people build it, regardless of price, or subsidizes the living hell out of it, as we're doing for residential use of solar energy in California and other states," he said.

Renewable energy initiatives also may be rekindling interest in using biomass -- wood, livestock waste, garbage, yard waste and other materials -- to generate power.

"Biomass projects, overall, were on the decline," Bird said. "They may be reversing that some now. It's been up and down."

She said biomass could be cost-effective in certain areas of the United States, especially the South. But the practicality of using biomass to generate power rests on a complex web of factors.

"A lot of it depends on costs, what happens with federal incentives for biomass sources and so forth," Bird said. "Biomass plants also compete with other uses of the biomass feedstock."

One advantage of biomass-powered utilities, however, is their tendency to fortify local economies. These generating plants need nearby biomass providers. Biomass as renewable energy is only profitable if the fuel travels no further than 50 miles to the plant, Deyette said.

Geothermal power -- using hot water or steam from deep beneath the Earth's surface to generate electricity -- represents another option for some regions. "Geothermal is cost-effective in the Western part of the U.S.," Deyette said. "We're seeing more and more geothermal projects proposed and built."

Ultimately a single renewable energy source won't cut it for the entire country. Instead, the nation must develop a diversified landscape of individual localities powering themselves with whatever renewable sources their geographies provide. Furthermore, states lacking access to renewable energy sources will need a way to purchase excess "green" electricity produced in other regions, Deyette said.

A Dirty Solution
Despite the focus on renewable energy, spiraling demand for electric power is prompting utilities to consider coal to power massive generators needed to sustain future needs. Coal may be one of the dirtiest sources for electric power, but it offers a cheap and abundant energy source.

Complicating the problem is the fact that natural gas -- a cleaner-burning alternative to coal-fired energy plants -- is becoming difficult to acquire.

"We have constraints on pipeline capacity, the availability to deliver gas to where it's needed, as well as our ability to explore and take advantage of additional natural gas reserves in the U.S. and off the U.S. coast," Riedinger said.

A process called co-firing could help reduce dependence on coal-fired power generation. The technique turns an existing coal-fired plant into a coal/biomass-burning hybrid. "It's relatively easy to retrofit an existing coal-powered plant and burn a clean renewable energy source in that facility," Deyette said. "You get a lot of environmental benefits from it. It's cost-effective, and you're directly displacing coal-powered generation."

Co-firing typically enables 5 percent to 10 percent of a plant's energy to come from biomass, Deyette continued, adding that it would offer an easier renewable energy conversion to the southeastern United States, which lacks abundant wind.

Force-Feeding the Market
Regardless of the power-generating method, current development of alternative energy sources hinges on government support. Taylor even goes as far as to say the renewable energy industry would collapse without government tax breaks and subsidized loans. "The industry is booming for a reason," he explained. "Government is mandating that these people build this stuff, and they're subsidizing to such an extent that there's an artificial profit opportunity there that wouldn't otherwise exist in the market."

But Riedinger said utilities must have government assistance to reduce the financial risks of implementing new technologies, particularly for attracting capital from Wall Street. "[The more] signals sent by the federal government [showing] their willingness to help utilities shoulder some of that risk,"

Andy Opsahl  | 

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