Between the Lines by David Lias Every day, it seems, things are about to boil over in the Middle East. So you would think we�d be trying our best not to be so dependent on that region of the globe for our energy needs, right?
Think again. We�re doing a lousy job of trying to free ourselves from our addiction to Middle East crude.
Consumption of energy from renewable sources, like the sun, the wind and biological fuels, fell sharply in 2001, the Department of Energy has reported.
Granted, part of this drop can be blamed on one thing we are hard pressed to control � the weather.
The drought has greatly decreased flows of the Missouri River, and other rivers in the nation. Those flows, we all know, turn the turbines of electric generators.
According to the energy department, the drought cut generation of electric power by 23 percent last year. That trend likely is only growing worse, because it hasn�t rained in some parts of the nation, such as western South Dakota, for a long time now.
In a report last month, the department�s Energy Information Administration also said solar equipment was being retired faster than new equipment was being built.
�Back in the late 70s and early 80s, we had very, very large support programs,� said Fred Mayes, who handles data on renewable energy at the energy information agency.
Those programs, begun after the loss of oil from Iran pushed the price to almost $40 a barrel, expired in the 1980s, and �things went into the tank,� Mayes said.
Equipment from the boom years is wearing out, and the base of installed equipment is shrinking, he said.
Biomass, including burning of wood or similar renewable products to produce energy and the use of alcohol fuels, declined nearly 2 percent. The use of wind power grew more than 3 percent.
Over all, consumption of renewable energy fell 12 percent to what the department said was the lowest level in more than 12 years, accounting for only 6 percent of the energy consumed in the country.
Of the renewables, biomass accounted for 50.4 percent of the total and hydroelectric for 41.9 percent. The remainder was from the sun, the wind and geothermal sources.
Many environmentalists say solar and wind power have the greatest potential for growth and for displacing fuels that cause pollution and are suspected of causing changes in the world�s climate.
The solar total is still very small; 36.3 megawatts of capacity were added in 2001. At that rate it would take 30 years to add the capacity of one large nuclear plant.
For the first time since records have been kept, exports of solar cells declined in 2001. That occurred, Mayes said, because the companies that build the cells expanded production capacity in other countries.
Solar cells are still too costly to compete with conventional power, but experts say they are increasingly used to supply small amounts of power in places where connecting to the grid would be costly.
Mayes said he was surprised to find solar cells and batteries being used on the strip in Las Vegas to light bus shelters.
South Dakota is facing its own unique set of challenges. Ethanol has been touted as a way to improve the local agriculture economy and ease some of the nation�s energy woes.
There�s just one problem. South Dakota�s budget problems may make it difficult to fund the development of new ethanol plants in the state.
The South Dakota ethanol plant that was a pioneer for major expansion of the state industry has nearly reached the limits of a government subsidy that helped get it going.
Broin Enterprises Inc. has received state payments of $9,620,636 since its Scotland plant opened in 1988.
State government offers an ethanol subsidy of 20 cents a gallon. Plants may receive up to $1 million a year, and payments end when plants have received a total of $10 million.
Ethanol subsidies were first approved by the 1986 Legislature, but no money was appropriated until 1988.
State assistance is designed to foster ethanol development and keep plants afloat in the early years.
The industry has received $24.4 million in state subsidies since the program first began.
Funding for ethanol production subsidies comes from a fee tacked onto all gasoline, diesel fuel, kerosene and aviation fuel brought into South Dakota.
Legislators re-jiggered the funding this year to provide extra highway money and increase the amount of subsidies available for the state�s expanding ethanol industry.
Annual ethanol funding in recent years has wavered between $1.5 million and $1.8 million, but industry officials asked for more help because some large plants have started up, others are being built and more are planned.
The new funding formula will provide $4 million in the 2003 fiscal year, $5 million in 2004, $6 million in 2005 and $7 million each year thereafter. The law increasing ethanol funding contains a provision that will gradually wean the industry away from state subsidies. Plants not operating by Dec. 31, 2006, will not get the payments.
Based on annual production of plants now operating in South Dakota, it would require $34 million to fully fund the ethanol subsidy program.
We need to face the fact that fully funding the program won�t be possible with the state�s current fiscal woes.
Without innovative thinking in Pierre, we could see a decrease in value-added ag development.
We may find it difficult to increase the amount of ethanol produced in South Dakota.
And, in turn, we likely will remain at the mercy of OPEC for our energy needs.