, solar, biofuels) is dropping, the technology to improve extraction of fossil fuels is improving. Now, instead of retiring oil fields or strip mined mountains, we’re able to suck every last drop of oil from the ground and dig for every last kernel of coal. Necessity fuels innovation. And right now the urgency to make a drastic shift to a non-fossil fuel based society doesn’t exist.

Even if there was urgency to switch from conventional sources of oil to renewables, supplies of tar sands still exist and are considered innovative enough to some, leaving clean energy pushed to the side once more. The fact the clean energy isn’t being associated with the need to deter the impacts of climate change–not to mention that climate change isn’t being mentioned at all–isn’t putting enough weight on how important clean, renewable energy is to our future.

In the past, necessity has spurred innovation. Right now we’re not forced to come up with an energy source on the fly, but at the same time that seems to be deminishing research of potential [innovative] fuel sources outside of fossil fuels. Somehow, we need to create an urgency to switch from fossil fuels to renewable resources, investing money into all sources, no matter how “weird” they may be.

Keystone XL: The Cockroach Who Refused to Die

The unrelenting pipeline project that aims to transport more than 800,000 barrels of oil a day from Alberta, Canada to the Texas Gulf is at it again. When TransCanada was told in January the project was being turned down, what do they do? They make plans to build the southern half of the pipeline while they “work out” a new route for the northern half which was slated to go through ecologically sensitive areas in Nebraska. The strangest part of all of this, is that TransCanada doesn’t need approval from the State Department, and even if they did, the Obama Administration has decided to back the idea.

The Southern half of the pipeline will divert tar sands from Oklahoma to Texas. It’s not technically the Keystone XL pipeline but will still provide the same service to oil companies that Keystone would.

Controversy around the Keystone pipeline stems from many avenues from potential oil spills to indigenous issues, but for most people their primary issue is climate change. Tar sands are more carbon intensive than mining conventional sources of oil, emitting between 5-15 percent more greenhouse gases. As Climatologist, James Hansen has stated, “it is essentially game over” for climate if tar sands are exploited along side coal reserves.

Obama took a lot of heat on his initial decision to reject pipeline construction from his rival presidential candidates. Rick Santorum claims going through with pipeline construction will lower gas prices. While Newt Gingrich has been swearing up and down that Obama’s playing favorites with “environmental extremists” instead of spending time lowering gas prices.

Other advocates of the pipeline argue the benefits of importing from our friendly neighbors to the North instead of the Middle East. Another benefit they claim, the creation of jobs–which has been a matter of intense debate as the numbers have ranged from 5,000-20,000–would mostly only be temporary positions. My own personal favorite argument (noted above by pipeline proponents Santorum and Newt) in favor of the pipeline is that it will lower gas prices. The fact is that once the oil from Canada reaches the Texas Gulf it will not be be pumped around the U.S. for domestic oil use. It will enter the global oil market from Texas refineries and is very likely to be shipped overseas. It will raise gas prices as much as 20 cents per gallon. It’s the same scenario with the “half-pipe” from Oklahoma to the Gulf: we’re looking at a rise in gas prices while remaining vulnerable to price spikes.

While people argue that the purpose of Keystone pipeline and the “half-pipe” is to lower gas prices for the American people, TransCanada’s plans don’t mesh. The construction of the pipeline will subject the U.S to increased costs of heavy Canadian crude oil. Philip Verleger, founder of PK Verleger LLC (an energy consulting firm) told Bloomberg, “The Canadian plan was to use their market power to raise prices in the U.S. and get more money from consumers”.

It’s a little disconcerting the “half-pipe” is moving forward in that there is little stopping the entire Keystone XL project from taking over the Midwest which would be harmful not only to gas prices, but that pesky thing we call Climate Change. There should be no “half-pipe”, no whole-pipe. We need to start making a concerted effort to get away from an oil based society instead of crawling back to the same fossil fuel burning, environment polluting energy sources.

Keystone is like a cockroach. They’re difficult to kill, but it’s definitely not impossible.

Resource Wars

A lot of things happened in 2006, but I bet you don’t recall reading about peak oil in the headlines. Peak oil refers to when the rate of petroleum extraction is reached, at which time production enters decline mode. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) crude oil production peaked at 70 million barrels per day in 2006 and will never regain that height again.

What does this mean? It means, “The age of cheap oil is over,” said Fatih Birol, IEA chief economist. With nations making little to no effort to slow the demand for oil, prices will continue to rise.

According to the IEA, to keep production stable, it will mean much more production from oil fields (new and undiscovered) and monstrous investments, about $8 trillion over the next 25 years. The IEA also reports that production of tar sands will need to triple in that same time frame. However, tar sand production (barrel for barrel) is more expensive and worse for the environment, releasing between 5-15% more carbon dioxide compared to conventional oil production.

As Guy Caruso from the Center for Strategic and International Studies says, “It’s partly geological resource limitations,”–production has fallen faster than expected. He goes on to point out that there are other known areas of oil–Venezuela, Iraq, Kazakhstan, and Nigeria. He also points out that because of political turmoil, production in these countries is below its potential.

If we choose to extract oil from any of those four countries, we’ll be in the same (or worse) position we’re in right now. We will still be importing oil from politically volatile places. We will still be vulnerable to price spikes and shortages (spikes being something economies have the hardest time dealing with, says Caruso). We will still be in a position where we want to protect and control the flow of supplies which will require some form of military presence. We will still be shelling out trillions of dollars into a quickly dwindling resource.

Sir David King, director of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment said that, “historians of the future will look back and see the Iraq war as the first resource war of the 21st century”, and I’m inclined to agree. Since the Carter Doctrine, the U.S. has been dependent on areas of the world subject to conflicts, violence, and overall disturbances for oil. The U.S. has used military force to assure the unimpeded flow of oil to Americans who rely on it for almost every aspect of life.  Oil markets are becoming increasingly volatile, to protect U.S. interests, a strong military hand will be (and has been) present in those oil rich countries as a disruption in oil supply would hit every aspect of the U.S. economy. This was true in the Gulf War, in the Iraq War, and will be true in any country we depend on for natural resources.

If conventional oil production has indeed peaked, we are at a crossroads of how to proceed as far as our energy production and consumption. Will we invest $8 trillion dollars in the oil industry? Will we go into yet another nation wrought with political discourse wielding our military might to secure what we want? Will we spend billions of dollars on said military might?

Perhaps, it’s high time to make a change and invest that $8 trillion into something other than oil. Maybe, it’s time we focus on finding a source of energy that can be produced domestically…something renewable…something sustainable…something that doesn’t spew carbon dioxide and countless other toxins into the environment…

Have you heard of anything like that?

$2 Gas? I’m Not So Sure About That, Newt

I don’t know about where you live, but when I filled up this morning I paid over $4 dollars a gallon for gas. And not just a couple cents over mind you.

I’ve recently read some interesting articles revolving around gas prices. Specifically, about high gas prices and what a president can actually do about lowering them, which turns out to be not a whole lot.

With that being said, it may be a little confusing to some why Newt Gingrich is on his soap box promising gas prices to be $2.50 a gallon (or lower) if he’s elected president. Aside from the fact that his name is Newt and he looks like a goblin, I don’t know if that’s a statement I’m readily willing to believe.

When Obama took office, we were scoring gas at about $1.81 a gallon. We were also in the clutches of the worst global recession since the Great Depression. The recession depressed demand; less people were driving and costs went down. As the economy started chugging along once more, the price of gas rose. If Newt is able to deliver on his $2.50/gallon prices, there’s a good chance that means the economy has gone down the poop-shoot.

Under Obama (and his “all of the above” energy strategy), domestic drilling is booming and we’re importing less oil than we have in years, but as oil functions on a global market, domestic drilling doesn’t necessarily equal lower gas prices. For presidential candidates like Newt who are singing to the chorus of “drill baby, drill” –that won’t lower gas prices.

For those who might already be skipping towards Blame Road and Keystone Pipeline Lane, Obama’s blockage of the oil pipeline is not causing the high price of gas. In fact, Keystone would have little immediate effect on gas prices, and on a long term would probably only lower prices a few cents–maybe.

Gas prices are higher is because the economy is doing better, driving up the demand for gas. And with tensions and uncertainties in the Middle East, in addition to countries like China who are anticipated to use 5% more gas this year, prices will continue to rise.

It’s going to take more than drilling to solve our energy problems. An overall energy efficient economy will help make us more resilient to high costs and price spikes. Hopefully the American people realize that when voting time comes.