In the picture above, a giant kite leads an even more giant energy tanker. The kite has two functions: harness wind energy and also run communication lines higher than previously thought possible. The concept could save thousands of dollars in fuel cost daily and substitute up to 35% of the engine’s power. What is significant though, is the general concept of these technologies becoming integrated: a fossil fueled ship doing the bulk of the work while renewable energy concepts ushering a notable help and a limitless supply of unintended benefits. Rather than a typical numeric analysis of renewable energy, this post highlights many symbolic achievements like the giant kite.
-The kite example provides an outlook for general energy use and business in the United States. We are starting to carry out business operations as we did from years past, but incorporate advanced technology from the present. Renewable energy is growing quickly, and we have decades of heavy fossil fuel usage that provided the grounds for such technological advances. The United States electrical grid is the largest machine in the world, and it was built for centralized fossil fuel electricity generation. However, we need new regulation to have the grid accommodate distributed renewables.
-While producing petroleum for other oil-dependent countries, Saudi Arabia sets the goal of 100% renewable energy. In this case, solar power is quite literally fossil-fueled, yet just in a transitional period. Many other instances exist of a slow transition to renewables. A Japanese heavy machinery corporation is planning to convert two coal power plants to 50% biomass. More than a symbolic measure, they use fossil-based infrastructure to transition away from an aging and polluting industry. Hopefully the biomass plants will consist of agricultural waste such as corn stalks, since a new UK government study confirms that generating electricity from tree burning, though renewable, is harmful to the climate. For transportation fuels, companies are making gasoline from wood chips and even air. Natural gas is even turning to the solar industry as a way to cut carbon emissions and provide remote power.
-This EIA report labels the 19th century the Age of Wood, the first half of the 20th century the Age of Coal, and the second half the Age of Oil. What will likely become the short-lived Age of Gas could quite easily become the Age of Renewables
-Perhaps one of the largest stumbling blocks to expanded renewable energy production is Congress. In addition to holding the Wind Production Tax Credit (PTC) hostage and the pro-military Republican-led Congress is paradoxically ignoring the demands of Navy Secretary Mabus. He calls for a 50% renewable blend of fuel, and also to act on climate issues. Congress responded by denying budgetary transition to the renewables initiative and instead called for more polluting coal to liquids (CTL) production. According to Michael Klare, the approach to environmentally friendly coal to liquids production is “technologically unproven and is likely to prove extremely costly,” (Race for What’s Left, Location 2095 of 6515). The act is indicative of unnecessary inaction when other companies like Airstreams Renewables are hiring veterans in the clean-tech sector.
–Wind and solar both are providing much-needed income to farmers at a time when climate change related drought is affecting their crop. They also provided 100% of new U.S. electricity capacity last September, proving we can gradually phase out our fossil fuel usage and rely on renewables. Last October, the Obama Administration opened up 285,000 acres to renewable energy development. In addition to installing clean energy on public lands, solar is becoming more popular on polluted lands and abandoned mining areas. I find this fairly indicative of the degree to which solar can improve our polluting lifestyles.
-Despite criticism among conservatives about loans to solar companies, the industry should get more funding. Oil companies can get richer off subsidies when even selling less oil, yet solar groups instead want to take that money to “cool the planet” and bring people out of energy poverty. While the production (and social) costs of coal continue to rise, solar panel prices are rapidly falling. Renewables are set to rival coal’s market prices by 2035, and they are already close when factoring social and environmental costs. Green technology seems to be setting the pace with targets, but we certainly could be transferring to more renewables.
-Many renewable projects focus on the fringe of energy development, which has positives and negatives. About half of the Department of Energy’s funding obligations in 2010 went towards solar projects, yet solar made up only 1 percent of the renewable energy which is only 9 percent of our overall energy usage. The fringe outlook is not always adverse though. In India, coal shortages and dirty electric grids have convinced citizens to shift to solar power. Upon finding out 70% of U.S. installations were small rooftop systems, they realized small is big in terms of energy. Stephen Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, states, “A company may do a fraction of a percent, and they’ll run around and blow their horn to the world about it.” Pepsi invested in hybrid vehicles, extensive water recycling, and renewable certificates in 2007, but the renewable investment consisted of only 2 percent of their electricity usage. The American Petroleum Institute reports that the oil and gas industry invested $71 billion in alternative energy technology, which is over 70% more than government investment ($43 billion) and almost as much than all other private investment ($74 billion). Of those investments, only $9 billion (roughly 1/8th) went towards alternative energy. By focusing small, renewables have many advantages, but it could prove detrimental if they do not shoot big as well.
-Despite Rush Limbaugh’s beliefs, I am assured that solar panels have set a good sized market and value, because thieves are stealing them! As long as Americans keep the conversation going about renewables, and put their money where their mouth is, I’m sure the renewable industry will hit more tipping points in no time.