The energy transition juggernaut ………

 By Chris Nelder | May 16, 2012, 2:37 AM PDT

For SmartPlanet this week, I reviewed eight recent public opinion polls from around the world, along with a handful of recent news reports and several research papers on solar costs, and found that fossil fuel industry money is no longer able to stop the energy transition juggernaut. The age of renewables has arrived. Read it here:

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Poll after poll show that citizens of the Western world want more renewable power and are willing to pay for it. So what’s the hold-up?

A new poll conducted by Yale and Harvard researchers and published in the science journal Nature this week found that the average U.S. citizen is willing to pay between $128 and $260 more per year in electricity bills ($162 on average, or 13 percent more) to achieve 80 percent clean energy by 2035. Support varies by demographics, of course—it’s lower among Republicans, people of color, and older individuals—and support drops further if the clean energy standard includes nuclear power and natural gas. As a practical matter, the researchers found in a voting simulation that the cost increase would have to be under $48 a year to pass the House, and under $59 a year to be filibuster-proof in the Senate. Even so, it’s clear that the overwhelming majority of Americans and their elected representatives would support the “80 percent by 2035? standard if it increased electricity prices by less than 5 percent.

Similarly, clean air enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support among U.S. voters. In October last year, a poll of 1,400 voters by Hart Research and GS Strategy Group found that, “by a wide margin, voters of both political parties and in all regions of the U.S. disagree with Congress’ anti-Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) agenda and support the EPA’s new rules to limit air pollution from coal-fired power plants.” A whopping 88 percent of Democrats, 85 percent of Independents, and 58 percent of Republicans opposed Congressional attempts to delay implementation of the rules, and 79 percent of voters supported the rules due to health concerns about polluted air. “Regardless of affiliation, voters want a healthy environment and an end to foot-dragging to upgrade dirty power plants. Despite the rhetoric in Washington, clean air is not a partisan issue among Americans, and Congress would do well to take notice,” said Mindy Lubber, president of sustainability advocacy group Ceres, which sponsored the poll.

One might well ask why Congress does not seem to have so noticed, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Another poll by ORC International of 1,019 Americans, released in April this year and conducted by the non-partisan Civil Society Institute, found that 77 percent of Americans surveyed, including 65 percent of the Republicans, believe “the U.S. needs to be a clean energy technology leader and it should invest in the research and domestic manufacturing of wind, solar and energy efficiency technologies.” When given a choice between subsidizing either renewables or fossil fuels only, three times as many respondents chose renewables.

More significantly, respondents were clearly looking beyond their pocketbooks, even while struggling with high gasoline prices. More than two-thirds of respondents said that progress toward clean energy should not be ‘put on hold’ due to ongoing economic problems. Fully 76 percent of Republicans, 87 percent of Independents, and 91 percent of Democrats agreed with the statement “energy development should be balanced with health and environmental concerns,” while only 13 percent said that “health and environmental concerns should not block energy development.”

Two-thirds of respondents in the ORC International poll believe that “political leaders should help to steer the U.S. to greater use of cleaner energy sources – such as increased efficiency, wind and solar – that result in fewer environmental and health damages.” But when framed as a jobs issue, rather than a health and environment issue, support zooms higher.

That conclusion came from a comprehensive analysis of international and U.S. polls on “the world’s most pressing challenges,” released in January by the Council on Foreign Relations’ International Institutions and Global Governance program and worldpublicopinion.org. It found that 91 percent of Americans believed that investing in renewable energy was important for the U.S. to remain competitive on the global stage, and that 80 percent favored strong tax incentives for renewables as a way to cut dependence on foreign energy sources.

Further, it found that three-quarters of the American public believes the U.S. government “should assume that oil is running out and will need to be replaced as a primary source of energy,” and that large majorities are worried about environmental damage, and the destabilizing effects of impending energy shortages and higher prices.

The same analysis found that clear majorities in all 27 members of the European Union approved of increasing the share of renewable energy to 20 percent or more by 2020, and believed that they would be personally affected by the consequences of energy dependence.

Two recent opinion polls in the UK support those conclusions, finding that a majority of the public see wind power subsidies as a good deal, and a large majority favor renewable energy in general. The nation’s Renewables Obligation strategy (similar to the state Renewable Portfolio Standards in the U.S.) costs the average citizen about two pence per day, and most thought it a good value.

Australians are overwhelmingly in favor of renewables, too. A face-to-face poll of 14,000 Australians last year found that 91 percent of the public think the government should take more action to push for renewable power, and 86 percent are in favor of a plan to get to 100 percent renewables.

A new paper on the German Energy Transition found that support for nuclear power is fading across the continent, with only France, the Czech republic, and Poland still favoring it. Over 80 percent of Germans and 90 percent of Austrians are against nuclear power, but, the paper argues, this is not simply “the reaction of a spooked people to Fukushima.” Germans have favored a transition to renewables since the early 1990s, “every political party says it’s on board,” and Germans are willing to pay higher energy bills to make it happen.

But they may not have to pay more, according to a study by the Fraunhofer Energy Alliancereleased in July 2011. As costs for solar PV continue to drop, the researchers predict that electricity generation in Germany would fall to 11 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour as early as 2016, or about one-third the current retail price of electricity. Another cited study, “Vision for a 100 percent renewable energy system,” found that the cost of expanding renewable energy would peak in 2015, then sink; from 2010 to 2050, it projected an overall savings of 730 billion Euro.

Solar is already reducing electricity costs in Germany on a daily basis. A widely-circulated pair of graphs on the Renewables International site show that as the sun fires up solar systems around 9 am, the cost of “peak” power generation now crashes to around 35 Euro per megawatt hour, and stays there until around 6 pm. Just four years ago, peak power prices in Germany held firmly around 55 to 60 Euro over the same hours. As Australianjournalist Giles Parkinson observed, “solar PV is not just licking the cream off the profits of the fossil fuel generators. . . it is in fact eating their entire cake.”

Further, the net impact of energy transition would result in more jobs, and a greater benefit to the overall economy. “The negative impact of a shift to alternative energy is far outweighed by the remaining positive net effect of some 400,000 additional jobs in the EU as a whole,” the Fraunhofer study says, and moreover, “Europe’s GDP is expected to grow by 0.24 % (some 35 billion Euro).” Another cited study showed that transition to renewables would result in a net new 120,000 to 140,000 jobs, after “all negative effects and influences on the economic cycle are taken into account.” Across the EU, some 2.8 million people are expected to find jobs in Europe’s renewable energy sector by 2020.

The rise of the precautionary principle

The public has clearly become sensitized to the risks of producing fossil fuels from our remaining, increasingly marginal resources. The last several years have offered a handful of hard object lessons: The Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, and its lingering effects on the ecosystem, replete with the ongoing spectacle of eyeless shrimp, clawless crabs and fish with lesions. A series of reports about water contaminated by shale fracking activities, with tone-deaf industry responses. Small towns turned upside-down by the sudden influx of trucks and roughnecks drilling for shale oil and gas. Even nuclear power is now suspect after the specter of the Fukushima plant meltdown, with low levels of its radiation turning up in California a few days later.

Is it any surprise that the public is becoming risk-averse, and embracing renewables as never before?

An overwhelming majority of citizens now support the “precautionary principle”: Rather than letting industry do whatever it wants and putting the burden on the public to prove that those activities are risky or damaging to the environment and the public health, voters would rather put the onus on industry to show that its activities are safe before being allowed to proceed.

For the full article – http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/energy-futurist/the-energy-transition-juggernaut/493

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