Can Alternative Energy Save the Economy and the Climate?

BRIGHTON, Colo. – The low-carbon economy has already arrived on the windy prairie north of this fast-growing Denver ‘burb. It’s here that Danish wind-turbine giant Vestas converted 298 acres of hayfield into the West’s largest turbine factory – and turned Brighton into a magnet for “green” energy companies.

It’s part of a $1 billion investment by the company in the United States, what Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter touts as a “new energy economy.”

“We have a caseload of 56 prospects. Of those, a majority are energy-related industries,” said Raymond Gonzales, president of the Brighton Economic Development Corporation. “People are looking. They’re not slowing down. And they’re aggressively looking at the United States.”

Some say these efforts – not the upcoming Copenhagen climate treaty talks – provide the most promising route to energy independence, climate change mitigation and job creation.

Regardless of whether delegates emerge next month with a comprehensive replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, industry’s full-throttle acceleration toward a low-carbon future will continue, they say.

Vestas isn’t the only company spending millions of its capital. Several utilities are investing some $1 billion on an industrial-scale carbon capture and storage tests at coal plants in Wisconsin, West Virginia and Oklahoma. The race to perfect the batteries that will power the next generation of automobiles and buses has manufacturers in Europe, the United States and China scurrying to build plants and research centers.

“The vast majority of the utility industry (has) pretty much accepted the reality that CO2 is something they have to cope with,” said Revis James, director of the energy technology assessment center for the Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI, a California-based nonprofit that helps drive long-range development and is coordinating carbon capture experiments at coal plants in the Midwest and Southeast.

Failure in Copenhagen won’t “substantially stop what’s going to happen,” James added. “The utilities have to deal with (carbon emissions). They have to respond one way or another.”

Many business leaders and policy analysts counter the status quo – a piecemeal, federated approach to carbon and energy emissions – doesn’t carry enough of a signal to produce the revolution required of our economic and energy sectors.

Private-sector investments and regional and local government efforts to boost “green” technology are good, they say. But that’s just the down payment: The transformative change necessary to avoid the worst warming won’t come until the international community firmly sets a global standard in place.

“What you want is something sustainable, predictable and long-term,” said Roby Roberts, spokesman for Vestas Americas. “That’s what you want out of the climate rules, but that’s going to be a few years away.”

Article Continued at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=copenhagen-consequences-investments-low-carbon

Scientific American, November 13, 2009.

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