At the beginning of the recession there were many forecasters that foretold a dark future for sustainability after years of increased spending on numerous fronts. The result was quite the opposite, largely due to the amount of stimulus spending that guided money back into sustainable endeavors like renewable energy, home efficiency upgrades and high speed rail. However, now that the spigot has been closed on the unsustainable flow of stimulus dollars and sights are being set on spending cuts, the day of reckoning, though delayed, may finally be approaching for a number of industries. While some sustainable goals may still find success in a marketplace with shallower pockets (notably those that center around saving money) it is likely the most well known items that may suffer the most, challenging the level of frontage and recognition by the average American that greener goals have enjoyed.
Despite a degree of progress, many Americans still associate sustainability with familiar, core products that have become the face of a greener economy. Hybrid or electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines, High Speed Rail, CFLs; outside of that, knowledge of greener choices falls off rather quickly. As the priorities of the economy shift to budget-balancing, the sustainable movement in general may face a test of leading its support and momentum away from high priced, well known consumer products and towards things that are less glamorous but likely just as effective.
These popular icons of sustainability could all face headwinds in the coming year:
Wind Power: After adding a record 10,010 MW of capacity in 2009, wind energy found great success in 2010. Examples are numerous such as Terra-Gen’s $1.2 billion in financing for 1,550 MW of wind energy in California, what will be the largest wind project constructed to date with capacity for delivering power to 275,000 homes. A new 51-turbine wind farm in Honduras is slated to come online in 2012 and will be Central America’s largest. But the party could be over for wind projects as nations look to slim down subsidies in the name of tightening budget. One article at the Guardian points to an analyst report that speculates a 93% drop in off-shore U.K. off shore wind turbines in 2013 from 2012.
Solar Power: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act marked the extension of solar incentives from the federal government that ended up being complimented by state and municipal benefits across the country. The result was a notable expansion in installed MW of solar power which sparked the nation’s first federal approval of a solar plant on federal land—the Imperial Valley Solar Project is slated to have a capacity of 709 MW. But we may be seeing the effects of a slow down indicated by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power when they signaled they would cut solar incentives by 32%. California utility PG&E is reportedly paying only 35 cents per watt installed, down from 75 cents a few years ago.
High Speed Rail: Though stimulus funding brought billions of dollars into new HSR projects, the New York Times reported on numerous newly elected Republican officials that were not disapproving of, but attacking local projects for faster trains. Projects in Ohio, Wisconsin and Florida are among those that sit on the chopping block by their own state politicians. It takes a certain degree of political hatred to turn away free money. Treehugger reports more of the same. In this case, the HSR efforts of the government may have been doomed from the start. As I have discussed before, the haphazard, please-everyone mentality of doling out HSR cash has significantly diluted the opportunity for meaningful, positive effects of a new HSR industry base. Representative John Mica said it well when stating, “The administration squandered the money, giving it to dozens and dozens of projects that were marginal at best to spend on slow-speed trains to nowhere,” citing the funds should be localized to the Northeast. And this guy is a Republican from Florida.
The fact that any or all of these technologies might take a backseat in the coming business cycle is not, in itself, the end of sustainability’s growing cultural strength, but they do comprise the icons that most Americans associate with a greener economy—for better or worse.
Those that have researched sustainability a bit more know that these are just a small piece of what the mindset has to offer. The trick is to get everyone else to realize the same thing. The movement as a whole will have to try and swing its strength away from these stars of the green screen if they fall out of the limelight and shift to a different generation of ecologically responsible efforts. New York serves as a great example. Not being known for a dearth of wind turbines or solar panels, the city has focused on a passive water infrastructure like green roofs and blue roofs, an extensive upgrade in biking infrastructure or congestion pricing to stem car use on the island.
Sustainability proponents should focus on a multi-faceted message that is pliable enough to change with the market in order to avoid condemning the movement to a fad. Similarly, Climate Change/Global Warming is not the silver bullet of sustainable efforts. On the contrary, its monolithic presence can make more enemies than friends. If our environment was not flexible we would have destroyed it by now. Even pro-environment folks can still find lessons to take from natural systems.