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Obama’s Lowball Target for Renewable Electricity

Not only does Barack Obama’s target for renewable electricity pale in comparison to Al Gore’s vision of a complete transformation in the next ten years, but Obama’s “New Energy Plan for America” target is lower than we already produce. Taking his policy paper literally, we would have to reduce our renewable electricity production over the next ten years, rather than increase it.

Obama’s latest policy paper states that he wants to “Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.” Dude, that is so not inspiring. After all, in the 12 months from March 2007 through February 2008, the United States generated 8.4 percent of its electricity with renewables. (This includes conventional hydroelectric, which has its problems*, and is down from a peak in 1997 of 12.4 percent.) So Obama’s target for ten years from now is lower than what we were already achieving ten years ago? I think he needs a new energy adviser.

US Energy Consumption 2003-2007

Okay, okay, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was referring more narrowly to what the Department of Energy calls “other renewables” (meaning, excluding conventional hydroelectric). In the latest 12 months of data, we were already at 2.5 percent. That means there are two related flaws in the Obama energy team’s thinking.

The first is that these targets just aren’t that impressive. Well, the first target is pretty decent—after all, going from 2.5 percent to 10 percent in just 4 years means we would have about a 42 percent annual growth rate in renewable electricity, and that assumes that there is no growth in other forms of electricity generation. But to then go from 10 percent renewable electricity in 2012 to 25 percent in 2025, the growth rate in those later years would be a measly 7.4 percent (approximately). So it’s not a very impressive target in that sense, and the second flaw is that it ignores the nature of renewable energy and what will happen if we do reach the first target.

Think about it. If we manage to grow renewable electricity generation by more than 40 percent each year for the next four years, that implies that there will be a massive expansion of the renewable electricity industry, including the expansion of manufacturing for renewable generating machinery (wind turbines, solar panels, concentrated solar thermal equipment, wave and tidal power equipment, geothermal equipment, etc.). Along the way, presumably, there would also be a fair bit of technological advance either in terms of the technical efficiency of this equipment to turn renewable environmental energy into electricity, or in reducing the cost of the equipment to generate the electricity, or both.

This isn’t a situation where there are low-hanging fruit that we can get in the early years, and that we’ll struggle to capture the tougher renewable energy fruit in the later years. The sun will be shining just as strongly in 2025 as it will be in 2012 as it does today in 2008. The wind will blow pretty much just as much. The moon isn’t going anywhere, so that means tides will be the same (allowing for changes resulting from rising ocean levels as the ice sheets melt from global warming). The fruit is almost all equally low hanging. Right now it is hanging moderately low, but not that low. Technological advances will be the equivalent of lowering the fruit, or you might say of lengthening our arms, making the fruit of the same height easier to reach. Yes, the compounding math means that early percentage gains are easier than later ones, but I think this is largely or totally compensated for by the physical and economic features of renewable energy. Unlike oil, where cheap, easy oil is pumped first and tough, expensive oil afterwards, renewable energy only gets easier and cheaper over time. Sweet!

* Conventional hydro is problematic for a couple of reasons. First, building large dams is destructive to the local environment that is flooded to create the reservoir that powers the turbines. Second, the low-carbon-emission benefits of dam-hydro can actually be a total flop, because the vegetation and other biomass that is submerged in the reservoir decays anaerobically, resulting in the release of large volumes of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. This is more of a problem in tropical areas than in temperate zones like the United States. So while building new dams looks to be at least risky and possibly downright a bad idea, from the perspective of avoiding global warming, continuing to use existing dams already constructed in the U.S. could be okay, and could be fair to think of as a renewable source of energy.

[Photo by NY Times]

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