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Sustain to gain: June 2009 Archives

Waxman-Markey, a bill "to create clean energy jobs, achieve energy independence, reduce global warming pollution and transition to a clean energy economy" is voted on by end of this week in the House." A lot of attention has highlighted the global warming parts of the bill, and rightly so. In the current draft, the emission reduction target is 17% reduction from 2005 levels by 2020. This is not more than 4% reduction by 1990 level and may be not enough to persuade China, Europe and other world regions to get tougher on their own targets. Also, potentially ineffective offsets can be purchased, hence avoiding emission reduction at the smokestack. 

However, the bill is surprisingly comprehensive in addressing also large-scale clean energy deployment, sustainable transportation, smart grid advances and transmission issues. All these measures support a transition to a clean energy economy, as the bill claims. 

In particular, Waxman-Markey holds quite some promise, as it  

  • aims to invest $190 billion into renewable energies
  • provides grants for transmission infrastructure and requires coordination of electricity transmission planning with the goal of building out the grid to facilitate deployment of renewables (i.e., brings the wind energy of the Mid-West to urban centers)
  • asks regional electric grid planning to take into account all significant demand-side and supply-side options, including energy efficiency, distributed generation, renewable energy and zero-carbon electricity generation technologies, smart-grid technologies and practices, demand response, electricity storage, voltage regulation technologies, and even more detailed measures. (Thanks to Cathy Kunckel for pointing this out.)

And this transition is actually the bottom line. Make it more lucrative to invest in renewable energies than in coal plans, more attractive to move into mixed-use neighborhoods with high-quality public transit than relying on gas-guzzling monsters in ex-urbia. If the bill heads into this directions, it will be a huge success for avoiding disastrous human-made climate change. Currently, utilities have expertise in operating coal plants and know this market. However, when coal plants get a little bit more expensive to operate and renewable energies get a little cheaper to deploy, utilities start to reconsider their investment decisions. And one point the market may switch over to new technologies, like wind, geothermal and concentrated solar power. The current gradual change can accelerate to a switch in the way our energy economy operates. If that happens, weak targets in emission reductions can much more easily be strengthened; the system dynamics have changed and there is less strong interest anymore in coal plants.

One of the emergent technologies is wind. It is mature by now, the market is well developed, and in many locations in the US, wind is cost competitive to conventional sources of energy. With more policy attention on the grid infrastructure, a wave of investment into wind energy within the next years can be expected. For example, a study published in PNAS points out that US wind resources, particularly in the central plain states, could supply 16 times more energy than the current total US demand.