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Published on July 10th, 2012 | by John Farrell


Just Energy Independence or Clean Energy Self-Reliance?

July 10th, 2012 by  

In Thomas Friedman’s latest column, he praises Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts because he “took one for the country.”  Friedman sees that “America today is poised for a great renewal” if only it can get some “big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership.”

Logically, there would be some renewable (energy) in America’s renewal, right?

Wrong.  Here’s Friedman’s vision for America:

Our newfound natural gas bounty can give us long-term access to cheap, cleaner energy and, combined with advances in robotics and software, is already bringing blue-collar manufacturing back to America. Web-enabled cellphones and tablets are creating vast new possibilities to bring high-quality, low-cost education to every community college and public school so people can afford to acquire the skills to learn 21st-century jobs. Cloud computing is giving anyone with a creative spark cheap, powerful tools to start a company with very little money. And dramatically low interest rates mean we can borrow to build new infrastructure — and make money.  [emphasis mine]

I’m generally a fan of Thomas Friedman. He’s got an everyman way of writing about big issues, with a passion for practicality, especially when it comes to rebuilding America. But for a man who regularly talks of the opportunity of 21st technology, this is a very 20th Century vision.

Here’s an alternative:

The stodgy National Renewable Energy Laboratory says that renewable energy like wind and solar can meet at least 80% of our electricity needs by 2050. (Note: most forecasts of renewable energy generation by “reputable sources” lowball it, by a lot). This isn’t just long-term energy, it’s infinite. There are no refills on natural gas like there are from renewable energy sources.

Two thirds of American states have the local resources to meet their entire electricity needs with renewable energy like wind, water, and solar. Within a decade, 100 million Americans in the largest metropolitan areas will be able to get cheaper electricity from solar on their rooftop than from their utility.

And what about the economy? Solar and wind create several times the jobs per megawatt of electricity capacity (data below from Putting Renewables to Work published by UC Berkeley). Local ownership of distributed renewable energy resources can double and triple, respectively, the jobs and economic impact of our energy generation.

Big, centrist, statesmanlike leadership isn’t found in last century’s energy sources. We aren’t going to frack our way to a cleaner, brighter future. We need a bold, 21st century vision for energy.

If President Obama wants to lead on energy, he should declare independence from a fossil fuel past and give Americans a vision for clean energy self-reliance.

This post originally appeared on ILSR’s Energy Self-Reliant States blog.

Top image credit: dolanh

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About the Author

directs the Democratic Energy program at ILSR and he focuses on energy policy developments that best expand the benefits of local ownership and dispersed generation of renewable energy. His seminal paper, Democratizing the Electricity System, describes how to blast the roadblocks to distributed renewable energy generation, and how such small-scale renewable energy projects are the key to the biggest strides in renewable energy development.
Farrell also authored the landmark report Energy Self-Reliant States, which serves as the definitive energy atlas for the United States, detailing the state-by-state renewable electricity generation potential. Farrell regularly provides discussion and analysis of distributed renewable energy policy on his blog, Energy Self-Reliant States (energyselfreliantstates.org), and articles are regularly syndicated on Grist and Renewable Energy World.
John Farrell can also be found on Twitter @johnffarrell, or at jfarrell@ilsr.org.

  • Fear of a Stumbling Giant

    I live in a small country and so I’m afraid that Mr Friedman will pick it up and throw it against the wall to teach Mongolia a lesson.  I’m not sure how that’s supposed to teach Mongolia anything and I don’t think Mister Friedman has really thought it through himself and that just makes him scarier.  On the plus side his mustache is quite manly.

  • Bryan

    I wholly agree with the premise that renewable energy sources must be included in our national energy generation inventory.  I assume Friedman does as well, although he mentioned natural gas specifically because it is abundant throughout the whole country, cheaper per megawatt than renewables (in the short and medium-term), can be relatively easily connected to existing infrastructure, and can be used in vehicles and power plants alike.  The fact that solar creates more jobs per megawatt is great for today’s unemployement rate, but those workers cost companies money, giving natural gas a competitive advantage.  I agree that this country should rely on renewable energy to the maximum extent possible, but a transitionary source of domestic energy is needed to bridge the gap until renewables are more efficient and cheaper.  Thanks for helping move the ball on renewables John, but remember to look at the bigger picture.

  • Maybe if we diverted 100 or 200 billion from our military budget into green energy we could find a point where we dont need to defend our energy resources in other countries 

    • Ross

      Assuming 3 million per MW 200b would buy 66GW or just under 2/3rds of the nuclear generation capacity or 1/11th of the fossil fuel capacity (source wikipedia 2010 figures).

      • Ross – How are you assuming $3M per MW? Just wondering on your calcs.

        • Ross

          It isn’t scientific just a deliberately conservative value. 

        • Ross

          Just an unscientific conservative assumption. I’m sure it could be done for a lot cheaper, particularly if placing an order or $200 billion worth of them. 

  • Edward Kerr


    While you may be a fan of Mr. Friedman, I am not. His “vision”, as you call it, is really more like a “nightmare”. Natural Gas is not the answer but rather part of the problem. If people listen to him they will come away with the idea that everything is going to be OK as long as we can frack and maybe have some “leadership”. This is a DANGEROUS ascertain. Here he is merely shilling for the fossil fuel industry. Like all of the other carbon stores, Natural Gas too will become depleted in a short order. Everyday that we deny that truth and continue on a biz as usual path we will find ourselves headed in the wrong direction.. Avoiding the transition to ALL RENEWABLES now will have unwelcome consequences later. Apparently, people just don’t “get it”…tripe like Friedman’s only hides the truth making things worse not better…


    • Ross

      He also appears to be inconsistent as he’s also called for the US to the lead the green energy revolution.

       “Not only will it improve our standing economically but we’ll be seen by the rest of the world as working on the most important problem in the world”.

    • i think he’s a fan in general, but he wrote this article specifically bcs he’s so against the bad logic used by Friedman in pushing the natural gas corporate memo.

      i was very surprised to see that as well.

      my bet is that Friedman hasn’t done a lot of research on nat gas. but , basically, this is a big dividing point in “let’s not kill ourselves” circles — some genuinely believe it is an important bridge fuel; some (like myself) believe it is jumping from a 100-story building rather than an 80-story building (maybe save a few seconds there).

      a big thanks to John for calling this out. i might have been a little more explicit about it, but not sure if i’d have done such a good job on this one ;D

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