Green Boom

Energy-Guzzling America Goes for Renewables

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Wind is a huge part of a growing American movement toward renewable energy. Source AP
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The United States offers interesting alternatives to the German approach to energy and environmental policies.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The laissez-faire energy policy in the United States is driving a rapid move away from traditional energy sources toward a greater use of wind, sun and water power.
    • A growing number of American states offer incentives to individuals and businesses investing in renewable energy sources.
    • Elon Musk is among the new-age entrepreneurs who are betting big on solar power.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

The Indianapolis 500 is a mad race in which open-wheeled cars zoom around the famous 2.5-mile oval Indianapolis Motor Speedway at speeds averaging 187.4 miles per hour (301.6km/h) for about three hours in the quest for victory. You’d be forgiven for thinking environmental issues are not a priority here, but the almost half-million spectators who attend see more than just fast cars and skilled drivers. They also see the future.

The largest solar farm in the world is located within the racing complex.

The solar farm is not just a nice environmental footnote for inclusion in the speedway’s annual report. It’s part of a growing American movement toward renewable energy utilizing sun, wind and water power to drive U.S. environmental statistics into the green.

We see another picture on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Americans ruin the environment with their new energy extraction method of fracking. They sneer at fears of global warming. Oil sources in the Gulf of Mexico are sputtering while natural gas streams out of large shale deposits in Pennsylvania or Texas.

What we overlook is the magnitude of the growth of renewable energies within the United States.

Americans don’t follow the German model. If the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, traditional power plants step up, but they are usually using environmentally friendlier natural gas, largely generated by fracking, while in Germany the alternative is generally coal.

What we overlook is the magnitude of the growth of renewable energies within the United States.

It’s a bitter irony. Germany – with its lofty environmental ideals – generates increasing amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2), while the laissez-faire America emerges as the model in the fight against global climate change. It’s time not only to readjust our clichéd attitudes toward the United States as an energy gobbling hog, but also to look at what the country offers in the way of interesting alternatives to the German approach in energy and environmental politics.

The July statistics are not outliers. Throughout the year, renewable energy sources have grown stronger against than fossil fuels, while not a single coal-fired power plant was put into operation. Many U.S. states support alternative energies with subsidies. In California, for example, there is a “solar initiative” and a feed-in tariff similar to the one embraced in Germany, where providers must include green electricity in their networks. That ambitious effort remains the exception, though a few other states including Maine, Oregon and Washington are also working on a similar efforts.

Green energy will be built differently in America than in Germany. In a quarter of the land surface, the wind blows strongly enough to produce relatively inexpensive electricity from windmill farms. Already, states such as Iowa and South Dakota are generating more than 20 percent of their energy needs with wind power. Siemens AG has built the largest earthbound wind power plant in the world in Iowa.

There is similar story to tell about solar energy in America. Arizona, California and Colorado –three states where sunshine is abundant—already possess the highest solar capacities when measured by the number of inhabitants it serves. Overall, solar capacity in the United States has increased by a factor of 130 to the current 13,000 megawatts.

Companies such as Solarcity play a key role. Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind the PayPal electronic payment system, rocket designer Space X and electric cars manufacturer Tesla Motors, has placed his bets on the sun and is chairman of Solarcity. The company finances the installation of roof-mounted solar modules for homeowners, businesses and government agencies, which then lower their electricity expenses. Power generated can be used on site or funneled for profit into the power grid.

The percentage of renewable energy used in electricity production in the United States has increased from just 4.1 percent to 12.9 in the past 10 years. And while America produces less green electricity than Germany, the number is expected to keep rising as prices for solar module and wind power wheels keep falling. Ernest Moniz, U.S. secretary of energy, believes use of renewable energy for electricity production could double in just a few years and, perhaps, reach 30 to 40 percent by 2030, which would allow the U.S. to overtake Germany in its use of green power.

That’s an optimistic, but not utopian estimate. America is proving that going green not only serves the environment, but can create new industries and drive new technologies without costing the billions paid by German electricity users.

 

To contact the author: jahn@handelsblattt.com 

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