Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Who's Ahead?

A couple of months ago I conceded that I was probably overly optimistic when I periodically pointed out that our problems fell short of reprising the 1970s. While I haven't heard anyone describe our current condition as "malaise", there does seem to be little optimism in the US these days. Perhaps one reflection of the country's sour mood is the growing fashionability of proclaiming that we are falling behind in the race to develop renewable energy or clean technology, as the Secretary of Energy apparently did in a speech on Monday. Yet when I looked at several of the examples he cited, it was not at all clear that we are lagging. Much depends on how we define the competition, and I would respectfully suggest that doing that in a way that makes our situation look worse than it is might just reinforce a sense of inevitable failure and decline, rather than galvanizing us to collective action, as I'm sure Dr. Chu intended.

One of Dr. Chu's comparisons concerned China's goal to generate 10% of its electricity from renewable sources this year and 15% by 2020. That's a positive turn, considering that country's reliance on coal. However, the US has already reached that milestone, according to the figures compiled by the Energy Information Agency, a unit of the DOE. We got 10.4% of our power in 2009 from renewables, through November. I suspect it's only possible to see us as falling behind on this metric if you focus exclusively on the contribution of wind, solar and geothermal power, which together accounted for 2.2% of US net generation last year, and then compare that to China's 10% target--ignoring the 6.9% contribution of conventional hydropower here. I am fairly certain that China's government wouldn't make such an exclusion, and that they will count everything they can reasonably characterize as renewable in assessing their progress toward their goal. Of course China is still building hydropower dams, rather than dismantling them, so their inclusion might be less controversial, there.

Then there's nuclear power, another area in which Dr. Chu suggested we were falling behind. Certainly if the comparison hinges on momentum, there's no question that other countries have been building new nuclear power plants at a much faster rate, while the US has added only a handful of facilities since the 1980s. Until quite recently, building new reactors here looked politically and economically infeasible, and US nuclear operators focused instead on getting the most out of the plants they had. (It's an impressive story, by the way.) Nevertheless, although we're often quick to point to France as the world's nuclear power leader, US reactors outnumber French ones by 104 to 58, and both countries have exactly one new plant currently under construction, counting the Watts Bar-2 facility in Tennessee that would probably only get noticed by the national media if it had a problem more newsworthy than the layoffs associated with the end of the project's design phase. Even once China completes the 57 reactors it apparently has planned or under construction and passes France, the US will still lead the world in this category. New reactors now under consideration would extend that lead farther.

My purpose in pointing out these misperceptions isn't to pick on Dr. Chu, engage in jingoism, or suggest that we should be complacent about our energy situation, the challenges of which I've blogged about for more than six years. However, while I understand the benefits of a little competition to get the juices flowing, I don't think it's helpful to portray the world's largest energy producer as an incipient also-ran. Moreover, defining such a competition entirely in terms of renewable energy seems myopic at best. Despite its importance as a strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy is eclipsed by the more relevant category of low-emission "clean energy", from which we derived nearly a third of our electricity last year. Nor are we or any of our global competitors anywhere close to being able to dispense with the fossil fuels that accounted for 84% of total US energy consumption in 2008.

The US is a continental economy and a leading producer and consumer of every significant type of energy. No "energy race" in which it would be sensible for us to engage can be reduced to a simple matter of who installed the most wind turbines or solar panels last year. While we shouldn't be shocked if another country leads in some aspects of energy technology, we also shouldn't lose sight of the larger context, because energy isn't an end in itself. Even if clean technology turned out to be the computer industry of this decade--in reality and not just hype--and we didn't come in first in the cleantech race--a result I'm not prepared to concede, yet--energy remains the servant of the rest of the economy. That's where the race that matters most will be won or lost.

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