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Transforming Our Energy System

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Senator Bernie Sanders is interviewed by a Reuters reporter, 11/28/06. (photo: Reuters)

At the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney talked about how a president should be "Mr. Oil, or Mr. Gas, or Mr. Coal." Romney supports continuing the massive $113 billion in federal subsidies for oil, gas and coal over the next 10 years. He has previously referred to sustainable energy as "imaginary." If elected, Romney is promising an end to key federal policies supporting sustainable energy like the production tax credit for wind.

While I may not agree with all of President Obama's energy policies, I strongly supported his successful effort to double fuel economy standards for cars and trucks to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. This will cut our reliance on imports from OPEC by half. I also support his investments in energy efficiency and the sustainable energy industries. Frankly, I think he may be too modest about his accomplishments in this area. The fact is, over the last four years we have begun to transform our energy system, cut greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs through energy innovation.

The truth is that we're off to a strong start, but given the crisis of global warming much, much more has to be done.

Energy efficiency is the low-hanging fruit. Every day we are paying more for energy than we should due to poor insulation, inefficient lights, appliances, and heating and cooling equipment -- money we could save by investing in energy efficiency. Since Obama took office and we passed the stimulus, we have weatherized over 1 million homes. In Vermont, families whose homes are weatherized save on average $916 a year on their fuel bills while making significant cuts in carbon emissions. Given the fact that over 90 percent of the products used in weatherization are manufactured in the United States, we are creating jobs not only in construction but also in manufacturing. This is a win-win-win situation.

In the last several years we have also made significant progress in local energy innovation. The Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant program I wrote with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) helped Carmel, Ind., switch 800 of their 1,300 street lights to LEDs, reducing their energy use by nearly 50 percent and saving the city $70,000 a year. In Raleigh, N.C., block grant funds helped install solar hot water systems at fire stations across the city, reducing fossil fuel use for water heating by up to 50 percent. In Miami-Dade County, Fla., block grant funds went to construct a new power plant that recycles gas from a wastewater treatment plant and a landfill to make electricity.

Contrary to Romney's claims, we are making significant progress on solar. At the end of 2008, we had about 1,500 megawatts of solar and less than 50,000 solar jobs in America. The cost of solar was $7.50 per watt installed. Today, less than four years later, largely thanks to federal investments, we have more than tripled solar energy to 5,700 megawatts installed. We now have more than 100,000 solar energy jobs at 5,600 companies in the United States, double the number of jobs from four years ago. And, very significantly, the cost of solar has been cut by more than half, down to $3.45 per watt installed. There is nothing "imaginary" about the growth of solar energy.

In fact, the Department of Defense, the largest single energy consumer in America, is bullish on solar. Whether it is the 1.45-megawatt solar project at the Burlington, Vt., Air National Guard Base or the 14-megawatt project at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., the military recognizes the value of solar. Thanks to the stimulus, America is now home to the largest operating solar photovoltaic plant in the world, the 250 megawatt thin-film plant in Yuma County, Ariz. That plant can provide electricity to 100,000 homes.

Photovoltaic technology is not the only significant solar development. In California, construction is underway for the largest concentrated solar thermal plant of its kind in the world, the 392-megawatt Ivanpah project in California that created 2,100 construction jobs. When completed in 2013, this concentrated solar plant will power 140,000 homes. And a 280 megawatt concentrated solar plant in Gila Bend, Ariz., will be the first in the U.S. with energy storage, providing power even when the sun goes down. That project created 1,600 jobs.

The story is much the same with wind energy, thanks to the federal production tax credit and the stimulus bill. At the end of 2008 we had about 25,000 megawatts of wind energy, but today we have doubled wind energy capacity to over 50,000 megawatts. We have added more new wind energy capacity over the last five years than nuclear and coal combined. We now have 75,000 Americans working in wind and over 470 plants in America manufacturing wind products. The upshot: the cost of wind energy dropped from 8.4 cents per kilowatt hour in 2008 to about 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour today.

States like Iowa and South Dakota have achieved the milestone of getting 20 percent of their electricity from wind. And the Shepherds Flat wind farm in Oregon, one of the largest in the world at 845 megawatts, created 400 construction jobs and is powering 235,000 homes. Wind energy is real, not "imaginary."

We are seeing great progress on geothermal. Ball State University in Indiana is constructing the largest closed-loop geothermal heating and cooling system in the country, creating 2,300 jobs as they replace aging coal-fired boilers. As a result, they will save $2 million annually in energy costs. In Oklahoma, a state with over 4,000 people working in geothermal, the Oklahoma Gas and Electric utility is helping customers switch to geothermal in order to cut peak energy demand by 27 megawatts in the next decade. This will avoid the need for costly new fossil fuel plants. Geothermal technology is creating jobs for well drillers, and 99 percent of the geothermal heat pumps sold in America are made in America.

Likewise, with biomass, we are seeing innovation. In Kansas, a cellulosic ethanol refinery is under construction that will produce 25 million gallons a year of fuel from sources such as wood and agricultural waste, instead of corn. That plant, supported by the stimulus, created 65 jobs and will generate 22 megawatts of biomass electricity as well. The Navy is using algae and advanced biofuels in its fleet, and the Air Force has flown fighter jets using a 50 percent advanced biofuel mixture.

As a nation, we should all be proud of the progress we have made in the movement toward energy efficiency and sustainable energy, but much more needs to be done. The scientists tell us that if we do not reverse global warming, more and more damage will be done to our planet in terms of floods, drought and extreme weather disturbances. The United States today has not only the opportunity to lead the world in cutting carbon emissions, but also in creating millions of good paying jobs as we transform our energy system away from fossil fuels.

Mitt Romney's energy policy is a relic of the 19th century. We need a 21st century plan. The fate of the planet is at stake.

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Bernie Sanders is the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont. He is the longest serving independent member of Congress in American history. He is a member of the Senate's Budget, Veterans, Environment, Energy, and H.E.L.P. (Health, Education, (more...)

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