Current Renewable Energy Trends: Looking At Clean Power From A Different Lens

Posted on May 21st, 2012 by

Don Soifer, of the Lexington Institute, shares renewable Energy Trends that his organization has recently discovered.

Full Transcript:

Ben Lack Can you tell us a little bit about what the Lexington Institute does?
Don Soifer Sure thanks. We’re a public policy think tank and we’ve been doing this for about 13 years.  Lexington is broadly involved in education, defense, trade, energy and a range of other issues. We named Lexington based on the battle of Lexington and Concord, and issues of importance to the future of American democracy. So we’ve been doing energy work for about 3 or 4 years. We started this energy trends project in 2010 and this is a first for us, the introduction of this new letter grading system for renewable energy. It’s a brand new project that we just started this month.
Ben Lack Walk us through the letter grading process.
Don Soifer When we originally started Energy Trends, it was important to us that we present energy and particularly energy consumption in a way that would let people compare their own state to other states and also against past trends, with a focus on trends and trajectories. We’ve always been pretty careful with this particular project to not get into the value judgements or advocacies. Certainly Lexington has been involved in promoting renewable energy, supporting solar and smart grid. We wanted to make sure with this project that we just presented this information in a way that can let people draw on their own conclusion.We’ll never say for instance that coal is bad and solar is good. But, we try to present the information so that it can be comparable. So, we use BTUs so people don’t have to compare a ton of coal against a comparable amount of other fuels, it’s easier to compare that way. We’ve also made a decision that it was important to do this on a per capita basis.  Everybody here on the East Coast reads an awful lot about for instance in California and Colorado are doing with renewable energy. When you put in a per capita basis, it presents a different story.With those approaches in mind, we decided to get into the renewable energy area. As we spent some time with the indexes and some of the excellent research that’s already out there, we felt that the areas that have the greatest need for us to get into, where we can have the most value added, was to put together a scoring system where we gave letter grades for renewable energy friendliness, weighing various factors. And also that we did it in a way that was consistent with what we’ve done before, in per capita basis, and make it comparable as possible.It was important to us that we do it on a growth scale, on a growth measure. So it’s not just the amount of the energy that’s being generated now but we also gave states credits for the amount of renewable energy generated, the trajectory and the amount that is being produced in the most recent year available, in this case is 2010 and over a three year period prior to that.
Ben Lack Colorado, California and New Jersey consistently get recognized for renewable energy production, I’m curious to know what your findings show when you looked through the lens of a per capita basis.
Don Soifer Well it was very interesting. If you looked at the indicators, and we’ve done our best through an renewable energy tab on the side that gives the breakdown of some of the important categories. Everybody naturally thinks that California is the top with regards to renewable energy generation. But when you break it down on a per capita basis, California ranged 18th in the country and then Washington and Montana are on the top.Relying on per capita basis data does require certain assumptions and it does talk information in a certain way. When we look at energy consumption on a per capita basis, we really can understand the importance of population density. We were surprised at that time that New Yorkers use the lowest amount of energy; consumed the lowest amount of energy in a per capita basis, which is not what you expect. I think everybody expects that because California is such a populous state it wouldn’t,  be as a clear cut for being at the top of the heap on renewable. But it was a significant to drop to 18th.I think, in some of the categories the increments are very slight. For instance, it was important to us that we include incremental electrical savings. By doing it as a percent of electricity sales it gets us to something more comparable to per capita . But, when you do it that way for instance, the highest amount of savings was by Vermont which had 1.64 percent of savings as a percent of electricity sales state wide. That’s already a pretty small number and it scales all the way down to 6 to 7 states rounding out to zero. So by doing it this way the increments are slighter and the distinctions are more in shades of gray than in other categories. But again that was the decision that we made and we wanted to keep it consistent.
Ben Lack How do you define, when you’re doing your research what renewable energy generation is?
Don Soifer That’s definitely an excellent question and the one that caused some anomalies as we went on. Obviously everybody thinks about wind and solar when you talk about renewable energy. But hydroelectric is definitely the predominant renewable energy of choice in the United States right now based on current energy patterns. But we also included areas that you might not think of.I was talking to a reporter from Alabama yesterday and Alabama got an F. But, you noticed that the Southeastern United States really do score the lowest, by far the 6tlowest scoring states for renewable energy are all southern states.  But Alabama is  significantly higher than the others, and we sort of got into various reasons, and a major one turned out to be that one of the world’s largest bio-fuel plants happens to be located in Alabama, that produces wood pellets and most of those wood pellets are ultimately exported outside of the United States to Europe. So, our index counted that as renewable energy source because it is, it’s not a fossil fuel. That caused Alabama to score significantly better than its south east neighbors. I think that was one of the interesting things that this sort of analysis turned up.
Ben Lack The southeast has always been known for having some of the lowest electricity prices country. Does the research or the discussion of the findings ever take that into play, because there’s a lot of research that’s currently out there that shows that there’s a correlation between energy price and the amount of renewable energy generated in specific state or location?
Don Soifer You’re right on that really interesting dynamic in a number of different ways. The South Eastern United States has been recognized as the area with some of the greatest potential for electricity savings and a lot of that is ultimately climate driven. If you run your air conditioner less or according to different patterns, you have a potential for a great amount of savings. But one of the important things for Energy Trends was the people generally understand that saving energy is a good thing and that there are basic ways that anybody can save energy.At the end of the day, we recognize the average American electric bill is just about hundred dollars a month, and the most aggressive energy saving practices that you can be expected to take are going to yield less than 15 % probably significantly less in terms of savings.,  Then if we’re looking at the sort of education that could ultimately change consumer behavior patterns that the incentive to do so is going to be less in places where electricity is particularly inexpensive, like in some of southeastern United States. Also just in general the awareness of this is going to demonstrate for the average American household what they can do and what practices they can take to save money, it might very well put electricity savings lower on the list. Because it’s not just that big financial hit that average American family is taking to their monthly check book.  In lots of ways I think that comes into play.
Ben Lack Now that the research has been released what kind of new research can we see Lexington Institute produce in the upcoming months or year?
Don Soifer I think there’s some obvious steps on this research. Particularly in addition to the letter grade we also continue to rank states by the most energy consumed on a per capita basis. So, most of this information that we’ve been talking about is based on 2010 data and older than that. And we’re using Federal Department of Energy data and that’s not going to be released until June. So the next update that we’re going to do is to update the consumption data for 2010. Beyond this, the letter grade process is a new direction for us. We’ve always really done our best to just present the information and let it speak for itself and not get into any value judgement and just by its nature the way any letter grade system works. When your kid comes home from school and shows you their report card you better believe that there’s a value judgement associated with it and by doing that sort of same construction here, clearly we’re trying to connect with people in a similar way.We did a paper last year on solar energy and we took the approach of discussing what needs to happen for solar energy to stand up without subsidy in the United States competitively. That was an interesting area and so was what has to happen in terms of research, in terms of manufacturing, in terms of economic conditions, so that ultimately solar can stand up without subsidy. And that’s typical about the way that the Lexington Institute, as a limited government, free market oriented think tank,  likes to look at things. So we certainly support renewable energy and we’re certainly looking for ways to ensure that the growth of renewable energy continues in the United States and the infrastructure that’s necessary to support that, particularly smart grid initiatives.We did a series, a couple of years ago on selling smart grid to NASCAR Nation and looking at these issues in a way that it appeals to the general public, in a way that it appeals to people that haven’t really thought about these questions before, and I think that has characterized our energy work and I think they’re likely continue to characterize the work we do in this field in the months and years to come.
Ben Lack Why are you doing what you’re doing and why are you to spend your time working in this space?
Don Soifer Lexington has been involved in a range of issues with importance to the future of the country and energy is certainly one of those. Those of us that have taken the lead on starting that project here at Lexington come from other backgrounds than strictly energy. I’ve been our lead education researcher and have been working with one of our lead defense researchers, and renewable energy is important to us. Finding ways that we can do that, in a way that it appeals to parts of the country that don’t get to read very much about renewable energy very often, this is important. And also the people that haven’t really made up their minds that this is something that they want to support, that this is something they think is important.So those are the motivating factors for us, and we want to continue to do it. There’s certainly enough good research and analysis that’s out there that’s very useful, but not all of it is presented in a way that people that aren’t used to thinking about these questions or don’t have strong background in the reasons behind them are used to, and I think that’s going to continue to be our motivation. And writing in a way that appeals to the unconverted as well as provides information useful to people who follow these issues more closely.



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