Whoever wins the race to a clean energy future will lead politically and economically on this planet. So, it is frustrating to see the US administration dreaming so senselessly about it. Department of Energy (DOE) chief scientist Steve Koonin was so right when he noted recently that we have limited time and resources, and "cannot let 1,000 flowers bloom indiscriminately." Having said that, he concluded that the US should focus on promoting clean coal, nuclear energy, and biofuels -- and leave electric cars for the future.
Say WHAT?? Most scientists and technologists agree that "clean coal" technology borders on non-existent, and even if we could safely sequester carbon dioxide underground on a mass scale, we would still have the pervasive particulate air pollution, as well as the environmental pollution and destruction associated with coal mining. This is not a shovel-ready solution to our energy needs. Neither is the heavily subsidized nuclear energy industry, perhaps the most expensive alternative energy option on the table. And, as we explain in our free online book, biofuels have been shown to be as bad as fossil fuels or worse, since biofuel production leads to rainforest destruction, is energy, water and land intensive, and competes with needed food crop production, driving up food prices globally. Is this the best our government can do -- cherry pick the worst, most expensive, and least efficient options for our energy future? Is President Obama awake at the energy tiller? DOE's vision of our energy future is ineffective, obsolete and unrealistic. Buggy whip in hand, they seemed determined to drive us into a dusty sunset of energy oblivion.
Meanwhile, China is vastly accelerating development of one of the cheapest and most promising clean alternative energy sources around: wind. By June 2009 it had doubled its wind power capacity to 12 Gigawatts, a 101% increase in its 2008 capacity, and increased its purchase of this power by 100% as well. China has also just started building a 10 Gigawatt wind farm, and plans to install 100 Gigawatts of wind power generation by 2020. How much energy is that? One hundred Gigawatts represent roughly 25% of the entire current US energy demand. What are we doing about wind? As of 2007, total US wind power capacity was at 12.5 Gigawatts. Despite the economic downturn, the private US wind energy industry has so far installed 4 Gigawatts of wind power generating capacity this year, but orders for wind turbines and their components are decreasing, a troubling trend. American Wind Energy Association CEO Denise Bode notes that we could be delivering much more wind power capacity, but that "Congress and the Administration must pass a national Renewable Electricity Standard with strong early targets" -- that is, mandate a much greater increase in the percentage of clean alternative energy that power utilities must acquire. Much of this clean electricity can then be used to fuel the energy efficient electric cars that are already being produced, as well as the further manufacture of them.
So, both China and the US have roughly the same amount of wind power capacity -- but China is gearing up to leave us in the dust. Far less developed in both countries is the other major source of clean renewable energy, solar power. But even here China is accelerating its development. Although its installed solar capacity is less than 1 Gigawatt, China plans to increase that to 2 Gigawatts by 2011. By the end of 2008, a total of 8 Gigawatts of solar power capacity had been installed in the US , but this reflects only a 17% increase from the previous year, and in the meantime, the US manufacturing share of the global solar cell production decreased from 12% in 2003 to 5% in 2008. Furthermore, solar energy policy in the US is still primarily driven at the state, not the federal level, in contrast to the other major solar markets of Japan and Germany. Imagine what could be done if our federal government really promoted wind and solar power generation on the scale that China, Japan and Germany do. Now that is a sensible dream worthy of our national future.