Clean energy is not a pipe dream


The mainstream media has had a field day with the Enron scandal. Editorials have called for a thorough investigation (with The New York Times arguing such an investigation was needed to “restore public faith in capitalism”). The political cartoonists have been drawing pictures of donkeys and elephants, each with one hand in the cookie jar. Ruben Bolling has depicted “the invisible hand” taking people on a tour, showing them how it rewards the good decisions of Enron executives and the politicians to whom they contribute, and how it punishes the bad decisions of the people who chose to work for Enron, and who did not protest when their employers refused to allow them to divest their company stock.

However, there has been relatively little discussion of what would constitute an intelligent (or principled) energy policy, other than to suggest that Vice President Cheney may not have solicited a sufficient diversity of viewpoints.

The media (and the corporations who own most of the mass communications outlets in this country and throughout the world) invariably portray clean energy as nothing more than a prospect for the distant future. News reports emphasize costs and practical difficulties, and, despite Weekly Standard tirades to the contrary, they dramatically overemphasize the views of the tiny, discredited minority of scientists, mostly in the employ of oil and chemical companies, who insist that global warming is not a likely or serious problem.

The reality is quite different. In many parts of the world (including many parts of the U.S., according to unpublicized studies by the Department of Energy), clean energy technologies like wind power are competitive with fossil fuels. This is true despite: the superior economies of scale that fossil fuel companies enjoy; the enormous tax breaks and subsidies for oil companies; the lack of information about clean energy; and the tireless efforts of the federal government to slow or halt the transition to more sustainable energy.

In countries and even in U.S. states where the oil lobby has less influence, dramatic transformations are already taking place. The U.K. has encouraged considerable growth in clean energy usage by taxing heavy users for any “dirty energy” they use. The First National Bank of Omaha (the largest privately owned U.S. bank) installed an 800-kW fuel cell system to power its new, 200,000 square-foot technology center, calling it “the cheapest way to go.” The Weledah Catholic School in Canada’s Northwest Territories is saving 8,700 liters of heating oil ($12,300) per year through use of solar-wall technology. Denmark leads the world in percentage of energy production from wind power. Countless other examples exist.

Some encouraging signs are emerging. A study by the International Project for Sustainable Energy Paths has demonstrated that the U.S. could more than meet its required Kyoto CO2 reductions while generating an additional $120 billion in revenues. Senators Joseph Lieberman, John McCain, Jim Jeffords, Harry Reid and Lincoln Chafee have all officially endorsed the study’s findings. While a reasoned, intelligent energy policy could cut costs and greenhouse emissions dramatically, the green energy revolution could easily take off if the federal government — the world’s largest consumer — simply stopped favoring fossil fuels over clean energy in its contracts. In other words, even if we only valued money (or “utils”), and allowed a “free market” to decide the contest between clean energy and fossil fuels, clean energy would ultimately prevail. That is precisely what Enron, Exxon-Mobil and all the “free market” politicians in Congress and the White House fear.