Why Renewable Energy Will Replace Fossil Fuels

by |July 17, 2017
Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert

Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen on the Huffington Post.

I am often a little amazed when I find renewable energy skeptics pointing out that without government incentives, renewable energy would not be competitive with fossil fuels, as if fossil fuels have not benefited from a series of public policies that greatly facilitated their development and adoption. Electric and gas utilities are monopolies regulated at the state level. Permission to operate and not compete and policies setting prices and assured return on capital investment are all provided by the government. Public service or public utility commissions operate in each state to protect the interests of those that generate and distribute electricity and natural gas. Then there is the oil depletion allowance, and the government’s huge investment in interstate and local highways. And of course, there was the billion-dollar bailout of the American auto industry, which the last time I looked makes products that are mostly powered by fossil fuels. All these initiatives are driven and funded by government, all a result of public policies designed to bring energy to the widest possible number of people. So please, no more nonsense about competing on the so-called level playing field. American capitalism has never been pure; we have always had a mixed economy. Government has long picked “winners and losers.”

There is good reason for fossil fuel folks to be nervous. Time is not on their side. People know that they need fossil fuels―I certainly did today when I put gas in my car―but most of us wish we had alternatives to these earth-damaging sources of energy. The market for alternatives is there and it will displace fossil fuels when (not if) renewable energy technology becomes cheaper and more convenient. At the start of 2017, Pew conducted a poll on attitudes toward renewable energy and in March 2017 Gallup conducted a similar poll. According to Gallup’s Frank Newport, the poll reported that:

  • “59% say protecting environment is more important than traditional energy
  • Over seven in 10 favor development of alternative energy vs. oil, gas, coal
  • Majority favor higher emissions standards, enforcement of regulations”

Gallup’s poll confirmed similar results in the Pew poll, but Pew drilled down deeper and found partisan differences in views on energy. Pew found that the only group favoring fossil fuel development over renewable energy development was conservative Republicans. But partisanship was only one part of the story: Pew’s most significant finding was that age is a significant factor in attitudes toward renewable energy. The strongest support for renewable energy was from those aged 18-29. Among young people, 75% favored alternative energy compared to 19% interested in developing new sources of fossil fuels. Among those 30-49 years old the numbers were 72% renewable compared to 24% fossil. Even those 50-64 emphasized renewable over fossil fuels by 59% to 32%, and among those 65 and older, renewables were still favored by 50 to 38%. The only outliers were conservative Republicans. They still want to “drill baby drill.” Unfortunately, those fossil fuel zealots are the people controlling the three branches of the federal government.

Gallup’s explanation for the survey results is that fuel is so plentiful and cheap that people are willing to explore alternatives. While I am sure that is true, that does not explain the age effect. Why are young people so much more anti-fossil fuel and pro-renewable energy? I believe it is because they understand the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels. They have lived their entire lives understanding these impacts and they believe that technology can help reduce those impacts. Young people have a fundamental belief in the transformative potential of new technology.

Gallup’s view that good economic news leads to greater support for environmental protection must be viewed in light of Pew’s age cohort analysis. Young people tend to have the fewest economic resources so economic plenty does not explain their view. Moreover, if the young maintain these views as they age, the views of older, more fossil fuel oriented people will be replaced by the views held by today’s millennials.

Our economy is built on energy, and assumes energy will be reliable, accessible and relatively inexpensive. Transitioning away from fossil fuels will be a long process. But it is a transition that young Americans strongly support. People raised in a world of constant technological change have a different attitude toward technology than those raised in an era of gradual technological change. Young people are constantly learning how to use new software programs and how to make the technologies they use function correctly. People my age frequently rely on younger people to explain how to set up and fix those programs and technologies. New applications arrive, new forms of social media fall in and out of style, and these remarkable changes are considered quite ordinary by millennials who have grown up with constant change.

The expectation that climate change, toxics and pollution are simply the price of modern life and can’t be changed makes no sense to people whose life experience has been constant change. Global warming, sea level rise, massive floods, fires and storms are a way of life; from Fukushima to Hurricane Sandy; from California’s recent drought to floods in the Midwest. Some of these conditions are natural and some are human induced. All need to be more effectively addressed with investments in stronger and more resilient infrastructure. But the idea that business as usual is acceptable is not accepted by the young people who will experience more of the impacts of climate change than old people will. People know that fossil fuels cause climate change and pollution and they want a new way to power their homes and businesses.

While people would like to see an alternative to fossil fuels, that does not mean they will use them if they become available. The alternatives must be convenient, reliable, and relatively inexpensive.  We all have sunk costs in current energy investments: our car, our water heater, and the rest of the appliances in our homes; these are barriers that will slow the transition to a new energy system. The electric car will need to be better and cheaper than the internal combustion car if it is to take over the market. That is true for renewable energy at home. But these technologies are improving on a daily basis. The electric version of the Model T is coming and it will transform personal transportation. Home battery storage is improving its reliability and coming down in price. As these technologies improve, they will drive fossil fuels from the marketplace.

I am convinced that this transition is coming but know it would be a whole lot faster if we didn’t have a president who equated fossil fuels with wealth and national might. The effort to revive the fossil fuel industry in the United States is not helpful and we may lose our technological advantage in the renewable energy innovation race. But China, Japan, India and Europe are more than ready to fill in for us if we falter. Japan has no fossil fuels and is desperate to wean itself from nuclear in an energy politics dominated by the Fukushima disaster. There are plenty of alternatives to the U.S. federal government working right now to develop renewable energy.

Renewable energy will replace fossil fuels because they will be less expensive, as reliable, and as convenient as fossil fuels. The polls indicate that the latent market for renewables in already in place. The issue is not if, but when. The health of our planet requires that this transition take place as soon as possible. Government incentives could and should be used to accelerate this process. In the United States, these incentives will need to come from states and cities since it is clear our dysfunctional federal government will do little or nothing to help.

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6 thoughts on “Why Renewable Energy Will Replace Fossil Fuels

  1. Ian Coleman says:

    This is one of those (all too common) articles where the writer insists that he wants to happen must happen, even though there is little evidence that It will. Mr. Cohen apparently thinks that, since young people desire renewable sources of energy, these must inevitably come to exist. But the development of renewable fuels is not a problem of consumer demand. It is an Engineering problem, and is subject to the constraints of the physically possible. I’m sure people wanted flying machines in 1800, but that in no way meant that the invention of flying machines was imminent.
    The problem is, renewables like wind and solar are intermittent, and thus useless for practical generation of electrical power. Get it? They don’t work. And not only that but they must cost at least twice as much per unit of energy as fossil fuels. Mr. Cohen wants governments to deliberately make fossil fuels more expensive by (in effect) fining people for consuming them. An obvious feature of this scheme is that operating a motor vehicle would become something that only affluent people could afford. See? That’s something that environmentalists never actually admit, because it would expose the clear class bias in their thinking.

  2. Ian Coleman says:

    Saying that we will inevitably develop a reliable, economically feasible source of energy that does not produce air pollution is like saying that we will inevitably find a cure for cancer. These are physical problems, and there may be no solution to them.

    Here’s what I think will probably happen: After about ten more years, when it becomes obvious that there are no nonpolluting sources of energy and that attempts to produce them are expensive failures, and when there aren’t any climate disasters in developed countries, we’re just going to accept the continued consumption of fossil fuels and politely pretend that we never were all that worried about climate change in the first place. The whole thing is going to be like the Y2K bug or the heterosexually driven AIDS epidemic. A monster-under-the- bed story that was fun for a while but which we will eventually outgrow.

  3. GuitarMan says:

    Ian, your clearly in the fossil fuel industry and your comments reflect that. Statistically, renewables are growing 12x vs non renewables. This is FACT.

    You can delay, deny and spread FUD, but the market has spoken, #renewables

  4. Ian Coleman says:

    But GuitarMan, the market cannot magically produce that which is desirable merely because people desire it. For example, there is a huge and lucrative market for weight-loss programs and products. The sellers of these make a profit, and they have plenty of customers, but they don’t actually work in the long term. Essentially what the buyers of weight loss programs and products pay so dearly for is hope.

    The question remains, is it possible to produce electrical power more cheaply than, say, coal, by means that do not cause air pollution? Aside from nuclear and hydro, no. Environmentalists tell us that, once we make a commitment to wind and solar, economies of scale will kick in and cause their costs per kilowatt-hour to drop. Let’s see how well that works in Germany, as the Germans have now embarked on a practical experiment to see if it is so.

    Keep in mind that the problem is global. If China and India must burn fossil fuels to bring industrial prosperity to their citizens, that will happen, and there’s nothing anyone in the West can do about it. Not even declare war, as China and India have nuclear weapons. The Chinese and the Indians are a market too.

  5. Ian Coleman says:

    The other mistake Mr. Cohen is making is that he is overestimating consumer demand for clean energy. Discussions of climate change were all but absent from the last presidential campaign (which produced an outcome that I suspect neither Mr. Cohen nor anyone he knows personally would have predicted in October of 2016). Most people care more about the obesity epidemic than they do about climate change.

    I will guess that, if you were to round up a sample of people who have children and ask them to name their greatest concern, very few would say climate change. And those who do will turn out to have high incomes and stable employment. People like, oh, I don’t know, tenured college professors. Or people like Leonardo DiCaprio, who are wildly out of touch with just about everybody who is not extremely wealthy.

    So sure, young people will say that they are concerned about climate change, but they will have been recently indoctrinated in that position in college, and they will not yet have run full force into the difficulties that most adults face in earning a living. Plus, they will believe that they have a moral duty to care about climate change, which will taint their ostensible concern with it with a certain amount of vanity and moral posturing.

    I will say this for Mr. Cohen: he understands that the principles of Economics are not just arbitrary inventions that we can set aside when they are no longer convenient. He’s not an outright fantasist, like the appalling Bill McKibben, who seems to think that material desire is just an annoying vice like smoking or overeating, and that we can stamp it out with the proper application of fascism. But reasonable and temperate as Mr. Cohen is, he’s making some very large and Panglossian assumptions.

  6. Ian Coleman says:

    I’m going to have to admit that I have (belatedly) figured out that Mr. Cohen is more formidable, honest and wise than I thought. Like, he could be right and I could be wrong. Ow, ow, that smarts.

    It turns out that Mr. Cohen is skeptical of carbon pricing, as both politically shaky and essentially unproductive in forcing the conversion to green energy. So when I accused him of being in favour of carbon pricing I was wrong by reason of ignorance by reason of not having done any reading of Mr. Cohen’s prior writings. Oops.

    Mr. Cohen’s basic premise, of course, is that engineers and other scientists will eventually develop green energy sources that will displace fossil fuels as a simple matter of marketplace economics. I consider that a Jules Verne story. But it turns out that the Germans actually are generating 30 percent of their electrical energy from wind turbines (and perhaps solar cells). They have figured out how to do this reliably and continuously, without power blackouts. I’m impressed. Also embarrassed at how incorrect I was about the nature of these sources of energy.

    And of course government intervention in the form of subsidies must play a part in these advances. This has always been a fact of life in capitalist economies. Consider the example of the development of jet aircraft in the United States: In 1945, the United States military had no jet aircraft at all. By 1958 there existed usable military fighter jets (and the B-58 bomber) that could reliably go twice the speed of sound. This mighty surge in technical prowess was only possible because it was underwritten by the United States government.

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