Western Station Transforms Sunbeams Into Electricity
Under traditional definitions, hydropower -- using a rushing river to spin turbines and generate electricity -- would also be considered a renewable energy source. But the current campaign downplays the importance of hydropower.
For one thing, water power looks less reliable right now, after five years of drought across much of the West. Generating capacity at the region's two giant hydropower plants, Hoover Dam and Glen Canyon Dam, is threatened by a sharp drop in water flows along the Colorado River system.
Beyond that, hydropower is less popular today than it once was. "The environmental benefit is a key reason for paying the cost to switch to renewables," said Burdette, the Nevada energy director, "but the environmental community is not happy with the idea of building big dams to block rivers and flood the terrain."
For all the forward-looking experiments, renewable energy is still a tiny fraction of energy use. More than 90 percent of the region's electricity today is produced by burning fossil fuels. Hydropower accounts for most of the rest, with the more exotic fuels such as sun, wind and geothermal energy generating about 1 percent of annual electricity consumption. The nation's largest solar plant here at Springerville turns out about 4 megawatts of electricity; Arizona's total consumption on a hot summer day is about 2,000 megawatts.
But the western states have announced ambitious plans for conversion to renewable energy over the next decade or so. California's goal is to produce 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2017. New Mexico is aiming for 10 percent by 2011. Texas, despite its oil industry, has set a goal of 2.7 percent by 2009. A referendum headed for the Colorado ballot this November would require the state to get to 10 percent by 2015.
Even advocates such as Tom Hansen readily admit that such well-meaning pledges might simply evaporate in the desert sun. But Hansen says there are reasons to be confident about the conversion to renewable energy.
"For one thing, the price is going down," he said. The infrastructure cost -- that is, for erecting windmills or photovoltaic cell arrays -- is dropping rapidly as technology improves and production increases.
And the fuel, of course, is free. "I can tell you exactly how much an hour of sunshine is going to cost 15 years from now," Hansen said. "That's not so easy to predict if you're talking about a barrel of oil or a ton of coal."
Beyond that, Hansen says, both government and the power industry in the West have taken the hardest step by getting started. Expanding on the base of current research and practical know-how should be easier.
To make the point, he opens his arms wide to illustrate the seemingly endless expanse of sun-soaked desert in front of him.
"So far, we've got about half a mile of PV [photovoltaic cells] stretched out here. But if you look west, there's what -- at least 25 miles of open country before we get to those mountains on the horizon. We're going to have an array that extends that distance. And the Arizona sun will just keep shining on the whole thing."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company