Climate Change Series: Renewable Energy

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Right now, the U.S. generates the majority of its energy using fossil fuels — natural gas, coal and oil — all of which produce greenhouse gasses. But, we have the technology to produce power from clean, renewable sources. So why don’t we? What prevents these sustainable alternatives from making up a greater share of the nation’s energy mix?

There are many reasons — but perhaps the most prohibitive is money. Renewable energy is currently more expensive than natural gas, but experts say with innovation and investment that could change.

Greg Watson, Lewis Milford and Jim Gordon present some of the challenges we face in building a new, sustainable energy infrastructure based on renewable energy sources, and explore some of the hopeful signs of an emerging 21st century power system.


Greg Watson is commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources.

Agriculture is the canary in the coal mine for climate change. This has been true throughout human history and we see it today with commodities like maple sugar and honey, as farmers are already beginning to feel the effects of climate change. I think it's just a harbinger of things to come.

The agricultural sector has often been overlooked as a culprit, yet it accounts for 14 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And if you include agriculture-driven deforestation, it may be responsible for as much as 25 percent. Agriculture is also potentially one of the greatest tools we have for mitigating climate change. I'm optimistic that Massachusetts can be a leader in showing how agriculture can be a positive force with respect to climate change.

Since 2007, over 100 farms in the Commonwealth have installed clean energy or energy efficiency projects. Many of those projects not only decrease the farm's reliance on outside energy sources, they also feed low-carbon energy back into the power grid.

We have a new generation of farmers in Massachusetts and across America — young people who understand there's a promising future in agriculture, one in which farming plays a critical role in meeting the challenges of climate change.

For example, the Jordan Dairy Farm in Rutland, Mass. has installed an anaerobic digester that combines manure with commercial food waste, generates electricity and produces a soil amendment (i.e., fertilizer) that can be used to increase farm productivity. It's a win-win-win-win situation: clean energy, reduced need for chemical fertilizers that generate greenhouse gases, reduced pressure on landfills and improving the soil on which agriculture sustains itself.

The demand for locally grown food in Massachusetts has never been greater — and that's a good thing. It's been estimated that the average distance food travels from the farm to your dinner plate is 1,500 miles. By shortening the distance between farm and consumer, we're reducing the quantity of greenhouse gases emitted by transporting food.

Massachusetts farmers are increasing their market share for many fruits and vegetables that previously were "imported" from as far away as California and Texas. Furthermore, by selling directly to the consumer — at farmers' markets and through CSA (community supported agriculture) shares — farmers get a bigger share of the profits than they would by going through the wholesale markets.

Finally, interest in urban agriculture is exploding. Our cities have acres of vacant, flat rooftops that could be used for both rooftop farms and for greenhouses. Last month, the first annual conference on urban agriculture, which was organized by the Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and held at the Roxbury Community College, attracted 350 people – maximum capacity. Another 180 people never made it off the waiting list.

We have a new generation of farmers in Massachusetts and across America — young people who understand there's a promising future in agriculture, one in which farming plays a critical role in meeting the challenges of climate change. They are joining forces with and learning from our experienced farmers to ensure that agriculture will continue to play a pivotal role on Massachusetts’ physical and economic landscapes.

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Lewis Milford is president and founder of Clean Energy Group and the Clean Energy States Alliance, and a non-resident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.

When we're talking about climate stabilization over the long term, we're talking about a balancing act: how to scale up zero and low-carbon emission energy sources and how to scale down the use of high-carbon emission sources used today. To think that by 2050 we'll have a global energy system producing basically zero greenhouse gas emissions seems almost unimaginable. But that's what we'll need in order to start bending the carbon curve over the long run so that the earth remains habitable for our descendants. It's an extraordinary transition we'll need to go through.

The fossil fuels that currently dominate the energy system are considerably less expensive than their renewable counterparts. And thanks to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, natural gas is getting even cheaper. The controversial practice has made the commodity so inexpensive and plentiful that it's displacing coal and nuclear power as America's primary energy source.

In other words, the main challenge we face is making the cost of renewable energy less prohibitive. We will need additional technological breakthroughs, as well as economies of scale, to continue driving down the cost of alternative types of energy.

Take off-shore wind (OSW) power as an example. We have the opportunity to create a new OSW industry from Maine to the Carolinas, and to create real energy far in excess of anything we can do on land. This new industry would create thousands of jobs, as well as a more reliable power source. It's a huge opportunity that we as a nation are not even close to figuring out.

We have financed infrastructure though bonds for our public schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, and other facilities. Why not finance energy with a dedicated energy stream for the long-term public good?

The biggest technical problem we haven't even begun to figure out is this: how do we store intermittent power from renewable energy sources? Solar power production peaks during the day; wind generally peaks at night. But unless there are safe, reliable, economical ways to store that power for when demand is highest, it all goes to waste. With funding from the 2009 Recovery Act set to expire, federal subsidies for energy research are scheduled to fall by 70 percent. Without additional research funds, it is unclear where those new power storage technologies will come from.

In addition to deploying renewable energy on a massive scale, we must figure out how to flip the energy system around so we have more localized, distributed power protecting critical infrastructure.

After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City last fall, one of the many horrifying sights was seeing doctors and nurses at the NYU Langone Medical Center working in the dark after the hospital lost generator power. Hundreds of patients had to be evacuated, but since elevators were down, critically vulnerable patients had to be carried down as many as 15 flights of stairs.

Meanwhile, just blocks away, it was business as usual at Goldman Sachs. If you're a data center protecting financial transactions in the billions of dollars, there's no limit to what you'll spend to prevent the loss of power. We need new policies to encourage critical public and private facilities to deploy renewable technologies like solar with batteries and fuel cells to create power onsite when the lines are down.

All of this requires new financing on a large scale. We have financed infrastructure through bonds for our public schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, and other facilities. Why not finance energy with a dedicated energy stream for the long-term public good?

With no prospects for federal funding on the horizon, the opportunity exists for states to work with the bond markets to raise the billions of dollars needed to construct the near-zero carbon emission energy infrastructure we need in the coming generation.

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Jim Gordon is CEO of Cape Wind Associates and president of Energy Management Inc.

Over the years many have said that New England is at the end of the energy pipeline. In other words, that we have no indigenous energy resources. We now know that is false. We have very substantial wind energy resources — in the mountains of northern and western New England, and offshore, near the population centers of southern New England.

We had a vision for Cape Wind because we wanted to demonstrate you could produce significant amounts of electricity, displace a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, create new green jobs, and start a pioneering effort to get people thinking about this offshore wind resource that we have. So we decided to develop America's first offshore wind farm.

Offshore wind farms began in Europe in 1991. Today there are 55 operating offshore wind farms in Europe, with many more planned. The peak production from offshore wind in the North Sea will soon exceed the peak production of North Sea oil in the U.K. The construction and operation of all these wind farms has created thousands of jobs.

Maybe we can go back to the days when New England actually produced its own energy, and was a lot better off for it.

At our first public hearing, we explained that with 17 state and federal agencies looking at every aspect of our proposal to build 130 wind turbines in Nantucket Sound, the regulatory process would take at least two to three years. As is well known, we ran into a determined and well-funded opposition. As a result, Cape Wind — a major energy project which produces zero pollutant emissions, zero greenhouse gas emissions, consumes zero water and produces zero waste — has now generated hundreds of thousands of pages of exhibits, testimonies, comments, and social, economic and environmental reports.

By contrast, the environmental assessment for the Deepwater Horizon oil well was 17 pages long, and it took about 60 days to win approval.

It's taken 10 years, but Cape Wind finally has all its permits. Although it was a tedious process, we've now signed the first offshore wind lease in U.S. history with the Secretary of the Interior. Banks are lining up to finance the project. We hope to begin construction later this year, and to begin generating power in 2015.

Offshore wind holds incredible promise for the U.S. — not only in increasing our energy security and independence, and in improving our health and environment, but also by contributing significantly to mitigating climate change. About four years ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council called Cape Wind the largest single greenhouse gas reduction initiative in the United States. When fully operational, we will offset over 800,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Unlike land-based wind farms, which produce most of their power at night, offshore wind produces its electricity coincident with the peak demand — on the hottest and the coldest days of the year. That means the power our turbines generate can go directly into the grid and be used, while lowering the demand for fossil fuels when electricity is most expensive.

Here in New England, we need to develop about 6,000 megawatts of new, cleaner power sources to replace obsolete (and dirty) coal and oil plants. By taking advantage of our abundant wind energy resources, and by using natural gas more efficiently, we'll be able to avoid the cost of building expensive new pipelines to import natural gas from Appalachia and Canada.

Maybe we can go back to the days when New England actually produced its own energy, and was a lot better off for it.


This program aired on April 2, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.