A Call for Domestic Renewable Energy

By Bracken Hendricks and Janet L. Sawin
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Tuesday, September 19, 2006; 12:00 AM

America's energy economy is changing. Tough challenges -- from global warming to sustained high oil prices -- will be addressed in coming years, either through proactive policies and investment in clean technology, or through neglect, wishful thinking and ad hoc decisions that leave our economy and our planet less well off. Either way, change is coming.

An excellent answer to these tough challenges is renewable energy. Renewable energy works, and it can play a large role in addressing our mounting energy crises. Yesterday, the Center for American Progress in partnership with the Worldwatch Institute released a report entitled American Energy: the Renewable Path to Energy Security, which outlines one encouraging direction our nation could take in the coming energy transition. This report demonstrates the potential for clean renewable energy to contribute substantially to meeting our increasing energy needs while protecting our security and the environment, and boosting our economy. .

Currently, renewables account for just 6% of total U.S. energy. But around the world, renewable energy markets are exploding. Global wind production has more than tripled since 2000. Use of solar cells for electricity has increased more than six times in the same period, making solar one of the fastest growing industries on the planet. During this time, ethanol production has more than doubled, and use of biodiesel has shot up nearly 4 times. In 2005, capital investments in renewable energy (excluding large-scale hydropower) reached $38 billion, and that number could approach $70 billion by 2010.

This dynamism is driving down costs and accelerating technological advances. Yet, these impressive global growth rates have been slowed in the United States by an unclear and shifting patchwork of policies and incentives. And even this rapid growth is not yet sufficient to head off the worst effects of climate change or to shift our energy infrastructure and break our addiction to oil.

As America considers moving to a clean energy economy, it is vital to remember that we have made equally major shifts in our energy system before. The current oil age, for example, emerged rapidly and unexpectedly in the first 20 years of the last century, demanding new technologies like refineries, fueling infrastructure, improved roads, and mass production of car engines, all in a very short time. This transformation was backed by entrepreneurs like John D. Rockefeller, as well as public policy and public investment.

The immense public benefits that large-scale use of renewable energy would provide to our nation justify an active public role in providing strong, consistent and long-term incentives and regulatory structures to accelerate the deployment of clean, homegrown American energy.

Greater use of renewable energy will enhance both national and economic security. The United States was once the world's largest oil exporter, today we are the largest importer. We import over 60% of the oil we use -- or 13 million barrels a day -- at a cost of $300 billion dollars annually. Oil is already the largest single contributor to our national trade deficit, and the share of oil that we import is predicted to rise to 70% by 2025. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to be pushed into ever tighter and more expensive oil markets, relying on unstable and undemocratic nations for our energy needs. An America that turns increasingly to improved efficiency and homegrown biofuels will see dramatic reductions in these pressures.

The security benefits of renewable energy extend to electricity as well. Distributed technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal energy, combined with energy efficiency, mean fewer terrorist targets and a more resilient electrical grid that is less prone to power failures. For example, the Northeast blackout of 2003, which in a few days cost between $4 and $10 billion dollars, could have been avoided with a small percentage of solar power located at key points on the grid.

Renewable energy would also create jobs. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that achieving 20% of US electricity from renewables would create more than 355,000 new US jobs, while the Renewable Energy Policy Project has shown that an achievable five-fold increase in wind energy production would pump $20 billion into the economy and create 150,000 jobs in the hard hit manufacturing sector.

Rural communities also benefit from solutions like farm-based wind and solar power, and new crops for biofuel feedstocks. The Renewable Fuels Association estimates that in 2005 alone, ethanol created 154,000 U.S. jobs, boosted household income by $5.7 billion dollars, and added $3.5 billion in tax revenues. Those are big impacts across the economy, and a sound element in a national strategy for more equitable economic development.

Major environmental benefits will also come from a renewable American energy strategy. Conventional energy technologies account for 70 percent of the world's global warming emissions, and the United States is responsible for a quarter of that total. Generating a major share of our energy with renewable sources could reduce carbon emissions substantially. In addition, these technologies can help conserve land and water and guard against pollution, when implemented sustainably, protecting the health of every American.

It is imperative that we reduce our reliance on imported and polluting energy, and increasing our reliance on clean domestic renewable energy is one of the fastest and surest ways to achieve this end. A positive American energy future will not come about, however, without clear policy support. The world's leading producers of renewable energy -- countries like Germany and Japan -- have jumpstarted solar and wind industries through creative incentives that rapidly built their markets, and regulations that helped to internalize the real costs and benefits of energy security and pollution.

It is long past time for America to step up to this challenge. We must set in place the Federal policies to build a robust domestic renewable energy industry, rather than ceding these emerging markets to our competitors and placing the burdensome costs of inaction on our children in the form of an increasingly strained economy and a fraying global environment. There is a better way, and it begins with a firm commitment to clean and renewable American energy as a major contributor to our national energy supply.

Bracken Hendricks is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress

Janet L. Sawin is Director of the Energy and Climate Change Program at the Worldwatch Institute

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