US could have 20% of energy generated by renewables by 2020

The US could viably meet at least 20% of its energy needs through renewable energy generation by 2020, saving consumers a total of $440 billion, according to an investigation of the costs and benefits of using clean energy by a group of research and energy organisations.

A new report, Clean Energy Blueprint, by the Union of Concerned Scientists, in conjunction with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy and the research organisation, the Tellus Institute, has revealed that renewable energy could solve a variety of the US’s energy problems. The report includes a suite of energy policy suggestions, and states that, not only can renewable energy meet 20% of the nation’s energy needs in less than 20 years, but by the end of this period, consumers could be being saved $105 billion per year, or $350 per year for a typical family.

This high level of renewable generation would be achieved through a ‘renewable portfolio standard’, which would require utilities to increase non-hydropower renewable energy from today’s level of around 2% to 20% by 2020.

“Renewable portfolio standards have been a tremendous success in several states, including in President Bush’s home state of Texas,” said Nogee. “If there truly is commitment to creating energy security in the U.S., enacting federal renewable standards will reduce the vulnerability of our energy system to disruption. It is the smart, affordable and effective option.”

Following the Clean Energy Blueprint scenario, the country’s use of high-priced natural gas could be cut by 31% and coal by nearly 60% compared to a ‘business as usual’ energy programme, saving more oil in 18 years than can be economically recovered from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in 60 years. The clean energy plan could also avoid the need for 975 new 300 MW power plants, retire 14 existing 1000 MW nuclear plants, and reduce the need for hundreds of thousands of miles of new gas pipelines and electricity transmission lines.

Under a business as usual scenario, by 2020, natural gas use would increase from 16% to 36%, with a predicted 20% price rise, coal would increase by 21%, whilst non-hydro power renewable electricity would increase from 2% to only 2.4%, says the report.

By following the Union of Concerned Scientists’ policy recommendations, there would also be a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by two-thirds by 2020 in the US, with a cut in emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides by 55%, says the report, which would help restore international good will and credibility.

“This report shows that there are alternative solutions to the erratic prices and supply of commodities like natural gas,” said report author Alan Nogee, Director of the Clean Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Adopting a renewable energy standard would diversify electricity generation, as well as reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. It’s time for Congress to follow 12 states and adopt this standard.”

The report also calls for improved energy efficiency standards, with a national minimum standard for a dozen products; enhanced building codes; tax incentives for efficiency improvements for buildings and equipment beyond minimum standards; and measures to encourage industry to increase energy efficiency by 1-2% per year.

“Energy-efficiency is a key foundation for achieving increased energy independence and savings for consumers and for increasing the energy independence of the U.S.,” said Steven Nadel, Executive Director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Other energy policy recommendations include:

  • a public benefits fund financed by a 0.2 cent per kilowatt-hour (kWh) charge on electricity, equivalent to around $1 per month for a typical household;
  • tax credits of 1.7 cents per kWh for renewable energy which would cover all clean non-hydro renewable sources;
  • net metering to pay for surplus electricity fed back onto the grid from consumers who generate their own electricity;
  • incentives to encourage combined heat and power generation, and the removal of regulatory barriers.

Finally, the report also calls for higher spending on renewable energy research and development, with a 60% increase over three years to levels recommended by the President’s committee of advisors on science and technology in 1997.

This recommendation was reflected in comments by an analyst from the University of California-Berkeley this week that the state of research funding into energy as a whole is particularly low in the US at the moment, USA Today has reported. According to the newspaper, public and private spending on all energy peaked at more than $12 billion in 1980, but has since fallen to less than $4 billion, with only 0.4% of net energy sales being spent on research – excluding oil field exploration.

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