Few Americans would argue with a goal to increase the use of renewable energy, fewer still would resist a goal to use energy more efficiently. But what greens want isn’t incremental; it’s revolutionary, and revolutions are disruptive. Environmentalists aren’t bothered by the stubborn facts that make the pursuit of this goal very disruptive. Renewable fuels now command about 10% of the generation market. Remove hydro and geothermal and you’re left with wind and solar together taking only about 2%. That percentage isn’t destined to change much at all in coming decades, says the Energy Information Administration, because demand for electricity will grow just as fast. By the way, nuclear power holds a respectable but static 19.5% and natural gas is now up to 24% of the market and climbing, but still a long way from supplanting coal. So just looking at where renewables are now, how far they have to go and the competition they face to get there, it’s hard to see how this green transformation will occur on schedule.
This is particularly so today, when two factors the green community was betting on to rapidly close the gap appear to be in remission. The first was a belief that aggressive, comprehensive regulation would club U.S. coal into submission. A carbon tax to address climate change was the big club in the closet. With tough emission caps on greenhouse gases married to unrealistic compliance deadlines a major chunk of the existing coal capacity would be shuttered. When climate legislation failed, renewable advocates turned to the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations and pinned hopes on Congress passing a law that would force power plants to use more renewable fuels despite their cost. But already Congress is pushing back at the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations and shows little appetite for passing a renewable energy mandate. Undaunted, greens are now marshaling support for a surge of new regulations—from water permits and coal ash to ozone and mercury—but here too Congress seems willing to blunt if not stop the damage.
The second factor counted on to close the gap between the real economy and the green economy was a free-spending Uncle Sam who would accelerate the growth of renewable energy with rich subsidies. Taxpayers would be distracted by promises of the green jobs this largesse would supposedly create. Just like ethanol—”the corn state religion,” says The Wall Street Journal—renewable fuel projects got more than $90 billion from the stimulus fund. One California company, Solyndra, got a $535 million loan guarantee to build a solar panel plant and praise from the White House as a “foundation of economic growth.”
Then disaster struck the renewable energy industry: we had an election. A fiscally-conservative Congress, stoked by growing fears of unsustainable deficits, came to Washington and took the punchbowl away. Railing against federal spending, the House slashed subsidies to the renewable energy industry, which never courted the new Republican leadership anyway. Suddenly, an industry that needs intensive care to stay alive lost its taxpayer-provided health insurance. House Energy and Power Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) spoke for many of his colleagues when he ridiculed in six words the conventional wisdom he wants to change: “Fossil fuels bad, green energy good.”
The NMA supports the “all-of-the-above” energy strategy—a growing economy in today’s world needs energy from varied sources. But, like Rep. Whitfield, we don’t believe we have to be “bad” to make renewable energy “good.”
Next month: “Green jobs … Prison Cuisine”
Popovich is a spokesperson for the National Mining Association, the industry’s trade group based in Washington, D.C.