The energy bill—do we need it?

The stalled federal energy bill assures that our energy future will remain wedded to fossil fuels, nuclear power and increased centralization of energy sources while delaying the transition to renewable energy. It turns its back on the essential transition while the planet warms, fossil fuels dwindle and the cost of energy-related military ventures soar.

Harvey Wasserman observes that the bill marks the third time in the last 50 years that federal legislation undermined the solar revolution. He wonders how much further advanced it would be if federal subsidies had underwritten a Manhattan-type project for solar energy as advocated by Buckminster Fuller, Amory Lovins, William Heronemus and Barry Commoner in the 1970s.

David Morris sees the federal legislation as unnecessary and harmful since it centralizes energy decision-making when states and local governments have been successfully building a national renewable energy economy from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He describes the federal initiative as pre-empting state and local authority and increasing the distance between energy decision-makers and energy consumers.

Morris sees state incentives for ethanol more likely to favor small scale, farmer owned local biorefineries while federal initiatives favor large corporate interests further centralizing energy decision-making.

Thirteen states with nearly half the country’s population already have renewable energy mandates. Fourteen states have taken steps to eliminate MTBE, which will open the marketplace to increased ethanol consumption. Twenty-three states already assess electric users a small fee to fund energy efficiency and renewable energy programs.

However, state officials are diverting sizable amounts of those funds for other purposes. The public is already buying hybrid vehicles; federal subsidies appear small and too cumbersome to stimulate much additional demand.

Tom Casten is skeptical of efforts to modernize the electrical grid and argues for local power, smaller sources of electrical generation and substantially more recycling of wasted heat energy. This year’s blackout is the eighth major loss of power in the last seven years. Many of those blackouts resulted from events such as ice and wind storms which will remain as problems even if the grid is upgraded.

Although large centralized power plants and the electric grid have served us well for 80 years, he describes the national grid as out of capacity with increasing line losses and extremely stressed by peak load demands. He suggests that distributed generation has progressed sufficiently to serve local power needs by recycling waste heat while saving fuel, pollution and money.

Casten sees local generation as technically ripe, environmentally superior and twice as efficient as distant isolated power stations. Such an approach would also eliminate the need to grant the federal government new eminent domain rights to slash through fields, forests and backyards to increase grid capacity while angering citizens along the way.

Other advocates of decentralized power argue that the trend will challenge centralized systems in the way that personal computers reduced our reliance on large mainframe computers.

Some critics of the energy bill see it as a step backward and a force that will delay the move toward a more reliable, efficient and locally managed energy system capable of producing well paying local jobs.

We remain unhappy with the energy bill as it is now structured and continue to advocate renewables, efficiency, and ample funds for continued research and development at our federal energy labs. If the energy bill fails to pass, individuals, states and local communities will have to work a little harder to further the solar revolution.

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