New Energy Economy Emerging in the US
October 15, 2008

Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute

Lester R. Brown

As fossil fuel prices rise, as oil insecurity deepens, and as concerns about
climate change cast a shadow over the future of coal, a new energy economy
is emerging in the United States. The old energy economy, fueled by oil,
coal, and natural gas, is being replaced by one powered by wind, solar, and
geothermal energy. The transition is moving at a pace and on a scale that we
could not have imagined even a year ago.

Consider Texas. Long the leading oil-producing state, it is now also the
leading generator of electricity from wind, having overtaken California two
years ago. Texas now has nearly 6,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity
online and a staggering 39,000 megawatts in the construction and planning
stages. When all this is completed, Texas will have 45,000 megawatts of
wind-generating capacity (think 45 coal-fired power plants). This will more
than satisfy the residential needs of the state's 24 million people,
enabling Texas to feed electricity to nearby states such as Louisiana and

After Texas and California, the other leaders among the 30 states with
commercial-scale wind farms are Iowa, Minnesota, Washington, and Colorado.
And other states are emerging as wind superpowers. Clipper Windpower and BP
are teaming up to build the 5,050-megawatt Titan wind farm, the world's
largest, in eastern South Dakota. Already under development, Titan will
generate five times as much electricity as the state's 780,000 residents
currently use. This project includes building a transmission line along an
abandoned rail line across Iowa, feeding electricity into Illinois and the
country's industrial heartland.

Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz is developing a 2,000-megawatt wind
farm in south central Wyoming. He already has secured the rights to build a
900-mile high-voltage transmission line to California. With this investment,
the door will be opened to developing scores of huge wind farms in Wyoming,
a wind-rich state with few people. Another transmission line under
development will run north-south, linking eastern Wyoming's wind resources
with the fast-growing Colorado cities of Fort Collins, Denver, and Colorado
Springs. Wind-rich Kansas and Oklahoma are looking to build a transmission
line to the U.S. Southeast to export their wealth of cheap wind energy.

California is developing a 4,500-megawatt wind farm complex in the Tehachapi
Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. In the east, Maine-a wind energy
newcomer-is planning to develop 3,000 megawatts of wind-generating capacity,
far more than the state's 1.3 million residents need. Further south,
Delaware is planning an offshore wind farm of up to 600 megawatts, which
could satisfy half of the state's residential electricity needs. New York
State, which has 700 megawatts of wind-generating capacity, plans to add
another 8,000 megawatts, with most of the power being generated by winds
coming off Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. And soon Oregon will nearly double
its wind generating capacity with a 900-megawatt wind farm in the wind-rich
Columbia River Gorge.

Wind appears destined to become the centerpiece of the new U.S. energy
economy, eventually supplying several hundred thousand megawatts of

Solar power is also expanding at a breakneck pace. The nation's wealth of
solar energy is being harnessed by using both photovoltaic cells and solar
thermal power plants to convert sunlight into electricity. For solar cell
installations, California, with its Million Solar Roofs plan, is far and
away the leader. New Jersey is also moving fast, followed by Nevada.

The largest U.S. solar cell installation today is a 14-megawatt array at
Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, but photovoltaic electricity at the
commercial level is about to go big time. PG&E has entered into two solar
cell power contracts with a combined capacity of 800 megawatts. Together,
these plants will cover 12 square miles of desert with solar cells and will
have a peak output comparable to that of a large coal-fired power plant.
Solar power plants are appealing in hot climates because their highest
output coincides with the peak demand for air conditioning.

Solar thermal plants that use mirrors to concentrate sunlight on a vessel
containing a fluid-heating it to 750 degrees Fahrenheit to generate steam
and produce power-have suddenly become an enormously attractive technology.
The United States has the world's only large solar thermal complex, a
350-megawatt project completed in 1991. But as of September 2008 there are
10 large solar thermal power plants under construction or in development in
the United States, ranging in size from 180 megawatts to 550 megawatts.
Eight of the plants will be built in California, one in Arizona, and one in
Florida. Within the next three years, the United States will likely go from
420 megawatts of solar thermal generating capacity to close to 3,500
megawatts-an eightfold jump.

Along with wind and solar, geothermal energy is also developing at an
explosive rate. As of 2008 the United States has nearly 3,000 megawatts of
geothermal generating capacity, 2,500 of which are in California. Suddenly
this too is changing. Some 96 geothermal power plants now under development
in twelve western states are expected to double U.S. geothermal generating
capacity. With California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, and Utah leading the way,
the stage is set for the massive future development of geothermal energy.
(See data).

The new energy economy will be powered largely by electricity from renewable
sources. Electricity will light, heat, and cool buildings. As we shift to
plug-in hybrid cars, light rail transit systems in cities, and high-speed
electric intercity rail systems like those in Japan and Europe, our
transport system will also be powered largely by electricity.

It is historically rare for so many interests to converge at one time and in
one place as those now supporting the development of renewable energy
resources in the United States. To begin with, shifting to renewables
increases energy security simply because no one can cut off the supply of
wind, solar, or geothermal energy. It also avoids the price volatility that
has plagued oil and natural gas in recent decades. Once a wind farm or a
solar thermal power plant is built, the price is stable since there is no
fuel cost. Turning to renewables will also dramatically cut carbon
emissions, moving us toward climate stability and thus avoiding the most
dangerous effects of climate change.

The shift also will staunch the outflow of dollars for oil, keeping that
capital at home to invest in the new energy economy, developing national
renewable energy resources and creating jobs here. At a time of economic
turmoil and rising joblessness, these new industries can generate thousands
of new jobs each week. Not only are the wind, solar, and geothermal
industries hiring new workers, they are also generating jobs in construction
and in basic supply industries such as steel, aluminum, and silicon
manufacturing. To build and operate the new energy economy will require huge
numbers of electricians, plumbers, and roofers. It will also employ
countless numbers of high-tech professionals such as wind meteorologists,
geothermal geologists, and solar engineers.

To ensure that this shift to renewables continues at a rapid rate, national
leadership is needed in one key area-building a strong national grid.
Although private investors are investing in long-distance high-voltage
transmission lines, these need to be incorporated into a carefully planned
national grid, the electrical equivalent of President Eisenhower's
interstate highway system, in order to unleash the full potential of
renewable energy wealth.

And, finally, this energy transition is being driven by an intense
excitement from the realization that people are now tapping energy sources
that can last as long as the earth itself. Oil wells go dry and coal seams
run out, but for the first time since the industrial revolution we are
investing in energy sources that can last forever. This new energy economy
can be our legacy to the next generation.

Copyright © 2008 Earth Policy Institute

For more information on Earth Policy Institute's plan to cut carbon
emissions 80 percent by 2020, see Chapters 11-13 in Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing
to Save Civilization, available at for free downloading.

Also see "Time for Plan B: Cutting Carbon Emissions 80 Percent by 2020,"
available in pdf at



From Earth Policy Institute

Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 2008).

Lester R. Brown, Janet Larsen, Jonathan G. Dorn, and Frances C. Moore, Time
For Plan B: Cutting Carbon Emissions 80 Percent by 2020 (Washington, DC:
Earth Policy Institute, 2008).

Lester R. Brown, "Want a Better Way to Power Your Car? It's a Breeze..,"
Plan B Update, 2 September 2008.

Jonathan G. Dorn, "World Geothermal Power Generation Nearing Eruption," Plan
B Update, 19 August 2008.

Jonathan G. Dorn, "Solar Thermal Power Coming to a Boil," Plan B Update, 22
July 2008.

Jonathan G. Dorn, "Global Wind Power Capacity Reaches 100,000 Megawatts,"
Eco-Economy Indicator, 4 March 2008.

Jonathan G. Dorn, "Solar Cell Production Jumps 50 Percent in 2007,"
Eco-Economy Indicator, 27 December 2007.

Jonathan G. Dorn, "Drilling for Oil is Not the Answer," News Release, 18
September 2008.

From Other Sources

American Wind Energy Association, AWEA 2nd Quarter 2008 Market Report
(Washington, DC: July 2008).

Kara Slack, U.S. Geothermal Power Production and Development Update
(Washington, DC: GEA, August 2008).

Graphic link to Top of Page


California Solar Initiative (Million Solar Roofs Plan)

Geothermal Energy Association

U.S. Geothermal Resource Map

U.S. Parabolic Trough Power Plant Data

U.S. Solar Resource Maps

U.S. Wind Energy Projects

U.S. Wind Resource Maps