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New Energy Economy Emerging in the United States

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Posted by pautrey2 on November 17, 2008, 9:04 am
New Energy Economy Emerging in the United States
By Lester R. Brown, Earth Policy Institute

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns
about climate change cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new
energy economy is emerging in the United States. The old energy
economy, fueled by oil, coal and natural gas, is being replaced by one
powered by wind, solar and geothermal energy. The transition is moving
at a pace and on a scale that we could not have imagined even a year

Consider Texas. Long the leading oil-producing state, it is now also
the leading generator of electricity from wind, having overtaken
California two years ago. Texas now has nearly 6,000 megawatts of wind-
generating capacity online and a staggering 39,000 megawatts in the
construction and planning stages. When all this is completed, Texas
will have 45,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity (think 45 coal-
fired power plants). This will more than satisfy the residential needs
of the states 24 million people, enabling Texas to feed electricity
to nearby states such as Louisiana and Mississippi.

After Texas and California, the other leaders among the 30 states with
commercial-scale wind farms are Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, and
Colorado. And other states are emerging as wind superpowers. Clipper
Windpower and BP are teaming up to build the 5,050-megawatt Titan wind
farm, the worlds largest, in eastern South Dakota. Already under
development, Titan will generate five times as much electricity as the
states 780,000 residents currently use. This project includes
building a transmission line along an abandoned rail line across Iowa,
feeding electricity into Illinois and the countrys industrial

Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz is developing a 2,000-megawatt
wind farm in south central Wyoming. He already has secured the rights
to build a 900-mile high-voltage transmission line to California. With
this investment, the door will be opened to developing scores of huge
wind farms in Wyoming, a wind-rich state with few people. Another
transmission line under development will run north-south, linking
eastern Wyomings wind resources with the fast-growing Colorado cities
of Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs. Wind-rich Kansas and
Oklahoma are looking to build a transmission line to the U.S.
Southeast to export their wealth of cheap wind energy.

California is developing a 4,500-megawatt wind farm complex in the
Tehachapi Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. In the east, Maine  a
wind energy newcomer  is planning to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind-
generating capacity, far more than the states 1.3 million residents
need. Further south, Delaware is planning an offshore wind farm of up
to 600 megawatts, which could satisfy half of the states residential
electricity needs. New York State, which has 700 megawatts of wind-
generating capacity, plans to add another 8,000 megawatts, with most
of the power being generated by winds coming off Lake Erie and Lake
Ontario. And soon Oregon will nearly double its wind generating
capacity with a 900-megawatt wind farm in the wind-rich Columbia River

Wind appears destined to become the centerpiece of the new U.S. energy
economy, eventually supplying several hundred thousand megawatts of

Solar power is also expanding at a breakneck pace. The nations wealth
of solar energy is being harnessed by using both photovoltaic cells
and solar thermal power plants to convert sunlight into electricity.
For solar cell installations, California, with its Million Solar Roofs
plan, is far and away the leader. New Jersey is also moving fast,
followed by Nevada.

The largest U.S. solar cell installation today is a 14-megawatt array
at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, but photovoltaic electricity at
the commercial level is about to go big time. PG&E has entered into
two solar cell power contracts with a combined capacity of 800
megawatts. Together, these plants will cover 12 square miles of desert
with solar cells and will have a peak output comparable to that of a
large coal-fired power plant. Solar power plants are appealing in hot
climates because their highest output coincides with the peak demand
for air conditioning.

Solar thermal plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a
vessel containing a fluid  heating it to 750 degrees Fahrenheit to
generate steam and produce power  have suddenly become an enormously
attractive technology. The United States has the worlds only large
solar thermal complex, a 350-megawatt project completed in 1991. But
as of September 2008 there are 10 large solar thermal power plants
under construction or in development in the United States, ranging in
size from 180 megawatts to 550 megawatts. Eight of the plants will be
built in California, one in Arizona, and one in Florida. Within the
next three years, the United States will likely go from 420 megawatts
of solar thermal generating capacity to close to 3,500 megawattsan
eightfold jump.

Along with wind and solar, geothermal energy is also developing at an
explosive rate. As of 2008 the United States has nearly 3,000
megawatts of geothermal generating capacity, 2,500 of which are in
California. Suddenly this too is changing. Some 96 geothermal power
plants now under development in twelve western states are expected to
double U.S. geothermal generating capacity. With California, Nevada,
Oregon, Idaho and Utah leading the way, the stage is set for the
massive future development of geothermal energy.

The new energy economy will be powered largely by electricity from
renewable sources. Electricity will light, heat and cool buildings. As
we shift to plug-in hybrid cars, light rail transit systems in cities,
and high-speed electric intercity rail systems like those in Japan and
Europe, our transport system will also be powered largely by

It is historically rare for so many interests to converge at one time
and in one place as those now supporting the development of renewable
energy resources in the United States. To begin with, shifting to
renewables increases energy security simply because no one can cut off
the supply of wind, solar or geothermal energy. It also avoids the
price volatility that has plagued oil and natural gas in recent
decades. Once a wind farm or a solar thermal power plant is built, the
price is stable since there is no fuel cost. Turning to renewables
will also dramatically cut carbon emissions, moving us toward climate
stability and thus avoiding the most dangerous effects of climate

The shift also will staunch the outflow of dollars for oil, keeping
that capital at home to invest in the new energy economy, developing
national renewable energy resources and creating jobs here. At a time
of economic turmoil and rising joblessness, these new industries can
generate thousands of new jobs each week. Not only are the wind,
solar, and geothermal industries hiring new workers, they are also
generating jobs in construction and in basic supply industries such as
steel, aluminum, and silicon manufacturing. To build and operate the
new energy economy will require huge numbers of electricians, plumbers
and roofers. It will also employ countless numbers of high-tech
professionals such as wind meteorologists, geothermal geologists and
solar engineers.

To ensure that this shift to renewables continues at a rapid rate,
national leadership is needed in one key area  building a strong
national grid. Although private investors are investing in long-
distance high-voltage transmission lines, these need to be
incorporated into a carefully planned national grid, the electrical
equivalent of President Eisenhowers interstate highway system, in
order to unleash the full potential of renewable energy wealth.

And, finally, this energy transition is being driven by an intense
excitement from the realization that people are now tapping energy
sources that can last as long as the earth itself. Oil wells go dry
and coal seams run out, but for the first time since the industrial
revolution we are investing in energy sources that can last forever.
This new energy economy can be our legacy to the next generation.


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