An Energy Policy from the Bottom Up

President George W. BushIn this first feature article of the new SolarAccess.com web site David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis tells us about what he heard and what he wished he had heard when George Bush recently addressed an audience in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

George Bush came to my hometown recently to deliver his national energy address. President George W. BushHe started well. He told us about Saint Paul’s homegrown, high efficiency district energy system, soon to be fueled by local wood wastes. He described a solar home that generated more energy than it consumed. His images suggested a future in which energy would increasingly be generated inside communities and households by tapping into local resources. Such a future, he declared “is achievable if we make the right choices now”. To my dismay, after that promising start the President offered the nation a litany of policy initiatives that would move us toward a far different energy future, one where we become even more dependent on remote energy sources and even more remote energy decision makers. He proposed to exercise federal authority to impose high voltage transmission lines on recalcitrant communities. He proposed to force Utah and Nevada, two states that have no nuclear reactors, to become permanent repositories for the radioactive wastes from states that do. He proposed to accelerate the construction of giant power plants and refineries. How much better it would have been if the President had offered the nation policy initiatives consistent with the future painted by his opening words. We are at a watershed moment where a more democratic and sustainable energy system is trying to be born. The federal government should encourage that process, not undermine it. Coal-Fired Power PlantThe President, and Vice President tell us that we have been remiss in not building new large power plants in the last 10 years. To address the electricity crisis, they insist, the nation needs to install one large power plant each week for the next 20 years. They decry the fact that we have not built a new petroleum refinery since 1978 and insist that to address the gasoline crisis we need to construct one new giant petroleum refinery a month for several years. What they don’t tell us is that while major power plants have not been coming on line, smaller ones have. Indeed, private companies are already installing 20 power plants a DAY. At the same time, while the number of petroleum refineries has plummeted since 1978, the number of ethanol refineries has soared. Sixty are operational and another sixty will be operational by mid 2002. These new on-site power plants are tiny compared to their nuclear and coal fired brethren. These new biorefineries are tiny compared to conventional petroleum refineries. Yet collectively, they can make an important short term contribution. Consider the phenomenal increase just in microturbines, those environmentally benign power plants that serve small businesses or office buildings. In 1999 only 300 microturbines were shipped. In 2000 this increased to 1,200, with a total capacity of 53 MW. This year more than 5,000 units will be shipped, with a total capacity of 300 MW. At this rate of increase, within five years we could have the equivalent of 200 nuclear power plants of electricity generation capacity installed in a million basements and backyards. In his speech, George Bush advocated increasing efficiency. That’s what on-site power generation does. Coal and nuclear plants are so big and remote that they cannot make use of the waste heat generated in the electricity production process. Thus only about 30 percent of the fuel consumed in coal and nuclear plants is converted into useful energy. On-site power plants, on the other hand, can use the heat, resulting in efficiencies of as much as 90 percent. As for transportation fuels, I was disappointed that the President unveiled his energy plan in Minnesota but didn’t inform the nation that 10 percent of the Minnesota’s transportation fuel is produced by Minnesota farmers from Minnesota crops. Alaska currently provides the nation with about 9 percent of its gasoline. The President would increase this marginally by drilling in national wildlife preserves. If the nation’s gasoline tanks contained 10 percent ethanol, as Minnesota’s does, it could obviate the need for such drilling. In Minnesota, about 12 of the 15 ethanol refineries are owned by farmers. About 15 percent of all full time grain farmers in Minnesota are shareholders in one or more ethanol plants. This year some of them will earn almost as much from dividends from these manufacturing enterprises as they will from selling their corn on the open market. If the President were to expand the market for ethanol, and if he were also to fashion policies that favor farmer-owned processing facilities, he would be addressing the agricultural and energy crisis at the same time. The President finished his address to a standing ovation. Minnesotans are a hospitable lot. He got on Air Force One, and flew to Iowa, to give a speech in front of a bank of wind turbines. Then on to Pennsylvania to speak in front of a modern hydroelectric facility. In each case, viewers would see the President extolling technologies that extract value from local resources. They represent an energy future where communities and households become energy producers as well as energy consumers, an energy future in which the federal government does not have to impose its will upon communities. Why not propose policies compatible with that vision and image? A nation founded on the principle of self-reliance might find it particularly attractive. About the Author David Morris is Vice President of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis Minnesota and author of the book Seeing The Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System. You can learn more about his book by following the link below.

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