POWER POLITICS: Growth in renewable energy outpaces nuclear, fossil fuels

Offshore_wind.jpgIn some hopeful news for sustainable energy advocates, the latest production numbers from the federal government are out -- and they show that the growth rate of renewable sources continues to outpace nuclear and fossil fuels.

The data come as Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are expected to introduce legislation today designed to curb man-made climate change, with hearings on their bill  -- a counterpart to the one that narrowly passed the House in June -- expected to begin early next month.

While the politics of the climate bill are likely to be even more contentious than health reform, some note with optimism that a shift toward renewables is already underway.

"As Congress debates energy funding priorities and climate legislation, it would do well to take note of the clear trends in the nation's changing energy mix," says Ken Bossong, executive director of the SUN DAY Campaign, a Maryland-based nonprofit research organization that promotes sustainable energy technologies. "Renewable energy has become a major player -- growing rapidly and nipping at the heels of nuclear power -- while fossil fuel use continues to drop."

According to the latest issue of the Monthly Energy Review published by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, renewable energy sources -- biofuels, biomass, geothermal, hydroelectric, solar and wind -- provided 11.37% of domestic U.S. energy production in June 2009, the most recent month for which data is available. That represents a gain since the first half of 2007, when renewable sources accounted for 9.89% of domestic energy production, and from the same period last year, when they represented 10.2% of production.

At the same time, EIA's latest Electric Power Monthly reports that renewable energy sources provided 11.18% of net U.S. electrical generation for the first six months of 2009 -- a significant gain over renewables' 9.9% share for the first half of 2008.

Renewable energy sources grew by 4.62% during the first half of this year compared to the same period last year. Most of that growth came from wind and hydropower, which expanded by 24.54% and 7.14% respectively in the first half of 2009 compared to the first half of 2008.

In comparison, nuclear power increased by only 1.38%, while domestic fossil fuel production actually dropped by 0.7%. Meanwhile, overall consumption of fossil fuels -- including imports -- declined 7.67%.

The numbers for renewable energy are likely to grow even more in the coming months as planned projects get underway.

Those include a new North Carolina effort to develop offshore wind power. Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy and UNC-Chapel Hill are finalizing a contract that would have the company build one to three wind towers in Pamlico Sound while UNC researchers would study environmental impacts, maintenance and other related issues.

At the same time, though, Duke Energy is still investing heavily in new generation from polluting sources, constructing a new $2.4 billion coal-fired power plant at its Cliffside facility in western North Carolina. The Cliffside plant is expected to release to the air annually 6 million tons of carbon dioxide as well as large quantities of chemicals toxic to human health.

Meanwhile, the rate hike the company requested to help pay for the plant has met opposition at public hearings across the state this month, with one local newspaper describing the scene at this week's public hearing in Macon County, N.C. as "a seeming never-ending procession of citizens stating their considered opposition" to the increase, which is also opposed by a grassroots coalition of 25 environmental and public-health advocacy groups.