I was just out of college when the OPEC oil embargo was thrust upon the U.S. in 1973. We were in the throes of a true energy crisis and forced to evaluate our options. President Carter started the country down what was called the “soft path” of developing our renewable energy resources, as opposed to what was referred to as the “hard path” of more aggressive use of fossil fuels. We had barely begun our journey when the embargo was lifted and the new president, Ronald Reagan, removed the solar panels installed on the White House by Carter.
A study of our “soft path” vs. “hard path” options, commissioned by Carter, by the Solar Energy Research Institute was published by Brick House under the title of “A New Prosperity.” Some of the best minds in the country, including people from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Carnegie Mellon Institute, Princeton University, and others, collaborated to produce the study. The conclusions were based on our renewable technologies that existed at the time, with assumptions regarding potential improvements that, for the most part, have come to pass. So, what were some of the conclusions reached by this study published in 1981?
With regard to oil, “... the United States could achieve independence from imported oil by the year 2000 by promoting energy efficiencies and renewables alone, and do so far quicker, cheaper and cleaner than any other means of oil displacement.” And what is today's reality? We have gone from importing 30 percent of our oil to 60 percent. Instead of investing in transportation efficiency, we invested some $50 billion dollars a year in protecting the Persian Gulf. (That is, up until 2003, at which time we raised the stakes.)
The study concluded that the demand for electricity in the following two decades (the 1980s and '90s) could actually decrease if programs designed to encourage cost-effective energy efficiency and the use of solar equipment proved to be successful.
The longest journey begins with the first step. While the numbers have changed, the conclusions remain the same. If anything, the reasons for developing renewable energy resources and improving efficiencies both in energy and transportation have become much more pressing.
Now we witness the approval of another coal-fired power plant in Arkansas. The supporters point out the need for more capacity and note the economic benefits. They speak of elusive clean technology, the so-called “new coal” and of carbon sequestration and other breakthroughs that will prove the decision to build a new plant to be the right move. They conveniently leave out the costs of negative health and agricultural impacts, adding more carbon to the air and increased corrosion.
Imagine if SWEPCO invested the costs of a new plant into increasing the efficiency of homes and businesses instead. There would be far more than 110 jobs created for the region. Jobs adding insulation to attics, sealing leaky duct work, replacing inefficient heating and cooling equipment and numerous other strategies would keep unemployment low for decades. At the same time the demand for electricity would slowly be reduced. Additional jobs installing clean renewable energy technologies such as solar water heating, solar electric, wind energy and biomass would begin to decrease the demand from fossil fuel sources to levels below today's requirements.
The prospect of most of our energy coming from renewables is not an unattainable goal. It is, however, a goal we will not attain if we do not choose to do so. I and others are choosing and there are several solar homes in Arkansas that produce most of the energy they need. A new solar subdivision in Little Rock is set to begin building more homes that will do the same. Maybe it is too late to meet the immediate need for SWEPCO's coal plant with renewable energy. If the plant is permitted, we should view it as a failure to meet our needs with the cheapest, cleanest energy alternatives that are ready now. One thing that history has taught me, if you keep making the same choices, the results will never change.
William Ball is chairman of the Arkansas Renewable Energy Association and owner of Stellar Sun, a renewable energy company in Little Rock. He was the author of the Arkansas Renewable Energy Development Act of 2001, which created net-metering in Arkansas. Net-metering allows an owner of a renewable energy system to put excess energy back into the utility grid for credit.