Bioenergy, Energy Efficiency, Geothermal, Hydropower, Project Development, Solar, Wind Power

From the Heartland, a Microcosm of Energy Transition

Although I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where clean tech is front and center, I spend time during this part of the year in a very different place. Every summer of my life, I’ve visited Chautauqua, N.Y., a 134-year-old cultural community on a lakeshore in the westernmost county of New York state — birthplace of the famous Chautauqua Movement that brought education and culture throughout rural America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The nearest major cities are Buffalo, Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Silicon Valley it’s not, but the newspaper headlines in the local bookstore during my recent three-week stay brought home the same trends of energy transition that we track at Clean Edge on a national and global basis.

First and foremost: the soaring cost of fossil fuel-fired electricity. Clean Edge and Co-Op America spotlighted this in our recent Utility Solar Assessment report, and it’s hitting home now in front-page stories in places like western New York and Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. In July, Buffalo residents learned that a proposed 680-megawatt local coal plant from NRG, which aimed to be a showcase for clean-coal technology, was being scrapped by the New York Power Authority because of high costs exceeding US $1.6 billion.

Nearby in Pennsylvania, the Erie Times-News reported that natural gas price increases would cause a rate hike of 30 to 50 percent in August. And a banner headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the spot price of northern Appalachian coal had jumped 151 percent in a year, from US $55 to $138 a ton. With coal supplying 58 percent of electricity in Pennsylvania, ratepayers may see increases of 80 percent when rate caps expire in 2011, with potentially devastating effects to the local economy.

Tracking the same global megatrend in oil prices that has Ford and General Motors scrambling to make smaller, more fuel-efficient cars while the companies are awash in red ink, the era of cheap fossil fuel-powered electricity is rapidly coming to an end. Like any major transition, the road to a cleaner, more sustainable, and more price-stable energy mix in the United States will not be painless. A great deal of that pain will be borne in the pocketbooks of consumers and the bottom lines of business.

Wind, solar, biomass and geothermal power, along with a modernized, more efficient transmission grid, will bring relief and a long-term answer, but it will take some time. Even with accelerated clean-tech development, hopefully with a big boost next year from a new president and Congress, the scale-up will take several years to put a meaningful dent in the current U.S. electricity mix that’s currently about 50 percent coal-fired. (I don’t have to remind clean-tech industry participants that the Senate again failed in late July to overcome a Republican filibuster on extending the production and investment tax credits for renewable energy projects, due to expire at year’s end. It’s beyond pathetic.)

But returning to the Chautauqua region, there are hopeful signs of the entrepreneurial spirit that’s fueling the clean-tech transition — even far from the traditional centers of venture capital or technology on the coasts. Just outside Buffalo in Lackawanna, New York, the nation’s largest urban wind farm, called Steel Winds, cranks out megawatts on the shores of Lake Erie. In symbolism that business journalists live for, its eight turbines (with 18 more planned) occupy a landmark site from a previous technology revolution — a sprawling former Bethlehem Steel plant. A few miles up the road in Niagara Falls, U.S. Renewables Group is converting the 48-megawatt Niagara Generating Facility from coal to run on wood waste biomass and rubber chips from discarded tires.

Chautauquans, driving Priuses in record numbers, have been asking me about the feasibility of community wind farms in their hometowns, from rural New York state to an island in Chesapeake Bay. Near the hamlet of Clymer in Chautauqua County, the Matlink Dairy Farm runs an award-winning anaerobic digester system supplying combined heat and power from agricultural methane.

Forty miles southwest in Saegertown, Pa., farmers and Penn State agronomists are growing camelina, a promising crop to replace soybeans as a feedstock for biodiesel. And in the Chautauqua County town of Frewsburg, inventor Martin Lydell is building an electric car to compete for the $10 million Automotive X Prize, which will reward a vehicle that gets 100 miles per gallon of gas or its electric equivalent.

You can find similar examples, mostly under the radar, in just about every corner of the country. Projects like these aren’t waiting around for federal leadership. Like the Chautauqua Movement of an earlier day, they’re springing up from grass-roots America, where you don’t have to look far to see that our national — and global — energy transition is well underway.

Wilder is Clean Edge’s contributing editor, co-author of The Clean Tech Revolution, and a blogger about clean-tech issues for the business section of The Huffington Post. E-mail him at [email protected].