Harvesting gas from the dairy air

A cow at the Vintage Dairy in Riverdale, Calif.

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Kai Ryssdal: So far this week on our series "The Climate Race," we have been to the U.K. and to China. Taking a look at how those countries are trying to maximize their green technology profits. Whether next month's climate change meeting in Copenhagen comes up with a substantive agreement or not, the environmental economy is set for a boom. To the tune of trillions of dollars worldwide.

The United States doesn't really regulate greenhouse-gas emissions at the moment. Many American businesses oppose a global treaty that would do that, as well as a law curbing emissions here at home. But some do embrace the idea. Including the West Coast power company Pacific Gas & Electric. Marketplace's Sarah Gardner reports.


SARAH GARDNER: When PG&E talks about making electricity from "natural gas," its customers probably don't know just how "natural" some of it is.

RENEE RIPPCHEN: These are Holsteins. They're actually very happy cows.

Renee Rippchen works for BioEnergy Solutions. Her company is selling PG&E what they casually refer to as "poo power." And they make that power by capturing the methane gas from cow manure, cleaning it up, and feeding it directly into PG&E's natural-gas pipelines.

RIPPCHEN: So one average Holstein will produce around 120 pounds of manure every day. And so we can capture the gas from those cows, and it takes basically two cows to power one average California home.

Every day. Now that's renewable. But cow power isn't the only renewable energy PG&E is buying these days. In the last few years, it's been aggressively signing contracts for wind, solar and geothermal power, too. The idea is to cut its emissions of gases that trap heat and cause global warming. The utility's exploring more sci-fi sort of stuff as well.

CEO Peter Darbee.

PETER DARBEE: One, a satellite-based system where there would be solar collected in space and then transmitted down via microwave. And that certainly would be an exciting breakthrough if it can be accomplished.

But PG&E can afford a little California dreamin'. See, this West Coast utility has never depended on coal, the country's biggest source of global warming emissions. The natural gas it uses for almost half its power supply is much cleaner. It also uses a lot of nuclear and hydropower. The state's year-round sunshine makes solar power viable. Add in a CEO convinced that global warming's a real danger, and you've got a recipe for a greener American power company. But PG&E's not going green just because it can. In California, it's the law.

DAVID VICTOR: PG&E is a highly regulated company. And its regulators and its ratepayers want the company to do more to control emissions of warming gases.

That's David Victor. He's a climate-policy expert at the University of California, San Diego. Victor's referring to a California law that requires utilities to get at least a fifth of their electricity from renewable energy by next year. By 2020, they'll need to get a full third from renewables like solar and wind. Other states have similar mandates but California's is among the most aggressive.

CEO Peter Darbee admits it's been a driving force in PG&E's "green" evolution.

DARBEE: From my own standpoint I think 33 percent is a significant challenge, but we have 10 years to pursue it. I think there's a very reasonable likelihood that we will achieve it.

PG&E is also motivated by a sweeping California law that will ultimately make industries pay for the heat-trapping gases they spew. PG&E actually lobbied for that bill. And it supports similar legislation in Congress. CEO Darbee would like the Feds to flex their muscle even more: when utilities need to build new transmission lines for green power.

DARBEE: And say, yes, we're going to put this in place. We understand it may not be entirely popular with every little locale. But it's in the best interests of the state, the region, and the nation.

So if a utility as big as PG&E can get religion over green energy, what's stopping so many other American businesses? Well, lots of utilities and other big companies don't have the luxury. Many depend on coal, an industry that also provides millions of jobs.

Dan Esty heads Yale's Center for Environmental Law and Policy. He says the gas, coal and oil industries see their economic survival at stake and have spent big bucks to defend their dominance.

DAN ESTY: And they've done it in a variety of ways, traditional lobbying, creating kind of a false impression of lack of clarity around the science, and they've done it the old-fashioned way, with big campaign contributions.

Esty says these efforts to protect the jobs and profits these industries have now have effectively held back American innovation.

ESTY: And there's a real risk that the United States, which has led so many of the recent economic trends, such as information technology, could well be left behind in the race to move to a clean-energy future.

A race companies like PG&E say they want to win.

In San Francisco, I'm Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

About the author

Sarah Gardner is a reporter on the Marketplace sustainability desk.

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