The new administration in Washington is dominated by fossil fuel interests and has resumed the mantra of “Drill, baby, drill!.” Deep sea drilling, mining in protected and sometimes fragile environments, mountaintop removal, fracking, and massive pipeline projects are all back on the table. It’s America first, fast, and fossil-fueled. Meanwhile, Germany goes solar, China is investing major resources in renewable energy, and homeowners all over America are saving big money with rooftop solar arrays.
Burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. Extracting it, shipping it, and burning it all damage the planet. Since almost all human activity damages the planet though, the question is, how much? How irreversible? And can we achieve the same ends with less damage? This last question is one of the arguments for renewable energy. Our economic life is built on energy. It has made human labor less important, human brainpower more important, and made it possible for us to live lives our great-grandparents could not have imagined. The energy use is not going away; most people like the way they live. But our use of energy needs to be made more efficient and less destructive.
Even without environmental destruction such as ecosystem damage and climate change, renewable energy is clearly the next phase of human technological evolution. Just as we went from human-pulled carts to animal labor and from animals to fossil fuels, the next step is electric vehicles powered by renewable energy stored in high-tech batteries. Part of the argument for renewables is price. Even without damaging the environment, and even though the technology of fossil fuel extraction is advancing rapidly, fossil fuels are finite. That means over time they become less plentiful. That time may or may not come soon, but it will come. Demand will continue to rise but at some point supply will drop and prices will soar. The technology of extracting and storing energy from the sun will become cheaper over time. We have already seen this with computers and cell phones. The price of energy from the sun remains zero, and human ingenuity and the advance of technology is inevitable. Someone soon is going to solve the problem of generating and storing renewable energy. If done correctly, the leader of that effort will be the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of the next generation.
The nation that develops renewable energy that is cheaper than and as reliable as fossil fuels will dominate the world economy. Reducing climate change and air pollution is a beneficial byproduct of this technology, but cheaper and more reliable energy is the main outcome. In the past century, America’s research universities and national laboratories, funded by the federal government and often by the military, have been an engine of technological innovation: transistors, semi-conductors, satellite communications, mini computers, GPS, the internet... The list is virtually endless.
America’s scientific research dominates because it is competitive but collaborative, creative, free, peer-reviewed, and because our immigration policy and quality of life has always allowed us to recruit the best scientists from all over the world. Every top science department in this country is global by birth. We need to maintain this research capability for our own sake and for the world’s. Other nations may have education systems that test better, but American education and lifestyles promote creativity and innovation. Today, some of our best minds are working on energy: nanotechnology applied to solar cells and batteries, wind energy, geothermal, carbon capture and storage, and innovations hard to explain to nonscientists like me. This research is largely funded by the federal government and its defunding would be an act of national economic suicide. It also requires recruitment and collaboration from nations all over the world. An “America First” approach is self-defeating here. The benefits of these new technologies will not be “shared” or given away, but sold by companies like Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla—or at least the next decade’s versions of these companies.
Read more at Renewable Energy With or Without Climate Change