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The push for renewable energy, clean coal and shale gas in the U.S. has been linked to sustainability, job growth, national security, less dependence on foreign oil, and a number of other agendas and causes.
“Energy dependence” is often seen as the root of the other problems. The solution is to develop the new forms to move toward, and perhaps ultimately become, energy-independent – so goes the rationale of some energy development gurus.
But others say “independent” is the wrong goal – the world is small and highly connected, and the economy is global. For them, “independent” sounds isolationist and naïve. So they argue for “self sufficiency” – which occurs when, domestically, we have what we need, but we also recognize that what we have and do are influenced by the global economy and market dynamics.
I don’t think that goes far enough, however. It seems to me that “interdependence” should get a long look as a possible future state. In energy interdependence, everyone is a potential customer and supplier. This balancing of shared interests could boost sustainability, job growth, national and global security, world peace, and so on. Energy exports will become as important as imports. By necessity, everyone becomes a potential trading partner, and that may open up some political, economic and diplomatic doors that are often assumed to be closed. It already works on a local scale, for example, when a solar- or wind-powered home or business sells some of its energy back to the grid.
Some might say these are just differences in semantics. But perhaps this is really a paradigm-shifting opportunity. Where might “energy interdependence” take us?
There are few areas more closely identified with the oil and gas industry than Texas, especially Houston.
And, yet, here comes word that the City of Houston is the nation’s top municipal purchaser of renewable energy. According to a February 7, 2012 article in Transportation Nation, 33 percent of the City’s energy comes from wind farms in West Texas, and the City hopes to increase that to maybe 50 percent over the next year or two. The City of Houston already uses more renewable energy than Starbucks, Hilton or the U.S. Department of Energy.
According to the report, Texas produces 10,000 megawatts of wind energy every year (more than any other state; California is first in solar). As a result, Austin and Dallas are also at the top of the renewable energy users’ list. Only six entities in the country rely on renewable energy more than Houston; Intel uses more than anyone, according to the report.
A lot of traditional oil and gas companies are based in the Houston area, and they too are relying on renewable energy, for their long-term growth and profitability.
The more you learn about renewable energy, the more you realize you don’t even know what you thought you knew. Makes sense?
This is the kind of headline that gets my attention: “Does the solar industry have a PR problem?” (from June 13 on CNBC.com and later on usatoday.com).
I thought the technical challenges alone were plenty: off-peak storage, transmission, cost effectiveness, availability of raw materials, production scale, etc.
The article calls solar power “the greenest of green technologies.” Nonetheless, the article cites a recent survey by solar industry advocate SolarTech and San Jose State University, which found that even among Silicon Valley residents solar power has serious problems. Only 39 percent said solar power was reliable and only 11 percent said it was affordable.
The problem, according to even supporters of the industry, is that current solar technology is not nearly advanced enough, and that government subsidies, while encouraging early adopters, discourage the long-term development of more cost-effective and efficient technology. Thus, the technology under-performs and the perception is that it will never be a viable solution.
So, in answer to the article’s question, yes, the solar industry has a PR problem. But….. it’s always easy to blame, and pin your hopes on, PR. First and foremost, the industry has significant technical problems that no amount of PR can overcome.
Ironically, even environmental groups cannot agree on how to proceed with solar power development: Some groups are upset over the siting of large solar farms on hundreds of acres of previously undeveloped land (and Native American archaeological sites), rather than using brownfield locations.
Finally, there’s a rising tide of people who don’t want to see large solar farms, or their noisy, higher-profile cousins (wind farms), become part of their neighborhood landscape. Yes, solar and wind have significant “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) opposition – just like chemical plants, power plants and nuclear facilities.
As the PR battles heat up, the Natural Resources Defense Council (quoted by usatoday.com on June 2) has pointed out “there’s no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs. To get energy, we need to do things that will have impacts.” Get used to that idea – and the accompanying technical and PR challenges.