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The Supply and Demand of Renewable Energy

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Primary reliance on coal, oil and natural gas has brought remarkable prosperity to much of the world in their mere 150 year reign. We should begin all conversations regarding our need to diversify that fuel portfolio from this platform of recognition and gratitude.

For a whole host of reasons that range from human health effects from polluted air caused by burning fossil fuels, to the contribution to the greenhouse effect, to the increased expense of extraction to the fact that fossil fuels are ultimately finite -- we know that now, more than ever, that we must forge a stronger, more diverse, and less polluting global energy economy. That economy must rely on vastly expanded efficiency strategies, and on renewable sources of energy, as well.

Jeremy Rifkin has long been a visionary in forging a more resilient and sustainable world, and his latest work, entitled The Third Industrial Revolution is Rifkin's latest contribution to helping us all first envision the future we wish to reach, and then marshal the resources necessary to actually achieve that vision.

Rifkin's five-pillar infrastructure begins with renewable energies -- a topic near and dear to my heart as the President of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE), a non-profit dedicated to the scale-up of renewable energy. Rifkin points out that only by beginning with renewable energy as Pillar One will we succeed in creating a post-carbon renewable energy society.

Renewable energy is not, of course, a revolutionary new idea. Photovoltaics, for example, date back to the 19th century. The concept of relying on energy sources that are not only regenerative, but that have a fuel cost of absolutely zero has got to have strong appeal. Renewable energy development is, in fact, a key ingredient to economic growth, job creation, deficit reduction and enhanced national security.

The good news is that after many "false starts," renewable energy technologies are beginning to take hold. As those technologies scale up, their costs decline.

Renewable energy is currently responsible for 11 percent of America's domestic energy production, with over 125 GW of operating renewable power projects (56.8 GW from non-hydro technologies) and 13 billion gallons of biofuels projects. The biofuels industry alone displaces the need for roughly 445 million barrels of oil, more than the total estimated crude oil imports from Saudi Arabia last year.

Today, solar energy is the fastest growing energy technology in the U.S. The U.S. solar market grew to a $6 billion industry in 2010, up 67 percent from $3.6 billion in 2009. The U.S. wind industry had over 40,000 MW of wind power capacity installed by the end of 2010, with over 5,000 of those megawatts installed in 2010 alone. This is enough to power over 10 million American homes.

The laws of supply and demand are in force as our energy economy necessarily changes, and technology costs of renewables have declined significantly over the past 10 years. Solar is already competitive with other sources of energy in some areas like Nevada and Hawaii. And, of course, those costs would be even more competitive if the full external costs of all energy use were internalized into the prices we pay.

Renewable technologies are improving to become more efficient, as well as cost-effective. There is no reason that this trend cannot continue.

The current U.S. energy posture constitutes a serious and urgent threat to our national and economic security. That challenge also represents a great opportunity. The Department of Defense, not coincidentally, is helping to lead the charge through deployment of distributed renewable technologies that are aiding and abetting our troops in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Solar panels at one field station in Afghanistan continued to provide reliable power even after they had been shot up by enemy fire. Soldiers did not even realize the panels had been hit until they examined the panels closely days later.

We are fighting the advantage of incumbency by fuels that have strong economic backing, but are, in fact finite. If we seize this moment, and begin to view wind farms, solar arrays and other renewables springing forward as the victory gardens of the 21st century, we can forge a strong post-carbon energy economy that will serve both people and the planet well.

I add my thanks to Jeremy Rifkin for his vision and his work -- and look forward to collaborating with him to help realize the five pillars outlined in The Third Industrial Revolution.

Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn is the President and CEO of the American Council On Renewable Energy (ACORE). More information about ACORE can be accessed at www.acore.org.

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