Energy transitions

Our recent series of columns focused on Iceland’s effort to become the world’s first hydrogen economy. Their intent is to abandon fossil fuels to power cars, buses, trucks and fishing fleets over the next 30 years and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent.

In making the transition, Iceland expects to maintain its high standard of living, which includes long lives, low unemployment, excellent schools, low crime rates and affordable medical care.

Iceland views hydrogen as the world’s best energy solution and is eager to model how the hydrogen economy could lead to an environmentally sound future. Fortunately, it is blessed with clean geothermal and hydro resources. Having no fossil fuels, its energy policies are not beholden to such interests.

In the United States, however, a clean energy future does not look as promising. Many critics see the proposed energy bill as an attempt to lock the American economy into the old energy regime based on fossil fuels rather than moving toward a system based on efficiency and renewable energy. The levels of new support for the old energy regime prove the point.

Tax breaks totaling $14.5 billion are targeted at oil, gas and coal conglomerates. Clean coal and nuclear research projects get another $l.8 billion. Loan guarantees of $18 billion will support a new pipeline from Alaska to the Chicago area. Renewables and ethanol will get $5 billion. Hybrids qualify for federal tax credits, but energy efficiency is not highlighted. When the sums are totaled, fossil fuels are subsidized at about six times that of renewables and efficiency.

Even White House efforts to create an International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy are greeted with concern that the project will place too little effort on renewable energy sources. Energy ministers from around the world attending the Nov. 19-21 meeting in Washington, D.C., are expected to sign an agreement to share research and development on hydrogen and implement the hydrogen economy over the next several decades.

A new organization, The Green Hydrogen Coalition, wants the energy used to produce hydrogen to come from clean energy sources like solar, wind, small hydro, wave and biomass, which would limit carbon dioxide releases. Hydrogen produced by green energy and a shift to fuel cells would be a significant step leading to a renewable energy economy.

While fossil fuels can be used to produce hydrogen, they are not seen as clean, sustainable sources of energy. Extracting hydrogen from coal necessitates sequestering carbon to lessen the impacts of global warming. It is not clear that this is a permanent, cost-effective solution.

The Green Coalition advocates an international program that would fully implement a green hydrogen economy by the middle of this century. While this economy is being phased in, they want immediate action to improve today’s environment, such actions would include implementing currently available solutions such as significant increases in fuel economy, accelerated introduction of hybrid vehicles, improvements in the nation’s power grid, massive energy conservation programs, the adoption of renewable energy, and participation in the Kyoto Protocol.

Considering current massive global energy consumption and projected increases, any transition to a more environmentally friendly energy system is a long-term undertaking. The core of our energy debate turns on how quickly we must move toward an efficient, sustainable energy system. As individuals and communities, we do not need to wait. We can implement energy efficiency and renewable energy sources now.

Energy-efficient homes and offices with efficient lighting and appliances and transportation choices like walking, biking, carpool, and bus travel, can be achieved today. Friends of ours who live modern lifestyles consume only 180 kilowatts of electricity monthly. Using this figure as a model, examine your monthly electric bill and determine what changes you can make to cut consumption.

While you’re thinking about the benefits of using energy efficiently, you might also want to contact local, state and national political representatives to express your concerns about our energy policies.

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