Over the past two years I’ve spent working on the book, the most frequent question I’ve gotten from friends, family, and the occasional curious blog reader goes something like this: “is renewable energy for real, or is it just another hippie fad.” It’s a legitimate question, because for many people, renewable energy is something they hear a lot about but don’t really see or experience in their lives. They may read about some big new solar project or controversy surrounding the Cape Wind project in the waters off Cape Cod, but the bulk of their electricity still comes from good (or not so good, depending on your perspective) old-fashioned coal-burning power plants. And the (increasingly expensive) gasoline they pump into their cars is still around 80% derived from imported oil. So it’s easy to assume that renewable energy is more pipe dream than reality, more a suite of niche technologies than a fully functioning apparatus ready to take on an displace fossil fuels.
But is this view right? Yes and no. If you go by the numbers alone, renewables constitute only a miniscule percentage of the world’s overall energy production (somewhere in the realm of 2%). Even the largest solar and wind farms don’t come close to producing the same amount of power as even a medium-sized coal-fired power plant. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Because numbers only speak to the present moment and reveal nothing about the bigger picture. The history of renewable energy is replete with ingenious inventors, fantastic inventions, and hundreds of near misses, usually in the form of path-breaking technologies that were either ahead of their time or were plowed under by more entrenched and better-funded fossil fuel corporations. Undergirding the history of failure is a lack of widespread government support. Until very recently, renewable energy innovators have been mostly lone wolves, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs with big ideas but not quite enough cash or political clout to realize them fully.
But that’s changed significantly over the past few decades. Scanning recent energy headlines, I came across this one:
The US military, the article reports, is investing heavily in large solar farms and other forms of renewable energy. The Army consumes huge amounts of energy and is always looking for ways to cut costs. Strategically, being able to produce energy on site at military bases is preferable to relying on fragile supply lines vulnerable to enemy attack. And so the Army is going to pour more than 7 billion dollars into developing its renewable energy infrastructure. This is remarkable not just for the large dollar amount but also because it marks a new and unprecedented shift in the history of renewable energy: namely, the embrace of renewable technologies by a large, state-supported institution.
The US Army is not the first or only example of this shift. Other countries, most notably Germany and Spain, have adopted strong renewable energy mandates that have pushed the development of wind and solar, especially, to new heights. China is forging ahead (some would say recklessly) at breakneck speed, building new solar and wind farms across the country.
And the U.S? While there’s plenty of renewable energy activity here, it’s more haphazard, happening in fits and starts. Despite the Army’s strong commitment to renewables, the country as a whole has not jumped on the green energy bandwagon. In short, while the Obama administration has laid out some very ambitious clean energy goals (80% of US energy produced by clean sourced by 2035), there’s no officially legislated mandate to back those goals and bring them to fruition. Individual states, most notably California, Colorado, and several others, have stepped in and taken the lead, but to truly push renewable energy forward, to help it transition from a bunch of still relatively niche technologies to a powerful player in the energy landscape that can butt heads with and eventually replace fossil fuels, the federal government is going to have to step up and make renewable energy a national priority.
Will this happen? Right now it seems unlikely. U.S. politics are so divisive on the issue of government spending that a massive national effort to advance renewable energy is remote in the short-term. But it’s exactly this sort of short-term thinking that has caused the U.S. to fall behind China, Germany, and other countries in taking the lead on clean energy. Despite the recent downgrade, the U.S. is still the world’s largest and most dynamic economy. Where the U.S. goes, the rest of the world follows (at least for now). If this country were to somehow band together in support of renewable energy, if there was a Panama Canal or moon landing-like effort to build up renewable energy technology and infrastructure, great things could happen.