Asleep at the Energy Switch
Published on Monday, August 29, 2005 by the Seattle Times
Asleep at the Energy Switch
by Neal Peirce
A fervid wave of criticism has followed Congress' new omnibus energy bill — and who's to say it's not deserved?

The lawmakers have been attacked for their $8.5 billion worth of tax breaks for oil, coal, gas and electric companies. Critics say they knuckled under to Detroit by failing to enact new fuel-efficiency standards (including any meaningful coverage for gas-lapping SUVs). They're hit for being as indifferent about global warming as President Bush, refusing any tough new action to tax or cap utilities' emissions of carbon dioxide.

And there's no question: Despite Mideast turbulence and India and China roaring onto the global energy market, the bill does nothing to reduce U.S. reliance on foreign oil (now 58 percent of our consumption, headed to 68 percent by 2025).

In fairness, the new energy bill does allocate about $1.3 billion to efficiency and conservation programs, plus $3 billion for renewable sources, mostly tax breaks for wind turbines.

But Congress couldn't muster the votes to set a requirement of 10-percent renewables (wind, solar, biomass) in our electric-generation stream within the next 15 years. The European Union, by contrast, is struggling — but still aiming — to achieve 22.1 percent from renewable sources in 2010.

And check out our new super-competitor — China. Growing pell-mell, it is already one of the world's leading polluters and faces immense environmental challenges.

But the Chinese will start their first offshore wind-power complex next year; they're building the world's largest tidal-energy project; they're implementing auto-fuel standards more stringent than the United States. On top of all that, they've undertaken a massive solar-energy program, according to the Web site

By the end of 2010, Beijing expects all Chinese cities to reduce their buildings' energy use by 50 percent, and by 2020, 65 percent.

With official Washington asleep at the switch, what should our states and communities do?

Three interesting candidates spring to mind: energy-efficiency measures, green roofs and local cogeneration of electricity.

The biggest "lost opportunity" in the federal energy bill was failure to invest seriously in energy efficiency, says Robert Pratt, director of the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust. Taken singly, he acknowledges, efficiency policies don't sound dramatic — stricter power use limits for every product from television adapter boxes to commercial ice-makers, or building codes rewritten for higher energy efficiency, or utility-administered programs that pay for home insulation.

But the reality is inescapable: Buildings account for two-fifths of America's energy consumption and generate a third of its carbon dioxide emissions. Ignore them and radical energy savings will remain a chi-mera. Both nationally and locally, says Pratt, efficiency measures are our "nearest big-time opportunity" for dramatic energy savings.

A new potential emerging: "green roofs" — plant covers atop buildings, replacing the vegetated footprint that was destroyed when the building was constructed. An energy breakthrough still in its infancy, the roofs have dramatic long-term potential. Germany, where about 10 percent of all flat roofs are now green, leads the world on this front. But American popularity is rising, led by Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. City Hall, a major segment of the new Millennium Park, and some 120 other Chicago buildings now have green roofs.

The advantage of the new roofs? They're welcome green spots in the city, mitigating the "urban heat island" phenomenon caused by great stretches of asphalt and concrete. They provide superb, energy-saving insulation. They absorb large amounts of storm water, relieving the flooding that often swamps sewer systems and sends raw sewage into rivers. They cost about twice as much as a normal roof, but they last about twice as long. They're just awaiting some innovative financing to induce more businesses and homeowners to go for them.

Another exciting potential: systems of "distributed generation" — local power plants producing one to five megawatts of electricity within or close to hospitals, apartment houses, factories or neighborhoods. Local power plants often run on natural gas, but they're ideally suited for several emerging new energy technologies — fuel cells, wind turbines, rooftop solar electric devices and micro-generators.

What a fresh breeze of inventive, common-sense thinking, and relief from official Washington's energy myopia and toadying up to the special interests!

© 2005 Seattle Times