5 Myths About Earth-Friendly Energy

By Lisa Margonelli
Sunday, February 3, 2008

Last year, Americans spent more greenbacks on oil than any other nation -- about $517 billion, according to the Energy Information Administration. But we've failed to lead in developing green energy, and that's going to cost us even more.

Historically, we've treated renewable energy and energy efficiency as virtuous, feel-good projects rather than shrewd investments in the industries of the future. It shows: We now trail China and Germany in renewable-power production and lag behind Japan and most of Europe in energy productivity. Worse, we may be missing out on the green gold rush of the century: The market for green energy is set to quadruple in the next eight years, according to the research firm Clean Edge.

Of course, the United States can catch up (and reduce smog, carbon dioxide emissions and geopolitical hassles while we're at it), but we'll need to start treating green energy as a source of jobs, cash and national influence. That means supporting it like a real energy industry -- with a vigorous mix of diplomacy, laws and incentives -- and dispelling some key myths.

1. "Green energy" is better at sponging up subsidies than creating jobs.

Not so, though Washington certainly now views environmentally responsible energy production as yet another way to pump subsidies to constituencies as diverse as corn farmers and Prius owners. That cavalier attitude is costing us a shot at future markets, which may mean the next generation of U.S. jobs.

Take concentrated solar energy -- which uses massive lenses and mirrors to "concentrate" the sun's rays to quickly produce cheap electricity. It has the potential to become a $20 billion industry over the next five years, but the United States is in danger of losing its lead here to Spain, which has established 25-year production incentives designed to spur a competitive industry. Germany, using similar incentives, has already created 35,000 to 40,000 jobs in solar power, according to Emerging Energy Research. But in the United States, a fairly miserly tax credit expires this year, and risk-averse investors are holding back from building new plants.

2. There are no gushers left in the United States, so we have to look overseas for energy.

Not so. Even though the United States famously has only 3 percent of the world's crude oil reserves, we still have access to gushers of fuel savings. But U.S. energy policies -- such as the recent law begging automakers to reach a 35 miles-per-gallon standard by 2020 -- remain too timid to make the United States a world leader. (China has already mandated 36 mpg standards by this year.)

The U.S. military has been far smarter on this score. It's already started a greenish gold rush simply by announcing its intention to replace half the jet fuel it uses with non-petroleum fuels by 2016. By requesting competitive bids for small quantities of alternative fuels now, the Defense Energy Support Center, the Pentagon's energy-procurement agent, has indirectly rallied investors to supply coal-derived synthetic fuels -- and, eventually, more climate-friendly biofuels.

Other potential gushers lurk in unexpected places. Cambridge, Mass., has a five-year plan to reduce power consumption by 15 percent, according to the Kendall Foundation, an environmental grantmaker. Skip Laitner, an economist at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, notes that paying bills online saves more than just stamps; if everyone did it, we'd save enough energy to power 150,000 homes. In 1879, Congress created the U.S. Geological Survey to map the country's resources; today, we should ask the National Academy of Sciences to map new sources of energy.

3. "Green power" can't deliver the volume of energy we need.

U.S. electrical generators lose more heat energy than Japan uses to run its entire economy, which raises the question of whether we need as much energy as we think we do. Anyway, simply recycling waste energy from industry and farming could supply nearly 20 percent of U.S. electrical needs, according to a 2005 study by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

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