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Renewable Energy Use Fell in 2001, DOE says

by Matthew L. Wald

New York Times, December 8, 2002

Those programs, begun after the loss of oil from Iran pushed the price of petroleum 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.

This is true though shipments of new equipment have risen in the last few years, analysts say. The number of solar collectors, which gather the sun's heat for uses such as warming swimming pools, has increased sharply in the last few years, including 34 percent in 2001 alone, the department said.

A spokesman for the solar industry, Scott Sklar, agreed with that assessment. But by the Energy Department's estimate, the total amount of solar energy gathered has fallen three years in a row.

The use of photovoltaic cells, which generate electricity with sunlight, is also growing. Domestic installations were up 80 percent last year, the department reported.

Biomass, including burning of wood or similar renewable products to produce energy and the use of alcohol fuels, declined nearly 2 percent. The only form of renewable energy to increase was wind power, which grew more than 3 percent.

Overall, consumption of renewable energy fell 12 percent to what the Energy Information Administration said was the lowest level in more than 12 years, accounting for only 6 percent of the energy consumed in the country, or 5.67 quadrillion British thermal units, out of total consumption of 96.3 quadrillion BTUs.

Of the renewables, biomass accounted for 50.4 percent of the total, hydroelectric power 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. Last year, the growth in the use of wind energy was about the same as the decline in solar production.

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 solar cells expanded their production capacity in other countries, meeting overseas demand with overseas production.

The United States remains a low-cost producer, he said.

Several of the largest domestic producers of solar cells are foreign-owned.

Solar cells are still too costly to compete with power from conventional plants, 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 provide power to light bus shelters. Although the area has electricity, installing solar cells was cheaper than digging up the sidewalks to put in power lines, he said.

Matthew L. Wald
Renewable Energy Use Fell in 2001, DOE says
New York Times December 8, 2002

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