Renewable Energy: What's True, What's False

by |January 7, 2019

A short, handy new guide from the Earth Institute cuts through the noise about renewable energy to lay out the facts about this politically charged subject. In Renewable Energy: A Primer for the Twenty-First Century, Columbia Business School professor and energy entrepreneur Bruce Usher takes readers briskly through the essentials: how various forms of renewable energy work, how much they cost, where they stand in relation to still-dominant fossil fuels, and where they are likely to go.

Usher largely eschews morality-tinged arguments about the imperative for “green” power, concentrating instead on economics and technology. He spices it up with weird historical surprises. (The ancient Chinese tried, and failed, to build natural-gas pipelines from sections of bamboo. The first English to burn coal were not the rich, but the poor, who couldn’t afford wood from fast-disappearing forests. In 1900, one-third of U.S. vehicles were electric; only after internal-combustion engines saw big improvements did gasoline take over.) He also gets into the minds of energy consumers, explaining terms  such as “range anxiety”–the greatly exaggerated sense that an electric car may run out of juice before the driver can recharge it.

Published by Columbia University Press, the book is the first in a series of sustainability primers with the Earth Institute imprint. Future planned ones will take on food and farming; mining; tropical forests; and conflict resolution.

We spoke with Usher about where renewable energy is now, and what to expect in coming years.

Your book approaches energy mainly in economic and technological terms. How fast is renewable energy growing, and why? Should people stop arguing for it mainly on moral “save-the-planet” grounds?
Renewable energy is growing faster than any other form of power, more than 8 percent annually for the past 6 years. This is happening in nearly every country, and for the same reason: renewables are increasingly cost competitive. Which is not to say that economics is the only reason for supporting renewables. Wind and solar power play a critical role in the fight against climate change, which I believe is a moral imperative for anyone who cares about future generations. But the moral argument isn’t enough, because electricity is a commodity, meaning that most consumers cannot readily determine where their electricity is coming from. We all know a plastic bag when we see one, and on moral grounds some people choose reusable ones. Renewables and fossil fuels produce the same electrons. So like any commodity, consumers are going to choose primarily on the basis of price.

You dig into what you call the “virtuous cycle” of growth in certain energy sectors. Is that not a moralistic theory?
No, a virtuous cycle in business occurs when growth in demand for a product results in economies of scale that lower manufacturing costs, further increasing demand for the product. For example, in solar power it means that the lower the cost of manufacturing solar panels, the greater the demand, and the greater the demand the greater the manufacturing efficiencies and the lower the cost, which further increases demand, and so on, in a feedback loop. That’s a virtuous cycle.

Which forms of renewable energy are growing fastest? Which are lagging and why?
By far the strongest growth is in wind and solar. Globally in 2017, wind grew 10 percent and solar grew by 32 percent This continued many years of double-digit growth. They are reliable, inexpensive, and inexhaustible. Tidal and wave power have tremendous potential but are yet to be proven at scale. The oceans contain enormous energy that can theoretically be harnessed. However, doing so has turned out to be costly.

You book largely writes off hydropower and nuclear.
In theory, nuclear could provide cheap and emissions-free power, but today’s power plants cost a multiple of wind and solar, despite efforts to develop better plants. And that’s not taking into account the unpopularity of siting nuclear plants, or the challenges of disposing of nuclear waste. Hydropower, on the other hand, is currently the largest single source of renewable energy, and is often cost competitive. But the primary problem there is that most of the world’s best rivers already have dams, leaving few growth opportunities. Last year, hydropower grew by less than 2 percent. I believe hydropower will remain an important component of the energy mix, but it’s unlikely to significantly replace fossil fuels, due to the limits on further development.

The Trump administration is doing everything it can to increase use of fossil fuels, and wants to pull out of the Paris climate accords. On state levels, utility industry lobbyists are trying to keep solar panels off homes. What effects might these efforts have?
In the long term, they will have no effect on the transition from fossil fuels to renewables and electric vehicles. But the Trump administration will have a significant long-term effect on something far more important: the planet. The challenge of climate change is one of timing, in that the longer we put off reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, the greater the warming and the more difficult it becomes to stabilize the climate system. President Trump and some state and utility lobbyists are slowing down the transition. In the long term, the economic fundamentals will overwhelm these short-term policy headwinds. Unfortunately, we don’t have long. Slowing the transition by a decade or more will likely make it nearly impossible to hold global temperatures from increasing more than 2 degrees Celsius, saddling the U.S. and every other country with severe environmental damage and enormous economic costs. For example, the real estate firm Zillow has projected that by 2050, which is the lifetime a 30-year mortgage, more than 386,000 American homes collectively worth $210 billion will be at risk of chronic flooding from rising seas.

You say that developing countries will be undoubted winners in the move to renewable energy, but the United States and Europe might win or lose. Please explain.
Developing countries have a significant advantage, in that much of their energy infrastructure is yet to be built. Instead of having to replace expensive fossil fuel facilities, they can build renewables on what so-called “greenfield” sites. It is like the mobile phone sector, which in most developing countries has leapfrogged landlines. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 2 percent of people have access to landlines, but nearly everyone now has a mobile phone. Similarly, solar home systems are growing extremely rapidly in many of the world’s poorest countries, providing power to places that never had it. The U.S. and Europe, on the other hand, will have to replace fossil-fuel infrastructure, at a time when total demand for electricity has been flat for over a decade, due to growing energy efficiency. Replacing existing infrastructure also leads to competition with companies that have sunk money into coal and natural gas generation. On the plus side, both the U.S. and Europe have advanced technology development capabilities, leading commercial enterprises, and access to capital markets. Whether they will win or lose primarily rests on government. Policies that support industry in making the transition will improve the odds. Ones that slow it will have the opposite effect. Implementing effective policy is challenging even in countries that support the transition, as recently evidenced by the protests in France against rising taxes on gasoline. In the U.S., the politicized debate over climate change is overshadowing the economic fundamentals. It’s taking the country backwards, at the same time China and other competitors move ahead.


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