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Will Clean Energy Ever Be a Reality in the U.S.? Here's What's Standing in Our Way

Wind and solar sources make up almost half of all new electricity generation in Europe, but we're far behind in the U.S. -- so what gives?

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"I see a lot of paralysis in the U.S. on global warming. I don't see a lot of motivation to adapt," says Zweibel. "If I had my druthers, I would have massive solar and wind installations."

Some utilities are resisting efforts to switch over, especially in the Southeast, says Jim Warren, head of NC WARN, a watchdog group based in Durham, North Carolina. A 2007 state law requires 0.2 percent of electricity sold to come from solar power by 2018-but Duke Energy, the largest utility, refuses to buy more than that, he says. In June, a Duke representative told the state utilities commission that the company had already met the minimum and didn't need to do any more.

"It's not only that they won't do it themselves, they're blocking others from doing it," says Warren. "Instead of treating that carveout as a foothold, they're treating it as a cap."

"It's not difficult to do a deal with [Duke]," Richard Harkrader of Carolina Solar Energy in Durham told the Charlotte Business Journal in 2010. "It's impossible."

Meanwhile, Duke is putting $3 billion into building new coal and natural-gas plants. Progress Energy, the other big utility in the Southeast -- which is currently trying to merge with Duke -- is spending $2 billion on new gas plants.

Warren blames the "cost-plus" financing of regulated monopolies, in which power companies are guaranteed a return on their capital investment. "They'd rather have a nuclear-power plant cost $10 billion rather than $8 billion, if they can be sure to pass it on to their customers," he says.

State legislatures enable this, he says, by a policy called CWIP, "construction work in progress." Under this, regulators grant rate increases to cover the construction costs of nuclear plants before they come online. This protects utilities from the fate of the Long Island Lighting Company, which went out of business in 1989 after it spent $6 billion on a nuclear-power plant that never opened because it couldn't develop an adequate evacuation plan for the heavily populated island.

If the market doesn't push renewable energy fast enough, government action is the alternative, but "we don't have a national energy policy," Masia declares. "We make it easy for oil companies to import oil. We make the world safe for drilling in dangerous parts."

The Obama administration slightly increased funding for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, raising its budget to $536 million in fiscal 2010 after it had languished at less than half that amount for most of the Bush era. Still, its main initiative on global warming has been an unsuccessful attempt to enact a "cap and trade" system--essentially, "in exchange for being allowed to operate a coal-fired power plant in Tennessee, we'll buy a forest in Brazil and not cut it down."

Meanwhile, the Republican reaction to talk of climate change resembles children sticking their fingers in their ears and screeching "la-la-la, I can't hear you" -- whether it be Mitt Romney saying "I don't know if it's mostly caused by humans," Rick Perry contending that it's "nonsense" to jeopardize the American economy "based on scientific theory that's not settled yet," or Michele Bachmann claiming that carbon dioxide is harmless because it's "a part of Earth's life cycle." More recently, the far Right has obsessed on the Solyndra loans as outrageous examples of government incompetence and corrupt social engineering.

"We're certainly seeing no leadership from the White House, and worse from other quarters," says Warren.

In January 2009, as Barack Obama was preparing to take office, Denis Hayes, national coordinator of the first Earth Day and now head of the Bullitt Foundation, called for "a national commitment to solar and renewable energy comparable to our mobilization for World War II, when the United States unleashed its scientific creativity and its industrial power to support the war effort."

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