Senator’s ‘fossil’ energy theory a remnant of the past

Stephen Smith | March 19, 2009 | Climate Change, Energy Efficiency, Energy Policy

Senator Alexander’s ideas about energy are as outdated as the fossil fuels he supports.  In a recent op-ed published in the Chattanooga Free Times (see below), the Senator cites our nation’s excessive energy use and current low percentage of electricity coming from renewable sources as reasons why renewables won’t make it anytime soon.

The Senator gives up before he has even started.  Of course we won’t develop renewables with that kind of defeatist attitude.

Tennessee and the Southeast can meet realistic and pragmatic goals for renewable energy in our region, but we need federal leadership to set the right policies and inspire entrepreneurs with confidence.  Obtaining 25 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2025 is not a radical idea-it’s just one that requires a vision for a better future.  In fact, our own recent analysis confirms that the Southeast has the renewable energy resources to meet a 25 percent goal.  With similar goals for energy efficiency, we can reduce the amount of electricity we need and save money for families and businesses across the region.

A commitment to developing our region’s renewable energy markets will kick-start our economy, create thousands of new green jobs and improve our energy security.  If Senator Alexander gave as much emphasis and support to renewable energy as he did for supposedly “clean” coal, then we would be living and working in a clean energy economy much sooner than he thinks.

The following pieces, published by U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and SACE’s Tennessee Valley Energy Policy Associate Sam Gomberg, ran side-by-side on March 15, 2009 in the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Burning question
Renewables cannot satisfy energy needs in near future
Lamar Alexander U.S. senator, Tennessee

The Tennessee Valley Authority says it may cost $800 million to clean up the coal ash spill at its Kingston power plant. Burning coal to make electricity is a major reason East Tennessee has unhealthful air. And coal-fired power plants produce 40 percent of the carbon that America contributes to climate change.

So why burn coal?

In his inaugural address, President Barack Obama said, “We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories.” Such renewable power will make a contribution, but here are several reasons why we will be using coal – cleaner coal – to make electricity for the foreseeable future.

First, we need a lot of electricity and we have plenty of coal. The United States uses 25 percent of all the world’s electricity, and coal produces half of what we use. (It produces 60 percent of what we use in the TVA region). “Renewable energy” from wind, solar and geothermal sources produces 3 percent. According to TVA, an independent study estimates that if we put giant wind turbines on the maximum number of ridges in the TVA region, it would still produce only about 3 percent of the electricity customers need.

Second, the United States is the Saudi Arabia of coal. We don’t have to import it from unfriendly nations that might hold us hostage.

Third, electricity from coal is much cheaper than energy from the wind and sun. That matters, for example, to the 10 percent of Nashville Electric Service customers who said in December they could not afford to pay their electric bills even with TVA’s relatively low rates. It matters to Volkswagen and its suppliers when they decide whether to put jobs in Chattanooga – or in some other state, or overseas.

Fourth, coal is reliable. Coal plants can operate almost all the time. On the other hand, the wind blows only when it wants to – about one-third of the time nationally, and less in the TVA region.

Fifth, it takes large amounts of low-cost, reliable electricity to produce renewable energy of the kind we hope we can rely on more in the future. For example, the new billion-dollar plant making solar power materials in Clarksville – like the new solar plant announced recently for Bradley County – needs 120 megawatts to operate. This is one-fourth the production of a typical coal plant.

Finally, we already know how to burn coal cleanly – with the exception of carbon. TVA has done a good job of getting rid of nitrogen pollutants but is just getting started on sulfur and mercury. There is a proven technique to recapture carbon and store carbon underground, but that is not yet, and may never be, a commercially viable method for most coal plants.

Nevertheless, the National Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, supports coal plants if carbon is recaptured because coal burned cleanly will help the United States and other countries move more rapidly to deal with climate change.

Former Vice President Al Gore says recapturing carbon from coal plants is “too imaginary to make a difference.” I disagree. I believe we are more likely to recapture carbon from coal burning than we are to operate our huge economy on the wind, sun and heat from the Earth.

So how do we act boldly to increase energy independence, provide more jobs and deal with climate change?

Full speed ahead on conservation and efficiency. TVA customers lead the country in using the most electricity per capita, which means we waste a lot.

Build more nuclear power, which today produces 70 percent of all U.S. carbon-free electricity.

Convert half our cars and trucks to electric power over 20 years. This will reduce carbon and cut by one-third the billions of dollars we send overseas to buy foreign oil. We can do this without building one new power plant if we plug in at night when demand is low.

Find more natural gas and oil. New supplies of natural gas will keep manufacturing jobs from going overseas and will keep residential heating and cooling prices affordable. Even if we electrify half of our vehicles, we should be using our own oil for the other half instead of sending billions overseas.

Put pollution-control equipment on all coal plants.

Double federal spending for energy research and development in order to launch four “mini Manhattan projects” to figure out how to recapture carbon from coal burning, make solar power cost-competitive with coal, reprocess waste from nuclear plants so it can be more easily stored, and make advanced biofuels from crops we do not eat.

Put carbon caps on coalfired power plants and fuel. Capping power-plant smokestacks and vehicle tailpipes (and giving all revenue gained from this back to those who pay higher energy prices) will limit 70 percent of carbon emissions, avoid capping or limiting small business and manufacturing, and cost much less than an economy-wide “cap and trade” program.

This agenda is comparable to President John F. Kennedy’s challenge that we land a man on the moon in 10 years: It’s one we can accomplish. On the other hand, an agenda that relies mostly on renewable energy anytime soon, as President Obama proposes, would be as unrealistic as it would have been for President Kennedy to propose that we land a man on Mars in 10 years.

Lamar Alexander is Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator. He is chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, co-chairman of the TVA Congressional Caucus and a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. He can be contacted via his Senate Web site. His Chattanooga office number is 423-752-5337.

Southeast has big potential for clean energy production
Sam Gomberg Southern Alliance for Clean Energy

Today our country stands at an important crossroads. Economic uncertainty and our addiction to dirty energy sources pose impressive challenges, forcing us to make critical decisions about how we produce and consume energy in America. Instead of clinging to the same dirty energy sources, we have a unique opportunity to embrace a new energy future. Unleashing a clean technology revolution built around energy efficiency, smart grid technology and renewable energy will create economic opportunities and put Americans back to work solving important global problems like energy security and climate change.

Numerous clean tech opportunities are already beginning to renew and repower our nation’s economy. According to the American Wind Energy Association, our nation’s wind industry grew by 50 percent last year, injecting nearly $20 billion into our economy. In fact, 40 percent of all new energy capacity installed last year came from new wind energy facilities.

With energy efficiency, a smarter grid and the plentiful renewable energy resources throughout our region, we can lay the foundation for a clean tech revolution that transforms our economy, spurring growth and making it more secure.

The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy’s report, “Yes We Can: Southern Solutions for a National Renewable Energy Standard,” shows that the Southeast has enough homegrown resources to produce 25 percent of current electricity generation from renewable sources by 2025. This modest goal for renewable energy production offers the best opportunity to develop our region’s renewable energy resources. Nevertheless, even after obtaining 20 percent or 25 percent of our energy from renewable sources, the vast majority of our energy will still come from the same outdated energy sources, like coal, that many cling to with a determined grip.

Frankly, there is no such thing as “clean coal,” although proponents tout this oxymoron as the solution to our energy crisis. Our energy challenges are great, and we must continue to explore opportunities to capture emissions from new and existing coal plants. Yet we also face a fierce urgency to transform our energy systems and renew our economy. The coal industry and its surrogates, however, want us to bet our economy and the future of our planet on this unproven technology. The technology to capture carbon dioxide and successfully store it underground faces challenging uncertainties. Additional research and demonstration projects are needed, but we can’t continue building coal plants until we have resolved this and other challenges coal continues to face.

From cradle to grave, coal is a dirty business, and all the lipstick in the world won’t make this pig pretty. Blowing the tops off of mountains to get at the coal below, known as mountaintop removal mining, irreversibly destroys our beautiful Southern Appalachian Mountains and devastates mountain communities throughout the region (see Our nation’s parks continue to suffer from air pollution, while dirty air and toxic mercury put our public health in jeopardy. Recently, the “clean coal” myth came crashing down on Harriman, Tenn., as more than a billion gallons of toxic coal sludge from a TVA storage facility flooded this small community.

In contrast, we know that renewable energy is clean, it works and it can kick-start our economy. Eleven states across the Southeast, including Tennessee, have abundant solar and biomass resources. Several of these states, including Tennessee, have pockets of good wind that can be developed in environmentally sensitive ways – but our Southern offshore wind potential is very strong. Just this week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar told reporters that the wind energy potential off our Atlantic Coast could easily surpass all of the onshore wind potential available throughout our country.

My organization’s analysis concludes that the Southeast has the potential to meet 15 percent of our region’s energy needs with renewable sources in just six years, but we need to start now. By 2025 the Southeast could provide enough renewable energy to power 27 million homes using existing technology and resources.

The economics of renewable energy are changing rapidly and positively, and these resources are becoming cost competitive with conventional resources. Lazard Management, a leading energy consulting firm, concludes that prices for biomass and wind are already competitive with new coal and nuclear. As costs come down, employment opportunities are on the rise. The Renewable Energy Policy Project analysis shows that Southeastern states could create between 16,000 and 30,000 jobs per state in the clean energy field.

In Tennessee, for example, clean solar power manufacturing companies have made billions of dollars worth of commitments in the past few weeks because they see the renewable market about to explode in our region. Our state leaders provided creative policies, and now we need our federal leaders to help grow this market through a national renewable standard that will require utilities to provide a modest 25 percent of their electricity from clean and renewable energy.

Utilities across the Southeast are moving toward embracing a clean energy future, too. In Georgia, Oglethorpe Power and Georgia Power are planning to construct large bio-energy facilities. In North Carolina and Florida, solar development is taking off, with several large facilities moving forward. But this isn’t even the tip of the iceberg. A commitment to developing our renewable energy potential will release a wave of clean energy economic development that will play a major role in our economy’s recovery.

The choice is clear. We can cling to the old ways that the fossil fuels like coal represent, and pretend it is clean. Or we can harness the truly clean and homegrown energy opportunities right in our back yard, spurring economic growth, creating employment opportunities, protecting our communities and solving the climate crisis. Our future demands a clean tech revolution. Let’s not delay it any longer.

Sam Gomberg is the Tennessee Valley Energy Policy associate for the Knoxville-based Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. Sam can be reached by e-mail.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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