Looking to a future where every fifth watt is green
Renewable energy is like your beautiful and talented best friend who cant get a date. Even though the cost of wind power has dropped by almost 90 percent over the past 20 years and solar technologies are used in 200,000 homes, renewables remain stuck at about 2 percent of the national energy stream. The oil-friendly Bush administration has done little to help; its original budget proposed slashing research and development for renewables by almost half. (The funds were later restored by Congress.) And efforts to entice environmentally conscious consumers to pay extra for "green power" have attracted only a small number of energy altruists.
Now theres a way to break the logjam. Twelve states have already adopted "renewable portfolio standards," firm goals to increase their percentage of clean energy. Connecticut, for example, hopes to generate 15 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2013. Instead of just using a government diktat to get there, theyre employing a method even conservative Republicans love: the power of the marketplace.
Heres how the renewable portfolio standards work. To meet the benchmarks, generators or retailers can either produce green power themselves or buy "credits" on the open market from others who have exceeded their goals. The system rewards innovators who figure out how to produce renewable energy cheaply, since they lower their own costs and have more to sell to the dinosaurs. In Texas, the goal of producing 400 megawatts of renewable energy by 2002 was met ahead of schedule and even doubled because of the competitive cost of wind power.
A modest renewable portfolio standard is included in the Democratic energy plan, which was still before Congress at the time of this writing. The provision would require that 10 percent of the nations electricity be produced by new renewable sources by 2020. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords is proposing a more ambitious national goalstrongly supported by the Sierra Club and the Union of Concerned Scientistsof 20 percent from renewables by that year. If Jeffords 2020 plan were combined with energy-efficiency programs, says a study by the UCS, consumers could save hundreds of billions of dollars. Who knows, the plan could even appeal to President Bushhe is, after all, the one who signed the original renewable-standard legislation in Texas.