It's time to explore alternative energy sources
Susan Parker, Guest Columnist
During the next 10 years, Americans will face tremendous challenges in meeting our energy needs. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates the need for energy will increase 40 percent by the year 2030. Most Congressional observers agree Congress will pass legislation within two years mandating 10-15 percent of all energy produced by 2020 be from renewable sources such as wind or solar power.
Experts agree increasing demand coupled with the addition of renewable mandates will cause utility prices to rise at an unprecedented rate. USA Today recently reported electric rates for Baltimore, Maryland area customers increased 65 percent during the last two years, and there have been similar surges in Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.
How does Alabama stand in this scenario? We certainly will not face the tremendous increases encountered in the Northeast. However, any increase is a concern to all consumers, but places an especially difficult burden on the poor. When the electric bill goes up by 5 percent it may not mean so much to those of us paying 2-3 percent of our overall income for utilities. But for someone like my mother-in-law, who for many years lived on Social Security, paying 35-40 percent of her total income for utilities was difficult.
When you look at the supply and demand for energy in Alabama, we are one of the few states producing more than enough energy to meet our current demand. Our demand is increasing but is not expected to outstrip our ability to supply energy in the near future. In regard to state mandates for renewables, we have none. Therefore, there is little incentive to aggressively seek those sources of energy at the present time.
In addition to facing ever increasing demand for growth and federal renewable mandates, new environmental standards are going to call for some of the current generation facilities to be revamped, costing billions of dollars without increasing production by one kilowatt.
Nuclear power seems to be an option to help meet these looming challenges, but the environmental concerns with the spent waste storage present a concern for many. Also, it takes at least 7-10 years for a new facility to come on line and costs billions of dollars.
During the past nine months, as a member of the Public Service Commission, I have visited various kinds of electric generation facilities throughout the state. Thus far, these have included; a renewable facility where switchgrass is combined with coal at the Gadsden Steam Plant, Brown's Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Smith Lake Dam in Cullman, and Gorgas Steam Plant near Jasper where a "scrubber" is currently under construction. When completed next year at a cost of $262M, the "scrubber" will remove sulfur dioxide from the plant emissions. I have also learned a great deal about the national energy issues by attending seminars and workshops throughout the country.
As a result of these months of explorations and meetings with hundreds of leaders throughout the state and nation, I have a few ideas to offer about what our state can do to help meet the looming challenges in the energy arena.
First, we can slow down the need for more energy by becoming more energy efficient. Little things can make a difference. Using compact fluorescent light bulbs decreases the cost of lighting a lamp by 75 percent. A more energy efficient home, whether new or refurbished, not only requires less energy, but also saves the homeowner money as well. Purchasing new appliances such as heating/air conditioning systems and water heaters helps because they use 10-50 percent less energy than older models.
Big differences in efficiency can also come from changes by heavy users like manufacturing and retail. In addition, utility producers can save by providing ways to manage peak usage and making their generation facilities more efficient.
The next step will be to find new sources of generation. As I stated earlier, renewable energy mandates will be coming from Congress in the near future. Whether we use switch grass, garbage, wood chips, black liquor (a promising by-product of the paper industry), wind or solar power is yet to be seen. It is likely we will have a combination of some of these renewable sources. Wind power, for example, is not as viable an option in Alabama as it is in the western states. We will also need to consider whether we can best meet the need for new generation with clean burning coal options, nuclear expansions or natural gas.
The most immediate thing we can all do is to speak out. We need the media, utility companies, business leaders, consumer advocates, those representing the poor, as well as all aspects of government to speak out about these serious issues.
This does not mean we are shouting the "sky is falling" but that we are helping to inform, encourage and educate Alabamians about what we can be doing now to best prepare ourselves for future challenges ahead. I will be launching a Consumer Education Initiative soon which will provide detailed information for consumers on energy efficiency and conservation.
Alabamians have met and overcome many obstacles in the past and we can do it again.
But it will require all our ingenuity and creativity to think outside the box. It will mean we must put aside our political agendas and partisan differences. And it will also mean we must not delay in making the small changes in each of our daily lives so we can meet our future energy needs.
Susan D. Parker, Ph.D., is a Morgan County native and a member of the Alabama Public Service Commission.