Conservation and windmills can’t power growth

Jim Constantopolous

If we want to avoid a serious national energy crisis, we need to move beyond temporary fixes and focus on workable long-term solutions. Congress is about to make that choice. Let’s hope it doesn’t settle for politically popular steps that would have no impact on the real energy problems we face.
In considering new national energy policy legislation, Congress must avoid the trap of pretending that all our pressing energy problems — from imported oil and volatile natural gas prices to our deteriorating electric power grid and the airborne emissions from power plants — can be cured simply by encouraging conservation and an increased use of energy from water, wind and the sun.
Over the past 30 years, the country has become far more efficient in its use of energy. While we have increased our gross domestic product by 158 percent from 1970 to 2001, our use of energy has grown by only 43 percent. We are getting much more output for every unit of energy that we consume.
Similarly, we have been developing and using sustainable resources at an impressive rate. In the United States, 1,635 megawatts of wind capacity was constructed in 2001, more than double the previous record of 732 megawatts in 1999. This trend must continue.
But we can’t let our policy-makers pretend that our steady growth can be powered simply by conservation and windmills. There are only a few energy sources capable of providing the amount of energy we need. Sites for hydropower locations have essentially been exhausted. Oil is too expensive and too valuable as a transportation fuel to burn in power plants. That leaves natural gas, coal and nuclear power.
Coal provides 88 percent of New Mexico’s electricity and 52 percent of the nation’s power ,and needs to continue providing the lion’s share for decades. That will be possible if we develop new clean coal and nuclear technologies, which are part of the energy legislation being considered. It would authorize $1.8 billion over the next decade for this research.
In New Mexico, state law requires that 5 percent of utilities’ electricity capacity must come from green sources by 2006 and 10 percent by 2011. Our utilities will have to invest millions of dollars to comply.
A Senate-passed energy bill would require electric utilities in the United States to provide 10 percent to 20 percent of their electricity from renewable energy sources within 10 to 15 years.
Research indicates that renewable sources — not counting hydroelectric plants — will continue to provide a small fraction of our energy needs during the next decades.
Wind and solar, with their evolving and still-costly technology, are intermittent sources of energy that comprise just 2 percent of U.S. electric-power generation. And not even massive government subsidies for wind and solar have been able to make much of a difference.
New solar capacity is triple the cost of new gas-generated electricity, and new wind power costs 50 percent to 100 percent more than new gas-generated electricity. Those who disparage the use of conventional energy sources ignore that coal, natural gas and nuclear power accounts for almost 90 percent of the electricity used in the United States.
Pragmatism requires full funding for clean-coal research and demonstration projects in any comprehensive energy legislation that emerges from Congress. We cannot rely on renewable energy sources or conserve our way out of the problem. We need production from major energy sources, particularly coal.

Jim Constantopoulos is an associate professor of geology at Eastern New Mexico University. He can be contacted at 562-2651 or by e-mail:
jim.constantopoulos@enmu.edu