Who isn’t claiming potential to be “Saudi Arabia of” renewables?

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As a blogger who follows energy issues, my RSS reader is stuffed with Google alerts for keywords like “wind,” “solar,” and “renewable energy.” I’ve noticed a phrase popping up over and over again used to brag about a state or region’s renewable energy potential: “the Saudi Arabia of…”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said Minnesota could be “the Saudi Arabia of renewable fuels.” New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson says he wants his state to be “the Saudi Arabia of wind, solar and biomass.” Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle uses the same soundbite. Some variation of the phrase has been used to describe the Dakotas, Oklahoma, California, Nebraska, Arizona, New Jersey, Texas, Martha’s Vineyard, Quebec, Scotland, the UK, Inner Mongolia, Australia, and, well, even Saudi Arabia, which is “the Saudi Arabia of solar power,” according to The Oil Drum blog.

It’s safe to drop this phrase into the cliche column. I spent a little time thinking last week about why it might be coming up in so many places. My initial thought was that renewable energy resources of some kind seem to exist just about anywhere, whether solar, wind, agriculture, or something else. Any place could become the “Saudi Arabia of renewable energy.” What will determine who gets there isn’t necessarily where it’s the sunniest or windiest. It’ll be whoever has the most financial and political backing to support the innovation to get there. But I’m not an expert, so I forwarded my observations on to some folks who are much smarter than I am on this stuff and asked for their thoughts on the phrase’s frequent and widespread use.

J. Drake Hamilton, Science Policy Director, Fresh Energy: Yes, I think you’ve hit on the crux issue: Saudia Arabia, if it did not tap into and develop its petroleum resources, would not be wealthy and powerful. As my track coach used to tell us in high school: “Potential doesn’t mean a thing; it’s performance that counts.” Here, though, knowledge of the UNTAPPED POTENTIAL should instigate us to pass strong laws to get that resource developed.”

Carl Nelson, Green Institute: “I think inherently renewable energy has the potential to be more democratic and community-friendly than resources that rely upon extraction of finite natural resources, which results in a vast political power distribution issue. A case in-point about political will vs. renewable resources — Germany has three times the capacity of installed solar hot water heating than the entire US, but has the solar resources of our worse-endowed state — Alaska. The SE Como report has a map that demonstrates this point — the best medium resolution graphic I could find, but not entirely that great unfortunately.”

And this thread from the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy:

Paul Aasen, MCEA’s Advocacy Director: “It seems to us here at Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy that it might actually be a silly pursuit. Our best guess is that these renewable energy solutions will be local or regional. Unlike Middle East oil, this energy is not going to be bought and sold over long distances. Let’s say your state is rich in geothermal energy production, or wave energy or wind energy. If developed, it will go into the electricity grid and be useful in your state and maybe a couple surrounding states. That’s it. Solar energy, it seems to us, is best used on individual homes and businesses, or at best, maybe a large array that powers a neighborhood. Setting up a large array in the desert seems like a bad idea for the desert environment and a waste of electricity when you start transmitting it over long distances.

We’ve already seen ethanol at work. It works best when done as Minnesota has: grow the crop locally, build the distillery locally, and transport the ethanol relatively short distances in the region. Like oil, ethanol could be shipped long distances, but why would you, when nearly any region can grow the crop and build the distillery? Hydrogen, assuming you use ocean water, would come close to the oil model. Those with coastlines would have the resource; those inland would not. But that is still a ways off.

So, who wins? The farsighted.

Except for maybe hydrogen, we know how to tap and create all these other energy sources. But as you suggest, it takes political will and foresight to make a state the Saudi Arabia of something. Minnesota provides two good examples. People were playing with the idea of ethanol in the early 1980s. But it took Gov. Rudy Perpich and the Legislature deciding to subsidize it and require 10 percent blend in Minnesota gasoline before the boom happened. I believe Minnesota was the first state to require any kind of ethanol portion in the gas and that is why for years, and maybe still today, it is the Saudi Arabia of ethanol.”

Kevin Reuther, an MCEA attorney: “Minnesota can only keep that ethanol advantage, however, if it moves quickly and smartly to distilling the fuel from plants other than corn. We already are seeing the problems of higher food prices and increased runoff into our lakes and rivers from planting as much corn as possible for ethanol production. Better to start making the switch to things such as prairie grasses, which farmers could still grow and make money from, but without as much environmental destruction as growing corn. That will take government investment in research and development and in encouraging farmers to switch some of their acres, especially around water bodies and ditches, to those new crops.”

Aasen: “The second example is wind energy. No electrical utility in Minnesota wanted to do wind power. However, in order to get a permit to build Sherco 3, Xcel (then NSP) was required to fund studies of Minnesota’s wind potential in the early to mid-80s. That showed enormous potential and some private companies were pushing to build in southwest Minnesota. But nothing really happened until the Legislature, in 1994, required NSP to buy a certain amount of wind power in exchange for the right to put highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel in concrete casks outside its Prairie Island nuclear plant on the shores of the Mississippi. NSP carped and complained about wind for years, but now they brag about how green they are and how committed they are to wind power.”

Reuther: “Compare that to North and South Dakota, who are just now beginning to tap their wind resource, and slowly at that. I had a high school classmate in Landgon, N.D. who did her science project on the advantages of wind power and all that could be generated on the North Dakota plains back in the early 1980s. We would live in a totally different world if the North Dakota state governors had listened to her, rather than the lignite coal enthusiasts.

But again, it would seem that future energy supply in the United States will be the result of making many different, smaller resources do the work rather than one thing as was the case with Big Oil. If you think in terms of the technology, rather than the energy itself, we think it Minnesota should strive to be the Saudi Arabia of renewables, or maybe the Silicon Valley of renewables.”

Thanks to my expert panel for responding. Expert or not, feel free to join the conversation.

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