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Renewable Energy Industry Has Lost Sight of Origins


In little more than a half century — a nanosecond in the history of humankind — modern renewable energy technologies have come from idea phase to widespread implementation.

Renewables are out there, big and small, simple and complex. They range from the astounding potential for a solar powered aircraft that can fly at night (presented on “60 Minutes” on Dec. 2), to the solar-powered security company sign in the neighbor’s yard.

Today, we have vast utility scale concentrated solar plants in the deserts and micro businesses in Third World countries where women buy and even built their own photovoltaic panels to recharge their neighbors’ cell phones.

Scientists, architects, engineers and brilliant inventors in New Mexico have played important roles.

In 1956, Frank Bridgers and Don Paxton designed the world’s first commercial solar building in Albuquerque. In 1958, Peter van Dresser completed the first solar heated house in New Mexico in Santa Fe.

In the ’70s, physicists from Los Alamos directed scientific studies to quantify passive solar — the heat gain and storage capacity of traditional adobe, concrete or stone combined with south-facing windows. Albuquerque’s Steve Baer continues to develop passive solar cooling and passive solar trackers. Santa Fe’s Ed Masria, author of a classic textbook on passive solar, has launched Architecture 2030, an effective worldwide effort to direct architecture worldwide toward carbon-neutral buildings. Santa Fe architect Mark Chalom continues to meld beauty and function in passive solar homes.

Biofuels and geothermal technologies are rapidly advancing in Southern New Mexico. And the New Mexico Solar Energy Association celebrated its 40th anniversary on Dec. 9 as one of the oldest nonprofits devoted to renewable energy education.

Solar technologies were engendered for varying reasons.

Bell Laboratories developed photovoltaics as a solar battery to power remote communication sites. Passive solar and solar thermal’s impetus was to find ways to save money on energy costs, and create independence from utilities. The need to reduce carbon emissions was not part of these original equations.

Today, we see the critical importance of these technologies as a way to offset climate change. But the renewable energy industries in New Mexico and throughout the U.S. face tremendous challenges.

The current relatively low cost of natural gas has all but eliminated interest in solar thermal applications, and with it, the potential for those businesses to survive. The lower cost of manufacturing PV panels in China is making it tough for U.S. manufacturers; witness the closing of the Schott Solar plant here in Albuquerque.

While federal tax credits for renewable energy installations will continue for four more years, the gridlock in Congress makes their renewal less likely in the next two years … and with that, entrepreneurs’ ability to develop business plans based on them is problematic.

U.S. leadership in renewable energy technologies is evaporating. While Germany races forward in conversion to renewable energy, the U.S. hobbles along with energy policies that offer little hope of offsetting catastrophic effects of climate change or supporting the renewable energy companies that can benefit the country’s economy through job creation.

Even with energy efficiency, the low-hanging fruit for lowering energy costs and reducing carbon emissions, state and federal policies that could help the people who most need energy efficiency, i.e. those with low incomes, are uneven at best.

In a perfect world, renewable energy industries would not need incentives. But that’s wishful thinking at this point, and the fossil fuel industries have had, and continue to enjoy those benefits.

So this month, while we watch the factions in Congress with disgust and astonishment, we can take a moment to celebrate New Mexico’s achievements and urge our state Legislature to continue to support our renewable energy heritage and a growing economic development of these critical technologies.

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