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It'll Take a Politician

The physics and economics for green energy work. Now for the leadership.

By 2030, all the energy used in New York State for every purpose from driving cars to heating, lighting, and cooling buildings, for agriculture and for industry, too, could be derived from wind, water, and sunlight. Converting to renewables will create more jobs than keeping our fossil-fuel economy, and the conversion will create so much more efficiency that we’ll use a third less energy than we now consume. At least 4,000 fewer New Yorkers will die from the effects of air pollution should New York State make the switchover from fossil fuels to renewables—and not only is natural gas from the Marcellus Shale unnecessary as part of the conversion process, but getting away from using natural gas is a must-do. Ditto bio-fuels: We can get to where we need to go by using the carbon-free technologies that already exist.

The plan to achieve this goal has just been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal called Energy Policy by scientists from Cornell, Stanford, University of CaliforniaDavis, and a couple of outfits that do policy analysis and economic modeling. Before you read what the PhDs have to say, ask yourself this: Can you name an elected leader in New York State today who could turn the scientists’ plan into policy?

The answer at the moment is that there’s no single individual walking point on this group’s goal, which was to propose a “long-term sustainable energy infrastructure that supplies all energy from wind, water, and solar power, and provides the largest possible reductions in air pollution, water pollution, and global warming impacts.”

We’re in pretty good shape, not only in New York State, but also in California, where former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger embraced a set of policy initiatives that made California a lot greener. But as we look over the Cornell-Stanford plan for New York State—a very readable plan, only 17 dense and action-packed pages long—it’s useful to take a look at how Germany has moved so very far, so very fast.

The key lesson from Germany, whose conservative government has embraced solar and wind power and committed itself to a nuclear-free future, is that it will take at least one focused politician to get the job done.

Why shouldn’t natural gas be a part of New York State’s energy future?

The Cornell-Stanford scientists rebut the claim that natural gas should be a part of the “bridge” to a clean-energy future:

Why not natural gas? Natural gas is excluded for several reasons. The mining, transport, and use of conventional natural gas for electric power results in at least 60–80 times more carbon-equivalent emissions and air pollution mortality per unit electric power generated than does wind energy over a 100-year time frame. Over the 10–30 year time frame, natural gas is a greater warming agent relative to all wind, water, and solar technologies and a danger to the Arctic sea ice due to its leaked methane and black carbon-flaring emissions…Natural gas mining, transport, and use also produce carbon monoxide, ammonia, nitrogen oxides, and organic gases. Natural gas mining degrades land, roads, and highways and produces water pollution. The main argument for increasing the use of natural gas has been that it is a ‘‘bridge fuel’’ between coal and renewable energy because of the belief that natural gas causes less global warming per unit electric power generated than coal. Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide per unit electric power than coal, two factors cause natural gas to increase global warming relative to coal: higher methane emissions and less sulfur dioxide emissions per unit energy than coal…Thus, natural gas is not a near-term ‘‘low’’ greenhouse-gas alternative, in absolute terms or relative to coal. Moreover, it does not provide a unique or special path to renewable energy, and as a result, it is not bridge fuel and is not a useful component of a sustainable energy plan.

Energy in the national interest

The German politician profiled in Bob Johnstone’s new book Switching to Solar: What We Can Learn from Germany’s Success in Harnessing Clean Energy is not a handsome, charismatic, or flawlessly charming individual who has stoically endured against all odds. Rather, the man named Hermann Scheer comes off as a persistent communicator who has worked, over the past three decades, to convince other politicians, including pro-business lobbyists and utility-industry shills inside the bureaucracy, to embrace a policy of subsidies, feed-in tariffs, and technology innovations to put his country on a path that has already made solar power the source of more than 20 percent of the country’s electricity.

Johnstone’s book is a comprehensive read that translates the engineering issues—especially innovations in storing solar energy after sunset—that have made photo-voltaic power generation so practical. Johnstone’s great contribution is to have brought together the stories of the technical innovations with those of the policy successes. In brief, it’s this: Pretty much since Jimmy Carter put solar panels on top of the White House, solar generation of electricity has been practical. It’s the policy of Ronald Reagan, who removed Carter’s solar panels, that has been the problem.

The Cornell and Stanford scientists had Germany in mind when they set themselves the task of figuring out how, practically, to get to an “all-purpose energy infrastructure” in a big, complex, diverse state using only wind, water, and sunlight. They drafted a plan that requires phasing out old infrastructure with new. They start with replacing the old power plants—like Tonawanda’s coal-fired Huntley plant, and the Somerset plant that is converting from coal to natural gas—with wind turbines, solar photovoltaic (PV) plants and rooftop systems, concentrated solar plants, solar hot water heater systems, geothermal power plants, a few more hydro plants, and “a small number of wave and tidal devices.”

The plan relies heavily on offshore wind turbines of the kind that already exist in Denmark, but which today do not exist here. The potential for floating turbines is enormous, especially off the eastern end of Long Island—but so is the potential for more land-based wind-power. If only half the high-wind-speed land in New York were used for wind development, the authors calculate that “327 Tera Watt hours of wind energy would be harnessed, enough to provide more than 60% of NYS’s 2030 WWS [wind, water, and sun] end-use power demand for all purposes.” Their plan, however, proposes to meet only 10% of the state’s 2030 power demand from onshore wind.

Getting there

The cost? The authors calculated the full costs per unit of energy delivered, including capital, land, operating, maintenance, storage, and transmission costs. They found that those costs are comparable with or better than costs of conventional fuels. Moreover, because of the rising costs of petroleum-based fuels, the plan to rely on wind, water, and solar power “hedges New York State against volatility…by providing energy price stability due to the zero cost “ of the renewables.

It’s the capital costs for conversion that will cause political resistance. But those costs pale when compared to the costs (“externalities,” as economists say) we’re already paying for using fossil fuels. The scientists’ plan predicts that switching to renewables will save more than 4,000 lives that will be lost per year between now and 2030 because of pollution.

The authors are very positive about New York State’s trajectory already. But the practical lesson from Germany, and from California, is that the possibility of positive change has to become a part of the political discourse. That means that candidates have to run on the pro-business, pro-job, pro-growth agenda that leaving fossil fuels behind offers. The moment would seem propitious: right now, with Governor Andrew Cuomo facing withering criticism from those who say New York is missing out on the short-lived, dirty “fracking” bonanza underway in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, giving the Cornell-Stanford plan some attention would seem politically smart.

The German question remains: Who will make a political career of the green energy opportunity?

Bruce Fisher is director of the the Center for Economic and Policy Studies at Buffalo State College. His recent book, Borderland: Essays from the US-Canada Divide, is available at bookstores or at

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