At best, the future of alternative and renewable energy holistically remains uncertain. Our dependency on fossil fuels is already depleting world supplies of coal and petroleum while increasing greenhouse gas emissions. Most assuredly, the ability of alternative energy — biomass, hydrogen, wind, solar and geothermal power — to compete, and even integrate with fossil fuels, will depend on several important variables:
First, developing, as well as developed countries, must be willing to direct long-term public and private funding towards innovative energy technologies by increasing research and promoting public education. Secondly, the “bottom line” economics associated with alternative energy technology must clearly show a positive cost-to-benefit ratio. Revenues, and not deficits, are paramount to the sustainability of alternative energy. Lastly, many experts argue for the environmental benefits of alternative energy by way of carbon reductions. The Kyoto Global Warming Treaty in 1997 requires the U.S. in particular to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning by 7 percent below 1990 levels.
While many experts argue that global warming and the alternative energy benefits anticipated are fiscally irresponsible and not worth the billions of tax dollars intended, we can be assured a “business as usual” attitude will continue without increased government and public support.
Repeated acclaim for alternative and renewable energy as eventual replacements for fossil fuel is a paradigm that remains hypothetical. Others might reasonably argue that renewable energy sources including wind, solar technology, geothermal and hydrogen have already proven their worth in today’s overall energy mix, or what can be called an Integrated Energy Management System.
It was not until the 1973 U.S. oil embargo and the crises that followed that the U.S. began to realize the importance of alternative energy as a necessary and aggressive player in future energy systems worldwide. The Department of Energy in 1992 enacted the Energy Policy Act that mandated a five-year plan to provide cost-effective options for generating electricity from alternative energy sources. This plan continues to provide the alternative energy funding necessary for biomass — trees, crops — wind, solar, geothermal and hydrogen technologies that promote innovative research and development.
Hardin Tibbs, a noted economist and author of a recent paper entitled, “Millennium Scenario, 1” provides an important scenario that predicts a current world population of 5.9 billion people to increase to 11 billion by the year 2050. He also notes that more people have been added to the world population in the 1990s than existed in the entire world in 1750.
Better realizing that world fuel consumption is aided and abided by continual population growth, we can also hypothesis that population growth, resulting in increased world production, coupled by our preponderance for coal and petroleum, will over time result in an unrecoverable fossil fuel shortage and major energy crisis.
U.S. policy options to curb greenhouse gases so far have only stressed energy efficiency and conservation. While carbon sequestration and added tree planting can effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions, market strategies including carbon taxes, emissions trading, alternative energy, and even less carbon-intensive fossil fuels, are all strategies deserving our attention.
Hypothetically, renewable energy alternatives to fossil fuels have the proven ability to offset increasing greenhouse gas emissions that include carbon dioxide. For any of these alternatives to achieve importance, Congress must continue to be supportive through increased and sustained funding.
Currently, the highest profile alternative energy program by the Clinton administration is the Million Solar Roofs Program announced in 1997. Modeled after similar Japanese and European programs, the United States is proposing to install 1 million rooftop PV systems by year 2010.
The Clinton administration views alternative energy as a major pollution prevention measure, and if integrated properly, it can be a major contributor to this Country’s overall Integrated Energy Management System. However, government funding for alternative energy technology does not have to be placed solely on the taxpayer. Major funding offsets are now being established through partnerships with major utility companies, builders, private investors, state government agencies and cities. Together, alternative energy made affordable, and in combination with carbon sequestration technologies, can provide major and sustainable environmental benefits.
This article was written by Jim Kolar of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.