The feed-in tariff
          This law would guarantee access to the grid and compel utilities to buy electricity from entities and individuals who produce renewable energy for the grid to use. Rates paid per kilowatt-hour to the investor for different kinds of technologies would be set by the government at current “state of the art” levels for that technology. Power purchase agreements would be about 20-30 years in duration, and contract rates would decline over time due to the presumption of decreasing generation costs. Rates would be set at levels that convince investors that their effort will be profitable in the long run. Rates could also encourage roof-top PV over land-based PV, for example. Thus, the feed-in tariff’s move towards decentralization of energy generation would revolutionize the entrenched electric power industry. If that was actually achievable politically, it would be a welcome development. But there are other issues.
      Besides putting the government in the business of picking technology winners, the main criticism here is that this amounts to subsidized energy security for the upper part of the income bracket. We would all be paying rates that include whatever size and type installations fall under the government approved categories. The problem with distributed generation has always been its up front cost, and while that would come down under this plan, obviously 300 million of us won’t be making money off our own little power plants. Meanwhile, that rich guy up in the mountains with his multi-million dollar biogas fuel-cell system that eats dead lodge-pole pine trees will be warm, secure, and well lit when the grid collapses, having long since pocketed his profit off the rest of us.

     Renewable technologies
       In 173 pages, Christie examines all of the major technologies proposed to address the U.S. energy crisis: efficiency, wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal,    waste heat capture, ocean currents, conservation, “cleaner” fossil fuels, hybrid, all-electric and fuel-cell vehicles. More than just a technical expose, the author has included very readable analysis from numerous experts and government and non-governmental organizations of the concepts and issues behind using these technologies. True, most of those are favorable reviews, with the notable exception being an entire chapter on Paul Roberts’ article titled “The Seven Myths of Energy Independence”.

History may also look back at us and ask: when did the majority of inputs to the U.S. political process conclude that our problems were indeed cultural? We certainly haven’t reached that point yet, but Richard Lance Christie’s “A Renewable Deal for the United States of America” has added another tome that at least gently explores those waters.
      Efficiency + Renewables = Not Enough
      The Renewable Deal references separate studies by the American Solar Energy Society (ASES) and McKinsey and Company, both of which claim to show how the U.S. can substantially reduce carbon emissions by 2030. Both studies get the lion’s share of their reductions from “efficiency”. But financial feasibility aside, neither achieves the strict midterm targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). ASES shows U.S. emissions about 23% less than 1990 levels in 2030, and the McKinsey best case is 20% in the same year. Compared with the 2020 target of 25-40 percent reduction that the IPCC says industrialized nations must achieve for stabilization at 450ppm CO2e, ASES and McKinsey are too little, too late. (6)

     The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER) Study      
      Perhaps the Renewable Deal’s most important sales pitch is right here:

     “In 2050, the IEER study describes an energy grid which has no fossil fuel inputs, emits zero net carbon into the atmosphere, and does not utilize nuclear power sources. The whole system is costed out, with the cost of energy from it to the consumer calculated in constant dollars and compared to current fossil-fuel and nuclear energy prices. According to IEER’s calculations, the cost per 1,000 Btu of energy from the renewable system in 2050 would be slightly less than the cost of the same energy to the consumer from the existing grid in 2005.” p. 13      Maybe Christie is alerting us to the flaw when he puts quotations around the IEER’s claim of “reasonable cost”. The all-important Table 2 in the IEER study (7), is reproduced at the bottom of page 45 of the Renewable Deal, but what it shows is a one year snapshot of energy costs in the year 2050, totally ignoring all of the efficiency driven investment (and consumption) that must occur between now and then for the IEER scenario to be realized.

     LEED-certified not enough either
      What would that efficiency investment and consumption be? For the residential sector, IEER estimates that a $20,000 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified retrofit of all the new and existing homes in the U.S. between now and 2050 (plus all new appliances every 15 years) would suffice. It’s based on this rather innocent idea:

“For instance, well-insulated homes designed to capture solar heat passively – that is, in their structures – can eliminate most of the space heating requirements under most circumstances prevailing in the United States.” (8)

      However, most of America’s housing stock is built above ground, and structural solar


gain in the global warming summer wouldn’t be a good idea. In fact, good performance could be achieved with the “Earth Ship” concept, in which substantial thermal mass walls and floors are connected to stable temperatures well below ground, summer shaded south facing glazing allows winter solar warmth in the floors, and roofs have R-100 insulation. But that’s a whole new house, not a $20,000 retro-fit.
    The Renewable Deal does not contain any proposals that suggest even in broad terms where and/or how many industrial wind farms will need to be built. All we can do is project from a graph in the much relied on IEER study. (9) By 2050, wind would be producing about 550 billion kwh annually. By my math, that would be about 23,000 square miles with 6 sky-scraping turbines per section. Total cost: $500 billion (today’s cost structure).
    Christie did include one opposing view questioning the rush to industrial wind power:

    “Imagine a 410-foot tower (the size of a 40-story building) with three 100-foot blades rotating at almost 200 mph that sound like a loud washing machine in your front yard. Now imagine 60 of these machines within a few square miles of relatively heavily populated, pristine dairy country in the eastern migratory flyway of the United States. Wind power is not the magic bullet many hope will slay the energy dragon.” p. 71

    Showcasing the capabilities of billion-dollar concentrating solar-thermal power plants (CSP), Christie cites a study by the National Renewable Energy Lab that identified 159,000 square kilometers (61,395 square miles) in the southwestern U.S., as “suitable” for CSP. The NREL study (10) claims to “exclude environmentally sensitive lands”, but one has to wonder how a total land area equal in size to 72% of the state of Utah could be deemed not environmentally sensitive!
     There is one technical point to quibble with here. CSP is touted in the Renewable Deal as having “around the clock” capacity, but another NREL document (11) shows that molten-salt heat storage provides only 6 additional hours of output, giving the plants a total capacity factor of only 40%.
    Besides the amount of land area disturbed, CSP poses another major problem for environmentalism and sustainability. The Renewable Deal contains an entire plank on ecological economics, so it’s a wonder it’s not mentioned here. Because capitalism does not include the ecological term in its financial equation, most corporations right now are proposing to build CSP installations as steam-evaporating power plants in the desert. Enough said.

     Missing the moral point

    “[Lester R.] Brown talks about the need to shift to plug-in hybrid cars as the mainstay of the U.S. transportation fleet. ‘If this shift were accompanied by investment in hundreds of wind farms that could feed cheap electricity into the grid, then cars could run largely on electricity for the equivalent cost of less than $1 per gallon gasoline.’” p.101

    Brown, director of the Earth Policy Institute, a progressive think tank, has made his choice. The American lifestyle of personal travel by automobile outweighs the environmental impact from thousands of square miles of corporate-owned industrial wind turbines on our sage prairies. But how does the environmentalist justify it, knowing that the “industrial growth culture” is the very source of the problem? How does the conservationist in search of local solutions, knowing that our political system is broken and that economic collapse is imminent, forget himself by tempting the old order with dreams of scaling up so-called “renewable” energy? Instead let’s thank goodness for more straightforward words like those from biologist Erik Molvar who said, concerning the potential inclusion of the sage grouse on the endangered species list, “[it] could turn out to be the bird that saved the American West from our greed.”

    Now it’s every progressive for himself
    The work spanning several years, Lance Christie’s Renewable Deal was put together primarily from material published before last year’s global financial crisis. Those studies used economic assumptions from a different time and a different world. It turns out that the biggest obstacle to realization of the Renewable Deal is more likely financial, rather than technical. Many of us are relieved, who acknowledge that the days are numbered for the American way of life, while sobered as to what that means.
    Contrary to the Renewable Deal’s message, there’s reason to believe that the coming transition will not be pretty. Huge, industrial renewable energy plants would be a disaster for our landscapes and environment. On the other hand, the fall of centralized energy generation would break up a big cultural logjam and spur the development of large and small localized energy coops in its place. But that would probably leave tens of millions of the less fortunate without reliable and affordable power, and it’s not likely they’d be able to afford a smaller version of industrial renewable energy either. Sadly, our current system, against the advice of many, overleveraged its human population on cheap energy and now there’s just no good way to get from here to the future.

Doug Meyer lives in Flagstaff, Arizona