WASHINGTON — Forget the arguments over whether global warming is real. Many American businesses and researchers are well past all that and are scrambling to find ways to make money in a world that must slash its use of fossil fuels.
Energy entrepreneurs have sparked an energy revolution that's just starting in the United States but already producing new ideas, more jobs and growing exports.
"You have a cavalcade of human intellect springing forth just when we need it," said Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., a co-author of "Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy."
"The ice is melting in the North Pole but the ice also is melting to resistance to progress here in this country," he said. "It's a race to figure out who will win, and I'm betting on our grandkids."
But for renewable energy to really take off, the federal government will have to end subsidies for fossil fuels, put a limit on greenhouse gas emissions and charge for putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, he said.
Congress is considering whether to create a regulatory system for greenhouse gases, and the Senate is expected to take a second look at extending tax credits to encourage renewable energy, a measure that the House of Representatives already has passed.
But while Washington debates, states and businesses are going to work.
Half of the states have passed measures to encourage the use of renewable energy, spurring power companies to seek new sources of electricity. States in the Northeast, Midwest and West have started to form regional carbon-trading systems to limit emissions. Universities and colleges offer science, engineering and management programs to address global warming. Investors are funding new companies with fresh approaches to produce new sources of energy.
"Every forecast you hear about solar, wind and clean technology going forward, they're all wrong — by half. They're too small," said Joseph Stanislaw, a former economist at the International Energy Agency, which advises on climate change and other world energy policies, and a co-author of "Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy." He spoke at an international renewable-energy conference and trade show in Washington this week attended by some 6,000 people from more than 100 countries.
A new report by the Renewable Energy Network for the 21st Century, a policy group that promotes the expansion of renewable energy worldwide, found that renewable electricity-generation capacity reached an estimated 240 gigawatts worldwide last year, an increase of 50 percent over 2004.
Mohamed El-Ashry, the chairman of the network, said in a statement that so much has happened in renewable energy in the last five years "that the perceptions of some politicians and energy-sector analysts lag far behind the reality of where the renewables industry is today."
U.S. companies are investing in solar and wind power as well as in geothermal energy, better biofuels and the technology to harness the energy of tides, currents and waves.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission got its first applications for wave and ocean-current energy preliminary permits a few years ago, and in December it granted the first license for a wave power project, in the Pacific Ocean off Washington state's Olympic Peninsula.
The United States should be leading the world's drive for renewable energy, Inslee said. "Our skill set is innovation. That's what Americans do."
General Electric exports $15 billion worth of products each year, almost all in clean energy, its chairman, Jeffrey Immelt, told the nation's governors at their recent winter meeting in Washington.
Immelt said that China and India eventually would have to clean up, and he wants to be the one selling products to help them do it.
"Our focus on the environment was never a soft feel-good initiative," Immelt said. "It was all about business and making money. And we're blowing away all the numbers. . . . We are creating jobs. We are actually saving money by reducing our own carbon footprint."
Detroit automakers are trying to find a way to run cars on fuels that will be cheaper and cleaner than gasoline. They say they're getting close to a plug-in electric car that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions once clean electric-power sources are in place.
The nonpartisan American Council On Renewable Energy reports that there are more than 42,000 megawatts of renewable energy power-generation projects under development in 45 states, the equivalent of 75 large power plants.
In North Carolina, for example, Duke Energy is seeking bids for wind, solar and other forms of no-emission or low-emission energy to meet the state's requirement that renewables produce 12.5 percent of the energy that it supplies by 2021.
"I think all utility companies are moving, even the ones we may have listed as laggards," said Andrew Brengle, a senior research analyst who covers utilities for KLD Research & Analytics Inc. "Renewable energy is one way to respond, and a lot of them are looking into it. Some are much farther along than others."
Consumers have a say in how much renewable energy gets developed.
More than 600 utilities nationwide offer voluntary programs that let consumers support electricity production from solar and wind by paying slightly more for it. More than 500,000 customers participate. The utilities with the highest participation rates are the City of Palo Alto, Calif., followed by Lenox and Montezuma in Iowa, Portland General Electric in Oregon and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District in California.
Utilities or public agencies in many states also promote efficiency.
A report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, said that more efficient appliances, industrial equipment and buildings could be among the fastest and cheapest ways to reduce greenhouse gases.
A recent energy report for the nation's governors cited a study by the nonprofit advocacy group the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that said the United States could cut electricity use by 1.2 percent per year through conservation and efficiency, perhaps enough to eliminate 80 percent of future electricity demand.
Camille Parmesan, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said it was still possible to keep average global temperatures from rising to dangerous levels.
"But it will take strong action across the globe, both at the government level with strong carbon regulation and at the level of individual behavior — turning off lights, keeping air conditioning and heat to minimum levels, etc.," she said in an e-mail.
Some energy analysts argue that in order to move quickly on climate change and cut emissions dramatically, the United States will have to increase its use of nuclear power and find ways to capture and store carbon from coal.
ON THE WEB
Tips on reducing your carbon footprint and saving money and energy:
Status report on renewable energy worldwide: http://www.ren21.net/globalstatusreport/default.asp
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