Alternative Energies

Germany is one of the countries leading the world in the switch to renewable energies. And like other countries that have seen large-scale switches to clean energy, the utilities are taking it in the shorts and crying “uncle.” This includes not only private homes but also the industries in Germany, 16% of which are now off the grid — double the percentage of the previous year. This is cutting into the profits of the utilities, Germany’s mega-utility company, RTE, claiming to have lost $3.8 billion lat year alone. The Swedish utility company Vattenfall, which has large investments in Germany, claims to have lost $2.3 billion last year.

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Declining demand for electricity from the grid in Germany

Needless to say, this doesn’t disturb the clean-energy advocates one bit but, more to the point, it should have been seen coming by the energy companies. Germany has been shifting its energy priorities for some time now and it is inevitable that the utility companies would see their profits fall. As a recent story tells us:

When unveiling today’s dismal earnings, RWE’s Terium admitted the utility had invested too heavily in fossil fuel plants at a time when it should have been thinking about renewables: “I grant we have made mistakes. We were late entering into the renewables market — possibly too late.”

To which I simply add: Duhhhhh! One can only ask when Big Oil and Big Coal in this country will climb aboard the clean energy train. In its small way, alternative energies like wind and solar are already making inroads into the profits of the utility companies — in places like Hawaii, for example, as reported recently. And this despite the absence in this country of a clean energy policy and very little Federal support.  In fits and starts the switch to clean energy will continue to happen, despite the unwillingness of the Congress to get behind alternative energies and the necessity for private investors like T. Boone Pickens and Warren Buffet, and a few of the states, to lead the way. It will happen. This country will eventually follow Germany’s and China’s lead into the 21st century and if the corporations that blindly push for fossil fuels continue to ignore the handwriting on the wall, their overpaid CEOs will echo the cries of “foul” we now hear from Germany. It’s not rocket science, it’s just good business. One would think that American businessmen who are supposed to be among the best and brightest in the world would realize where their own long-term best interest lies. But, then, business doesn’t teach us much about the long term; it’s almost always about short-term profits. Brace yourself for the coming outcry! Relish it when it comes.

Another Close Call

It is a wonder that the wind industry is not only surviving attacks from the political right and its wealthy supporters but is doing remarkably well under the circumstances.

In the recent battles over the “fiscal cliff” the relatively meager subsidies from the Federal government barely escaped the sharp knife that is constantly wielded by those who would prefer to see the country go the way of Big Oil. In fact, there has been an ongoing battle against alternative energy funded by an array of opposition groups supported by billionaire oilmen Charles and David Koch. This movement hides behind such seemingly respectable names as the “Manhattan Institute” and the “American Energy Alliance” and is geared toward promoting the agenda of Big Oil and bringing the growth of clean energy to a halt — regardless of how many lies and deceptions it requires.

Australian Canunda Wind Farm. South Australia         (Wikipedia)

Australian Canunda Wind Farm. South Australia (Wikipedia)

One such lie is that wind energy will not really help climate change. In fact, as we can read in this month’s Sierra magazine, “the Renewable Energy Laboratory says otherwise, finding that every gigawatt of wind power annually offsets 2.6 million tons of CO2. The Department of Energy estimates that if the United States could generate 20 percent of its power through wind by 2030 it would eliminate 825 million tons of green house emissions.”

In their attempt to shut down the clean energy movement, the Koch brothers have put pressure on Congress to eliminate the subsidies that were initiated by President George H.W. Bush and are essential for any industry starting up. For example, while the clean energy industry must beg for renewals of Federal subsidies on a year-to-year basis, the oil industry has enjoyed guaranteed subsidies for many years: between 2002 and 2008 these subsidies for Big Oil amounted to $70.2 billion while a mere $12.2 billion went to all renewables combined.

Fearing the discontinuance of subsidies during the recent fiscal cliff fiasco, the wind energy industry, which previously employed 75,000 people, had to lay off hundreds of employees while the near-miss spooked investors, slowed down production, and brought new wind farm projects to a grinding halt. As mentioned above, it is remarkable that the industry has survived at all. Given the serious need for alternative energies to offset our reliance on foreign oil, not to mention the need to save the planet, one can only wonder how successful this country might be if the Congress had given clean energy the sort of support the fossil fuel industries have enjoyed in the past.

Because of wind energy’s close call this past year and the slow-down that followed, 2013 will not be as remarkable a year for clean energy as was 2012. But since the tax credits will be extended beyond this year for projects started this year, 2014 promises to be a much better year. Now, if only the Congress would make a ten-year commitment, as they have done with Big Oil, things would really start to take off. We might even catch up with Germany and China.

But I do believe that the will and determination to reverse the current trend is there and that it will eventually win out. It’s just a question of time. But that time is running out and it would come so much faster if people like the Koch brothers were to wake up, realize that theirs is a finite resource and that clean energy can not only create thousands of jobs — as it has already shown — but also make the investors a ton of money. Just ask smart investors like Warren Buffett, T. Boone Pickens, and Al Gore.

A Pleasant Surprise

It was surprising to read last week that the United States is vying with Saudi Arabia to lead the world in oil production. Surprising but also a reflection of our insatiable thirst for oil and other fossil fuels and our blind determination to do whatever it takes to extract oil, gas,  and coal from the earth. But after attempting to digest that news, it was even more surprising to read the delightful news that Saudi Arabia plans to focus its attention at home on renewable energy — clean energy (if we allow that nuclear is “clean.”) A recent story begins as follows:

Earlier this week, Prince Turki Al Faisal Al Saud, a top spokesperson for Saudi Arabia, said that Saudi Arabia intends to generate 100 percent of its power from renewable sources, such as nuclear, solar, and low-carbon energies.

“Oil is more precious for us underground than as a fuel source,” said the prince, whose country holds approximately 20 percent of the world’s oil reserves, according to the International Energy Agency. “If we can get to the point where we can replace fossil fuels and use oil to produce other products that are useful, that would be very good for the world.”

Nuclear energy is certainly not “renewable” by any stretch of the term. And one could argue that it is not “clean” either; despite the fact that it produces little in the way of greenhouse gasses it nonetheless produces highly toxic waste that we do not seem to be able to hide anywhere (a situation that recently led the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to order the cessation of licensing of new generating plants until further notice). And there is always the danger of a nuclear accident, as we saw recently in Japan.

But putting that aside, we must applaud a nation that sets an example for a world that is currently busy making that nation very wealthy. Given that many in our Congress are reluctant to even admit that global warming is a reality, one might hope that this example from one of our Middle-Eastern friends will have a positive effect on even the thickest skull in Washington. Further, one might dare hope that the oil and gas companies in this country will now read the handwriting on the wall and get on the renewable energy bandwagon and invest some of their huge profits and their considerable political influence in Washington (which is directly tied to their huge profits, of course) to the cause of clean energy. It is the wave of the future, whether or not they admit it.

There are small clean energy steps being taken by various state legislatures around the country and bold investors such as Warren Buffet and T. Boone Pickens. But the Congress has yet to get solidly behind the clean energy movement despite the studies showing that jobs can be created and a weak economy boosted by investing in alternative energy — and there is money to be made, as Al Gore has learned. Fossil fuels, to state the obvious, are a finite resource and at some point we will be forced to “go green.” Better sooner than later for the planet’s sake.