We are at a critical point in global energy usage. Global economic growth, and the emissions produced by fossil fuels powering the growth, are spiraling upwards at a dizzying rate. Mammoth-scale power generation and energy usage are a recipe for disaster in the form of climate change.
However, burgeoning interest in renewable energy may avert the crisis. Wind and solar energy technology, around the corner since the 1970\’s, is finally readily available, and continues to improve. Overall energy efficiency is increasing.
Perhaps most promisingly, renewable energy technology works best on in a decentralized, locally based system. The large, capital-intensive infrastructure that supports the fossil fuel energy market is not required by solar, wind, and fuel cell technology, which are well suited for home, neighborhood, and regional power generation.
Some folks, including Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, are calling renewable energy firms the next dot-coms. But therein lies the problem! The technology is being developed largely in a free-market manner that continues to emphasize the very economic growth that is overwhelming the planet. And implementation often depends heavily on government incentives.
The energy revolution must extend all the way from the development stages to installation. We must develop a structure for technology development and implementation independent from the old funding giants that are the cornerstone of the energy status quo.
Renewables are here!
Renewable energy has been a household term for the past two decades. People in the US and Europe overwhelmingly support use of renewable energy. Wind energy is now cost-competitive with the artificially low fossil fuel energy prices. Houses and neighborhoods can be cleanly powered through a combination of photovoltaic (PV), wind, and hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Energy captured by wind turbines and PV panels can be used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis. Energy is stored in the form of hydrogen gas, which can be recombined with oxygen later in a fuel cell to generate electricity. Fuel cells can use other fuels than hydrogen, like methane and other natural gasses, with relatively few emissions.
However, when fuel cells use hydrogen, the only products are heat, pure water, and an electric current. Pretty neat, huh? This technology is all available today, and continues to improve rapidly.
Energy status quo
With such promising technology, why does oil and coal still dominate the energy market? Why is renewable energy just now seriously emerging? Fossil fuels still supply 85% of US energy and 75% world-wide.
This dominance was launched by two key technological developments: that of the internal combustion engine and of electric power, both at the (previous) turn of the century. The economic growth fueled by the petroleum industry, the automotive industry, and world-wide electrification shaped our contemporary world, complete with global warming and environmental and indigenous peoples\’ destruction.
This harmful growth burgeoned with the cheap oil available during the 1950\’s and 60\’s. Few paid attention to the fact that complex worldwide economic and social structures were increasingly dependent upon one fuel, available primarily in one part of the world. The petroleum industry gained tremendous political influence in the US and elsewhere.
With the oil crises of the 70\’s and 80\’s, governments and industry were forced to think about non-petroleum ways to satiate their addiction to economic growth. But because of the overwhelming focus on oil and coal, the technology for a large-scale shift to truly renewable energy was not yet available. The Carter administration funded a number of crash efforts into renewable energy development, but none of these were successful because the efforts were biased by the existing fossil fuel infrastructure.
And, of course, most of the research funding went to nuclear power, progeny of the defense industry and major mining companies like Kerr-McGee.
Independent US companies did in fact develop quite a bit of renewable energy technology, but it was all shipped to Europe. The US and many other industrialized countries chose to use more coal to meet the market share neglected by oil. Then oil prices dropped and everything was \”fine\” again.
European green energy
European countries responded much differently to the 70\’s oil crisis. With an established environmental consciousness, and without such strong oil and coal lobbies, European governments made a commitment to green power through systems of tax incentives and mandated green power purchases. Until recently, most renewable technology used in Europe was actually produced in the US. Recently, European firms have taken over their market.
Does green power require large Euro-style governmental support? Yes and no! Wind power, for example, has been most successful in Denmark, where turbines were first developed in the early 1980\’s by local agricultural engineers as a craft. More than 75% of Danish wind farms continue to be owned locally. Because the power is used locally, there is little \’not in my backyard\’ opposition. Local ownership has also been key in German wind power development.
In contrast, in the UK, although the public largely supports wind power, only 22% of wind projects have been implemented, because locals object to ownership by a national utility.
However, some kind of government investment in green power, whether on European Union or local scale, has to this point been important in establishing renewable energy as a major power source. Despite selected public opposition, renewable energy is much more widely used in Europe precisely because of the EU\’s commitment. Without some kind of a guaranteed market, such as that provided by a government power purchase, profit-blinded energy corporations are reluctant to invest in an unexplored market.
Renewable energy is actually beginning to surface in the mainstream energy mire. \’Sustainability\’ has replaced \’national security\’ as the energy industry buzzphrase.
Groups as diverse as Royal Dutch/Shell, the World Energy Council, and Greenpeace are considering scenarios including renewable energy. In 1995, Shell experts estimated that by 2060, 50% of energy used would be green. Greenpeace advanced a plan to reduce fossil fuels to a third of energy generation by 2030, completely phasing them out by 2100. Other groups estimate that by 2050, increases in energy efficiency will cut our energy consumption in half.
What?! Why is Shell talking about sustainability? The energy industry refers to sustaining the economy, not to sustaining life. The energy industry recognizes that a transition to renewables must occur at some point; they want to engineer the shift in order to maximize their profit…. or minimize their losses. The industry recognizes that, as in any major cultural shift, there will be some winners and some losers. They want to win, at all costs.
Massive social, political, and economic change are required to thwart their schemes. How can the technology that will facilitate such massive social change be developed by capitalist energy firms most interested in garnering a greater market share? To fully establish a renewable, sustainable energy scheme, economic growth must be de-emphasized, and de-coupled from energy consumption. The focus must be on quality of life, which is NOT dependent on astronomical economic growth and energy consumption. We must use less energy and increase efficiency.
The energy behemoth must be forced to veer off its current course, and must eventually be decapitated. Governmental incentives are the cattle prod; direct action is the guillotine.