February 1, 2004

Can Renewable Energy Rise From the Ashes as a Hot Political Issue?

By In Essays

For years, only diehard environmentalists and Green Party candidates have kept the issue of renewable energy alive, but at long last the Democratic candidates for president are beginning to speak out on the issue. The question is whether they will make it a cause celebre in the coming presidential election.

In 1977, the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) published an exhaustive report that could have changed the future of the United States and the world. The government report, written by some of the top energy experts in the country, concluded that if the federal government and energy industries worked together 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.” Given this timetable, it is reasonable to conclude that by 2004, renewable technologies would be supplying well over 50% of all our current energy needs.

The key to this timetable, however, had always been predicated on whether there was the political will to implement a national energy policy designed to mass produce renewable technologies– like photovoltaic (PV) panels and wind mills– to drive down their cost and make them cost effective for all Americans. Back in the latter half of the 1970s, Jimmy Carter got the program off to a good start. He put PV panels on the White House roof and initiated a new energy policy that gave U.S. businesses and consumers various incentives and tax credits to reduce the cost of renewable energy technology. The idea was that once the per unit cost dropped and became more competitive with the cost of producing fossil fuels, more startup companies would emerge and begin mass producing renewable technology, thereby driving down the cost even more. And the more competitive the industry became, the more innovations and technological breakthroughs would follow.

Nothing particularly original or unusual about this strategy. The federal government has used it for decades to help the oil and gas industries increase production and become more profitable- just ask George Bush and Dick Cheney! In fact, according to Congressman Henry Waxman, the Bush administration’s latest energy bill will cost taxpayers at least $20 billion in subsidies to the oil, gas, coal and nuclear industries. Some analysts have put the cost of these subsidies even higher, as much as $100 billion! In the same bill, Bush and his fossil fuels backers in the Congress conveniently excised a proposal that would have required utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. But let’s not speak of conspiracies!

Of course, this is nothing new. Even during Democratic administrations, the federal government was always very generous with the fossil fuels industry. One example: the oil depletion allowance, which allows oil companies to deduct 15% of their gross income from their taxable incomes each year. This nifty little accounting trick has been around for decades and has cost American taxpayers over a billion dollars each year.

Unfortunately, the renewable energy industry does not have the same clout as the oil and gas lobbies. Never did. And when Ronald Reagan became president, he removed the PV panels from the White House roof, gutted Jimmy Carter’s renewable energy program, and gave a green light to the oil and gas industries to do whatever they wanted. No doubt George Bush Senior, then vice president (and longtime business associate of Saudi oil sheiks, including Saleem bin Laden), was not “out of the loop” when he and his oil buddies counseled Reagan to help the fossil fuels industries at the expense of renewable energy technologies.

Of course, Reagan and Bush Senior were not the only ones who were eager to sabotage the renewable energy industry. Almost every Republican in the Congress was in lock step with them, and so were many Democrats- and have been ever since. Which explains why all the major members of George Bush Junior’s administration are connected to the oil industry either directly or indirectly and have no intention of cutting into their profits by promoting renewable energy technology. Unfortunately, it is also true that many Democrats either accept large contributions from the fossil fuels industry or are heavily invested in it themselves. Even Mr. Environment, Al Gore, the author of the Earth in the Balance, kept his “green” views about renewable energy under wraps during the Clinton years. As a result, very little was accomplished to increase the mass production of renewable energy on a federal level, and as long as the price of gas stayed relatively low, the American public forgot about the issue.

Since then, the renewable energy industry has taken some strides forward, and the cost has come down on various technologies, but it is still moving at a snail’s pace, and it will take decades before it becomes a major player in America’s energy grid- unless there is a radical change in government policy to speed up mass production. And this is where the Democratic candidates for president come in. So far all of them have paid lip service to renewable energy technologies, and some of them- notably Kucinich- have offered some substantive changes and incentives for the future, but so far no one has come out with a full-scale national policy to radically change the energy delivery system in America to fulfill the prophesy of the OTA report.

In the meantime, the Germans and Japanese have forged ahead of the United States with national programs to place PV panels on homeowner roofs, and recently, England made a huge investment in windmill technology. Ironically, many Americans still believe the same old propaganda about renewable energy technology that became popular during the Reagan years, i.e., it isn’t cost effective, it isn’t reliable, it’s futuristic, etc. In reality, tens of thousands of homeowners in the U.S. already have installed PV panels on their roofs, thousands of customers are on waiting lists to buy electric and hybrid cars, and hundreds of small companies and farmers are using windmills to sell energy at a profit. And, as we all know, NASA has been using PV cells on their space stations for decades. But if you listen to the “energy experts” who represent the fossil fuels industry or conservative think tanks, renewable energy is still depicted as this side of Flash Gordon. Of course, these are the same experts who have been telling us for years that global warming is nothing to worry about.

And who allows these specious arguments to continue largely unchallenged? Our own mainstream news media, of course. After all, it’s not likely you’ll see Tom Brokaw do an expose on the fossil fuels industry or promote an alternative energy technology when his boss is General Electric. To prove my point: How many news stories have you seen in the mainstream media in the past several years that deal with the politics behind renewable energy verses fossil fuels? How many stories have you seen about the viability of using PV panels or windmills in today’s market? Oh, every once and a while you will see a cute little feature story about a back-to-earth husband and wife who have installed a PV panel on their barn, but as far as in-depth coverage or analysis, very few indeed. Check the alternative press, however, and you’ll find dozens of articles that deal with all sides of the issue.

The real tragedy is, if the federal government had continued the national renewable energy program that Jimmy Carter began in the late 1970s, renewable energy technology, a safe, nonpolluting form of technology, would already be cost effective, and a majority of Americans would be using it everyday in one form or another. Moreover, it would have ameliorated the problem of global warming and created hundreds of thousands of new jobs in the U.S. But perhaps most importantly, it would have made Middle Eastern oil irrelevant to our energy needs, which would have diminished the stranglehold the fossil fuels industry has over our elected officials and government agenda. And it would have saved the lives of the young men and women who died fighting in Iraq to protect “our interests.”

Oh, and by the way, the OTA, the government agency that came up with the report on the viability of renewable energy, no longer exists. Newt Gingrich and his boys got rid of it when they were cutting the budget back in the 1990s. And I don’t recall the mainstream news media ever doing a story about its demise. Perhaps they ran it on the back page with the rest of the “alternative news.”

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