Roadmap to Point B (Part 1)

This post is the first of a two-part series laying out my roadmap to Point B, our future carbon-neutral energy system. This part explores why we need to make the move. The second part, which will be posted next week, makes the case for how we get there.

Think about the ideal future for you and your family. What does it look like? Your details will differ from mine, but I suspect we both want security, good health, and happiness for our families. Would you want any less for our country? Or the planet?

I’m not saying switching to renewable energy sources will make everything rainbows and puppy dogs (or cats, if they are your thing). But the transition will provide energy security, cleaner air, and economic benefits. Sounds like the kind of future I want.

Energy security, or independence, gets thrown around a lot. U.S. oil and gas production is going bonkers thanks to fracking. Since 2010, U.S. oil production has increased by a third, challenging Saudi Arabia’s dominance. I’m sure like me you’ve been enjoying the plummeting petrol prices, now at a national average of $2.38/gal. Politicians tout the recent boom as putting us on the path to energy independence since we are importing less. It’s an illusion. As Jon Stewart so hilariously points out, presidents have been promising we would get off foreign oil at least since Richard Nixon.

These guys (on the left) all promised to break our foreign oil habit (source: The Daily Show)

These guys (on the left) all promised to break our foreign oil habit (source: The Daily Show)

Look at these two charts from the U.S. Energy Information Administration:

crude oil production petroleum imports

In EIA’s reference case, U.S. crude oil production peaks in 2020 and imports start increasing again as a share of our petroleum consumption. As oil prices continue falling, there is already talk of U.S. production declining as fracking is no longer profitable. As our production declines faster than our consumption, we will need to import from those countries still pumping, such as Saudi Arabia. As the price of oil goes back up, the U.S. will pump more again, but other countries will get into the fracking game too. Putting pressure on prices and U.S. production. We’ll continue going through these boom/bust cycles as the cost to get it out of ground swings above and below what it can be sold for. So our country shouldn’t gamble its future on the High Oil and Gas Resource case panning out.

The only way we can have true energy independence is if we only use renewable sources. Think about it. Regardless of the market dynamics, fossil fuels are finite resources. We will never need to import sunshine, wind, or rivers from another country, and these sources are inexhaustible. (Except possibly for rivers, which we could dry up!) Admittedly, there are environmental impacts in producing and disposing of renewable energy equipment. However, there are efforts under way, such as this one by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, to make the industry sustainable from start to finish.

So for true and permanent independence, renewables are the path to a secure future.

The U.S.’s air quality has improved since the Clean Air Act was enacted in 1970. However, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2014 report, which uses EPA data, 147.6 million Americans “live where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breathe.” That is unacceptable.

Where does this pollution come from? There are several culprits (yes, I’m looking at you automobiles), but energy production is one of the worst. According to the EPA, fossil fuel plants are responsible for 70% of the sulfur dioxide emissions that come from burning fossil fuels. For nitrous oxide, the figure is 30% of nitrous oxide, and it’s 40% for carbon dioxide.

While it is true natural gas burns cleaner than coal – and thus it is touted as a bridge fuel to renewables – burning it still contributes 1,135 lbs/MWh (megawatt-hour) of carbon dioxide. So, to offer one example, assuming the 1,212 MW Riviera natural gas plant built earlier in 2014 in Florida runs at peak output 24 hours per day for a year, it will generate 5.5 metric tons of carbon dioxide. That is equal to the emissions from 1.1 million cars.

Our air will become much cleaner when we stop polluting it to produce energy. Renewable energy is projected to provide 24% of the 351 gigawatts of new electrical generating capacity by 2040. Nice, but under this scenario, natural gas would provide 73% during that same period. That’s still a lot of nitrogen oxide and carbon dioxide going into the air.

Want to know how your utility stacks up and how much pollution your electricity use causes? Check out the Power Profiler from the EPA.

Breathing cleaner air, good for you, good for me.

A typical counterargument against expanded use of renewable energy is it will harm our economy. That is just not the case. Study after study, such as this one from the OECD, has shown that a commitment to renewable energy is not only viable, but can stimulate the economy. Predicting the future is hard though and these studies have to make assumptions that you or I may disagree with.

Natural gas is still king, but renewables are gaining quickly (Source: EIA)

Natural gas is still king, but renewables are gaining quickly (Source: EIA)

Say you don’t believe what the researchers are saying. Let’s look at what the market is doing right now. Comparing the installation of new utility-scale energy generating capacity from the first half of 2014 to the first half of 2013:

  • Natural gas declined about 50%
  • Solar was up almost 70% (only includes 1 MW or larger facilities, so doesn’t include smaller on-site residential and commercial installations)
  • Wind was up over 100%

Natural gas is still king, but renewables are gaining quickly (Source: EIA)

Those increases in renewable energy production occurred during a time when 40% less generating capacity was added compared to the previous year. The market is making the move to renewables.

The U.S. prides itself on being an innovator, from the automobile, to the airplane, to computers, to space flight. Renewable energy is an industry ripe for innovation. It is already a job generator:

Energy sector jobs generation rates

Yay, jobs! (source: EIA)

So while the oil and gas boom is ongoing, overall jobs in that sector have actually dropped! Only one energy sector saw job growth, non-hydro renewables. The chart on the left shows that this sector has a long ways to go to catch up to fossil fuels. However, an International Renewable Energy Agency study shows that a global doubling of the share of energy produced by renewables by 2030 results in 900,000 net jobs created annually around the world. In other words, as fossil fuel jobs go away, renewable energy jobs are replacing those jobs and adding even more.

More jobs and more income. I’m no economic psychologist, but I’m guessing that makes for a happier country.

So we’ve talked about how renewable energy can contribute to a more secure, healthier, and happier (in this case, I’m assuming money does buy happiness) future. What I haven’t talked about is that elephant sitting in the corner of the room, climate change. Maybe I’ll talk about renewable energy and climate change another day. My point in ignoring it today is to show regardless of where you stand on climate change, there are plenty of good reasons to support converting our energy supply to renewable sources.

How do we make that conversion? I’ll lay out my ideas for that in my next post.

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