The Answer is Blowing in the Wind
One of the few bright spots in today's struggling economy, wind power holds the promise of sparking a new economic renaissance for America. As the second largest source of new electrical capacity in the U.S. for the past four years running, behind only natural gas, wind power provided 42% of the nation's new electric generating capacity in 2008. The wind industry also invested $17 billion in domestic wind farm construction in 2008 alone, bringing good-paying jobs to rural America and to a hard-pressed U.S. manufacturing sector. This is great news, given that the rapidly escalating climate crisis demands that we kick our addiction to fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
More good news: wind currently provides only 1% of U.S. electricity needs, but there is enough wind potential in the U.S. to supply several times our total national electricity usage, meaning we have only begun to tap this huge domestic resource. Denmark already generates more than 20% of its total electricity from wind power, with a goal of 50% by 2025. Germany's goal is 25% by 2025. It is time to put America back to work and reclaim our role as world wind leader by setting a national goal of 40% wind power by 2020.
A Ten Year Window
Top climate experts are warning us that the actions we take -- or don't take -- in the next decade will determine whether we stave off the most catastrophic effects of global warming. In the view of NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen, widely regarded as the preeminent climate scientist of our time, "[W]e have a very brief window of opportunity to deal with climate change. No longer than a decade, at the most. We are near a tipping point, a point of no return, beyond which the built-in momentum and feedbacks will carry us to levels of climate change with staggering consequences for humanity and all of the residents of this planet." In 2007, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned the world: "What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment." The magnitude of this unprecedented threat is clear for all to see. The only question remaining is, will we respond in time?
We can make peace with the planet and reinvigorate our economy by immediately beginning the transition from a coal-dominated electricity grid to one powered by wind and other renewables, as a crucial step to cutting greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2020. But as important as the solutions we choose for this energy transition are the ones we don't.
Technologies which are not truly clean, or deployable at scale in the ten year window in which we must act, are not viable solutions and must be rejected. Radioactive nuclear power and oxy-moronic "clean coal" fail both these tests. While there is no arguing that yesterday's fuels contributed greatly to the abundance and prosperity we enjoy today, we now know these same fuels are threatening the very civilization they helped build. The answers to today's energy challenges will not be found in repackaging dirty and dangerous technologies from centuries past, but in tapping the clean and life-affirming technologies of the 21st Century. We can, and must, renew America with renewable energy.
Critical "bridge strategies" to America's renewable energy future include: a nationwide moratorium on new coal-fired power plants, followed by a phase-out of existing coal plants by 2020; a massive subsidy shift away from coal, oil, natural gas and nuclear and towards efficiency and renewables; a long-term production tax credit; an aggressive federal renewable electricity standard; the construction of a national green transmission grid; federal support for siting of renewable energy projects; a tax on carbon, offset by a reduction in income taxes; and continued government R&D for renewables and advanced storage techniques (to provide access to green power when the wind isn't blowing or the sun isn't shining).
Greening our energy grid in such a short time span will not be easy. It will require a massive World War II-type mobilization at lightening speed. But no new energy technologies are needed to realize this hopeful and exciting vision. We can meet virtually all of our nation's electricity needs by 2020 through expanded energy efficiency measures and responsibly-developed, large- and small-scale wind, solar and geothermal technologies.
Those who say such lofty goals are unrealistic underestimate the creative genius and will of the American public. We are a supremely resourceful people with a long history of meeting and exceeding monumental challenges. When destiny came knocking during World War II, we answered by leading the Allied forces to victory in three and a half short years. Although it has not been called on for some time, America's entrepreneurial can-do spirit is alive and well. Not only can we blaze the trail to a worldwide green industrial revolution, it is in our national interest to do so. What is unrealistic is thinking we can continue with business as usual and still leave a habitable planet for our children.
Realizing this "green dream" will demand a level of courageous civic, business and political leadership rarely seen since the founding of our nation to overcome the inertia of the status quo and convince a reluctant Congress and White House to radically reverse decades of regressive energy policies. But it is in our national character to take on such huge challenges, and prevail. Just as it is a core American desire to leave our children a better world than the one we inherited.
The benefits to America of leading this planetary crusade are numerous and profound, including: countless human lives saved; a strengthened national economy; cleaner air to breathe; heightened national security; protection of biodiversity; a reduced trade deficit; millions of high-paying "green collar" jobs; protection of precious water resources; reduced health care costs; a more secure energy grid; revitalized rural economies; protection against volatile fossil fuel costs; reduced intensity of deadly storms, heat waves, infectious diseases and rising seas; and last but not least, the renewed admiration and respect of the world.
The Green Dream
Already cost-competitive with fossil fuels and nuclear, the wind industry is uniquely positioned to assert itself as the vanguard of the emerging green energy economy. But with great opportunity comes great responsibility, meaning the leaders of the U.S. wind industry have a moral imperative to do everything in their power to spark this power shift by becoming corporate crusaders for a green industrial revolution. This requires getting serious about the scope of the challenge we face. The American Wind Energy Association's goal of 20% wind power by 2030, while a good start, is clearly too little, too late to effectively address the global climate crisis. The urgency of the situation demands more of the leaders of this critical industry. They can begin by raising the bar to 40% by 2020 and demanding federal policies to facilitate this goal.
President Kennedy inspired the nation when he announced before a special joint session of Congress the dramatic and ambitious goal of landing an American on the Moon before the end of the decade. He knew this would be a challenging technological feat, but he also knew this was where the U.S. could lead the world. His are the kind of words we need to hear from our president today: "We commit to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."
Americans are dreamers, and proudly so. We dreamed we could land a man on the moon. We did it. We dreamed we could turn the tide against racial segregation. We did it. Coming together to accomplish monumental feats is part of our greatness. It is time for America to dream again by mustering our industrial might to lead the world. If we are successful in helping stabilize the climate -- and do it in time -- we will be praised by future generations for our vision and our resolve. If we fail, let it not be because we did not try.
I believe humanity still has time -- but very little -- to effectively respond to this planetary emergency. But we must reject the tranquilizing drug of gradualism and act now to secure a prosperous and hopeful future. As great as the peril we face, the opportunities it presents are greater. The reward for us is a renewed America, and world, and the exhilaration that comes with being part of a generational mission.
Each of our time here on earth is short. Let us mark that time well by seizing this unique moment in human history to make a stand on behalf of this glorious planet -- our home -- not just for us and future generations, but for all life on Earth. Let this be our finest hour.
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