Under the sun: Deadlines, opportunities for clean energy

Under the sun: Deadlines, opportunities for clean energy

November 3rd, 2013 in Opinion Times

We've seen the future - or at least the consequences of our future - if we don't figure out how to move away from burning fossil fuels for energy and move toward clean energy.

We're talking about more hurricanes like Sandy and Katrina, more floods like those in Nashville and Nebraska and Colorado, more droughts. Did we mention the rising sea level?

It won't be enough to settle for the 2.5 percent of power generation coming from wind contracts that our own TVA, a seven-state utility, began amassing in 2010. (While it doesn't sound like much, those purchases will produce enough wind power to out-produce the hopefully soon-to-be-finished Watts Bar 2 nuclear reactor set to go online in 2015.)

And when Watts Bar 2 does come online, and the utility can say its whole fleet of power plants is 50 percent carbon-free, we'll still just be half-way home.

The future will require much more. It basically will require 100 percent clean energy, and not just here, but everywhere.

Rather than be daunted, we should seize the day and myriad opportunities to build new industries, to create new jobs and to foster home and business energy efficiencies.

President Barack Obama has touched on both the challenges and opportunity, and EPA has set the first national limits on the amount of carbon pollution that can be spewed by coal-fired power plants, the biggest emitters of carbon pollution. Still, there is no similar limit on gas emissions, and our government has no committed energy policy. Our goal at the moment toward clean energy would best be described as rag-tag.

Interestingly, the demand is here now. Even the U.S. Energy Information Administration acknowledges that clean energy will see a 53 percent increase in worldwide demand by 2035.

At this point, however, America is not set to capitalize -- read here, make jobs -- from that demand. Other countries, especially China, are forging ahead.

If you still think the price to build clean energy is too high, think again. The price of solar photovoltaic cells has dropped 99 percent in the past 25 years, and in an increasing number of markets solar is at or very close to grid parity.

The Denver Business Journal in September quoted David Eves, the CEO of Xcel Energy Inc., talking about the company's proposal to triple the amount of utility-scale solar power on its grid in Colorado: "This is the first time that we've seen, purely on a price basis, that the solar projects made the cut -- without considering carbon costs or the need to comply with a renewable energy standard -- strictly on an economic basis."

Much of the credit for the sharp drop in solar prices goes to decades of R&D support, subsides and renewable energy standards. And with the deadline we now face to get our carbon house in order, that's a really good thing.

But now we need to give the same kind of venture capital help to renewable energy sources that we've traditionally provided to coal mining, oil and gas pipelines and other traditional energy industries. The PEW Charitable Trust points to the large pools of low-cost financing offered by "master limited partnerships" and "real estate investment trusts" -- both long have been available for natural gas, oil, pipelines and coal mining. In return, the trusts get tax breaks.

Pew says a bipartisan group in Congress has proposed the Master Limited Partnerships Parity Act that would level the playing field and help make it cheaper to move to a clean-energy economy. The down side appears to be that the legislation is aimed only at helping big corporations, not small investors like individuals, communities and local governments.

But remember the end game, and the deadline of mere decades that we face.

We will need both kinds of investors, and we will need all the help we can muster.