Renewables: What the Colo. economy needs

President Obama’s call during his State of the Union to double the generation of electricity from renewable sources by 2020 was met with cheers across Colorado.

Groans, too, no doubt, from oil and gas interests and others.

In case you missed it or have forgotten exactly what the president said, here are his words:

“Four years ago, other countries dominated the clean energy market and the jobs that came with it. We’ve begun to change that. Last year, wind energy added nearly half of all new power capacity in America. So let’s generate even more. Solar energy gets cheaper by the year – so let’s drive costs down even further. As long as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must we.”

Notably, while he called for a permanent renewable energy tax credit, Obama also said he would speed up approval of oil and gas wells.

Factcheck.org dug into the president’s comments about clean energy and tried to make the case that he was exaggerating matters, as did more than a few conservative commentators.

It said it found that wind and solar energy generation had, indeed, doubled from 2008 to 2011. Consumption for wind also doubled, and it nearly doubled for solar.

Impressive, right? Well, the truth, it said, is that wind and solar represented a sliver of all energy generated before — and after — that increase. Wind amounted to 13 percent of all renewable energy produced in 2011, while the share for solar was 1.3 percent.

Altogether, renewable energy represented a mere 9 percent of U.S. energy consumption in 2011.

OK, so renewables are still a small part of the energy pie. That isn’t news to most of us, not anyone who’s been watching Colorado solar and wind companies in their various struggles these past few years. They’ve had to overcome Chinese rivals propped up by government subsidies, a downturn that ravaged homebuilding and the politicization of a wind production tax credit that got caught up in the much bigger debate about the federal budget and deficit.

But here are a few more facts and figures that are worth considering, from the Solar Energy Industries Association website:

“Since 2008, the amount of solar powering U.S. homes, businesses and military bases has grown by more than 500 percent – from 1,100 megawatts to more than 6,400 megawatts today, which is enough to power more than 1 million average American households.

“Solar is the fastest-growing and most affordable, accessible and reliable clean energy technology available today.

“America’s solar industry now employs more than 119,000 workers at 5,600 companies – most of which are small businesses spread across every state in the union.”

Earlier this month, the Colorado Solar Energy Industries Association officially launched what it calls its Million Solar Roofs campaign.

The goal: to generate enough solar energy to power 1 million Colorado homes and businesses by 2030. Getting there will require installing about 10 times as much solar equipment as now exists in the state.

To make this a reality, the solar industry will have to do more than persuade homeowners and businesses to invest in solar.

It will need first and foremost to find more support among those extremely conservative federal and state lawmakers (vs. that shrinking subset of moderate Republicans who happen to favor renewables) who now wrongly lump renewables in with companies like California’s Solyndra and Loveland’s Abound Solar. Both were terrific failures. But they are by no means the whole story, and their experience offers little insight into the potentially transformative power of solar and wind and other renewables.

Federal support aside, local governments can do more to help, too.

Fort Collins is doing a better-than-average job of this. Its electricity customers who install solar systems can get rebates of $1.75 per watt. We need more programs like this across Northern Colorado and the rest of the state.

Though it’s been around for decades, solar is still very much in its infancy. Panel prices have been plunging but they’re still too high for many, and the return on investment still takes too long for some. And, yes, taxpayer subsidies can be a burden on government budgets, no doubt. But, folks, even with fracturing, the day will come when we run out of fossil fuels, a time that will come sooner than we realize.

We have no choice but to make this investment today.

One final thought, for those who oppose government support of those hippie liberals who are robbing the federal coffers to support hare-brained notions of capturing the sun and wind to power our lives:

Ending the tax breaks that Exxon Mobil, BP and other Big Oil companies enjoy would put $24 billion in the federal government’s accounts over the next decade.

Allen Greenberg is the editor of the Northern Colorado Business Report. He can be reached at 970-232-3142 or agreenberg@ncbr.com.

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