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Accelerating Use of Renewable Energy

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US energy policy is stuck on reliance on natural gas. Most Americans understand that by the middle of the century most of our energy will have to be supplied by renewables -- wind, water and solar -- but we seem content to use natural gas for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, this is not a realistic policy.

We're running out of time. Writing in Rolling Stone, environmentalist Bill McKibben warned that humans can only emit 564 gigatons of carbon dioxide by 2050 and still have a reasonable chance of keeping the temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius (the threshold for catastrophic consequences). Nonetheless, last year we pumped a record 36 gigatons into the atmosphere; at this rate we'll exceed 564 gigs in about a decade. Writing in the Washington Post, Brad Plumer observed that if we are serious about averting horrific climate change, "[Then] the world can use natural gas for only a brief period before transitioning to carbon-free power. Global gas consumption would have to peak by 2020 or 2030."

What will it take to get us to move aggressively to sole reliance on renewable energy?

First of all, it has to be feasible to move to water, wind and solar. Fortunately, there's a lot of evidence that it is. Speaking on The David Letterman Show, Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson touted his plan to move the US off of fossil fuels by 2050. Jacobson's Solutions Project has developed a detailed plan for each state.

The narrative differs depending upon where you live. The Solutions Project has a plan for California, where 95 percent of our electricity would be generated by renewables by 2050. In the most recent California energy estimates renewables generated 17 percent of our electricity (in-state -- we import some energy). Today, more than 60 percent is developed using natural gas.

Fortunately, California state policy is behind our transition to renewables: by 2020, California plans to generate 33 percent of its electricity from wind, water and solar. Recently, Pacific Gas & Electric, the second largest California public utility, announced that it has "delivered 22.5 percent of its power from eligible renewable resources in 2013 and is on track to meet the state's clean energy goals for 2020 and beyond."

California's problem is that it isn't moving aggressively enough. If our natural gas consumption peaks 10 years from now, that suggests that by 2030 more than 50 percent of our electricity should be generated by renewables. (For example, we'd close our one nuclear facility, at Diablo Canyon, which produces about 9 percent of our electricity.)

There are four factors that affect this transition. The first is focus. California has to set a more aggressive goal and focus on accomplishing it. At the moment, we're arguing about hydraulic fracturing, "fracking." Most Democrats support a moratorium, but Governor Jerry Brown, a Democrat, doesn't. At issue is development of California's massive Monterey Shale field.

This conflict mirrors what's happening in the US, in general. Fossil-fuel companies want us to extract more oil and gas and use it to generate power. But the more we do this, the higher our carbon-emissions will be.

That leads to the second factor, capital. Even though conversion to renewables makes economic sense, in the long run, it will take a lot of capital to get there. If tomorrow, California shut down our one nuclear facility we would have an electricity problem. Even though it doesn't take that long, comparatively, to install solar and wind farms, we would have to build them and the transmission lines to move electricity to where it is needed.

The multi-billion dollar question is where the capital going to come from. So far, Californians have responded with a lot of creatively. Many families, including my own, have installed photovoltaic panels on their houses. But we need the private equity market to get more involved -- as it did to promote the Tesla electric car.

The final two factors involve government. California needs to take the necessary steps to have our public utilities promote renewable sources of energy and energy conservation.

And, at all levels of government, we need to remove incentives for fossil fuels and promote incentives for renewables. In 2013 the big five fossil-fuel companies (BP, Chevron, Conoco-Phillips, Exxon-Mobil and Shell) got $2.4 billion in tax breaks. A Pew Research report found, "The subsidies that most increased CO2 emissions per U.S. government dollar spent include those for coal, oil and natural gas... if the subsidies that increased CO2 emissions were to be eliminated, U.S. government expenditures would have been, on average, $12 billion less per year... over the 2005 through 2009 period." Meanwhile, incentives for renewables are languishing.

It's realistic to switch to renewables now. But Americans have to make this a top priority and convince our leaders to do the right thing.