Going Green: Better Now
by: Nils Stannik
There are very few people nowadays that would honestly argue that renewable energy is neither a necessity nor an inevitability. Granted, there are still some deniers, but clean, renewable energy will undoubtedly play an important role in our nation’s and the world’s future. This is becoming more apparent every day.
That being said, there is still much debate about how soon, how quickly, and how widespread the reach of green technologies will be in our society. Hot on the heels of this in debate often comes the question of how we should approach the implementation of renewable energy (and “green technology” in general). The two schools of thought on this question can be categorized generally as “short-term,” with immediate actions and adjustments on the way, or “long-term,” with public and private sectors collaborating to create a detailed strategy and delaying action until the plan is perfect.
Initially, this may seem like a difficult decision, especially since no one knows exactly how the implementation of green technologies will play out on a large scale. Realistically, however, the short-term approach is the only one that will do the most good.
Firstly, it is likely that any plan developed under the long term approach would not be strong enough to make the drastic changes that we need, due to the burdensome forces of industry and politics. A long-term plan would also not be implemented soon enough to have a positive effect on climate change. Even the most perfect, well thought-out plan executed ten years from now would be too late. We need action now.
A long-term approach is likely to stifle current action and innovation in favor of research and planning.
Although research and planning are necessary parts of any plan, it’s too late to hope we can solve this problem in a lab alone. The problem of climate change will be solved in the field. The Earth continues to warm at an alarming rate, and we have yet to experience the full brunt of the carbon dioxide emitted in the mid- to late 1990s.
Any successful implementation of green technologies must use the capitalist system to its inherent advantage, something a long-term plan would struggle to do. In other words, for renewable energy and other environmentally friendly technologies to be successful, they must have an economic advantage over dirty fuels like coal, oil, and eventually, nuclear, not just a public opinion advantage. Guaranteeing that this will happen — and continuing it over the long term — would mean implementing a required quota for renewable energy production for utility companies to follow and a required “feed-in tariff ”, as exists in many European countries, where home owners are paid far above market value for electricity they generate from their own green solutions, like roof-top solar panels or backyard wind turbines. Both of these encourage the expansion of clean energy without moving contrary to the market and without using the on-and-off clean energy tax rebate system that has failed so miserably in the United States. A long-term plan would require massive amounts of government intervention and runs a greater risk of failure should the government withdraw or should funds run out.
Finally, a successful renewable energy implementation plan requires a constant sense of urgency and of the need for change. Although 100 percent renewable energy production by 2080 may be an excellent goal in theory, it is too far removed from the present for most humans to grasp, especially when our current politicians will be dead by then. Shorter-term (but equally effective) goals like 2 percent carbon-dioxide emission reduction per year and 2 percent more renewable energy production per year are much more effective. An annual goal will create a necessary sense of urgency with the public, politicians, and industry leaders.
It will be argued that today’s renewable energy technologies are simply not enough to feed the world’s growing energy demand, and that an appropriate replacement for coal must be discovered before we dive in head-first. Fundamentally, it is true that today’s renewable energy technologies are not enough to fill our current energy needs; however, this argument doesn’t hold water in a number of ways. What if there is simply no magical replacement for coal? Also, there is always the possibility that replacing coal could only happen through a variety of energy sources, and not some miracle product. If this is the case (which is increasingly likely), we could waste years (if not decades) searching for a Holy Grail of Energy that simply does not exist – years that will cost billions of dollars and irreversible damage to our planet. A combination of a Manhattan Project-size scale up of renewable energy, a world-wide slowing in energy demand growth and the more widespread use of nuclear and hydro power as coal replacements is far more effective than crossing our fingers and hoping for a miracle.
Research, planning, and long-term perspectives are not only important to a healthier planet and better society, they are imperative. The danger arises when we choose research instead of execution, planning instead of action, and long-term perspectives instead of short-term realities. Every day we add 15 million tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Every day we lose 75,000 acres of rainforest to desertification. Every day we lose 70 unique species of flora and fauna. Long-term planning is important, but now is the time to act.
by: Gareth Collins
Clean energy is more than a fad; it is the future of America. Creating vast amounts of carbon-free energy is a necessary precondition for long-term economic growth in the 21st century. Doubters should look no further than the dizzying amount of cash both public and private stakeholders around the world are investing in clean energy. After years of relative inaction, the United States is far from being a leader on energy efficiency. Though, there is good news: with the economy in the toilet and the political will focused on climate change and clean energy, in addition to legislation finally being generated, there exists excellent opportunities for the U.S. to enhance its competitive advantages through smart policies.
Vast amounts of carbon-free energy is a necessary precondition for long-term economic growth.
At present, the utility industry is dominated by coal, a plentiful fossil fuel that is cheap to extract and burn. However, factoring in the atmospheric pollution released during power generation, burning coal is expensive. Scientists and economists have known this for decades but only in recent years have we seen a rapid shift towards clean energy.
States like Texas and California are diversifying their energy portfolios with heavy expansion to wind and solar power, respectively. They are not alone; a majority of states now have laws that mandate increases in clean energy production. These changes are having real impacts. For a variety of reasons, including the rapid expansion of renewable energy, the United States has started to reduce its overall carbon dioxide emissions. According to the Washington Post, CO2 emissions have decreased by 9 percent since 2007. This illustrates how laws with the long-term in mind, such as those that mandate emissions reductions, are precisely what we need right now.
This is hardly the time to get complacent. Although plenty of critical policy innovation has occurred at the state level, the federal government has been slow in throwing its resources behind the green technology revolution in the same way that other countries have. Plenty of progress has been made on regulatory efficiency standards, but many standards do not go far enough.
Take the new Corporate Average Fuel Economy standard (CAFE), for example: the most recent bump in vehicle mpg requirements still leaves the US far behind countries like China, Japan, and Europe. To avoid the worst impacts of climate change, we will need to see dramatic reductions in vehicle emissions. With the only other likely recourse being a dramatic increase in gasoline taxes, which are politically precarious at best, it’s fair to say that CAFE will have to catch up with the rest of the world.
Automakers already have the resources to reduce emissions, y et they do not have the incentives to apply changes to mass production. Electric vehicles are slowly making their way to market, but consumers have to pay significantly more for them. If the government could further subsidize these vehicles, we might see widespread adoption considerably sooner.
How do electric vehicles relate to clean energy? Their greatest advantage is that they can derive energy from a diversity of sources. Imagine powering our nation’s fleet of vehicles with carbon-free energy like wind, solar, geothermal, and nuclear power. The increase in demand for electric power associated with plugging in millions of electric vehicles would have far-reaching effects. Doing this to the auto industry would help spur research for long-term environmental progress. It very well might start a green energy revolution that would create millions of jobs, spur rapid advances in technology, and end our addiction to foreign oil.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world—especially the developing world—could be busy rapidly installing their own 21st century energy infrastructure. This represents a giant economic opportunity for businesses and individuals that specialize in clean energy policy, investments, technology, and construction.
This profitable endgame scenario should be in every policy maker’s mind when she contemplates how her decisions affect energy, the economy, and education. The future is fast approaching, but there are ways in which Washington can bring us there even faster.
The upcoming cap-and-trade bill, while not perfect, would accelerate our transition to a clean energy economy. One of the benefits to the cap-and-trade system is that it incentivizes individual companies to research and develop. Another slightly less prominent (but also relevant) piece of upcoming legislation is Senator Sherrod Brown’s “Investments for Manufacturing Progress and Clean Technology”. IMPACT would create a $30 billion revolving loan fund for states to aid expansion of domestic clean energy manufacturing, and may well be in the final version of the climate bill when the Senate votes.
In this case, the risks of investment are negated by the incredible rewards that come from building an economy around clean energy. Energy is a complex issue that is intertwined with many others, so solving energy problems will inevitably solve other ones. Although current trends suggest that we are already well on our way to a future in which the energy landscape is dominated by renewables, much work remains. If Washington plays its cards right, this work will allow the US to experience massive economic benefits. The clean energy race is on, and the winner stands to reap the reward.
edited by: Eric Eaton