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Renewable Energy Is The Future. So Why Are We Still Stuck In The Past?

Wind turbines in Germany.
Wind turbines turn in front of the setting sun in Biebesheim, some 50 km south of Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018.
Michael Probst/AP

We often hear how important green technology is for our future, but we don’t seem to take it very seriously. Renewable energy contributes only 12.2 percent to total energy consumption in the United States, a proportion that has barely shifted since the turn of the century. If renewables are the way of the future, why haven’t we seen more growth over the past two decades?

The transition to renewables itself is a dramatic change, and it comes with a huge economic challenge. Xinyu Chen, a research associate at Harvard University, recently published a paper regarding this challenge.

“This paper is really addressing the challenges of the power market structure, and correspondingly the revenue sufficiency for the renewables at their penetrations,” Chen said in an interview. “This market works well for the traditional fossil fuel dominant structure, and then things start to change when the penetrations of renewables start to increase.”

Chen observed that, in the United States, the more we invest in wind and solar energy, the less payback we will get from the wholesale market. He believes that this is alarming for energy policymakers, renewable energy investors and system operators alike.

While environmentalists and climate skeptics are still debating the reality of climate change, the earth is not so patient. The planet is fighting back with powerful, high-frequency storms, wildfires, and droughts. Because the burning of “dirty” energy — fossil fuels — is the primary cause of anthropogenic climate change, the transition to a clean energy system is now more necessary than ever.

Chen’s paper is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of this energy transition.

“The fossil fuel industry, specifically, is the most profitable industry in the history of mankind,” said Alex Lawton, an analyst with BlueWave Solar, in an interview. When it comes to the transition to a clean energy system, he concluded that “it’s going to be the most disruptive and kind of largest transition I think that the economy will ever experience.”

BlueWave Solar, based in Boston, is one of the many renewable energy corporations in the United States, and it — along with the solar and wind power industries in general — has an important issue to solve: climate variability. The sun is not shining all the time, and the wind is not blowing all the time. These limited weather conditions mean that wind and solar can only be reliable if we can harness the power to generate a stable output of electricity.

Battery storage, Lawton said, is one of the key solutions for the misalignment between the supply and demand curves for solar energy. But when it comes to its scalability, unfortunately, we still have a long way to go.

“Lithium-ion batteries are perhaps going to be the most important when it comes to transportation and electric vehicles,” Lawton said. “But in terms of larger utility-scale storage, I don’t think there is a really effective solution to that at this moment in time.”

Lawton also suggested that having a diverse portfolio of renewable technology powering the electricity grid would be a more balanced approach to match the demand curve. On the other hand, Benjamin Zycher, a resident scholar from the American Enterprise Institute, said in a phone interview that because solar power can’t be scheduled, it has to be “backed up with conventional power plants, usually gas, in order to avoid blackouts.” He said that the backup plants aren’t run efficiently because they have to cycle up and down, and therefore they produce more pollution. He concluded that the belief that renewable energy is “clean” is just simply wrong.

In an article in National Review, Zycher wrote, “there are noise and flicker effects of wind turbines” and “there is wildlife destruction caused by the production of renewable power.” While these are minor problems relative to the tremendous damage fossil fuels can cause in the long run, they are, nevertheless, issues. Fortunately, people are already building wind turbines that are far away from residential areas and finding out ways to protect birds from them.

A dramatic shift in the energy system would face enormous challenges coming from all sides — economic, political and technological. Huge amounts of resources such as materials, workforce and funding are also required. So why are people still trying to make the transition happen?

Because in the long run, the benefits would outweigh the costs. From the environmental side alone, there is more than enough merit to transition toward a renewable energy system.

It’s no secret that the emission of carbon dioxide causes climate change. But the extent to which this takes place may come as a surprise. We have the potential to melt the entire Antarctic Ice Sheet if we burn all the remaining fossil fuels under the ground. This could potentially result in sea level rising by 200 feet, which is enough to drown most major cities in the world.

Unfortunately, the consequences of our pollution extend even further. The link between anthropogenic climate change and an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events is well-established. While we cannot directly attribute Hurricanes Harvey and Sandy to climate change, they certainly show how destructive these threats can be.

“We have two storms this year that made sea level rise here … the basement of this building was flooded,” recalled Alistair Pim, vice president of the Northeast Clean Energy Council, sitting in his office in Boston. He believes that having energy resources that are more sustainable and emit fewer greenhouse gases is critical. In other words, our current energy system is simply unsustainable long-term.

From an economic perspective, the shift to a clean energy economy could be a huge business opportunity. Studies have found that the clean energy transition could lower the U.S. fossil fuel bill by nearly $700 billion per year in the 2040s. It could also create roughly 1 million extra jobs in the coming decades.

When asked about the long-term benefits of a clean energy economy, Lawton messaged me, saying that “renewables have less externalities associated with them, meaning the price of fossil fuels are artificially low because they displace costs associated their production and consumption on to society.” He also figured such an economy would allow us for stable, sustainable growth, unlike the current energy system.

The challenge is there, but we should be optimistic about our prospects. Pim noted during his interview that “technology has a habit of going up these S curves,” referring to the rapid growth that clean technology is expected to undergo after a slow initial period.

Renewable energy certainly has its limitations. What it carries, however, are the long-term benefits that will hopefully be realized when it takes over fossil fuels. The current energy system, on the other hand, prioritizes short-term economic revenues over all else. It really is time to realize that the path forward from both an economic and environmental perspective is through green technology.

Si Wu is a graduate student in POV: The Art and Craft of Opinion Journalism, a class taught by WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

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