ADVERTISEMENT
latest stories:

Can Alternative Energy Save the Economy and the Climate?

The "new energy" economy rolls forward even as hopes for an international deal to combat climate change at Copenhagen shift into reverse.
renewable-energy-investment-wind-turbine



ISTOCKPHOTO/JLGUTIERREZ

BRIGHTON, Colo. - The low-carbon economy has already arrived on the windy prairie north of this fast-growing Denver 'burb. It's here that Danish wind-turbine giant Vestas converted 298 acres of hayfield into the West's largest turbine factory - and turned Brighton into a magnet for "green" energy companies.

It's part of a $1 billion investment by the company in the United States, what Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter touts as a "new energy economy."

"We have a caseload of 56 prospects. Of those, a majority are energy-related industries," said Raymond Gonzales, president of the Brighton Economic Development Corporation. "People are looking. They're not slowing down. And they're aggressively looking at the United States."

Some say these efforts - not the upcoming Copenhagen climate treaty talks - provide the most promising route to energy independence, climate change mitigation and job creation.

Regardless of whether delegates emerge next month with a comprehensive replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, industry's full-throttle acceleration toward a low-carbon future will continue, they say.

Vestas isn't the only company spending millions of its capital. Several utilities are investing some $1 billion on an industrial-scale carbon capture and storage tests at coal plants in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Oklahoma. The race to perfect the batteries that will power the next generation of automobiles and buses has manufacturers in Europe, the United States and China scurrying to build plants and research centers.

"The vast majority of the utility industry (has) pretty much accepted the reality that CO2 is something they have to cope with," said Revis James, director of the energy technology assessment center for the Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI, a California-based nonprofit that helps drive long-range development and is coordinating carbon capture experiments at coal plants in the Midwest and Southeast.

Failure in Copenhagen won't "substantially stop what's going to happen," James added. "The utilities have to deal with (carbon emissions). They have to respond one way or another."

Many business leaders and policy analysts counter the status quo - a piecemeal, federated approach to carbon and energy emissions - doesn't carry enough of a signal to produce the revolution required of our economic and energy sectors.

Private-sector investments and regional and local government efforts to boost "green" technology are good, they say. But that's just the down payment: The transformative change necessary to avoid the worst warming won't come until the international community firmly sets a global standard in place.

"What you want is something sustainable, predictable and long-term," said Roby Roberts, spokesman for Vestas Americas. "That's what you want out of the climate rules, but that's going to be a few years away."



Vestas is making its $1 billion bet in the United States because local governments have sent enough of a signal and all signs point to the country as the next great wind market, Roberts said. For instance, some 29 states have imposed renewable fuel portfolio standards - requirements that utilities generate a minimum percentage of their electricity from renewable fuels such as wind, solar or geothermal.

"Given the fundamentals in the United States, it does rival any place in the world," Roberts said. "Instead of waiting, we're putting out money there."

But the lack of certainty is unsettling, Roberts acknowledged. Renewable fuels standards are inconsistent. Tax and pricing policies are fickle. "They have a lot of off-ramps that really give you pause."

True change, advocates say, will not happen until carbon has a price. And that needs either comprehensive domestic energy and climate legislation now before the Senate or a worldwide climate treaty.

"You can't have on-again, off-again fiscal policies," said Energy Secretary Stephen Chu at a White House press briefing last month. "As soon as you stop fooling around with all this on-again, off-again stuff you start seeing real growth."

So what, then, to make of all the growth underway?

Outside Racine, Wisc., the plume from We Energies' Pleasant Prairie power plant dominates the skyline, sending some 3,500 gallons a minute of vaporized Lake Michigan water pouring skyward round the clock.

The 1,300-megawatt plant is Wisconsin's biggest. But down below, deep in the shadow of the plant's 450-foot stack, is the feature that makes this plant unique in the state: A way to capture some of the carbon dioxide it sends skyward from all that coal.

Bolted to the plant is a labyrinth of pipes, valves and catwalks surrounding two modest cooling towers. Diverted flue gas is cooled and filtered through ammonia in one column, then pumped to the other, where steam from the plant reheats it and strips off the carbon.

It is simply a test. The five-story contraption is dwarfed by other scrubbers stripping soot, sulfur and other pollutants from the plant's flue. It can capture 90 percent of the carbon dioxide from the exhaust, although We Energies is diverting less than 1 percent of its flue through the CO2 scrubber.

There's no place to store that carbon anywhere in Wisconsin - the state's geology is just too porous, say plant operators - and so after capture the carbon dioxide is released back into the flue stream.

But the test is a success - the first industrial-scale example of carbon capture in the United States. It is step No. 1 in a three-part, $1.1 billion experiment being conducted by a consortium of energy companies to establish that carbon capture and sequestration technology can strip greenhouse gas emissions from today's coal-fired power plants.

The second part of this experiment went online last month: American Electric Power's Mountaineer plant in West Virginia became the first plant in the United States to sequester carbon dioxide emissions, diverting approximately 20 megawatt's worth of emissions and burying the carbon dioxide in saline rock formations 8,000 feet below the Ohio River. The third test, expected to start in 2012, will scale the process up to a semi-commercial production - a 200-megawatt coal plant in Oklahoma.

AEP, We Energies and 37 other partners involved with these tests are working feverishly to show that baseload coal can be part of a low-carbon energy future, said Henry Courtright, senior vice president of EPRI, which is helping coordinate the project.



They're not waiting for regulations, he added. They're looking to beat them.

A new carbon framework will emerge, Courtright said. And if coal doesn't have a way to beat those constraints, it will be left behind.

"We see a great deal of (regulatory) uncertainty over the next 10 years," Courtright said. "That's why it's vitally important to have this carbon capture technology in place by 2015. If it slips out, you're probably looking at nuclear as your low-carbon, predictable energy source."

In this sense, Copenhagen is irrelevant.

Managers building next-generation battery plants or looking for places to put wind turbine factories aren't worried the talks will end in mid-December with no consensus on carbon limits.

They fear their competitors - or a different industry, or an as-yet unseen technology, or even another country - will emerge victorious in the race to decarbonize various industrial and economic sectors.

China intends to invest $1 million an hour for the next decade - $88 billion in all - in green technologies. The Energy Department expects solar and wind to balloon into a $3.5 trillion market. President Obama last month offered up $3.4 billion in matching grants to hasten development of a "smart grid" in the United States.

"What's truly amazing is the amount of investment flowing into green technology in the absence of any price signal," said Kristen Sheeran, director of the Economics for Equity and the Environment Network. "It's clear we'll continue to see these kinds of investments flowing into green technology, if for no other reason that the Chinese are doing it ... and U.S. producers are realizing this is where the future is going to be made."

But to maximize development - to see revolution across vast sectors of the economy - many economists say government has to step in with some sort of incentive or signal.

In general, economists see two ways to drive new technologies and shift cultural paradigms: Policy makers can push the technology into the market by targeting investing at specific research. Or they can pull it by setting a bar or standard and offering incentives to clear the mark.

Economists disagree wildly on the effectiveness of various strategies. California in the late 1990s and early 2000s tried to pull the automobile market into electric power by requiring that a certain percentage of each automaker's sales in the state be zero-emissions vehicles. President Carter in the 1970s tried to push the development of solar and wind energies, investing some $1.4 billion a year in solar alone by 1981. Neither ultimately worked.

So far federal and state governments have mostly pushed efforts to decarbonize the economy, offering grants and tax incentives for specific projects.

But so long as carbon is free, those efforts push against prevailing economic forces, said Adam Jaffe, dean of College of Arts and Sciences and professor of economics at Brandeis University.

"You can push against economic forces, and you may have some success, but if you get a framework that puts a price on carbon, then the economic forces are on your side," he said.

For climate this is particularly crucial, he said, given the problem is global, the consequences dire, the remedies unknown and almost uncountable.

Jaffe as analogy compares a price on carbon to the economic incentives that have sent generations of miners off to the hills in search of glory and riches: Instead of searching for gold, these new carbon prospectors will be looking for ways to cut emissions.

"We don't know where the deposits are or how deep in the ground they are or which are expensive and which are cheap," he said. "But the clearest thing to do, if you want a whole bunch of people running around prospecting for carbon, is to make it clear that carbon has value."



Sheeran agrees. Failure at Copenhagen means technical change continues, albeit in fits and starts. It will remain confined mostly in the developed world, continuing the global technological divide.

It also likely won't force the breakthroughs that can bring the steep emissions cuts necessary to keep atmospheric carbon dioxide levels at 350 parts per million - a threshold the globe passed in 1987 and that is seen simultaneously as impossible to reach yet crucial to maintain to avoid the worst climatic effects.

"The faster we can get a price signal the faster we can get across that the era of carbon emissions is coming to an end," she said.

A taste of that new era can found out here on the Colorado prairie, where Weld County Road 4 has been renamed New Energy Drive.

Right now it's the taste of dust. Vestas' two plants are going up faster than Weld and Adams counties can pave the roads to the site, and truck traffic combined with winds whipped the grit across the landscape on a recent autumn afternoon.

But soon it will be the taste of money, or so city leaders hope.

Vestas is bringing 2,000 jobs to the region, and Brighton civic leaders anticipate the creation of another 4,000 as the plant draws ancillary suppliers.

The city spent $40 million in infrastructure improvements last year alone, including $8 million delivering sewage, water, utilities and other upgrades to the Vestas site.

Raymond Gonzales, president of the city's Economic Development Corporation, grew up in Brighton before leaving for Washington, D.C., and a stint in Albuquerque as then-Gov. Bill Richardson's labor secretary.

He remembers when Brighton was a farm town with nothing but a K-Mart distribution center on its outskirts. That's still there, except now it is landlocked by neighborhoods and shopping centers. The city is booming, having evolved from farms to a bedroom community to a live/work place of its own. It has a new hospital, new City Hall, new $5.5 million library. The old Armory re-opened last month as an arts center, the first time Brighton has had such a center since the opera house burned on July 25, 1955.

"Having a federal framework is critical to the success of this," Gonzales said. "Federal policy, state policy has to be in favor of attracting these kinds of investments."

Colorado wants that economy and has put the state policy in place, said James Martin, executive director of Colorado's Department of Public Health and the Environment. Federal and international policies will eventually follow. But in the meantime, he added, there's plenty of work for states and local governments to do.

"I don't think you'll see any retrenchment in Colorado" if federal or international climate mitigation efforts collapse, he said. "These are very large markets that will exist no matter what."

"Copenhagen is tremendously important for a host of reasons," he added. "But our commitment to renewable energy and natural gas are independent of the climate debate in many respects."

"You'll see that across the country," he said. "As industry leaders break out of the pack and demonstrate it can be done, everybody follows."

"It's a new paradigm, but it's a fairly painless paradigm shift."

This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.
Scientific American Holiday Sale

Limited Time Only!

Get 50% off Digital Gifts

Hurry sale ends 12/31 >

X

Email this Article

X