There’s an interesting thought exercise titled Renewable Energy: Shifting Sources of Power initially published in the Government Gazette and reprinted in the Energy Post about the role that renewables can play in global energy policies. This article triggered some thoughts about what renewables do and should mean to energy policies in the USA.
We should think about a day when most of our energy sources for electricity and transportation are renewable sources rather than fossil fuels. Why? Because this is an achievable goal. R&D in solar continues to push the harvest efficiencies of materials upwards so we can expect to see more bang for the buck in equipment. The pace of improvements in solar technologies and decreases in manufacturing and deployment costs is impressive. Other innovative technologies offer new ways to harvest energy from water, providing generation opportunities beyond big dams and other traditionally centralized infrastructure. R&D in energy storage will increase solution options and decrease prices – so the trends that we’ve seen in solar will occur in energy storage – sooner and faster than most projections. And fortunately, we are now seeing financial innovations that are also accelerating the pace of adoption of renewable generation amongst residential, commercial, industrial, and agricultural customer categories.
Continuing with that thought exercise, the establishment of renewables as the majority source of energy for electricity production has major implications on politics – from the local to the global levels. In the USA, it has profound implications on today’s political power infrastructure, national and state energy policies, and our centrally-sourced electricity generation business models.
But all this begs a more fundamental question – why does so much of US energy policy still fixate on fossil fuels? Why not plan an orderly transition to clean renewables, which guarantee energy, economic, and environmental security?
From an energy security perspective, here’s a quick compare and contrast:
Renewable energy sources like solar and wind are free and freely available around the globe. Fossil fuels have extraction and transportation costs, plus costs associated with military protection*.
Renewable energy sources have stable extraction costs – once the equipment is installed, the costs of operating and maintaining the equipment is very predictable. In contrast, fossil fuels have always demonstrated extreme price volatility that jeopardizes economies and countries. In the USA, electric utilities are cautioned against assuming that natural gas prices will always be as low as they are today.
Renewable energy sources like solar and wind do not emit CO2 gases. All fossil fuels do – even natural gas. Efforts to capture or sequester carbon create additional external costs that must be factored into fossil fuel prices.
Renewable energy sources (with the exception of hydro) do not require large quantities of water that then has to be expensively treated to make it potable again. In hydro’s case, the water use is a “pass-through” that doesn’t alter its quality. There’s plenty of concern with fracking – it consumes water, and the lack of transparency from the extractors about the chemicals injected into the earth raise legitimate concerns about the potential for polluting ground sources of water.
The reasons for the fossil fuel fixation include the usual political gridlock and out-sized influence of campaign contributions, but we also have too many stakeholders in the USA who can’t think bigger than the mere substitution of one expensively extracted fossil fuel for another.
We have an opportunity to re-imagine and re-engineer our energy infrastructure into clean sources that are widely available and offer wide market participation. It won’t always be the easy path, but it is the logical one to deliver energy, economic, and environmental security.
* Imagine what it means for the USA if the Navy’s Fifth Fleet is no longer needed to protect Middle East shipping lanes for oil transportation. Wouldn’t American taxpayers be delighted to no longer foot the $60-80 Billion annual cost for that?