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The Best and Worst of 2004

Clint Wilder's picture

You can't go wrong bringing up Charles Dickens this time of year. But instead of Scrooge, I'm going with the whole best-of-times, worst-of-times thing in looking back at 2004 through the lens of clean-energy development and growth. There's plenty to go around for both "best" and "worst" lists, and it's interesting how many items in both categories come with "however" qualifiers. In the clean-energy business, the good stuff isn't all good and the bad isn't all bad. Usually. So here we go. Solar panels and micro fuel cells should go into the Christmas stockings of those responsible for the Best of 2004:

High-flying hybrids. Still waiting for that Toyota Prius you ordered months ago? Join the club. Hybrids are rapidly infiltrating showrooms, carpool lanes, and even pop culture -- "The West Wing" White House aide Josh Lyman smashed into a Prius while test- driving a behemoth SUV in a recent episode. Toyota has increased U.S. Prius production targets at least twice, and will now make 100,000 for sale here in 2005, more than double this year's allocation. Lexus has obliterated its previous presale order records for the 2005 hybrid SUV, and sales of Honda's Civic hybrid and Ford's Escape hybrid SUV are also brisk. Next year, Honda's hybrid Accord and other hybrid models from several carmakers will further spur the trend. And Congress extended the $2,000 tax deduction for hybrid buyers through 2005.
Rocky Mountain State voters rock. On Nov. 2, Coloradoans passed the nation's first-ever statewide ballot initiative mandating a renewable portfolio standard, by a 54% to 46% margin. Cynics may scoff that this only went before the voters because the state legislature wouldn't pass it, but the people sent a powerful message that will be heard in other statehouses --particularly since voters handily passed the measure despite Colorado utilities' well-funded lobbying campaign against it.
Favorable winds in U.S. and Europe. Yes, it was long overdue, but Congress's extension of the federal production tax credit for wind energy was among the year's best news for clean energy growth in the U.S. GE Energy alone says it now has contracts or commitments for 1,500 megawatts worth of turbines in the U.S. The nation's highest-profile wind project, Cape Wind's proposed 130-turbine offshore farm near Cape Cod, Mass., has received environmental go-ahead from the Army Corps of Engineers, although (here comes the qualifier) heavy public and political opposition remains. Meanwhile, Europe's wind industry continues to roll on, now accounting for 74% of the world's production capacity and growing 30% annually.
Kyoto Protocol is ratified. Speaking of long overdue, Russia's thumbs-up in November finally put the historic carbon emissions-reduction treaty over the top -- without U.S. participation, of course. Although Kyoto's direct impact on clean-energy development is far from clear, at least in the short term, it will focus unprecedented attention on renewable-energy credits and other carbon-trading schemes. Now for the Worst of 2004. Lots of holiday stockings to be stuffed with lumps of high-sulfur coal:
Campaign silence is deafening. Colorado's good news above notwithstanding, renewable energy -- and in truth, most energy issues of any kind -- failed to register much of a blip in the 2004 presidential election. It's pretty much an article of faith among clean-energy developers and policymakers that you can't wait for leadership from Washington to drive the industry ahead, and it's safe to say that the Bush administration's lack of leadership on renewable energy was not seriously challenged in this election. Perhaps a new Secretary of Energy will surprise us, but no one in the clean- energy industry is holding their breath.
California drops the solar ball. Political squabbling killed California's ambitious Million Solar Homes Initiative legislation last summer. Fortunately, a stopgap measure maintained state rebates for homeowners who install solar photovoltaics. But California and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger need to move ahead on comprehensive solar legislation not only for the huge California market, but as an example for other states that look to the Golden State for leadership on renewables. The bill, in a new form and under the governor's guidance, is to be revisited in the New Year -- so expect to hear much more from California.
The energy bill that won't die. Like Banquo's ghost in Macbeth, this bloated mass of fossil-fuel subsidies and other wrongheaded giveaways, concocted well over a year ago, is still hovering around. Some emboldened Republicans and a White House spokesman say they'll push for it again next year, although House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) says he won't pursue it as a full package. The 2003 bill did contain some favorable provisions for development of renewable technologies, but they were miniscule in comparison to the billions heaped upon coal, oil, and nuclear power. We can clearly do better. It sure would be nice to see U.S. clean-energy policy make the "Best of" list a year from now. Happy Holidays to all. Wilder is Clean Edge's contributing editor. E-mail him at wilder[at]cleanedge[dot]com.