Planet Gore

Reality Intrudes on Renewables Rhetoric

Planet Gore posts frequently on the dangers of renewable-energy mandates. Well, states are finding out it’s not easy bein’ green. Turns out that minor details like cost, the limits of existing renewable technologies, and transmission restrictions are getting in the way of the grand plan to abandon fossil fuels.

The state goals have contributed to rapid growth of wind turbines and solar power stations in some areas, notably the West, but that growth has come on a minuscule base. Nationwide, the hard numbers provide a sobering counterpoint to the green-energy enthusiasm sweeping Washington.


Even with the fast growth of recent years, less than 3 percent of the nation’s electricity is coming from renewable sources, excepting dams.

“I think we are really overselling how quick, how easy and how complete the transition can be,” said George Sterzinger, executive director of the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a Washington advocacy group.

In those states that set aggressive goals and have had trouble meeting them, a big hurdle has been building power lines that could transmit the electricity, Mr. Wiser said. Another has been the utilities’ inability to secure enough long-term contracts to buy renewable power.

While the country has no shortage of entrepreneurs hoping to build wind turbines and solar arrays, they have been slowed by problems like finding suitable sites, overcoming local political opposition and securing financing. In a few cases, including some in upstate New York, allegations have been made that the developers bribed officials to win approval of their projects.

Many energy experts embrace renewable power standards as a policy mechanism to promote green energy, but with a nationwide standard starting to seem likely once Barack Obama and the new Congress take power, these experts are ratcheting down expectations of what can be achieved in the near term.

In fact, as utilities seek to meet growing electricity demand, they still turn most often to fossil fuels, rather than the sun or wind.

In New England, the trend is to build more plants that run on natural gas and oil, not wind, said Gordon van Welie, chief executive of the entity that operates New England’s power grid.

Similarly in California, John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technology in Sacramento, noted that since 2002, when state legislators passed a renewables requirement, the state has installed 16 times as much capacity from natural gas plants than from renewable energy.

The only mechanism the states have to force utilities into line is to fine them for not meeting the targets, but such costs would ultimately be passed on to electricity customers or company shareholders, neither of whom would look favorably on politicians who imposed such a burden in tough times.

Stay tuned to see if any of this will matter as Obama completes makes his appointments for the Dept. of Energy and the EPA. On that topic, see Kim Strassel’s piece in today’s WSJ.


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