As companies pursue efforts to develop domestic sources of both traditional fossil fuels and renewable energy, industry and government leaders are trying to find a balance between energy production and protecting the environment.
“I don't think we would want to stampede toward energy independence at a way where we throw all environmental caution to the wind,” said Jay Hakes, who served as director for policy and research for the President's Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Commission.
“I'm convinced you can build safe deep-water wells, but you have to do it in a measured way and make sure you're not throwing the environment under the bus. We can do all these things for the economy and national security and do it in an environmentally responsible way.”
While the country continues to pursue traditional fuels such as oil and natural gas, renewables such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass also should continue to be studied and developed, said Stephen McKeever, vice president for research and technology transfer at Oklahoma State University.
“A stable energy policy for the United States and for North America will always include a certain portion of renewable energy,” McKeever said. “If we focus only on fossil fuels, the downside will be the pollution problems you get from burning fossil fuels and the necessary dangers with that kind of industry compared to solar or other renewables.”
The country's electricity generation in 2010 was 70 percent fossil fuels, 20 percent nuclear and 10 percent renewable, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency. Wind power represented 2.3 percent of the country's total mix.
Texas leads the country with 10,646 megawatts of wind power. Oklahoma is the No. 8 producer of wind power with 2,171 megawatts of installed capacity.
One hundred megawatts is enough to power more than 25,000 average homes.
Oklahoma policymakers have set a voluntary target of 15 percent by 2016, but the state is expected to pass 17 percent renewables capacity by the end of this year, Oklahoma Energy Secretary Mike Ming said.
“Wind partners well with natural gas,” he said. “Those two together with modern, combined-cycle natural gas power plants work well to exploit Oklahoma's resources, create Oklahoma jobs and manage risk for prices for electric consumers.”
Wind and natural gas-fired power plants often are used together because the natural gas plants can be ramped up and down quickly, allowing them to be used more when the wind is still and less when the wind is blowing.
While continuing to support renewable energy research and development, oilman T. Boone Pickens said the efforts are not commercially viable now.
It is more economical to build natural gas-fired power plants when natural gas prices are below $6 per thousand cubic feet, Pickens said.
“You can't do renewables at this price of natural gas,” said Pickens, who originally included large amounts of wind energy as part of his Pickens Plan to make the country less dependent on foreign oil. “There will be a few wind deals that will work, but you can't get serious about wind until you have $6 natural gas.”
Others, however, say the cost of not moving quickly towards renewables would be far greater.
“It would be nice and convenient if we could take a long time to get to where renewables were our main source of energy, but it's clear that the laws of physics and chemistry are not on our side,” said environmentalist author and lecturer Bill McKibben, who believes carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases are causing climate change.
The country could find an economical way to increase its use of renewables if that were a priority, he said.
“It's a matter of policy,” he said. “Places that have taken it seriously are getting there pretty fast. There were days last month when Germany generated more than half of its energy from solar panels. Munich is farther north than Montreal. If you can do that in Munich, you can do it in Tulsa.”
How ‘green' is green?
Manufacturing and transporting wind turbines and other renewable energy sources require the use of fossil fuels. The time it takes for a power generator to produce as much energy as it uses during manufacturing and transportation is known as the “energy payback time.” The typical payback time for a large scale wind turbine is three to eight months, depending on the wind speed at the site, according to the American Wind Energy Association. A typical wind farm has an average life expectancy of about 30 years. The energy payback for solar power was three to four years in 2004, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Wind power capacity
Top states by wind power capacity as of July (in megawatts) from the American Wind Energy Association.
2. Iowa: 4,524
3. California: 4,425
4. Illinois: 3,055
5. Oregon: 2,820
6. Minnesota: 2,718
7. Washington: 2,699
8. Oklahoma 2,171
9. Colorado: 1,805
10. North Dakota: 1,469