For many of us, the State of the Union is more than just an opportunity for President Obama to publicly frame his policy priorities for the year. It's a moment when all the hopes, struggles, fears, and anticipation of the nation's citizenry crystallize, a moment of reflection and national self-reckoning. And coming after a year of unprecedented congressional gridlock, when continual attacks on the Affordable Care Act resulted in a shutdown of the federal government, and when Edward Snowden exposed the NSA's horrifying breach of public trust, there seems to be a particular urgency associated with this year's address among those who will feel most its repercussions. For those of us in such circumstances, tonight's address is anything more than just a speech.
To that end, we asked a few of our authors, engaged citizens themselves, to speak on behalf of those caught in the political crossfire. What follows is what we hope to hear from our President and what we are afraid we will not hear, both tonight and moving forward into the contested future.
In the October 5th edition of the New York Times,
columnist Joe Nocera—a self-avowed fracking enthusiast—seeks to
allay environmental concerns about the greenhouse gas emissions from
natural gas fracking operations. He cites a study released last month
by a group of scientists at the University of Texas that found on-site
methane leakage at fracking wells to be lower than previous studies had
assumed. According to this study, only 0.42% of the gas produced by
fracking ends up in the air as "upstream" methane emissions—i.e. gas
releases at and around the wellhead.
Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg decided to combine errands this past week. Along with dropping his son off at Harvard, he decided to deliver an important message to New England—about climate change. With son Robert and daughter Isabel in tow, he made his pitch across four states. No venue was too small or too modest: a nature center here, an ice cream parlor there, small-town bookstores here and there, and places of worship of various stripes.
I heard Rob speak last Monday at a synagogue in Brookline, MA. Though only a dozen people gathered to meet him on that balmy summer evening, he delivered his message with passion and determination—qualities that run through the brief, persuasive book he has written: America's Climate Century. Every person in the room was a climate change activist in the making, in his view. This is not an issue that we can afford to be passively concerned about; it demands broad public engagement. Nothing less, he feels, will stir a polarized Congress out of its short-sighted paralysis.
Last week I participated in a lively workshop at Iowa State University, looking at ways to make our energy, transportation, and water infrastructure more resilient and sustainable. Clean-energy options for generating electricity and fueling our cars, trucks, and buses were among the topics examined. Mechanisms for integrating ever-greater amounts of solar and wind power into our electric grid were creatively explored. Yet, on a hot midsummer day, we all sat in a conference hall so frigid that those smart enough to bring sweaters were soon wearing them.
I hadn't been so smart. As I shivered through the workshop's morning sessions, I struggled to keep my mind from wandering to that longed-for sweater, still neatly folded in a suitcase back in my hotel room. Finally I made a run for it. (To be honest, I made a drive for it.) Twenty minutes later, I was back at ISU's Memorial Union, finally able to focus on things weightier than my body's battle against the mechanical chill.
There, too, arctic summer struck despite the searing outdoor heat. The hotel's lobby was uncomfortably cold, and its super-sleek restaurant was bone-chilling -- surely no more than a few degrees above 60. Fleeing to my room to grab a jacket, I couldn't help wondering how many thousands of tons of CO2 Hyatt could save simply by setting its A/C to a bearable 75 to 78 degrees.
In the Boston Globe this past Sunday, Leon Neyfakh argues for jettisoning what UC Berkeley architecture professor Gail Brager calls the "thermal monotony" of our air-conditioned lives. It's well worth the read, if only to remind us how thermally resilient we all used to be.
In late July, I had the chance to revisit
Cloud County with my wife Tamar. This remote corner of north-central Kansas was
the starting point for my wind power research back in 2009, and I have
maintained close ties with people in the community ever since.
The occasion for our visit was a book talk hosted by EDP Renewables North America, owner of a
201-megawatt wind farm that was built in 2008, and Cloud County Community College, home to one of
the nation’s leading wind energy technology training programs. A good-sized
crowd gathered for the talk, undaunted by the 105-degree mid-afternoon heat
during a drought that tested the nerves and strained the budgets of many Cloud
County farmers and ranchers.
Income from the Meridian Way Wind Farm offers a much-valued
hedge against turbulence in the Cloud County farm economy. In summers like this
past one, crops may wither and cattle may need to be shipped out to feedlots
earlier than planned, but wind farm hosts can rely on the continuity of lease
payments for wind turbines and access roads on their property. These annuities
amount to tens of thousands of dollars for many landowners.
In addition, Cloud County benefits from a voluntary contribution
made each year by EDP Renewables, to be used for economic development projects.
During the past few years this payment has amounted to $200,000, and it is expected
to rise to $300,000 next year.
Beyond these economic gains, wind power development has brought
a renewed sense of pride to Cloud County Community College. The college’s wind
energy program is now in its fifth year, with over a hundred students enrolled
today. In addition to kids coming straight out of high school, the program has
trained retired Army careerists, former schoolteachers and office
administrators, and many from the construction trades that were hit so hard by
In the article that appears in Terrain.org, readers can look
more closely at the lives of Cloud County farmers, ranchers, educators, and
wind farm operators - all beneficiaries of the boost that wind power has
brought to their community.
Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney has been outspoken in deriding President Obama’s efforts to give wind and solar power the prominence they deserve on America’s energy agenda. “In place of real energy, Obama has focused on an imaginary world where government-subsidized windmills and solar panels could power the economy,” he wrote in a Columbus Dispatch editorial earlier this year.
Wind power is not simply a fantasy perpetrated by Barack Obama and the Democratic Party, as Romney would like American voters to believe. After all, it was George W. Bush who, as Texas governor, introduced the Lone Star State’s first renewable portfolio standard, setting ambitious targets for the introduction of wind power and other renewable energy sources – goals that the state has since far surpassed. And it was President George W. Bush whose Department of Energy (DOE) published a landmark report in July 2008, mapping out a pathway to achieving a fifth of America’s power from wind by 2030.
In charting a course toward 20 percent reliance on wind by 2030, the DOE did not flat-line U.S. electricity use between now and then. To the contrary, it assumed a 39 percent increase above total consumption in 2005. If we actually became a nation that valued energy conservation more than we do today, the three hundred gigawatts of installed wind power slated for 2030 could end up providing well over 20 percent of the nation’s power needs.
Under the 20% Wind Energy by 2030 scenario, manufacturing jobs directly related to producing wind turbine components and subcomponents would top 30,000 by 2021, peaking at 32,835 in 2028. While factory work would somewhat slacken thereafter, ongoing expansion in onshore and offshore wind-generating capacity as well as the need to repower aging wind plants would guarantee a continued high level of employment in the manufacturing sector. In construction, jobs would average over 70,000 a year from 2019 through 2030. And in wind farm operations, total jobs would reach 76,667 by 2030 – about 28,000 in on-site operations and another 48,000 in utility services and subcontractors. Adding them all up, DOE foresees about 180,000 new jobs per year directly linked to wind energy as the 2030 target date approaches.
Beyond all of the “direct” jobs in the wind energy economy, DOE also explores the “indirect” employment benefits of growing this sector. These jobs include the producers and suppliers of steel, fiberglass, and other materials that are used to build wind turbines; the companies that manufacture the parts that go into a typical turbine’s 8,000 components and subcomponents; and the providers of banking, accounting, legal, and other services to wind turbine manufacturers and wind farm contractors. These indirect jobs are expected to number about a hundred thousand annually in the years leading up to the 2030 target date.
Finally, DOE draws an even wider circle around the “induced” job impacts resulting from consumer spending by people directly and indirectly employed in the wind energy sector. A wind turbine factory worker buys a new pair of jeans in a local store; a wind farm technician takes her family out to dinner; a crane operator stays at a local motel. The DOE team attributes another two hundred thousand jobs per year to these induced economic activities.[i]
Folding induced jobs into the assessment of wind energy benefits may go farther down the speculative road than some are ready to travel. But even setting that outer circle of employment impacts aside, we are looking at a roster that rises to more than a quarter-of-a-million direct and indirect jobs if we pursue the DOE’s 20% by 2030 ambition.
Today about 75,000 Americans are employed directly by the wind industry, though analysts warn that, if Congress allows the federal production tax credit for new wind farms to lapse at the end of this year, we will lose about 37,000 of those jobs. The production tax credit, providing 2.2 cents per kilowatt hour of wind-generated power, is costing us far less than the $4 billion-a-year that President Obama proposed cutting earlier this year from the enormous, decades-old subsidies for oil and gas. Because Congress blocked the President’s long-overdue proposal, the traditional fossil fuel subsidies remain untouched, along with massive ongoing federal support for the nuclear power industry.
A technology commitment that advances America’s energy independence and reduces our nation’s carbon footprint while creating hundreds of thousands of new, skill-based jobs – isn’t this a path worth taking?
Photo courtesy of Philip Warburg. A version of this post appeared at CSRWire.
[i] Specific numerical projections underlying DOE’s data were provided to the author by Suzanne Tegen, Ph.D., Senior Energy Analyst, Strategic Energy Analysis Center, National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
NREL's methodology is painstaking and its conclusion is unambiguous: "[R]enewable electricity generation from technologies that are commercially available today, in combination with a more flexible electric system, is more than adequate to supply 80% of total U.S. electricity generation in 2050 while meeting electricity demand on an hourly basis in every region of the United States." Nearly 50% of our overall power needs by that year can be supplied by wind and solar photovoltaics, the study team predicts.
Along with looking at the abundance of renewable power resources within our reach, NREL focuses on the need to expand our grid to tap those resources where they are most abundant, often in remote land areas and off our shores. The study also probes the importance of smarter demand management and a stepped-up investment in hydro, battery and other storage technologies that can make the best use of variable sources of power like wind and solar.
Three NREL infographics dramatize key aspects of the pathway to a U.S. energy future where renewable resources supplant fossil and nuclear power. The first shows the distribution and intensity of different power sources across the continental United States, taking viewers from 2010, when coal, gas, and nuclear dominate, to 2050, when wind, solar, and other renewables prevail. The second uses pulsing orbs of different colors to reflect the hour-to-hour availability and use of different power resources in 2050. Then, in the third visualization, a macro view of our transmission grid tracks the hourly flow of electrons across the U.S. from major sources of supply ("power exporters") to major centers of demand ("power importers") from January to December 2050. All three infographics can be accessed on the Futures Study home page.
This far-reaching study goes a long way toward exploding the myth that electricity generated by renewable energy is destined to play second fiddle to traditional U.S. fossil fuel and nuclear power sources.
Curbing global warming is the overarching environmental challenge we face. Wind and solar power offer promising ways to wean ourselves off precarious and outmoded energy resources. With the right “smart grid” investments, these two renewable energy resources could meet well over half of America’s power needs by mid-century. During the past half-decade, wind has supplied 35 percent of all new U.S. electric-generating capacity. Will this continue? Not if we succumb to the allure of “fracked” natural gas as the new American panacea. Cheap it is – at least until stepped-up global market demand drives up its price. Environmentally sustainable it’s not. Leaving aside the under-studied hazards of fracking, even the best of gas-fired turbines produce nearly half as much CO2 as conventional coal plants.
Denmark is determined to rid itself entirely of fossil fuels by 2050. The Danish Commission on Climate Change Policy expects that shedding fossil fuels will reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 85 percent, at the same time that Denmark’s GDP is projected to double. What America needs is a vision of similar magnitude. We have the resources to make it happen, but we need to summon the political will to internalize the crippling costs of our reliance on fossil fuels.
Wind power is not only an effective way to address our reliance on fossil fuels, it holds promise as a way to revive the economies of America's small towns, a topic Warburg explores in Harvest the Wind.
Winds sweeping through the Great Plains once robbed the Farm Belt of its future, stripping away overworked topsoil and creating the dreaded Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Today, those winds are bringing new hope to the declining rural communities of the central United States. Nowhere is wind's promise more palpable than in Cloud County, Kansas, where the soaring turbines of the Meridian Way Wind Farm are boosting incomes and bringing green jobs to a community that has, for decades, watched its children drift away.
In Harvest the Wind, Philip Warburg brings readers face-to-face with the people behind the green economy-powered resurgence in Cloud County and communities like it across the United States. This corner of Kansas is the first stop on an odyssey that introduces readers to farmers, factory workers, biologists, and high-tech entrepreneurs-all players in a transformative industry that is taking hold across America and around the globe.
In this illuminating book, Warburg reveals both the remarkable growth of a breakthrough technology and the formidable challenges it faces. He visits epicenters of anti-wind opposition as well as communities that have embraced wind farms as neighbors. He guides readers through an Iowa turbine assembly plant that is struggling to compete in a global marketplace dominated by European and Chinese manufacturers. And he looks at the thousands of miles that wind-generated power will need to travel to reach American consumers.
Harvest the Wind is an earthly antidote to loftier treatises on global warming and green energy. By showing us how practical solutions are being implemented at the local level, Warburg offers an inspirational look at how we can all pursue a saner and more sustainable energy future-while at the same time investing in the nation's infrastructure and jumpstarting its economy.
Philip Warburg was president of the Conservation Law Foundation, New England's leading environmental advocacy group, from 2003 to 2009. Earlier, he ran the Israel Union for Environmental Defense in Tel Aviv and was an attorney at the Environmental Law Institute in Washington, D.C. He has also worked with governments and citizen groups on anti-pollution initiatives in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and across Eastern Europe. Visit his website, PhilipWarburg.com.
In December, yet another global climate change conference – this one in Durban, South Africa – failed to bind the world’s greatest polluters to specific, quantifiable curbs in their greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, America was among the leading forces fighting the adoption of greenhouse gas reduction targets, just as we fought these targets in Bali the previous year, and in Copenhagen the year before that.
Even as America shirks its responsibility before the international community, there is a lot we can do here at home to reduce our nation’s massive carbon footprint. Boosting renewable energy’s share of our electricity supply should be at the top of that agenda.
The Congressional uproar over the failed federal loan guarantee to solar manufacturer Solyndra shouldn’t be allowed to cast a shadow over our government’s broader efforts to stimulate renewable energy growth. Nowhere have federal energy incentives been more effective than in launching American wind power. Part of that success hinges on a production tax credit that gives wind manufacturers and wind farm developers enough confidence to break into a field still dominated by underpriced fossil fuels and heavily subsidized nuclear power.
Today wind supplies a relatively modest three percent of our electricity, but it’s growing fast. The Department of Energy projects that wind, with the right incentives, could supply a fifth or more of our power by 2030. Others see as much as half of our electricity coming from wind by mid-century. Wind farms already account for 17 percent of Iowa’s electric output and nearly 7 percent of power generated in Texas, America’s biggest electricity user.
Looking at the American wind industry’s overall supply chain, the story gets even better. Hundreds of companies employing thousands of skilled and semi-skilled workers are now involved in manufacturing components and subcomponents for turbines. American labor today creates about 60 percent of the value of a typical turbine sold in the United States. Rust Belt stalwarts like Ohio-based Timken, maker of the “million-mile bearing” for the automotive sector, have made a major strategic shift toward wind. The rugged weather endured by turbines is a perfect match for Timken’s super-high standards.
Add to manufacturing jobs the thousands of people who build our wind farms. Truckers, crane operators, electricians, concrete suppliers, and civil engineers are all finding new jobs in wind farm construction. And once these farms are in operation, thousands more are employed keeping turbines running reliably.
Roughly 75,000 Americans now have jobs in the wind industry. The Department of Energy predicts that over a quarter-of-a-million people will be gainfully employed by this sector as we approach the 2030 date for supplying a fifth of our power from wind. As important as the number of jobs is where many of those jobs are located – in rural communities where it’s been hard to find work even in good economic times.
In an ideal world, power suppliers would compete in a marketplace that reflected the true costs of each technology. The European Union is moving in this direction, with a carbon emission-trading regime that has begun to monetize the global-warming impacts of coal and other fossil fuels used by electric utilities and other major industries. In America, fossil fuel producers and users do not pay for the environmental devastation they cause. To the contrary, they benefit from billions of dollars in subsidies each year, nurtured for decades by an army of well-paid lobbyists.
Faced with these imbalances, renewable energy producers are fighting an uphill battle. Federal incentives, like the 2.2 cent-per-kilowatt-hour production tax credit for wind that is due to expire at the end of this year, are essential to leveling the playing field. Thanks to this tax credit, wind farms can compete with proposed new coal plants, and even with electricity from new natural gas facilities in some locations. If the tax credit expires, many wind developers will hold off on siting new wind farms, and wind turbine manufacturers will have to scale back production. Aside from the lost environmental opportunity, tens of thousands of people now employed by the wind industry risk losing their jobs.
Many years may pass before Congress summons the resolve to cap America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, extending the renewable energy production tax credit – a measure that has already proven its worth to our economy and the environment – is a worthy step.