The fantasy of a renewable energy revolution may be coming true now that government is goosing one forward. States across the nation are implementing ambitious targets for generating power from renewable sources, often as part of efforts to combat global warming. Now the questions are: Can public utilities meet the challenge, and can technology keep pace?

California, for instance, will require its public utilities to generate 20 percent of their power using renewable energy sources by 2010. The state also enforced an auto emissions reduction and is cleaning up its smokestacks. The cumulative effort will push greenhouse gas emissions in California back to 1990 levels by 2020, according to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The landmark initiative prompted other states to crank up their own efforts to reduce global warming. The Washington Legislature recently passed a law mandating goals similar to California's. And New Hampshire and Minnesota both passed the highest renewable energy usage requirements of public utilities to date -- 25 percent by 2025. But bragging rights may be short-lived because the California Public Utilities Commission announced that it's considering ways to reach 33 percent renewable energy usage by 2020.

In all, more than 20 states require that public utilities generate some portion of their electricity from renewable sources. At the national level, a federal standard of 20 percent by 2020 also is gaining momentum, due to the recent state requirements and party-leadership change in Congress, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

Meeting these renewable energy goals won't be easy for public utilities, many of which require drastic infrastructure changes to meet the surging power demands. They already face massive costs as they prepare for an imminent new building cycle. The Energy Information Administration projects that electricity generation in the United States will increase by 40 percent in the next 25 years.

"We need to make decisions today about how to meet that demand, and that is to include the construction of new base-load generation, meaning big power plants that run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, uninterrupted," said Dan Riedinger, spokesman for the Edison Electric Institute (EEI).

Aggressive renewable energy requirements will make that expansion even costlier, he said. Hydropower is currently the most widely used renewable energy source in the United States, producing nearly 7 percent of the nation's electricity, according to the EEI. But it's not as popular as it once was. Many environmentalists now oppose hydropower because it threatens fish and other wildlife.

Other options, such as wind and solar power, have experienced growing activity. But they have their own pricey obstacles.

Rise of Renewable Power
Renewable energy usage standards -- which hovered in the low single digits when originally implemented during the late 1990s -- recently doubled, putting pressure on utilities to generate cleaner power, according to Jeff Deyette, energy analyst with the UCS.

"States with existing standards have increased their requirements," he said. "That's where you see the 15 percent to 20 percent range, which has been the trend over the past two to three years. The new states considering standards are bypassing the lower percentages and just going straight for the 10 percent to 20 percent range."

SustainLane, a San Francisco-based online media company that promotes sustainable energy, released a top 10 list of U.S cities ranked by their use of renewable energy.

Oakland, Calif., hit the top with 17 percent of its electricity produced by solar, wind and geothermal energy. Altamont Pass, a wind-swept mountain pass in Northern California that is home to one of the nation's largest wind-power facilities, provides some of the city's electricity.

"Wind and solar were the two main sources," said Warren Karlenzig, chief strategy officer of SustainLane.

The list skewed heavily toward the Golden State, with Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose sharing the No. 2 spot, San Diego, clinching the fifth, and Los Angeles,

Andy Opsahl  | 

Andy Opsahl is a former staff writer and features editor for Government Technology magazine.