Fossil Fools

Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, took to the Senate floor
last winter with an impassioned plea to renew a small federal
subsidy that helped fuel an explosion of activity in the wind-power
industry. ‘Congress is messing around back and forth, stuttering,
and not getting it done,’ Dorgan complained.

The so-called wind production tax credit Dorgan was championing is
tiny as subsidies go: Over a decade it has cost roughly $55
million. But it has also been remarkably effective. Wind is the
fastest-growing energy industry in the world, and last year was the
U.S. wind-power industry’s best ever, with a power capacity equal
to roughly six new 300 megawatt coal-fired power plants-minus
coal’s pollution.

Nevertheless, the wind tax credit struggled for life on Capitol
Hill. Late last winter, Congress finally approved a meager two-year
extension, which wind’s supporters tacked onto another bill. Most
of our lawmakers then went back to reaffirming their commitment to
gargantuan new subsidies to coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power. A
Republican energy bill passed by the House in August 2001 would
dole out an estimated $35.6 billion over 10 years-or about $125 per
American-to the oil, gas, coal, and nuclear industries. By
contrast, wind production tax credits have, to date, cost each
American about 19 cents. The Senate passed a Democratic energy bill
in April. Though it calls for a full five-year extension of the
wind-tax credit, the Democratic plan is also larded with tax-funded
giveaways to polluters. With the legislation that will shape the
country’s energy future on its way to being reconciled in a
conference committee as we went to press, the only disagreement so
far has been how obscenely enormous the industrial handouts will
be.

The good news is that wind power and other kinds of renewable
energy don’t have to depend on the feds for their future. A
revolution in sustainable energy is fast approaching thanks to
farsighted engineers and entrepreneurs, supportive state
governments, and new economic realities: Renewable energy has been
steadily dropping in price for years and is now beginning to gain
ground in the marketplace despite the huge subsidies to Big Oil and
King Coal.

America is the Persian Gulf of wind. The Energy Department
estimates that wind in the Dakotas alone could meet two-thirds of
America’s electricity needs; Texas could meet the rest. California,
the current wind-power posterchild, comes in at a lowly 17th in a
ranking of the top wind states. Germany, the world leader in wind,
has harnessed 6,000 megawatts of wind power-roughly equal to 20
moderately sized coal-fired power plants-and plans to phase out
nuclear power entirely by 2025. Ireland recently announced plans
for what will be the world’s largest offshore wind park. Eddie
O’Connor, managing director of Ireland’s utility Eirtricity, says
offshore wind could provide two-thirds of Europe’s electricity by
2020. Solar power is equally bountiful. The Union of Concerned
Scientists says that 12,000 square miles in Nevada could produce
enough solar electricity to power the nation.

Even bigger news is that wind and solar power can now be
efficiently stored by using them to create hydrogen (see related
story on page 63), a fuel that generates only drinkable water as
waste. Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute envisions wind
farms producing electricity by day and hydrogen for cars by night.
‘None of this is as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds,’ Fortune
magazine reported in November 2001. ‘Potent commercial forces are
bringing the hydrogen economy along faster than anyone thought
possible only a few years ago.’ Hydrogen fuel-cell systems can
already be found across America, from the Condé Nast building in
New York to sewage treatment plants to a post office in Alaska.
Automobile and oil companies have set up well-funded hydrogen fuel
divisions, and a number of major automakers are racing to bring a
hydrogen car to market.

Twenty years ago, a kilowatt hour from sunlight cost about $2.50.
Now it’s 20 to 25 cents-a tenfold drop in cost, but still
expensive. This is the reason solar power is still dependent on
government support, usually from innovative local government
agencies, especially in energy-anxious California. The Sacramento
Municipal Utility District, for instance, leads the nation with 10
megawatts of solar power installed. San Francisco voters last
November approved a $100 million bond issue to install 40 megawatts
of clean power from solar as well as wind generation on city-owned
facilities and land.

Wind is more competitive than solar; it once cost 40 cents per
kilowatt hour but is now routinely under 5 cents, about the same as
energy from new coal and natural gas plants, and cheaper than a new
nuclear power facility. But these cost-per-kilowatt-hour
comparisons are deceptive on many levels. Oil, coal, and nukes seem
cheaper than they really are because the economic, environmental,
and human costs of pollution-created problems are not figured in.
The environmental costs are similarly staggering. The government
has spent $1.48 billion just on cleaning up uranium mine
tailings-mounds of radioactive slop left behind by the nuclear
power industry. Energy-related health problems range from the lung
diseases and cancers suffered by coal miners and uranium workers to
the illnesses triggered among the wider public by air
pollution.

Consider the country’s asthma problem, which now affects every 20th
American, including 5 million children. The Centers for Disease
Control estimates the direct and indirect national cost of asthma
to Americans in 1998 at about $12.7 billion. In 1999 the disease
killed 4,657 people and put a half-million in hospitals.

The cheapest and safest alternative is using less energy. Vice
President Dick Cheney says we will need 1,300 new 300-megawatt
power plants over the next 20 years. Had Cheney spent less time
listening to Enron and more time listening to the best government
scientists, he’d know that a comprehensive study found that an
energy efficiency program could cut projected electricity demand by
20 to 47 percent-the equivalent of many energy plants. Bill
Prindle, a buildings and utilities expert formerly with the
Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy, compiled a list of proven
efficiency measures that could slim Cheney’s 1,300 plants even
further, to just 170.

This is not about ‘conservation’-that is, living without air
conditioning or making other virtuous sacrifices. The key here is
‘efficiency’-high-tech solutions like better lighting and
appliances. Amory Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain
Institute in Colorado, calls it installing ‘negawatts,’ the
cheapest, cleanest, most quickly installed-and, by the way, the
most terrorist-proof-of all energy sources. As Lovins has noted, a
0.4 mile-per-gallon improvement in the average vehicle would save
as much oil each year as we would ever get from Alaska’s Arctic
National Wildlife Refuge.

Energy efficiency measures often pay for themselves over the long
run. But before efficient practices can take hold on a wider scale,
both businesses and citizens have to get over their fixation with
low initial costs. An entrepreneur with a choice between wind for 3
cents and coal for 2.9 cents would buy coal. But a responsible
society would look at the numbers in a different way. Solar power
and efficiency do not have hidden costs that include thousands of
deaths, millions of dollars in lost productivity, billions of
dollars sent to the world’s oil dictatorships, and tens of billions
spent policing the Persian Gulf.

Consider the billions of tax dollars we give to polluters each
year. This largesse is sprinkled throughout our tax code in ways
that thwart easy analysis. The U.S. Energy Information
Administration conservatively estimates that fossil fuels and
nuclear power got $2.7 billion in subsidies in 1999. Others put the
figure higher. In Perverse Subsidies: How Misused Tax Dollars
Harm the Environment and the Economy
(Island Press, 2001),
authors Norman Myers and Jennifer Kent identified $21 billion the
United States hands over every year to fossil fuels and nuclear
power. ‘If taxpayers were aware that a good chunk of their taxes
were going down the rathole into these subsidies, they’d be
marching on the Mall,’ Myers said in an interview. ‘But it’s hard
to get the message to the taxpayer because these subsidies are so
numerous and so varied, and some are so covert.’

Myers and Kent also found that renewables get at best a 10th of the
subsidies that the energy dinosaurs get. They calculate that the
$90 million or so the United States spends on solar research
wouldn’t be enough to pave two miles of interstate highway.

Vermont’s Independent Senator Jim Jeffords has introduced a bill
calling for 20 percent of our energy to be from renewables by 2020,
but that’s one of the rare displays of leadership and vision coming
out of Washington these days. The Senate energy bill that passed in
April, led by Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), suggests
a less aggressive 10-percent-by-2020 renewables standard but
includes so many new subsidies for fossil fuels and nuclear power
that the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen derides the bill as
‘Enron-influenced, Exelon-tested, and Exxon-approved.’

This is a real shame because the federal government could play a
key role in promoting the green energy of the future-perhaps an
all-out national initiative to put a hydrogen fuel pump next to
every gasoline pump. The Institute for Energy and Environmental
Research suggests spending just $20 billion a year (which could
easily come from cutting subsidies to dirty energy) to kick-start a
renewable energy revolution through purchase of solar panels, fuel
cells, and fuel-efficient vehicles for federal and local government
use-as a way of pushing those technologies into true mass
production.

Even if we don’t decide to start building a new and better energy
system, we should at least stop subsidizing the old and dangerous
one. Then again, if we stopped the subsidies, who would bankroll
the GOP? In 2000, oil and gas gave $13 to presidential candidate
George Bush for every $1 to candidate Al Gore. Coal gave $9 out of
every $10 to Republicans. And according to the Center for Public
Integrity, Bush and Cheney aren’t the only oil men. The top 100
officials in the Bush White House have sunk the majority of their
personal investments, up to $144.6 million, in the old-guard energy
sector.

The Green Scissors Campaign, an alliance of environmentalists and
taxpayer watchdogs, outlines the giveaways in the energy bill
backed by the Bush administration: $21.2 billion for oil and gas,
$5.8 billion for coal, $5.9 billion for utilities, and $2.7 billion
for nuclear power. On top of that, House Republicans worked
furiously last fall on separate legislation that will make sure
taxpayers will still foot the bill in the event of a nuclear
catastrophe, by extending the Price-Anderson Act, the federal
insurance program for nuclear power that expires this year. The
Senate energy bill essentially renews the Price-Anderson Act as
well.

Arguably, fossil fuels and nuclear power deserve no subsidy at all.
But with the ‘free market’ Republicans leading and Democrats meekly
following, we continue to shore up a dangerous, dirty,
terrorist-friendly energy system (often in the name of security).
With renewable energy showing its potential from California to
Europe, it’s time to ask, impatiently, how much longer Americans
will be expected to overpay for energy-in health costs,
environmental damage, and misdirected taxes. The people of America
are being overcharged; it’s time to ask for a refund.

Matt Bivens covers energy, environmental, and nuclear issues
for
www.thenation.com. A former editor of
the
Moscow Times, he recently returned to the United States
after nine years of reporting from Russia for publications
including the
Los Angeles Times and Harper’s.
Reprinted from the progressive weekly The Nation (April
15, 2002). Subscriptions: $39.97/yr. (47 issues) from Box 55149,
Boulder, CO 80322.

For more ideas about energy, see Jay Walljasper’s column
on the promise of the eco-economy (p. 10) and Michael Klare’s
article on how oil interests guide U.S. foreign policy, ‘Oiling the
War Machine’ (p. 32).

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