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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

State Renewables

Air Date: Week of


TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In its proposed federal budget, the Bush administration dealt a blow to renewable energy by slashing funds for research. But some states have programs already in progress that pick up some of the slack. For instance, in New York, Governor George Pataki just announced that by the year 2010, one fifth of the energy used in state buildings must come from renewable sources such as solar and wind.

Daniel Kammen is director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. We asked him to describe what other states are doing, as well as the significance of the New York announcement.

KAMMEN: That's actually very significant. It's got a couple key aspects to it. One is that it sets a target that's enough years off that you can work towards it. So you can make souarteinancial choices to put those renewable sources-- solar, wind, and fuel cells-- on line in time. It also starts with some of the biggest sectors: the federal buildings, the state buildings are a big source of energy use. Targeting them first will send a key signal to business that this is a good sector to invest in and a good market to be involved in in the future.

TOOMEY: How does the New York state program compare with what's going on in other states at this point?

KAMMEN: In Texas they have a much lower standard, four percent, which sounds quite uninteresting to most people, because it's really a very low standard, except that it is a little broader across the board: both the state buildings and also on the residential and business side. Well, we're seeing other efforts, though, that really put this in context. The New York 20 percent one is a very impressive level. Connecticut, however, has just said that they want to be known as the fuel cell state. So they're investing in a whole range of resources. Fuel cells are devices that run like batteries in reverse. You need a fuel like hydrogen, and you can make electricity. But the only output is electricity and hot water. Connecticut right now plans to invest in a number of faculty positions at their state universities as well as Yale University, and they also plan to aggressively draw fuel cell companies into the state so that there will be production there, there will be a big industry base, and so they'll get both the industry benefits and they'll also get the benefits by having fuel cells as an available source of power.

TOOMEY: California is in the middle of a severe energy crisis, and it would seem to make sense that that state would promote renewable energy. Is that what is being done in California?

KAMMEN: Well, California's a mixed bag. California has the longest history in the United States of promoting renewables. There's been strong programs to, for example, have a buy down program for photovoltaics. So that if you buy and install a photovoltaic system on the roof for your home or on your business, you can get around 30 to 40 percent of the cost of that back. That's a program that has recently been refunded with some more money, based on the charge on use of power we have in the state. But we've also got areas where we've really fallen down, and so it really is a mixed piece. One area where we've fallen down is a number of companies that installed quite large wind arrays in California aren't making a penny. In fact, their windmills are spinning without generating power, because the utilities refuse to build power lines to connect them. That's a very bad mixed message: build the gizmos, don't get them connected up to the system. California has also not fully set out any kind of a clear policy so that companies can say, "Ah, the California market is setting a standard." For example, ten percent renewables now, 12 percent later on. And that's the kind of standard that companies really need to see to move into an area.

TOOMEY: Why has New York gone so far, at this point? Governor Pataki is a Republican, and this seems to be going against the grain of the Bush administration's agenda right now.

KAMMEN: Well, New York is already bracing for price spikes like California sees this summer, and blackouts. And so I don't think it's particularly a green statement that Governor Pataki's making. It's one that's based on the realities of a power supply that's constrained and some, like California , some bad market choices in terms of how they're managing the system, so that they need to achieve those levels of reduction.

TOOMEY: So does it go too far if one says that renewable energy is a bipartisan issue at a state level?

KAMMEN: Well, it should be, because renewable energy isn't like taking all the money away from rich industry types and giving it all to organic soy farmers in northern California. It's a way to diversify the energy mix. And the real tragedy that we're seeing in the current California and now spurring the federal energy crisis is that the way everyone seems to try to get out of it is by tightening their belts for the summer, getting through it, and then building more gas plants next year. Now Bush and Cheney have a plan that basically calls for a new gas fired power plant to be built every week for the next three or four years. That's absurd. That makes the United States more dependent on a single fuel than at any time in the past, even more than during the OPEC oil crisis in the '70s. Getting renewables into the mixture is a good business decision for both the green and the fossil fuel types of energy players.

TOOMEY: Daniel Kammen directs the Renewables and Appropriate Energy Lab at the University of California at Berkeley. Thanks for speaking with us today.

KAMMEN: Thank you.

(Music up and under)



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