Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Renewable Energy: Reducing Our Dependence on Domestic Oil

When it comes to renewable energy, you may have noticed that politicians have grown fond of the phrase "reducing our dependence on foreign oil". Well, in light of President Obama's forthcoming announcement on expanding offshore drilling, it looks like that phrase needs to be amended to include the word "domestic", or maybe shortened to the much simpler "reducing our dependence on oil", period. Either way, consider this new development a warning shot across the bow for environmentalists, and hopefully we can take it as a call to double down on the push for a national renewable energy standard.

The offshore expansion idea is a huge disappointment, to say the least, but consider the following: There is a chance that drilling won't happen at all, or it will be very limited in its scope if it does, even with the added territory being opened. Why? It costs a frickin' fortune. As was pointed out during the "Drill Baby Drill" phase of the campaign in '08, the oil companies aren't exploring the areas that are open to them now because it is so cost prohibitive. Much easier to sit at a computer, push a button and play stock swap, than invest in intensive environmental studies that may not pan out, and spend billions in equipment for new platforms even if they do. Add the legal battles to the mix, and you are looking at drilling occurring way, way down the road. The US Dept of Energy also pointed out at the time that even if you opened offshore areas today, it wouldn't have an impact on the price of oil until 2030 - an eternity when it comes to how fast we are moving on new renewable technologies.

For environmentalists, the best bet is to keep up the push towards renewable energy to help prevent drilling from happening at all. Same goes for building new coal plants. We get wind and solar to the point where it can achieve "grid parity", and get that infrastructure in place and grow it to the point of being even cheaper than fossil fuels, and the need to suck the Earth dry will eventually come to an end. It's simple if you ignore the complexity, but in theory, this is what will happen.

It probably won't happen in our lifetime, but we have to start somewhere. The steps we are taking today can build toward that future - and that means building the infrastructure to get renewables on the grid as quick as we possibly can.

Even better yet, let's build it right here in Michigan. Yesterday, they held a groundbreaking ceremony in Monroe for Ventower Industries, planning a new wind turbine tower plant to be opened in 2011. 150 new jobs will be created. Since expected capacity is 250 towers a year, these must be the huge, commercial-sized turbine towers we are talking about.

As the video points out, Monroe Community College is already training students for this work. And another development in the renewable energy training department yesterday: Grand Rapids Community College is offering a first in the nation safety training course for servicing wind turbines. Someone has to climb up there and fix the heads, and we are going to crank out the qualified people. The eye is towards building in the Great Lakes, but these students will be able to work anywhere.

Grand Rapids Community College students will be qualified to work on wind turbines anywhere in the world after completing an international safety course, say leaders from two European companies.


The community college will offer safety training to employees who will work in confined spaces hundreds of feet off the ground and near tremendous amounts of electricity. Others will be tied to the hubs, or nacelles, of the turbines and rappel down the sides of the 300-foot towers for safety checks and repairs.

The college could start quickly, with the first students entering the 80-hour program in May and as many as 400 students completing training by the end of the first year. Certification is not yet required by U.S. or state government but is required by many agencies that insure companies working on a wind farm site.

Baby steps, but they are solid steps, to be sure.

Consider it a race to beat the oil companies to the punch when it comes to our energy demands. Your planet depends on it.