This essay was first published in August, 2011, soon after a reunion of my German student colleagues dating from the early seventies in Kiel, Germany.
I began a discussion on the subject of alternative energy production with my visiting European energy expert, my longtime friend, Per. (Per is Norwegian, but has lived in Kiel, Germany, for several decades.) Per is an expert in many aspects of alternative energy generation. He holds the European patent for a Biomass Generator, that could greatly increase the storage and recycling energy currently squandered in disposing of tons of urban biomass waste. So it was with heightened interest that I read about America’s first national geothermal energy conference, which took place in Reno the week after my German reunion of the KOF (Kieler Old Farts).
Reading several newspaper reports on the conference, I learned that Nevada currently has twenty-one geothermal projects in various stages of development, more than any other state, which was why the conference was staged in Reno. I read that those operational geothermal plants produce more power than Nevada’s total solar and wind generators combined. (Biomass energy generation, Per’s specialty, is never mentioned.) When I related this statistic to Per, his comment was that this could only be true because solar and wind power generation is so undeveloped by comparison with Europe. In other words, Per thinks that the overall potential for geothermal power is less than for solar and wind energy. Iceland is the only country to fully exploit its geothermal resources. Having visited Iceland, I know that the island is filled with hot springs and active volcanoes, resulting in abundant geothermal energy resources.
Interesting facts were discussed at the conference relating to geothermal power, as well as solar and wind power developments. Nevada is a very active geothermal area, second only to California. Active geothermal areas are related to the numerous earthquake faults running through California and Nevada. California is famous for its earthquakes. In fact, Nevada suffered a major earthquake in the 1930’s. However, at that time the state was very sparsely populated, so the human toll was relatively low.
Reno has hot springs and steam coming out of the ground on the south end of town. This source of energy was ignored year after year by potential American developers. It took an Israeli company, Ormat Technologies, to capitalize on this “free” energy. Ormat has developed alternative energy plants around the world.
Most geothermal development areas are located in isolated locations around the Western part of the USA. Therefore, besides the cost of developing an on-site power plant, power transmission lines must be built. This begs the question: where should the transmission lines lead? The answer: To whoever commits in advance to buying the energy to be harnessed. The major energy buyers are the large cities, primarily Las Vegas in Nevada, and Los Angeles, San Francisco, etc. in California. Las Vegas gets most of its energy from the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, built during the 1930’s, creating the Lake Mead reservoir from which Las Vegas gets its drinking water in addition to its electricity.
Las Vegas will not invest in alternative energy as long as the Colorado River continues to power the Hoover Dam. Moreover, California is not ready to purchase energy generated in Nevada, much less pay for the transmission lines. That’s because California has a state policy dedicated to encouraging energy development (and its accompanying new jobs) within the state of California, rather than to pay money to Nevada or another neighboring state. This is a reflection of the fact that there is no coordinated energy policy on a national level, resulting in fragmented and delayed development. Thus, while Nevada has much empty land well-suited to solar, wind, and geothermal energy development, the inability of national leaders to formulate a coherent national energy policy is hindering alternative energy development in Nevada.
Nevada was one of the last frontier territories to become a state within the USA. With a relatively small population and much uninhabited desert land, Nevada has more land owned by the federal government than any other state. Approximately a decade ago, the federal government sold development rights on large tracts of federally-owned land for future alternative energy sites. Large corporations were able to outbid smaller developers, who might have been more likely to actually invest in developing the sites. The corporations’ strategy was to buy development rights for eventual resale (and greater profits) at a later date. Consequently, there has been no development at all of the large corporate land holdings. They looked at alternative energy development rights more as a potential real estate deal, rather than intending to actually invest in energy development.
Energy policy on the national level, to the extent it exists at all, is centered almost exclusively on the major oil companies. Drill baby drill. Exxon, Chevron, Arco, etc. are the largest and most profitable companies in the world. Through their political influence, based on generous political contributions, receive tax rebates and incentives (for more drilling/oil exploration) while paying almost no taxes at all. If the alternative energy industry were to receive one one-hundredth of the financial subsidies that the oil companies have received over the years, those subsidies would probably be more than the combined sum of all private investments to date in alternative energy. [The previous sentence is rhetorical venting on my part…I don’t have specific statistics to validate my assertion.]
Good news: the cost of PV (photo-voltaic) solar power cells is down seventy percent due to increased Chinese manufacturing. The bad news: America will be forced to buy our PV cells from China, due to the lack of a national energy policy which would create the economic climate favorable to American manufacturing. Per has said for years that alternative energy development is impossible without government support. Weaning America from its dependency on imported oil is too big a challenge to exclude the national government from any role. That’s why Per is not eager to attempt to export his business ideas and capital to the US. Our politicians just don’t get it. They prefer to keep on subsidizing the oil companies which forces America to buy a major part of its oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Venezuela, Canada, etc.
To harness the “free” and abundant solar, wind, and geothermal energy potential of Nevada, California, and the rest of the country, the American public’s awareness must increase. There are many people in Nevada who object to the “disturbing view” that windmills placed on mountain ridges would create. This is the notorious NIMBY mindset—Not In My Back Yard. Besides subsidizing big oil companies, America’s de facto energy policy is to engage our military forces in the Middle East, for example, to prop up the repressive regime of Saudi Arabia, to whom America pays billions of dollars every year. The general public has not made the connection between US policies and the fact that the majority of 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. Osama Bin Laden’s wealth came from his family ties in Saudi Arabia. If the cost of supporting our bloated military were to be amortized as part of our national energy (=oil/gas) expenditures, then alternative energy generation would clearly be a bargain by comparison.
The current course of America’s politics and national policy trends is not a source of optimism. Most trends are negative in terms of leading to a declining quality of life and economic standing compared with the rest of the world. Positive change will either come from visionary leaders (who/where are they?) or be driven by the general public when they (hopefully) wake up from the current national complacence that hinders conservation and the development of alternative energy sources that might eventually liberate us from our addiction to Middle-East oil.