Subsidies good – for new tech

Rooftop solar panels could become part of a neighborhood microgrid.A few years ago, I wrote about the subsidy Pennsylvanians give to oil companies. I’d done some research and some math, and calculated that if we paid the subsidies at the pump rather than in our tax bill, gasoline would cost slightly north of $16 a gallon. We are still paying, but it’s likely more now.

Natural gas is plentiful and, for now, cheap, but it was the United States government that used taxpayers’ money to make fracking an economically viable process.

Think about that when folks complain about government subsidies for solar and wind power and electric vehicles.

On the other hand, an oil company expert said last week California could immediately switch to renewable energy sources. The technology is in hand. All that is necessary is the will for energy companies to spend the money building the new systems.

At University of California San Diego’s Institute of the Americas annual conference of energy experts, including a heavy density of fossil fuel executives, Sempra Energy Vice President Patrick Lee said, “We have a solution now to adjust the intermittency of solar and wind energy that is no longer a technology challenge.” (As quoted by KPBS of San Diego, Calif.)

One of the loudest claims made in opposition to solar- and wind-generated electricity is that when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, electricity doesn’t flow. Lee said that is no longer true. At least in California and surrounding states, more efficient batteries could be used, as could storing water behind a dam, releasing it on demand to run generators.

“Dams in the west typically store a whole season worth of snow melt runoff,” I was reminded the other day by Patrick Naugle, a former hydroelectric plant manager whom I have accompanied on water sampling missions. “(They) therefore have more capacity to be available for substitute power when renewables can’t provide the power.”

We in the East typically do not get the snowfall normally expected in the High Sierras that provide water to California, and we typically do not have the dams to store water. But we do have natural gas-fired on-demand electricity generators. One of them is only a few miles from my home, and several others have been or are being built.

A few short years ago, I thought all-electric vehicles would be only for urban dwellers. Things like that always start in big cities, where there are lots of people needing what rural folks can only think of as toys. The then-available specimens would get me to town and home, but a trip of several hundred miles would take days – assuming I could find charging stations.

That has changed. Subsidies have helped entrepreneurs install charging stations, and battery technology has improved. There are cities and school districts running public transportation on all-electric buses. Gov. Jerry Brown is in China negotiating deals that will, he hopes, result in electric car builders setting up in the Golden State. Even Exxon is working to improve its climactic footprint – while simultaneously grabbing a share of the oil and gas subsidies.

The time is not far off when individual homes become an integral part of the electrical grid, generating a portion of their own power to keep the refrigerator, computers, and televisions humming, only depending on other sources when demand is higher than the home’s solar panel roofing can satisfy.

Increasingly, sun and wind – and in some places, tides – are providing the electricity – and jobs – to power our grandchildren’s future. That, rather then decayed carcasses of extinct life forms, is where we must be willing to subsidize the research of our future.

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