Alternative Energy: Will U.S. Lead or Follow?

E.ON Energy's windfarm in Roscoe, Texas - the biggest windfarm in the world.
Imagine a future in which abundant energy could be ours, simply by harnessing the wind, or capturing sunlight, or tapping into the heat of the Earth itself. Seth Doane explores America's alternative energy hopes and challenges:

In the wake of the CBS News. "It's gonna drive the price up. It's gonna have higher risks, environmental risks." Chu sees the Gulf oil spill as a tragedy, of course, but also as something else."I think it's an opportunity to say, 'Look, let's look long term; where do you want to go? Where do you want to be?'" He sees it as an opportunity."The United States has an opportunity to lead in what I consider to be essentially a new industrial revolution."Innovators and entrepreneurs are already pushing the envelope to come up with the energy of the future. Things like torpedo-shaped machines which collect energy from wave motion; turbines placed on the bottom of New York's East River to harvest the energy in the motion of the current; algae farms which convert the fast-growing plant into diesel and jet fuel."It is absolutely an engine for growth, for job creation, for all these things," says Chu.Asked by Doane if the U.S. isn't too far behind already - behind China, behind India -- Chu was honest but optimistic: "We can catch up. But another five years of stalling, I'm a little bit afraid."Increasingly, China is taking the lead. The vast nation is planning to spend $450 billion to develop alternative energy. But the U.S. was once the pioneer.California's Sonoma Valley is world famous for its vineyards, but beneath the picturesque hills, it's hardly tranquil. There's a huge, natural reservoir of steam trapped deep below the surface. "We're using the heat of the Earth, that's what geo-thermal means, heat of the Earth," explains Mike Rogers, of the Calpine Corporation, which runs "The Geysers" -- the largest complex of geothermal energy plants in the world. In the hills north of San Francisco, wells two miles deep are drilled through bedrock, and 90 miles of pipes weave in and out of the mountains, carrying the natural steam to power turbines on the surface."In terms of size, The Geysers provides enough power for a city about the size of San Francisco," says Rogers.And it's clean energy. Calpine claims their plants emit just one twentieth of the pollution of a coal fired plant.While geothermal plants are best suited to unique regions, there are far more accessible options, including wind."When we first started looking at this site, I mean, it was just basically cotton fields, as far as the eye could see," recalls Patrick Woodson, looking over the tiny, West Texas town of Roscoe, where oil rigs once dotted the landscape. Now, there's a new energy boom."This is the biggest wind farm in the world. It encompasses more than 85,000 acres. It's more than 25 miles from north to south and, geographically, it's bigger than the actual city of Manhattan," boasts Woodson, who is in charge of development for E.ON Energy. There are 627 turbines in their wind farm, each one can power between 300 and 650 homes. From a distance, it's hard to appreciate how enormous the turbines are; some 40 stories high with blades that span nearly the length of a football field.The United States is the world leader in wind energy, and while it's still relatively expensive to produce, with new technology, costs are coming down."We're just tapping into the very beginnings of potential with wind," says Woodson. "Texas gets about seven percent of its energy from wind power. Nationally, we're less than three percent.""We need a national policy... to really give us some direction on where we're gonna go," he adds.But agreeing on a national policy won't be easy. Not everyone likes the idea of giant windmills or solar arrays dominating the horizon. Geothermal plants can cause minor earthquakes, and the coal and petroleum lobbies spend millions to protect the status quo."You know, we've passed three energy bills in the last ten years and none of them have done a damn thing to get us a brighter energy future," laments Fred Krupp. "They're all little steps, baby steps. They're all presents for the lobbyists."Krupp heads the Environmental Defense Fund. He hopes this autumn, the Senate will once again consider a landmark climate and energy bill which could finally give alternative energy a fighting chance by setting tough pollution limits on power-plants.

"That simple requirement, that pollution would come down dramatically over the years, would be the biggest boost for renewable energy," says Krupp, "because it creates a level playing field that says, 'however you produce electricity, we're gonna require you to produce it without dumping the smut into the sky.'"

That level playing field is price: forcing coal producers to clean up their plants will drive up costs which, in turn, will bring alternative energy prices more in line.

The bill is a priority for President Obama, who's visited a solar station in Florida, a hi-tech battery facility in Michigan, and recently taken a spin in a new car that has a lot riding on it.

GM's Chevrolet Volt is the first mass-market electric car produced in the United States. Andrew Farah is chief engineer of the Volt, which hits showrooms in November. He hopes this car will finally take the edge off America's appetite for oil.

GM designed the Volt to go 40 miles on a single charge, based on government statistics that show nearly 80 percent of Americans drive fewer than 40 miles per day, and when the battery runs out, it automatically switches to gasoline.

"If you drive less than 40 miles a day, you get unlimited, or infinite miles per gallon," explains Farah.

So what does he say to skeptics who think they've heard of this electric car business before, and it never took off?

"What I'd say, is you've heard about the electric car that was only able to do a very limited thing," he answers. "With the Volt, you're going to hear about an electric car that can be everything you're used to."

Whether it's electric cars, wind, or solar energy - while Washington debates, inventors, and investors, wait for a signal this country is finally getting serious about clean, renewable energy.

For more information:
U.S. Dept of Energy
Old Faithful Geyser of California
Environmental Defense Fund
Chevrolet Volt
Pelamis Wave Power
Verdant Power
Sapphire Energy, Inc.