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Preaching the green-power gospel

Evangelists for renewable-energy sources are coming out of the wilderness and going after the mainstream. MSNBC’s Alan Boyle reports.
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Mike Nelson broke free of the power grid 22 years ago, and he didn’t have to become a Luddite survivalist to do it. His solar/wind/gas-powered houseboat boasts all the consumer conveniences, including a microwave oven, a VCR and even a Web server. What sets him apart from his neighbors is that he’s operating on homemade electricity. Nelson’s not kidding himself about the difficulties most Americans face in following his lead. But like other green-power prophets, he believes that time and economics are on his side.

After years of crying out in the energy wilderness, America’s green-power evangelists are addressing their message to America’s mainstream — and they’re drawing more listeners, in large part because of this spring’s power crunch in the western United States.

Nelson has already seen a sea change in the public’s response as the director of Seattle’s Western SUN Cooperative, a group affiliated with Washington State University that helps Pacific Northwest electric utilities develop small-scale solar and wind power systems.

“I’ve seen a 600 percent increase in phone calls over two years ago,” he says. “I’m having significant problems just answering the phone.”

The surge of new interest is also hitting with full force 1,000 miles away, at the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colo., where Amory Lovins advises the likes of Dow Chemical and DuPont on new energy technologies that make economic sense, part of a philosophy he calls “natural capitalism.”

"The way we are spreading natural capitalism ... is just to work with early adopters, and help those firms achieve such conspicuous success that their rivals are forced to choose whether to follow suit or lose market share,” Lovins says.

Nelson and Lovins concede that they’re facing an uphill battle. Today, renewable energy sources — excluding hydroelectric — account for just 2 percent of U.S. electricity production. And it’s still cheaper to produce electricity using gas, coal, oil or nuclear. Nevertheless, they see signs of a quiet revolution:

  • Concern over the long-term environmental impact of fossil-fuel generation has spawned a host of green-power incentives, including rebates, tax breaks and low-interest loans for solar and wind power equipment.
  • Energy deregulation has spread to half the 50 states, giving consumers more say about where their power comes from. This provides an economic opening for new players in the energy marketplace, including green-power marketers.
  • The costs of solar power and wind power are dropping dramatically.

“Once you put in the wind farm or solar cells, the price of the electricity will never go up,” Lovins explains, “because the ‘God utility’ doesn’t send you a bill for sun and wind, and there’s no fluctuating fuel price to worry about.”

Living the revolution
Like many green-power gurus, Nelson and Lovins practice what they preach.

Lovins and his wife, Hunter, built their 4,000-square-foot home/office complex in the heart of Colorado’s ski country, with energy efficiency as the top priority: The windows are designed to use the sun’s rays for heating in the wintertime, making a furnace unnecessary. Excess heat is funneled into a central greenhouse that stays warm enough to grow bananas.

“We’ve harvested 27 banana crops in the middle of this building,” Lovins says.

If the building’s solar panels generate more electricity than needed, the excess power can be fed back into the utility grid to reduce the Lovins’ total electric bill.

Nelson’s green-powered houseboat on Seattle’s Ship Canal is a similar study in self-reliance: South-facing photovoltaic arrays and a wind turbine charge up the barge’s onboard batteries. For the long, rainy winter, Nelson has to fire up a propane-fueled stove — but even that concession to fossil fuels is equipped with thermophotovoltaic cells, converting heat to electricity. The whole houseboat operates on a generating capacity of a kilowatt, the equivalent of 10 ordinary light bulbs.

Nelson, who has been building his own energy systems since the ’70s, realizes that he’s not your typical consumer.

“I spend my ‘mad money’ on solar panels,” the 56-year-old environmentalist admits.

And that’s one of the big challenges for green-power promoters: Building a solar- or wind-powered system isn’t as easy as, say, building a deck. It’s only now that the green-power industry is providing the same kinds of plug-and-play solutions that brought personal computers to the masses in the ’80s. Nelson has mounted an example on the wall at Western SUN’s office: On one side, he displays a tangle of circuit boxes and conduit — the kind of wiring once required for a home solar-power system. On the other side, there’s one sleek cabinet that does the same job.

Such a system could serve as a backup power source for the home, he says, appealing to the same self-reliant types who buy sport-utility vehicles so they can handle snowy suburban streets. “The next target is the SUV crowd,” Nelson says.

Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute is targeting the same mass-market clientele. In fact, one of the institute’s spinoff projects is the Hypercar, a commercial effort to develop a zero-emission, hydrogen-powered SUV that would get the equivalent of 99 miles a gallon using fuel-cell technology.

One of Lovins’ colleagues at the institute, managing director Karl Rabago, says green power can’t be limited to the 4 to 8 percent of the population who consider themselves “true-blue greens.”

“The big 20 percent who actually spend a bunch of money has to be approached,” Rabago says. “We don’t really have what I would call an effective ‘retail environmental movement’ here yet.”

To give that movement a boost, the institute has cataloged more than 100 potential benefits to be gained from smaller-scale energy resources.

Rabago says renewable energy should be sold using the kind of multimarketing approach employed for any new product. “Obviously conservation is the best solution, but if I can sell you a solar system for $15,000 because you think that’s what it takes, I’ll do it,” he says.

Deregulation gone awry
No matter how user-friendly such systems become, not everyone is going to put up a roof’s worth of solar panels — which is why so many green-power marketers have pinned their hopes on energy deregulation. Nelson, for example, believes that people should be able to buy different flavors of electricity with the same ease that they buy bottled water.

“We’re seeing that happen with green electrons,” he says. “Instead of buying ‘tap electricity,’ you’ll buy ‘Perrier electricity’ — and it’ll come in a green bottle.” In this ideal energy supermarket, consumers could ask their utility to deliver premium electrical power certified as coming from wind farms in the Northwest, or from solar arrays in California.

California’s energy crunch, however, showed how deregulation could actually hurt the market for renewable energy.

Green-power marketers fell victim to a complicated pricing system that turned out to be a “disaster designed by a committee,” Lovins says.

When prices skyrocketed, many of those who started out with green-power providers switched back to the seemingly safer harbor of the big power companies.

“Unfortunately, as often happens, the heroes get punished, and the villains are rewarded,” Lovins says.

Similar problems have arisen with Pennsylvania’s energy deregulation effort. But Rabago is more optimistic about the process under way in Texas, where a pilot deregulation program will begin Jan. 1 with 5 percent of the state’s retail power customers.

Clean-power crystal ball
Looking further ahead, visionaries like Lovins, Nelson and Rabago foresee a brave new world where:

  • Home energy systems negotiate electronically with suppliers to get the cheapest rate. “The virtual utility,” Rabago says. “Back then, everyone made fun of us, but now it looks like something that could happen.”
  • Environment-conscious rebates, low-interest loans and net metering — already widely embraced in Europe — combine to turn personal power generation into a money-maker. “Who doesn’t put in a solar (power) system when it turns a profit like this?” Nelson asks.
  • “Microgrids” of homes and businesses band together to complement each other’s electrical needs, independent of the regional power grids.

Such systems are “big enough to get the advantages of sharing loads and generation,” Lovins says, “but not so big that you have to hook onto the main grid and pay (for) the obsolete stuff that tends to get charged to you through your use of the wires.”

Lovins believes the main force behind such green-power initiatives will be private industry rather than the federal government. That’s why he’s optimistic about the future, despite the Bush administration’s focus on boosting fossil-fuel production.

He adds that he has to repeatedly reassure his European colleagues, who “look in horror” at developments like the White House’s rejection of a climate treaty.

“I have to try to explain, ‘Watch what we do, not what we say,’” he says.