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With Green Energy’s Limitations, Scientists Hunt for Alternatives

As the Obama administration highlights the importance of finding and investing in renewable energy, states such as California are trying to determine whether wind, solar and other renewables can replace a significant amount of fossil fuel. Spencer Michels reports.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    Now, more about the renewable energy programs President Obama highlighted today in Denver. In California, there's a push for green sources of power, and that's the subject of our Science Unit story, reported by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels.

  • SPENCER MICHELS, NewsHour Correspondent:

    In what is still cattle country an hour's drive east of San Francisco, turbines turn slowly but powerfully in the winter wind, producing carbon-free electricity using no gas or coal. Bryan Maddock, who maintains the Buena Vista Wind Farm, has been in the industry 18 years.

    BRYAN MADDOCK, Babcock and Brown: The technology has gotten better. The turbines have gotten bigger. You can produce more electricity with fewer numbers of turbines. It's clean, renewable energy.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The question is, can wind and other renewables provide enough energy to replace a significant amount of fossil fuel? That's a dilemma facing utilities nationwide, including Northern California's Pacific Gas and Electric, which provides energy to 15 million customers.

    Right now, almost half of the power PG&E uses comes from burning natural gas; 12 percent comes from renewables. California law requires investor-owned utilities like PG&E to raise that figure to 20 percent by 2010 statewide.

    PG&E's CEO Peter Darbee says his utility is poised to meet that goal.

    PETER DARBEE, CEO, Pacific Gas and Electric Company: We're aggressively working to not only meet the requirements the government has put in place with respect to renewables, but to exceed those targets.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered the target raised to 33 percent by 2020.

    GOV. ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER (R), California: One of the great things about California, of course, is that we always push the envelope. That is why today I am proposing to set our sight even higher.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    No problem, says Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California at Berkeley.

    DAN KAMMEN, University of California, Berkeley: We've already seen a number of countries with resources poorer than ours hit higher targets. Denmark and Germany and Spain are all having wind alone being 20 percent.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The State Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey, who is also optimistic, says the goal should help spur on the industry.

  • MICHAEL PEEVEY, California Public Utilities Commission:

    Those mandates for renewable energy are to stimulate the growth of the solar and wind and geothermal industries and to reduce greenhouse gases. Those renewable energy projects reduce our dependency on coal or on nuclear or on oil.