Late Out of the Green-Energy Gate

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Energy is what makes modern society function.  It powers our transportation, increases the amount of food that can be grown to levels well beyond what can be produced in its absence, sterilizes our surgery rooms and powers our workplaces and our homes.  There isn’t much about modern life that isn’t at its root some form of energy consumption.

Recently, I did a story on three companies in the Chicago area that are trying to provide alternative energy options to local consumers.  One is a startup launching a website that is aimed at simplifying the process of finding a contractor who can install alternative energy products.  Another is a company that designs and installs solar panels and wind turbines, and the last is a company that specializes in insulating houses using recycled material known as cellulosic insulation.

While writing the article, I couldn’t help but think about how this approach, piecemeal and reliant on tax rebates to be affordable and individual consumer initiative to be installed, is never going to have a large enough effect on the amount of energy used in this country to make a real difference.  The United States isn’t going to ensure its energy future by giving tax breaks for small installations of green energy to the few well-off, well-meaning homeowners who decide it’s in their interest to put up wind turbines, solar panels or effective insulation. We need a real, national push for the development and installation of renewable power and a modern power grid across the entire country that will increase efficiency and reduce the reliance on fossil fuels of the whole nation, not just the few who make the choice to do so.

A coordinated, national effort to move from an oil-based society is not an impossible task.  Many countries are now well on their way to powering themselves using combinations of alternative energy sources.  Spain, Portugal, Germany and Denmark are all making significant investments.

While it is true that the U.S. has made large investments in green energy, when you compare the size of the investment to the size of its economy, it is really not that not much.  Smaller countries with smaller economies have made proportionally much larger investments.  For example, as of 2009, using the numbers published by the Global Wind Energy Council and the CIA World Fact Book, the United States has 2.5 megawatts of installed wind power per billion dollars in GDP, while Denmark has 17.5 megawatts per billion dollars in GDP, and Portugal has 15.2 megawatts per billion dollars in GDP.

The United States is not doing nearly as much as it could.

Luckily, the window of opportunity is not closed.  Just because we have been late out of the starting gate doesn’t mean that we are fated to always bring up the rear.  There is still time for us to get serious about transitioning our economy to energy sources that have a real future.

The move is not going to be easy or cheap, but the payoff for doing so will be great.  We need to make massive investments in future-proofing our power grid and power sources now before it really becomes urgent. While we are just now clawing our way out of a recession, it would be shortsighted of us to use that as an excuse to put off tackling our energy issues.

The problem of global warming and the possibility of dwindling oil supplies are so important that we cannot leave the solution up to individuals.  The type and amount of investment required to truly move ourselves from a hydrocarbon-based society and economy to one that runs on renewable sources is much too large for a few alpha consumers to handle on their own.

- blog by Zachary Stedt, graduate student reporter, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

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Comments

Zachary, I couldn't agree with your article more. In the mid 1980's when I graduated from college I expected there to be a push for new forms of energy, and am still waiting! Isn't there a chance that we could pull our economy out of the recession by pushing a drive for new energy technology? It represents a huge market opportunity for the US, from research,to development, to construction...how many jobs could be created if our government would just get behind this push and provide incentives for companies to invest in this change. We aren't going to get out a recession by buying more at Walmart. I just wish politicians could put aside the arguments and special interests and focus on longer term solutions.
Thanks for your article.

Here in the UK we are seeing a rapid growth in micro generation technologies (mainly pv solar) for domestic dwellings. This has been driven by the new feed in tarrifs, which guarantee that the National Grid will buy any electricity produced at home back for well above market rate. This has led to private investors kitting houses out with solar, and recouping their costs (and profit) from selling the power back.

Perhaps the US could benefit from a similar setup?

Any thoughts on corporate backing to large scale alternative energy development. An example is the big G's involvement in off shore wind farm projects on the Atlantic coastline. Should we trade up front commercial funding for a lack of government control?

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