Alternative Groove

Illustration by Bob AulDrive past the AES natural gas generators along Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach late at night, and you'll see workers high up in the superstructure welding behind a shower of sparks as they try to get the old plant back on line. This attitude of getting energy plants on line as soon as possible to end the “energy crisis” isn't entirely Californian. In Washington DC, as President George W. Bush pushes for massive oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness, Vice President Dick Cheney convenes his super-secret energy policy meetings—groups of energy execs trying to figure out how to get a second Atomic Age going.

Missing from all this frenzied construction and planning is any substantial discussion of renewable energy alternatives like wind, geothermal and solar power. You know—power sources that do not pollute the air, pour greenhouse gases into the upper atmosphere or create extremely radioactive waste products that will exist for tens of thousands of years.

Stepping into this renewable energy vacuum is the California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG). The group's new report, titled “Affordable, Reliable Renewables: The Pathway to California's Sustainable Energy Future,” lays out a detailed, compelling analysis of clean-power sources.

CALPIRG's goal is simple: get Sacramento to “set an enforceable minimum of 20 percent of electricity production from wind, solar and geothermal energy by 2010.” Considering that nearly 40 percent of energy in the state comes from natural gas burners similar to the Huntington AES plant, though, this goal is actually quite difficult.

Sold on the premise that they produce few pollutants, natural gas turbines actually spew considerable amounts of greenhouse gases. In addition, as the CALPIRG report notes, “as current [natural gas] reserves are depleted, new deposits which are located deeper into wild places will be increasingly hard to develop and may offer diminishing returns.”

Renewable energy sources are different. Their “fuel”—the wind, sunlight or the earth's natural heat—is virtually limitless. Wind power was first used thousands of years ago as a way of pumping water out of the ground. Using wind to turn turbine blades and generate electricity dates back to 1900. Today's turbines range in size from 30 feet tall to monsters 20 stories tall spinning blades 300 feet long. One downside is that wind power generation requires covering hillsides and canyons with turbines. Anyone who's headed across Interstate 10 toward Palm Springs or up Interstate 580 toward the Bay Area knows this. The state currently has 16,000 turbines that generate 400 megawatts at any given time, providing less than two percent of the state's power. A 1998 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study indicates that the state's 36 best sites could generate 10,000 megawatts—roughly 32 percent of the state's needs.

Offering even more promise is geo-

thermal energy. This requires tapping the heat generated by the earth's core—a power source that won't be cooling for billions of years.

“The total potential of geothermal energy is almost limitless,” states the CALPIRG study. “The thermal energy in the uppermost six miles of the earth's crust amounts to 50,000 times the energy of all oil and gas resources in the world.”

The oldest geothermal plant in the world is in Larderello, Italy—operational since 1904. Like wind, geothermal energy produces no pollutants or waste products. Also like wind, it provides hardly any energy for the state—just six percent of total California power generation comes from geothermal sources.

Actually, that's a massive amount of power compared with the state's solar generators, which contribute less than half of one percent of California's electricity. This is especially ironic given the fact the sun shines here so often.

“Solar energy is an ideal resource for California to develop, since solar power generation peaks at the same time California's energy demand peaks—in the heat of summer afternoons,” stated the report. “There is theoretically enough sunlight in a 100-mile-square patch of desert in the southwestern U.S. to generate enough electricity for the entire country.”

According to the California Solar Energy Industries Association, there are enough “suitably oriented rooftops” in the state to generate more than 20,000 megawatts using photovoltaic solar panels. That's more than three times the state's current nuclear generating capacity.

Plant reliability for renewable energy sources also exceeds current power generators. Historically, natural gas generators are online 90 percent of the time—not counting any interruptions in supply. Nuclear power plants come in at 86 percent reliable. These numbers sound fine, except when compared with wind's 98 percent, geothermal's 95 percent and solar's 96 percent availability.

Of course, the reason the state hasn't gotten into the renewable energy market is simple economics: generators are really expensive to build. With such high start-up costs, it's difficult to get construction money.

Then again, substantial federal subsidies have always been available for nonrenewable-energy generators. In the past 50 years, the feds have poured $26 billion into fossil-fuel plants and another $66 billion into nuclear reactors. During the same time, federal subsidies to wind, solar and geothermal energies combined came in at a paltry $12 billion. As long as the state and federal governments continue their love affair with polluting energy generators, clean renewable sources will continue to exist only on paper.

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