December 1, 2007

The Conspiracy Against Renewable Energy

By In Essays

I hate to use the “C” word, but there is no other way to say it. There is a national conspiracy to prevent renewable energy from becoming the primary energy source in the United States.

And who are the conspirators? The usual cast of characters: the fossil fuels industry, which continues to rake in exorbitant profits on oil and gas while it refuses to make any significant investment in renewable energy, even in the face of global warming; the members of the mainstream news media, too craven to cross their corporate masters by doing any serious coverage on the viability of renewable energy in today’s market; and the members of Congress, too addicted to the big bucks they receive from Big Oil and other traditional energy sources to create any sweeping renewable energy legislation for the good of the country.

The truth is, if it were not for this unholy trinity of greed, cowardice, and bribery, all of us would already be living in solar or wind powered homes and driving electric cars to and from work.

Here are the facts:

1) According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the amount of solar energy that hits the surface of the earth every hour is greater than the total amount of energy that the entire human population requires in a year. Another way of looking at it is that roughly 100 square miles of solar panels placed in the southwestern U.S. could power the entire country.

2) The Department of Energy also states that all U.S. electrical energy needs could be met by the wind in Texas and the Dakotas alone.

3) In 1977, the Office of Technology Assessment published a nonpartisan report that concluded that if the federal government offered substantial tax credits and incentives to speed up the mass production of renewable energy technologies, these technologies “could be made competitive in markets representing over 40% of U.S. energy demand by the mid-1980s.” At that rate, they would be competitive in almost all markets today.

4) The technology to produce photovoltaic panels and modern wind turbines has been around for decades, and thousands of Americans already have installed these renewable technologies on their homes and businesses, cutting their energy bills by significant margins. Recently, a New Jersey resident named Mike Mercurio installed both an array of solar panels on his roof and a wind turbine in his back yard and cut his energy bill from over $300 per month to about $10 per month.

This immediately begs the question: If we have the renewable technology at hand and we know it works, why don’t we use it in place of heavily polluting energy sources like oil, gas or coal? And why have so few people installed solar panels or windmills on their homes and in their backyards?

The primary reason is because the cost of renewable energy is still relatively high compared to fossil fuels, although the gap is closing as the cost of natural gas and oil continues to climb. For example, the price to install an array of photovoltaic panels on the average home– notwithstanding some modest tax incentives and rebates from the government– is anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000. At this price, only those who are well off can afford to have solar panels installed on their homes.

Of course, anyone with half a brain knows that once a product is mass produced, its price per unit plummets. But in order to facilitate this process and make it happen over a period of years and not decades, the federal government (with help from the states) needs to institute a massive, full-scale national renewable energy program, something equivalent to the Marshall Plan, something that would transform our entire society within a decade.

It can begin this process with a four-point plan: 1) Mandate tight pollution standards on the fossil fuels industry and stiff penalties for not abiding by them. This will get the carbon-based boys to start thinking about divesting some of their money into renewable energy. 2) Impose high CAFE standards on auto manufacturers and stiff penalties if they don’t implement them post haste. This will get the bright boys at GM to start thinking about electric cars in a big way. 3) Implement a windfall profits tax on oil companies and remove tax incentives to the entire fossil fuels industry. This will create billions of dollars that can be used to promote renewable energy. 4) Offer generous tax credits and incentives to the renewable energy industry to facilitate mass production of its technology and equally generous tax credits and incentives for homeowners to buy it.

If Congress made this four-point plan a reality, it would literally reverse the brain-dead energy policy that has been in effect for the past 27 years, ever since Ronald Reagan, Big Oil’s Bad Boy, strutted into office, decimated Jimmy Carter’s renewable energy program, and created energy bills and tax policies that favored the fossil fuels industry at the expense of renewable technology.

But how much money would it actually cost to institute a full-scale national renewable energy program in the United States? Hundreds of billions, no doubt, which is a lot of money, but not that much when you consider that over the past seven years, the Bush regime has already blown a half trillion dollars on Iraq and another trillion on tax cuts for the rich.

If that $1.5 trillion had been used to fund renewable energy instead, photovoltaic panels and wind turbines would already be in mass production at affordable prices for most homeowners, and the electric car industry would have been able to stage a major comeback.

For the last couple of decades, the electric car industry has languished due to the introduction of the hybrid car, the “compromise car,” as I call it. Instead of going from gas-powered cars straight to all-electric vehicles, which was the original plan, auto manufacturers decided to take an in-between step in deference to the fossil fuels industry and create the hybrid. (See the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? for more information on how auto manufacturers deliberately sabotaged their own electric vehicles.)

As a result, three misperceptions about electric cars have persisted to this day: 1) They’re too slow. 2) Their batteries won’t go far enough on a single charge. 3) Their batteries take too long to recharge. This was partially true 20 years ago, but no longer. Recently, the Japanese built an electric car called the Ellica that can out perform a gas-powered Porsche from zero to 100 by almost two seconds! So much for being slow.

And as far as batteries being a problem, the technology has come a long way in recent years, and if the money is there for more research and development, the battery technology will be perfected, and the electric car will become the ultimate driving machine, i.e., a vehicle that is affordable, fast, pollution-free, economical, and stylish– all in one package. And the best part of all, American drivers will never have to pay $3 a gallon for gas again. At the end of the day, they will simply plug their electric vehicles into their solar and wind-powered homes and recharge their batteries for nothing!

This has always been the dream of environmentalists:  a non-polluting energy source for their homes and a zero-emission vehicle for travel at a cost that would be reasonable for everyone.  Of course one person`s dream is another person`s nightmare, and this green scenario is anathema to the fossil fuels industry.  It means they would lose their economic and political stranglehold on not just America, but the entire world.  Which is why they`ve been bullying mainstream news organizations for decades and paying off politicians at the beginning of each election cycle.

Naturally, there are plenty of cynics around who say it will take 50 years for renewable energy to make a real difference in our energy consumption, and we`ll still need good old gas, oil, and coal as our primary sources of energy in the meantime.  Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy if we just sit back and do nothing, but if we change our energy policy dramatically, we can transform our entire society in a relatively short period of time.

As proof, consider this:  In 1997, the Danish government began an experimental project on the island of Samso to see if it was practical to use various forms of renewable energy for all the island`s energy needs.  Their goal was to accomplish this in ten years.
Remarkably, they finished ahead of schedule, and today 100% of the island`s electricity is generated by 11 one-megawatt wind turbines, while the rest of the island`s energy needs are met by using solar panels and other forms of renewable energy. True, it is easier to convert a small island to renewable energy than a large country. But the point is, the technology is available, and with the proper financial incentives and a full-scale commitment from the federal and state governments, the United States could break free from fossil fuels and be well on its way to becoming a land where solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars would become the norm in ten years.

The only thing it takes is the political will to stand up to the fossil fuels industry.  I know that`s asking a lot. But in view of the perpetual wars for oil in the Middle East, the increased awareness of global climate change, and the high cost of gasoline at the pump, maybe, just maybe, enough Americans will get fed up living under the greasy, smelly, polluted armpit of the fossil fuels industry and look to the sun and the wind to guide them to a cleaner, safer, brighter future.

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