The politics — and money — behind our energy blend


Renewable energy could power a large electric grid 99.9 percent of the time by 2030 at costs akin to today’s electricity expenses, according to a new study by the University of Delaware and Delaware Technical Community College.

A carefully designed mixture of wind power, solar power and storage in batteries and fuel cells would nearly always exceed electricity demands while keeping costs low, the scientists found.

“These results break the conventional wisdom that renewable energy is too unreliable and expensive,” said co-author Willett Kempton, professor in the School of Marine Science and Policy in UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. “The key is to get the right combination of electricity sources and storage — which we did by an exhaustive search — and to calculate costs correctly.”

The authors developed a computer model to consider 28 billion combinations of renewable energy sources and storage mechanisms, each tested over four years of historical hourly weather data and electricity demands. The model incorporated data from within a large regional grid called PJM Interconnection, which includes 13 states from New Jersey to Illinois and represents one-fifth of the United States’ total electric grid.

So a transition to renewables is not as big a technical problem as many thought.

However, there is the question of political and economic clout. The fossil fuels industry is enormously powerful. They bankroll lobbyists and the climate change denial propaganda. Their politician friends are attacking government subsidies for clean energy because they supposedly favor a purely “free-market” approach to energy.

But the dirty energy boys have received an awful lot of government help. The blog ThinkProgress notes: “According to a recent report from the venture capital firm DBL Investors, the U.S. coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries have cumulatively taken in more than $630 billion in tax credits, land grants, R&D programs and direct investments from the government. That far surpasses the roughly $50 billion in government renewable energy investments (wind, solar PV, solar thermal, geothermal, biofuels) through these same mechanisms over the decades, according to the report.”

Fracking technologies are definitely not the product of the free market. The ThinkProgress report says: “A 2011 investigation from the Breakthrough Institute showed that the natural gas industry was able to commercialize fracking technologies only after decades of tax credits, government R&D programs, government assistance with mapping, and partnership with companies entering commercial scale.”

A geologist from Mitchell Energy, a leading company that pioneered fracking, put it this way: “I’m conservative as hell. But the [Department of Energy] did a hell of a lot of work, and I can’t give them enough credit for that.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators (including Colorado’s Mark Udall) is concerned about a subsidy to the wind energy industry expiring. This might mean a loss of an estimated 37,000 jobs. The senators released a petition signed by 3,500 veterans urging Congress to extend the wind production tax credit (PTC). Hundreds of veterans have gotten jobs in that industry. The PTC subsidizes new wind generation by 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour of wind electricity produced, considerably below the price of air pollution damages caused by coal plants. Time is short. We need to act on a local, state, national and global level. We need to promote a global Keynesianism to replace the neo-liberal “free market” approach.

The United Nations came out in support of this concept several years ago. In 2009, a policy brief by the UN argued that investing 1 percent of global wealth, or around $750 billion, into five key sectors would stimulate a “Global Green New Deal.” They said that mobilizing and redirecting the global economy towards investments in clean technologies and natural infrastructure such as forests and soils is the best bet for real growth, combating climate change and generating an employment boom.

The five areas of investment would be:

• Raising the energy efficiency of old and new buildings

• Renewable energies — wind, solar, geothermal and biomass

• Sustainable transport — hybrid vehicles, high-speed rail and bus rapid transit systems

• The planet’s ecological infrastructure — freshwaters, forests, soils and coral reefs

• Sustainable agriculture, including organics

That sounds like a good recipe to me.

—Anderson is a retired CU librarian and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.


This opinion column does not necessarily reflect the views of Boulder Weekly.