In a feature article in this week’s New Yorker, 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben looks at the clean energy technologies that are transforming the U.S. utility industry—from LED bulbs, to electric vehicles, to solar panels and air-source heat pumps on offer at the local hardware superstore in Rutland, Vermont.
After visiting a Rutland household that reduced its carbon footprint 88% in a matter of days, at no net cost, “I felt a fairly rare emotion: hope. The numbers reveal a sudden new truth—that innovative, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use,” McKibben writes.
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The up-front cost of the technology is high, and “the options can be intimidating,” he adds. “If the makeover were coordinated by someone you trust, however, and financed through your electric bill, the change would be much more palatable. The energy revolution, instead of happening piecemeal, over decades, could take place fast enough to actually help an overheating planet.”
That’s where power utilities can shift their focus and play a transformative role. “Americans spend 8% of their disposable income on all forms of energy,” NRG CEO David Crane told McKibben. No one gains if that percentage rises. But “I’m interested in electric cars, for instance, not just because of the effect on air quality but because I want to take market share away from oil,” Crane said. “It’s a brutal fight for market share.”
Not all utility executives have been as pro-active as Crane—or as Green Mountain Power CEO Mary Powell, who earns well-deserved profile in McKibben’s article. “A few utilities welcome the challenge; others are resisting it; and the rest are waiting for someone to tell them what to do,” he writes.
He also cites Solar City CEO and co-founder Lyndon Rive, who sees residential solar on the cusp of the same growth that began for email in the 1990s. Rive’s goal: To boost his company’s installation rate from one finished solar array every three minutes to one per second.
“That pace would change the projections for climate change,” McKibben writes. “But it would also require a major government initiative, akin to the one that revitalized industry at the start of the Second World War.”
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