The Future of Energy

Bright Ideas

It's going to take a lot more than changing lightbulbs to get us on the path to sustainability. We investigate the options (solar? nuclear? cow poop?), what's hype, and what's really happening.

| Thu Apr. 17, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Bright Idea Pay 'em not to drill
Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa says his country will leave nearly a billion barrels of oil untapped in the Yasuní, a delicate stretch of rainforest, if rich nations pony up $4.6 billion—half of the expected revenues. Seems like a pump dream, yet Spain has committed $4 million, others are interested, and the Clinton Global Initiative has embraced the project. But even supporters fear betrayal, so Ecuador will issue certificates redeemable if the Yasuní is later exploited. Correa recently approved drilling in another sensitive area, but still, sitting on Ecuador's largest oil prospect would be truly historic.
Mark Engler and Nadia Martinez

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Bright Idea Close the Enron loophole
In some regions, natural gas bills have almost doubled since 2000. Blame Ken Lay and his friends in Congress. Unlike other commodity markets, which are federally regulated, electronic trading on energy markets is immune from government oversight, thanks to a loophole inserted into the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act by an unknown senator acting at Enron's behest. Now investors such as Amaranth Advisors, a hedge fund that controlled more than half of all natural gas deals at one point in 2006, can corner the market and cause rates to skyrocket. Michigan Senator Carl Levin has been trying to close the Enron loophole for five years; he says it soon may be tied up for good.
Rebecca Clarren

Bright Idea Solar-powered malls
Energywise, shopping malls are the Hummers of the retail world. So why not cover those acres of empty roofs and parking spaces with PV panels? Enter Destiny USA, a 1.3-million-square-foot renewable-energy-powered addition to a mall in Syracuse, New York. A solar array covering the parking lot will provide about 12 percent of the power, and the builders say on-site wind, fuel cells, biofuel, and hydroelectric will provide the rest. The project is not purely altruistic: The developer's solar shopping spree is backed by local and state tax breaks and federal green-building bonds.
Joyce Tang

Bright Idea Get Your Utility to Use Less Power
Pacific Gas and Electric bombards Californians with energy-saving tips, rebates for efficient appliances, and even free CFL bulbs. Why would the company prod consumers to pay it less? This strategy is not as absurd as it sounds: The utility is into conservation because it pays off. The state gives PG&E a fixed annual payment for its power, divorcing revenue from sales in a move known as "decoupling." To boost profits, the utility encourages customers to use less energy—and spend less. It works: Energy use per capita has increased nationally over the last 30 years, while the Golden State's has remained flat. Thirteen other states have similar setups. But utility analyst Matt Jordan says the California approach works in part because most of its energy is relatively clean and expensive. In areas where power is dirty but cheap (say, coal), conservation is a harder sell for both consumers and utilities, he says. "If you have an environmental motive and you can't spin it through an economic motive, nothing is going to get done."
Celia Perry

Bright Idea Greening the Pentagon
Say what you will about Guantanamo Bay, but America's gulag gets 30 percent of its power from on-site wind turbines. Surprising? Maybe not, considering the Pentagon, which uses 78 percent of the federal government's power, is also vying to be the country's largest consumer of earth-friendly energy, along with Intel and Pepsi. Nearly 12 percent of DOD facilities' electric consumption now comes from renewables. And the Air Force alone accounts for 40 percent of the entire federal government's renewable energy usage, perhaps because it is trying to offset its profligate use of jet fuel.
Vince Beiser