Report: US emissions down, wind and solar capacity up

Could it be?  Citing data from the federal Energy Information Administration, a report by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI) states that United States carbon emissions dropped by 7 percent between 2007 and 2011.  The drop specifically relative to the coal and oil industries were even higher, at 10 and 11 percent, respectively.  These cuts were offset by a 6 percent increase in emissions from natural gas, which, although it burns up to 80 percent cleaner than conventional fuels, still burns.

It is well-known that the economic crisis and its aftermath have been responsible for an expected dip in US carbon emissions; in a carbon-based economy, emissions are bound to be lower in a downturn.  Still, with the economy growing again, albeit sluggishly, the continued dropoff is promising.

Significantly, the EPI report also shows wind and solar power steadily growing in their overall capacity.  As we reported earlier today, the cost of solar energy may well drop below that of fossil fuels within ten years (need link); according to EPI, the US currently has 22,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar energy projects planned or underway.  Yet even these numbers are nearly doubled by the amount of wind power that has already come online – as of October, according to data from both the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) and the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), wind turbines in the United States are producing nearly 45,000 MW of electricity, enough to power around 14 million homes.  What’s even more impressive is the scale of the increase in wind energy production – the curve since 2000 is literally exponential.

We should definitely receive these figures with caution, particularly because global carbon emissions, driven by increases in the developing world, continue to rise at record levels.  Additionally, much of the recent growth in the wind and solar industries has been aided by federal support that could meet its demise if one of the Republican presidential candidates beats President Obama next fall.

Still, the EPI report makes it clear that renewable energy, in addition to being a source for jobs, CAN present a viable, large-scale alternative to carbon-based fuels.  Now imagine if we could match the expansion of wind and solar power with similar growth in other local and utility-scale technologies…

U.S. Carbon Emissions Down 7 Percent in Four Years: Even Bigger Drops Coming (Earth Policy Institute)

Solar energy to be cheaper than fossil fuels in 10 years?

That’s what Energy Secretary Steven Chu claimed in a speech last week to the Washington Post’s Smart Energy conference.  You can read all about it here.

The bigger question, however, is what this means for other nascent alternate energy industries.  Solar has grown on a solid foundation of government subsidies, tax credits, and most importantly, growing private investment.  How can we create a framework for an entire portfolio of renewable energy technologies to attract this same sort of investment and make it big?

Solar cheaper than fossil fuels in a decade, says Steven Chu (grist.org)

More green goes to green projects (LA Times)

How credible are Solyndra critics?

Ever since California-based solar cell maker Solyndra LLC went bankrupt on September 1 after receiving a $535 million federal loan guarantee, congressional Republicans and grassroots conservatives have rushed to paint its collapse as a prime example of why tax dollars should not be allocated to support clean energy technology.  Many prominent political figures including House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) have made the repeated charge that the government should not “pick winners and losers” through its investments in energy, or any other sector of the economy.  The “winners and losers” line seems to be a favorite of Republicans, who claim to prefer that the free market determine which of our myriad sources of energy in the United States win out.

But it seems as though the winners and losers rhetoric stops as soon as many of these same politicians find an energy project or industry more in line with their priorities.  In fact, multiple GOP members of Congress including Boehner himself petitioned the Energy Department in 2009 and 2010 for loan guarantees similar to the one given to Solyndra in order to fund nuclear and clean coal projects in their home states and districts.  Although it’s not unusual for members of Congress to engage in such lobbying, it does cast a bit of doubt on the sincerity of claims that the government shouldn’t interfere with the market’s supposedly invisible hand.

The federal government has been picking a winner in energy for a long time, and it’s called the fossil fuel industry.  With billions of dollars in federal subsidies and tax breaks, the oil and gas industry has been able to maintain its superiority, and take in record profits while doing so.  Perhaps without those subsidies, the Big Five oil companies (Shell, Exxon, BP, Conoco Phillips, and Chevron) might spend less time trying to unlock new reserves in hard-to-reach places (the ocean floor, Arctic Circle, and Canadian tar sands come to mind) and more time beginning to legitimately support the new energy technologies in which Big Oil’s congressional backers currently deride the government for making piecemeal investments.

As for Solyndra, this is (was) a company that was initially touted for its innovation in producing silicon-free cells for solar panels; it was only after a global drop in silicon prices that Solyndra lost its ability to compete and had to shut its doors.   There also seems to be some confusion over the government’s role in all of this.  The Energy Department did not simply hand Solyndra $535 million; the money was part of a loan guarantee, which essentially means that the federal government agreed to underwrite any private loans that the company was given up to the $535 million amount.  Imagine you’re taking out a loan on a car or a house, and you have your friend or parents cosign.  That’s basically what the government did for Solyndra.  In case anyone out there is wondering if this is a new thing, there’s another prominent energy industry that wouldn’t be here without federal loan guarantees – nuclear power, which met over 11 percent of US energy needs in 2009.

We’ll continue to talk in this space about Solyndra and energy subsidies in general.  For the critics, however, who would use the Solyndra controversy as an argument against the federal government supporting any renewable energy at all, consider this: solar is currently America’s fastest growing industry.  In a down economy, you’d hope this would be the sort of thing we’d find a way to make work.

An immediate application for ocean energy?

For those of us who have toiled in marine energy startups, we know the challenges of converting the immense energy-producing potential of the oceans into a viable power resource.  The ocean holds great promise – water is 1,000 times denser than air, and the technology already exists to harness this energy without harming fish or other marine species.  The issue for ocean energy, absent a major financial or legislative push behind the industry, is a practical one: how to get all of that power from its source (the water) to the electric grid.

The potential payoff of a legitimate commitment to ocean energy, at least in the nation’s coastal areas where tides are strongest, should absolutely be considered as part of any truly comprehensive energy policy for the 21st century.  In the meantime, however, and in a national legislative climate that is less-than-friendly to investments in the renewable energy sector (see Solyndra: stay tuned for more), it is up to creative individuals and organizations to make due with the resources that are currently available.

One of those such organizations is the United States Navy, which recently began using ocean waves to power vessel-detection buoys off the coast of New Jersey.  The buoys, which are part of a more extensive maritime surveillance system that helps protect the country from terrorism, used to be powered by diesel generators.  Now the Navy relies on the motion of the ocean to move hydraulic fluid inside the buoys, which spins the generators instead of diesel fuel.  In total, one buoy can supply up to 50 kw of electricity, which is enough to power a dozen or more US homes.  Instead of facing the logistical challenge of moving this energy to shore, however, it can be used where it is produced to benefit the Navy (no transport costs for diesel fuel to power the generators), the ocean (no leaked diesel fuel), and the air (no diesel fuel emissions).

One of the central questions for ocean-going energy systems – how they might fare in severe weather – appears to have been answered in August when several of the Navy’s New Jersey buoys survived a direct hit by Hurricane Irene and withstood the 50 foot swells that came with it.

U.S. Navy’s wave power buoy plays chicken with Irene, wins (Grist)

Navy uses waves to power sensors (Scientific American)