Posts Tagged ‘energy’

Energy Industry Overstated Predictions of Price Spikes

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

The energy industry’s record of overestimating electricity price spikes as a result of pollution controls dates back 40 years, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress. As a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act amendments, the Edison Electric Institute, an association of investor-owned utilities, estimated double-digit rate increases for most states between 1990 and 2009 with the largest spikes occurring in coal-dependent states. Nationally, predictions by the group were off by an average of 16 percent. In the 10 states most dependent on coal-fired electricity, the group overestimated by an average of 24 percent.

As industry groups attempt to deter carbon regulations with forecasts of soaring energy prices, the report’s authors, Daniel J. Weiss and Miranda Peterson, write that it is imperative that public officials and the media question those claims “even if they have an ‘expert study’ that purports to ‘prove’ them.”

Methane Leaks Complicate Natural Gas Reputation

Methane leaked during natural gas production could undermine the resource’s reputation as a “bridge” from fossil fuels to cleaner energy, according to a study published in Science. The study concludes that leaked methane — a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide — negates the benefits of switching from diesel to natural gas in the transportation sector, despite the fact gas produces 30 percent less carbon dioxide emissions than diesel. Even factoring in emissions from leaked methane, however, switching from coal-fired power plants, the nation’s largest source of carbon pollution, to natural gas-fired power plants will lower climate-changing emissions overall.

Supreme Court Rejects Spruce Mine Case

The U.S. Supreme Court says it won’t consider a lawsuit challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to veto mountaintop removal permits. Arch Coal, which owns Spruce Mine, petitioned the high court to hear the case after an appeals court sided with the EPA last year. In 2007, Arch subsidiary Mingo Logan was granted permits by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to discharge mining waste into streams surrounding its Spruce Mine in West Virginia, but the EPA vetoed those permits in 2011 after determining the discharges would cause unacceptable harm to water quality and wildlife. Arch Coal claims the EPA overstepped its authority by retroactively vetoing permits.

Duke Energy Plans to Devalue N.C. Renewable Energy

Duke Energy says it wants to reduce the amount it pays North Carolina households with rooftop solar for feeding excess electricity into the grid. Under an existing policy, ratepayers that produce solar energy are paid the full retail price for electricity they send out to the grid — about 11 cents per kilowatt hour in North Carolina. But federal law only requires electric utilities to pay residential solar producers the amount it costs to generate their own power, which in Duke’s case is less than 7 cents a kilowatt hour.

The N.C. Sustainable Energy Association and local solar companies argue that Duke — the largest electric utility in the country — is using its market dominance to diminish the demand for solar in North Carolina.

Kentucky-India Coal Export Deal Stalls

In 2012, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear boasted about a $7 billion deal that would send 9 million tons of Appalachian coal to India each year for 25 years, calling the partnership “a great example of a new market for Kentucky resources.” But a year and a half later, the agreement appears to have stalled.

According to the Louisville Courier-Journal, those involved with the deal aren’t sure when shipments will start or where the deal even stands, citing global shifts in the market for coal. The state reported in early February that eastern Kentucky lost 2,232 coal-related jobs in 2013.

Energy Efficiency Offers Promise of Lower Electric Bills

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

Even as residential energy efficiency improves, the impact of home energy costs on low-income families in the Southeast has become more severe since the turn of the century, according to a report by Appalachian Voices.

The report, titled “Poverty and the Burden of Electricity Costs in the Southeast,” found that in 2001 the average southern family spent an estimated $1,500 on energy. By 2009, average energy costs had increased to more than $2,000.


“As the U.S. marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, it’s clear we have a long way to go to truly move the region’s most disadvantaged communities forward, and electric utilities should play a key role in making that happen,” says McIlmoil.

The report claims that rising energy costs can be alleviated if utilities offer their residential customers “on-bill” financing loan programs to make their homes more energy efficient. These programs, which have been successful in states including South Carolina and Kentucky, allow the homeowner to repay a loan over time through installments on their electric bill, while saving money in the short term as they use less electricity.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy also emphasizes the role energy efficiency plays in reducing electricity demand and overall consumption. As recently as the 1990s, electricity sales in the U.S. were growing more than 2 percent annually, but according to the ACEEE, energy efficiency programs and policies have helped reverse that trend over the last decade.

Despite the proven benefits of energy efficiency, however, many power providers across the southeastern United States do not offer efficiency financing options, and upfront costs to make efficiency improvements remain a significant barrier to low-income families.

A small percentage of utilities in the Southeast, particularly large investor-owned utilities, offer comprehensive loan programs. But according to McIlmoil, only one out of eight residents in the region has access to financing for home energy efficiency.

Appalachian Voices, the organization that publishes The Appalachian Voice, initiated its Energy Savings for Appalachia program in 2013 to shepherd the development of on-bill loan programs through rural electric membership cooperatives while building a broad movement to expand and promote the benefits of energy efficiency.

Learn more at

OSM Investigates WV Mining Law Enforcement

Friday, February 7th, 2014 - posted by Kelsey Boyajian

By Brian Sewell

The federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement announced on Dec. 30 that it will investigate West Virginia’s surface coal mining regulatory program.

The announcement comes six months after the Citizen Action for Real Enforcement campaign — a coalition of 18 state and national organizations — held a press conference and delivered a nearly 100-page petition to the OSM’s Charleston, W.Va., office. The petition alleges that the state’s chronic failure to enforce the Surface Mine Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 demands federal intervention.

Of the 19 complaints included in the petition, OSM will investigate five, including flooding caused by runoff, surface mining law violations on sites where Clean Water Act violations exist, and parts of the state’s reclamation program.

Criticism of inadequate regulation at the state level escalated after the coal-processing chemical spill by Freedom Industries left 300,000 West Virginians without safe water. The groups have drawn attention to the spill to strengthen their case against the DEP.

A petition on by the CARE Campaign to the Office of Surface Mining demanding an enforcement program “that is accountable to the people of West Virginia” had more than 28,000 signatures at the end of January.

Southeastern States May Need to Reduce Air Pollution

By Kimber Ray

The Supreme Court heard arguments this past December on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, a case that has been debated for more than two years.

The challenges of addressing interstate air pollution have confounded regulators for decades. Due to natural wind patterns, pollution from upwind states — particularly Rust Belt and Appalachian states — typically blows downwind into the Northeast, where it results in federal air pollution fines and rising healthcare costs.

The rule seeks to address the fact that downwind states have needed to install more expensive pollution controls than upwind states in order to deal with their neighbors’ wind-borne pollution. Federal regulations would be based on cost-effectiveness rather than measured contribution to pollution. This would allow the EPA to impose regulations on upwind state industries where control mechanisms may cost less than $500 per ton of pollution, versus upwards of $10,000 in downwind states.

Although a federal appeals court ruled in 2012 that a cost-based approach to regulation exceeded the authority of the EPA, the Supreme Court is reconsidering the case in light of the complexity of interstate air pollution. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported that the court appears inclined to rule in favor of the EPA. A final decision is expected in June.

Municipal Water To Reach Most Families Along Mill Creek

By Molly Moore

The 94 families living along Mill Creek in Letcher County, Ky., have gone years without safe water for drinking or household use due to water pollution from poorly reclaimed coal mines. Due to persistence on the part of local activists, however, 70 families now have municipal water and another 23 are slated to receive water lines.

Elaine Tanner, a resident at Mill Creek, has been meeting with state and federal officials for 10 years in her push to get clean water to the area. Water testing by the Sierra Club, Appalachian Voices and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth revealed illegally high levels of arsenic and other toxins in residents’ wells.

Tanner and allies filed a petition for new funding under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in February 2013. Despite the progress, one residence on the other side of a railroad route was not included in the recent arrangement so Tanner is continuing the effort.

New Campaign to Bring Clean Energy to Virginia

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

On Aug. 27, Appalachian Voices and our partners in the Wise Energy for Virginia Coalition launched “New Power for the Old Dominion,” a statewide campaign to bring smart energy choices to Virginia. The campaign will organize citizens to urge electric providers, energy policy officials and state lawmakers to increase investment in cleaner energy generation, ultimately creating jobs and protecting the natural resources of the state.

The campaign kickoff included the release of a report offering an alternative to Dominion Virginia Power’s 15-year plan, which relies on new fossil fuel generation while ignoring the vast potential for energy efficiency and renewable energy in Virginia.

“Dominion is heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and with its preferred resource plan, will continue to remain so for the indefinite future,” says David Schlissel, the lead author of the report.

The case for new power in Virginia could not be clearer. As coal companies that use mountaintop removal mining practices and utility companies that burn coal pass the costs of their pollution on to nearby communities, they also lobby against proposed improvements to the state’s outdated energy policy. Due in part to air pollution from coal-fired power plants, Richmond was named the asthma capital of America by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

The New Power report shows that there is significant potential for clean energy in Virginia. Among other findings is that opting for a plan that adds almost 4,000 megawatts of renewable energy and conserves nearly 3,000 megawatts through energy efficiency would cost between $633 million and $1.78 billion less than Dominion’s current plan to build two natural gas plants.

To educate citizens about the benefits of clean energy, the campaign includes a series of presentations given around the state and a petition to state lawmakers and the state corporation commission, which sets Virginia’s energy policy.

“All the pieces are in place except the political will,” says Kate Rooth, Appalachian Voices’ campaign director. “That’s where the New Power for the Old Dominion campaign will make a difference, in growing a statewide citizen movement to press our leaders to make this a reality.”

New Power for the Old Dominion is the next chapter of years of successful organizing in Virginia. Member groups of the Wise Energy Coalition have defeated a 1,500-megawatt coal plant in Hampton Roads that would have consumed massive amounts of mountaintop-removal-mined coal in 2012, and prevented a 1,200-acre mountaintop removal mine atop Ison Rock Ridge in Wise County.

Read the New Power report and learn how to organize a presentation in your community at

Major Efficiency Bill Stalled in the Senate

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Brian Sewell

Since being introduced to the Senate in July, the Energy Savings and Industrial Competitiveness Act, also known as Shaheen-Portman (S. 1392), promised to be the first major energy bill passed by the Senate in more than six years. Hours after debate began on the bill, however, that possibility diminished with the addition of each unrelated amendment.

Shaheen-Portman is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) that focuses on improving energy efficiency throughout the industrial sector and the federal government.

On Sept.18, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the bill would not move forward if lawmakers were unable to agree on narrowing down the dozens of amendments, some related, others not, that were added to the bill.

The most controversial amendments, sought by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans senators were attempts to delay provisions of Obamacare. Others would prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon emissions or declare the Keystone XL pipeline to be in America’s national interest.

Of the more than 100 amendments proposed to Shaheen-Portman after it passed in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, several dozen were completely unrelated to energy or environmental or agricultural issues.

“No one was in opposition to the bill,” Rob Mosher, director of government relations at the Alliance to Save Energy, told Greentech Media. “It had broad political and stakeholder support, and there wasn’t any objection to the underlying bill.”

At press time, Reid had all but pulled the bill, saying “We’ll work on matters to craft a way forward on this bill, perhaps, or we may have to take the bill down.”

The bill’s supporters say that several proposed amendments could have increased its benefits by extending incentives to nonprofits who own their buildings, and allowing states and other entities to receive Department of Energy grants for energy efficiency upgrades in residential buildings.

“I’m disappointed that a small group of senators have delayed action on a bipartisan effort to create jobs, lower pollution, and save taxpayers money,” Sen. Shaheen said in a statement. “Shaheen-Portman is a bipartisan bill with an unprecedented amount of support because people from across the political spectrum agree that it is good for our economy and our environment.”

The bill has received support from a broad range of groups including environmental organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers — the largest industrial trade association in the country. The most outspoken detractors of the bill are The Heritage Foundation and Americans for Prosperity.

While it’s possible that Shaheen-Portman could come back up for consideration after yet another budget battle between Congress and President Obama, the chances of it passing this session have decreased substantially.

Solar and Wind Projects Take Off Across Appalachia

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

First Utility-Scale Solar Projects Proposed in West Virginia

By Brian Sewell

Solar Thin Films Inc., a New York-based company, recently announced a contract to develop up to 35 megawatts of solar capacity in West Virginia. Through an agreement with property owner Tri-State Solar, the solar developer plans to install three sites in Alderson, Crawley and Fayetteville.

Tri-State Solar, a West Virginia company formed by a former coal operator, is in the process of obtaining financing for the projects, and is preparing each property for the installation of the solar panels. According to a Solar Thin press release, the company is assisting Tri-State in finding a local utility to buy the electricity generated by the solar fields.

Solar Thin Films expects all three solar projects to be completed by fall 2014, with plans to begin installation before the end of 2013.

While solar power currently accounts for just one percent of electricity in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, installed solar capacity nationwide is projected to grow by 81 percent this year.

State-Level Policies Provide Vital Support to Wind and Solar Industries

By Kimber Ray

A report released in July by the U.S. Department of Agriculture highlights the role of state-level policies in supporting renewable energy. By examining the factors that influence whether or not a farm adopts wind or solar energy, the report aims to help states form effective renewable energy policies.

State characteristics related to using more renewable energy included an abundance of organic farmland, high rates of Internet connection, and expensive conventional electricity. Farmers located far away from the electric grid also favor renewable energy due to its convenience. Financial incentives such as rebates, grants and tax credits did not seem to lead to more renewable energy use.

The strongest predictor of whether or not a farm would have renewable energy was the existence of state “renewable energy targets.” These are mandatory goals established by the state government which require utility companies to generate a portion of their electricity from sources like wind or solar. Farmers have been especially vocal advocates of renewable energy targets because of the profit potential from leasing their rural land to renewable energy projects.

Dominion Power Wins Federal Offshore Wind Auction

By Nolen Nychay

Dominion Virginia Power won a September auction for a tract that experts estimate has 2,000-plus megawatts of wind-energy potential. The $1.6 million bid purchased 112,800 acres along Virginia’s coastline that, if developed, could power over 700,000 homes.

Dominion’s winning bid, however, may not be a victory for the wind industry, according to Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “For a cheap price, they’re able to bask in the glow of perceived greenness and prevent another company from grabbing the mantle of offshore wind,” Tidwell told The Washington Post.

Filed on August 30, a week before the utility won the auction, Dominion’s 15-year plan states that a two-turbine “demonstration project” is the only offshore wind installation currently intended for the newly acquired tract. “Actual construction of larger facilities must await technological advances that would reduce costs,” the utility’s plan states.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, despite more than four million megawatts of total offshore wind potential, the United States currently has installed only one 20-kilowatt turbine to date, enough to power just a few homes, off the coast of Maine.

New Research and Lawsuits Keep Mountaintop Removal in the Spotlight

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013 - posted by Rachel

By Brian Sewell

While battles over mountaintop removal permits reach their boiling point and lawsuits are filed and settled, new research revealing the environmental costs continues to pile up.

Referred to as an "island in the sky," the Jarrell Family plot is surrounded by Alpha Natural Resources' Twilight surface mine complex. Descendants of those buried there are suing Alpha to prevent further damage to the cemetery and gain less restricted access to the gravesite. Photo by Ami Vitale,

Referred to as an “island in the sky,” the Jarrell Family plot is surrounded by Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex. Descendants of those buried there are suing Alpha to prevent further damage to the cemetery and gain less restricted access to the gravesite. Photo by Ami Vitale,

In September, a study by Duke University, Kent State University and the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies compared the environmental toll of mountaintop removal to the economic benefits of coal as an energy source.

Considering the impacts of mountaintop removal on the health of Appalachian ecosystems, the study concludes that tremendous environmental capital is being spent to achieve what are only modest energy gains.

“While the scientific community has adequately demonstrated the severity of surface mining impacts,” writes Brian D. Lutz, the study’s lead author, “considerably less attention has been placed on understanding the extent of these environmental impacts and in providing the metrics necessary to compare these environmental costs to the obvious economic benefits of coal.”

To meet current U.S. coal demand through surface mining, the study found that an area the size of Washington, D.C., would need to be mined in Central Appalachia every 81 days.

Earlier this year, a report by researchers from the University of Kentucky and the University of California found that mountaintop removal could turn Appalachia from a carbon sink, absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere, to a carbon source in the next 12 to 20 years.

The new study further considers mountaintop removal’s contribution to an increasingly unstable climate. Based on the carbon sequestration potential of Appalachian ecosystems, researchers found it could take 5,000 years for 100 acres of reclaimed mines to sequester the carbon released from combustion of the coal removed from the same area.

Lutz’s study did not focus on the increased health risks faced by communities closest to mountaintop removal mines documented by more than two dozen studies. Despite the coal industry’s attempts to discredit the research, environmental advocates have used the conclusions to make their case in court.

Taking Coal to Court

Across Appalachia, environmental advocates and residents are challenging mountaintop removal coal mining companies in court. The variety of outcomes and legal actions reflect widespread opposition to the consequences of the practice.

Protecting a Family Cemetery

In Boone County, W.Va., residents are suing Appalachian coal mining giant Alpha Natural Resources to repair and protect the Jarrell Family Cemetery from being further damaged by the Twilight Surface Mine complex that surrounds the plot.

“I don’t know why anybody would want to be buried here now,” plaintiff Dustin White said to The State Journal. “You’re being buried in the middle of a construction zone basically with heavy explosives going off around you. I don’t know how anybody can rest in peace anymore.”

Jarrell family members hope to win a permanent entrance to the cemetery, and the right to visit their ancestors when they choose without an escort from Alpha or the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

An Appeal for Community Health

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and the Sierra Club are appealing an Aug. 23 court decision that said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency which issues permits for mountaintop removal, is not required to weigh the cumulative health impact of an entire mining operation.

In their arguments before the court, KFTC and the Sierra Club cited the growing research that has found a relationship between surface mines and health problems among nearby residents. Attorneys for Leeco Inc., a subsidiary of James River Coal, argued that the studies have not proven that mining is a direct cause of health problems.

Two weeks after the initial decision in the case, U.S. District Judge Thomas B. Russell directed the Corps of Engineers to temporarily suspend a permit for the contested 756-acre Stacy Branch mine in Knott and Perry counties.

Members of KFTC celebrated the decision to temporarily stop the Stacy Branch mine, saying a possible appeals victory would be fruitless if the court had allowed mining to proceed.

Closures on the Cumberland Plateau

In Tennessee, one of the state’s most prominent and unpopular mountaintop removal mines is being forced to close after a two-year legal action filed by the Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment and the Tennessee Clean Water Network. The lawsuit alleged that National Coal repeatedly violated the Clean Water Act at the Zeb Mountain mine.

The agreement does not automatically prevent another coal company from attempting to mine Zeb Mountain in the future. “But if they do,” Tennessee Clean Water Network attorney Stephanie Metheny said, “we’ll sue them up one side and down the other.”

New Mountaintop Removal Mines Proposed


In September, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers granted Paramont Coal, a subsidiary of Alpha Natural Resources, a permit for an 860-acre mountaintop removal mine in Dickenson County, Va. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is concerned that the Doe Branch mine will discharge waste into streams already impaired by an existing 245-acre mine. The Doe Branch mine is slated to be part of the controversial Coalfields Expressway, a project that would subsidize mountaintop removal to build a highway in southwestern Virginia.

In East Tennessee, Appolo Fuels has submitted a permit application for an 804-acre mountaintop removal project in a heavily mined area of Claiborne County. Residents worry that expanding operations along the Cumberland Plateau will irreversibly damage streams and possibly lead to the local extinction of blackside dace — a ray-finned fish currently on the threatened species list — in streams surrounding the mines, which eventually feed the Cumberland River.

Resourceful and Resilient: June/July issue of The Appalachian Voice celebrates farmers

Friday, June 21st, 2013 - posted by molly
Farmers Holly Whitesides and Andy Bryant grace the cover of the June/July 2013 issue.

Farmers Holly Whitesides and Andy Bryant grace the cover of the June/July 2013 issue.

From determined Virginia cattle farmers to entrepreneurial vegetable growers in eastern Kentucky, the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice showcases the resourcefulness and resilience of our mountain farmers.

In our features, Today’s Farming Frontier looks at how growers are adapting to changing markets. A special three-page section explores Appalachian farm ownership. In A Matter of Self-Preservation, writer Matt Grimley explores how aspiring farmers are struggling for land access and the ways family farmers are passing down the business. He examines the issue from a land ownership point of view in Making it Last, where he studies how aging farmers can plan for their farm’s future.

States have consistenty failed to protect water resources from toxic coal ash. But the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to prevent the EPA from doing anything about it.

States have consistenty failed to protect water resources from toxic coal ash. But the U.S. House of Representatives just passed a bill to prevent the EPA from doing anything about it.

Former Appalachian Voices editorial intern Davis Wax explores the controversial aftermath of pesticide use in Toxic Legacy: Yesterday’s Pesticides, Today’s Problem. And in Addressing Food Insecurity, writer David Brewer speaks with some of the movers-and-shakers who are working to close the gap between healthy, local food and the consumers who need it most.

In addition to those farm-oriented features, we take several shorter looks at trends in Appalachian agriculture. Our editorial intern Alix John discovers the world of seed-saving and heirloom plants, and Brian Sewell examines how climate change might impact farming in our region, and surveys the growth of Appalachian agritourism.

Appalachia & the World

Thursday, December 13th, 2012 - posted by molly

The Appalachian Voice typically looks inward, exploring the intricacies of our region.

This time, however, we looked out at the rest of the world to see what Appalachia’s global ties could tell us about the life, history and struggles that take place within these mountains.

Take a moment to flip through the print version or visit our webpage, and let the latest issue of The Appalachian Voice take you around the world and back again.

Our features begin with Global Connections, an introduction by our editor, Jamie Goodman, that showcases Appalachia’s worldly history and busts the myth of the region’s isolation. On the facing page, Finding a Common Language examines how Appalachia’s growing Latino population is striving for, and attaining, integration with mountain communities.

Realizing that Appalachia’s energy future is closely tied to the pulse of the planet, we consider the best available energy forecasts in A Clean(er) World, which looks at how America fits into the future of electricity generation. Our centerspread, Uncharted Waters, features a global map that highlights some of the trends and hot spots in the international energy trade.

A Clean(er) World

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012 - posted by meghan

Forecasting America’s Role in the Energy Future

By Molly Moore

No country is an energy island.

In the face of a European Union sanction that bans steel imports, Iran is using roundabout trading methods to secure metallurgical coal, used in steel manufacturing, from Ukraine. A state-backed firm in Abu Dhabi plans to invest in Saudi Arabia’s growing renewable energy efforts. And in May, a state-owned Chinese company disclosed plans to buy Triple H Coal Company, which operates in Campbell County, Tenn., marking the first time a Chinese company invested in American coal.

That America and Appalachia’s energy consumption and output are tied to international forces should come as no surprise. Immigrants from the British Isles and Eastern Europe who came to Central Appalachia to work in the coal mines knew that in the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, as nations develop, technology advances and policies shift, the international energy landscape is changing, as is America’s place in it.

Like sea level and human population, the world’s appetite for energy is rising. Without significant changes in policy, such as a worldwide push towards energy savings, global electricity demand will increase over 70 percent from current levels by 2035, the International Energy Agency projects. Renewable sources of power are expected to account for half of new worldwide energy capacity. Coal’s share of overall electrical generation is projected to decline from two-fifths to about one-third, putting it on par with the amount of power expected to come from renewables.

The percentage of U.S. electricity coming from coal is already close to that one-third prediction, a record low, but the country will need to make significant gains in renewable energy in order to fall in line with the projected global average by 2035. In 2011, America derived about 9 percent of its energy from renewables, while Germany used renewable sources to produce 20 percent of its energy.

Looked at another way, however, America doesn’t seem so far behind. At the end of 2011, the United States was second after China in total renewable energy capacity, according to a report by public research and advocacy organization The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Follow the Clean Money
“I don’t think [the United States] gets enough credit for leading in many, many ways in renewable energy,” says Richard Caperton, director of clean energy investment for think tank Center for American Progress. He notes that the field of renewable energy is diverse and encompasses manufacturing, project development, deployment and financing. Compared to other nations, the U.S. is strong on some of those fronts and falls behind in others.

Caperton says America is great at “getting concrete and steel in the ground” by planning and installing wind turbines and solar farms. Compared to China, America also does well at integrating alternative energy sources with utilities. Though it’s difficult to track information on China’s power system, he says, the country continues to build wind farms and solar arrays that aren’t connected to the grid.

“Our banks and venture capital investors and private equity investors are, I think, world leaders in their knowledge of the field and in their willingness to finance renewable energy projects both domestically and abroad,” he says.

The U.S. invested $48.1 billion in clean energy in 2011, more than any other nation. The Pew Charitable Trusts attribute that dramatic increase in clean energy investment to the fact that entrepreneurs and financiers were making the most of government policies that expired at the end of that year.

Following that boom, growth in clean energy investment slowed in both America and around the world. In the third quarter of 2012, those investments were 20 percent lower than they were a year ago, reports research company Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Bloomberg attributed the global drop to uncertain clean energy policies in countries such as the U.S. and United Kingdom.

Caperton says most countries at the forefront of the clean energy field benefit from policy certainty — dependable tax incentives, loan guarantees and state renewable energy goals. “[Those countries] have a general commitment to low-carbon power sources that feeds into every decision they make in the power sector,” he says. “If they know they want to have a zero-carbon fuel mix by 2050, they’re able to plan today for that future and that really helps their investments.”

Making and Trading the Energy Future

One of those areas where the U.S. is doing fairly well but could improve is renewable energy manufacturing — making the photovoltaic cells, wind turbine blades and countless other building blocks of clean energy technology. With the International Energy Agency projecting that the amount of power generated from renewable sources will be three times greater than 2010 levels by 2035, manufacturers see a big opportunity.

China currently leads the world’s solar and wind energy industries. Of the top ten wind manufacturers in 2011, four are Chinese companies and one, GE Wind, is American, reports international organization Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century.
“Where China does really well is a strong national commitment to providing financial incentives for manufacturing,” Caperton says. “Every country, eventually, will be transitioning to low-carbon power and China wants to manufacture that for the rest of the world. So they’re making strong commitments today to set themselves up to be the future manufacturing leader.”

That support is so strong that the U.S. brought a trade case against China to the World Trade Organization alleging that the Asian country provided unfairly large subsidies to its solar manufacturing industry, allowing Chinese solar companies to sell their product abroad below the cost of production. The U.S. recently imposed tariffs on Chinese-made solar panels to help protect domestic companies.

John Smirnow, vice president of trade and competitiveness for the Solar Energy Industries Association, says the best estimates show a nearly equal trade balance between Chinese and American solar companies. The trade case is beginning to have a negative ripple effect on American manufacturers, he says, since the Chinese government is now more receptive to trade complaints against the U.S. And because the bulk of U.S. exports go to China, Smirnow says anything that harms their economy can hurt U.S. companies that depend on Chinese buyers.

He hopes the two powerful governments can resolve the issue through negotiations instead of further litigation or allowing the situation to escalate into a trade war. “Solar is one of the more global industries that we have; it really is a global supply chain,” Smirnow says. Two U.S. companies manufacture some of the best solar products available on the world market, he says, so customers looking for solar panels with the most efficiency and greatest longevity will seek out American goods.

Much of the solar supply chain also has roots overseas, in the naturally occurring elements known as rare earths. Most photovoltaic solar panels include the element indium, which the U.S. typically sources from China and Canada. That reliance is changing, however, as solar developers find new technologies — such as innovative uses of mirrors and molten salt — to complement conventional solar panels.

Buying Time With Energy Savings

Regardless of where green technology is manufactured, the International Energy Agency forecasts that worldwide growth in clean energy is a certainty. Despite booms in renewable sources of power, however, the agency’s calculations show that under current policies, emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases will lead to a long-term temperature increase of 3.6 degrees C (roughly 6.5 degrees F). Climate scientists and international bodies such as the World Bank and United Nations Environment

Programme say even a 2 degree C (3.6 degrees F) increase will lead to dire climate consequences; dry regions will become drier and wet areas will become wetter on a scale that risks food production and water availability while increasing the frequency of intense storms.

Based on the agency’s projections, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions necessary to reach that dangerous 2-degree climate cliff will be “locked in” by 2017 unless nations around the world dramatically change course.

The report finds that if countries around the world invest in measures to decrease energy use, thereby decreasing the amount of pollution ejected into the air, that would give governments five more years to come up with an effective climate plan before temperatures increase to even more dangerous levels. Under this scenario the agency estimates that overall demand between now and 2035 will increase only half as much as it would without policies to promote energy savings. And those gains in efficiency will boost countries’ overall economic situation as well, the report projects.

Averting catastrophic climate change by upgrading energy infrastructure might be a worldwide task, but Caperton believes America’s energy economy can play a significant role. “I’m optimistic about the U.S. being able to deal with every technical challenge that’s out there. I think that my concern would be, ‘Are we taking [climate change] seriously enough and are we going to actually do enough to address it?’”