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.
Landmark legislation in the past, such as the 1862 Homestead Act and the 1933 act that created the Tennessee Valley Authority, has used federal resources to spur development. A similar plan for wind, solar and geothermal power on public lands in the Southwest could produce as much electricity as 75 to 100 coal plants, says Bob Epstein, a co-founder of Environmental Entrepreneurs. And each green gigawatt brings along other bonuses, in the form of tech innovation and rural jobs.
4. Americans are comfortable paying more than $3 for gas. (Otherwise, we'd leave that SUV in the garage.)
Actually, we don't understand gas's hidden costs. Studies have shown that a few Americans know how much they spend each month on gas at the pump, but no one has any idea how much we pay for the stuff each April 15. Milton R. Copulos of the National Defense Council Foundation figures that we fork over a stunning $10.07 per gallon in extra costs, including 51 cents for asthma treatment, $1.21 for pollution abatement, $1.39 for defense expenditures and $5.19 for economic costs -- and that doesn't include the long-haul costs of dealing with greenhouse gases.
The true costs could be far lower, but surely it's time to get some good estimates and print them on gas pumps, receipts and billboards. If this sounds a lot like the surgeon general's warning on cigarettes, it is. We use gas with the same unconscious abandon that 1960s smokers used cigarettes as diet aids. Acknowledging the consequences won't change our habits overnight, but it will change our values over time. (Just ask the tobacco companies.)
5. The stock market rewards companies that use energy efficiently and punishes those that don't.
It'd be nice to think so, but publicly traded companies don't have to tell anyone how much energy they or their products consume. A study last year by Calvert (an investment firm) and Ceres (a coalition of investors, environmental organizations and other public interest groups) found that more than half of the Fortune 500 companies did a poor job of disclosing the risks climate change poses to their businesses. I suspect this will soon change. In a few years, it may be as easy to figure out which companies are ready for the future as it is to find out which oil companies have increased their reserves and which have increased their debts. Until then, I'm going to try to sock away some of my share of that $517 billion.
Lisa Margonelli, a fellow at the New America Foundation, is the author of "Oil on the Brain: Petroleum's Long, Strange Trip to Your Tank."