Renewable Energy Rising

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Published by In Kind

Narrated by Ricardo Marrufo

Music by Lionel Schmitt

If the name doesn’t give it away, renewable energy is a source of energy that is renewable- or a source of energy that is constantly replenished and will never go away. This is in stark contrast to non renewable sources of energy- the ones that we currently generate the majority of our energy from, like fossil fuels, that deplete over time and will eventually go away. The problem used to be that renewable energy sources weren’t developed enough or efficient enough to cover all of the planet’s energy needs, and that fossil fuels- despite being hazardous and environmentally risky, were a necessary part of industrialization. However, today, renewable energy resources- like solar, wind, biomass, geothermal, hydrogen, ocean, and hydropower can be used in tandem to meet the world’s ever increasing demand for electricity, and generate that power in a clean and responsible manner.

Solar energy is the most abundant renewable energy source available on Earth. In fact, more energy from the Sun falls on Earth in one hour than is used by everyone in the world in one year. This energy takes the form of light and heat, and once it is radiated from the Sun to Earth it is then captured using a range of rapidly evolving technologies, like solar thermal and photovoltaics. Solar energy facilities can range in size from a single panel, to a rooftop that is covered in solar paneling, to a small community solar farm, to a utility scale solar farm that can distribute its energy to multiple recipients. Because of this versatility, it is widely adopted and is a rapidly growing global industry in of itself. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, nearly 250,000 Americans work in solar, and in 2017 solar energy accounted for almost 2% of all of the United States energy generation.

Wind energy is another source of renewable energy that is bountiful and has benefited from increased investment and implementation. Wind energy is produced when wind turbines convert the kinetic energy in wind into mechanical power. Historically, this mechanical power would be used for specific purposes, like grinding grain or pumping water in non-electrical Dutch windmills, but has evolved to where a generator can convert it into electricity. Wind energy is common in the United States, especially the midwest, and according to the Energy Information Administration, in 2013 it generated 4.13% of the US’ electricity.

While renewable energies have been considered too costly in prior years, over the last decade, the price for generation has plummeted. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, in a 2017 report, “the cost of generating power from onshore wind has fallen by around 23% since 2010 while the cost of solar photovoltaic electricity has fallen by 73% in that time.” The report also suggests that the price for wind and solar energy, along with other renewable options, should be on par with fossil fuels by 2020. According to the New York Times, “China intends to spend more than $360 billion through 2020 on renewable power sources like solar and wind,” and China’s department of energy “said in a statement that China would create more than 13 million jobs in the renewable energy sector” Costa Rica has even gone so far as completely banning fossil fuels. In an announcement, the President of Costa Rica, Carlos Alvarado, said that, "We have the titanic and beautiful task of abolishing the use of fossil fuels in our economy to make way for the use of clean and renewable energies.” Similarly, in 2018, Paris voted to ban fossil fuel burning cars by 2030; with Germany, Norway, India, France, the UK, the Netherlands, and China all considering doing the same within similar time periods.

Not only is the price of renewable energy falling because of greater advancements in technology and investment, but if we were to prolong the adoption of renewables and keep generating our energy from fossil fuels, it would actually end up costing the global economy extra. This is because as our energy demands increase, the oil fields that currently extract the fossil fuels we use to produce energy will begin to dry up- which means that energy providers would need to develop, and even discover, new oil fields. “The age of cheap oil is over,” states Fatih Birol, the International Energy Association’s chief economist, “If the consuming nations do not make major efforts to slow down the oil demand growth, we will see higher oil prices, which we think is not good news for the economies of the consuming nations.” This sentiment is reflected in an article published by National Geographic, where it states that, “just to keep crude oil production flat would require much more production from new oil fields—including those discovered but not yet developed, and others still to be discovered. Maintaining this plateau would require massive investment in the oil industry, the report estimated, about $8 trillion over the next 25 years.” This means that in order to keep energy production stable, without even accounting for any growth in consumption, would cost the global energy market $8 trillion.

If the idea of switching the entire world’s energy production from fossil fuels to renewable energy seems like a large task to take on, that’s because it is. The good news is that the transition has already been happening, and that there are people already working on figuring out how to get their countries to make the switch to renewable energy. The most prominent case for this is the Paris Climate Agreement, a resolution that was agreed upon by every country on Earth- until President Trump removed the United States- that aimed “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” as stated on the agreement’s website. This agreement is one where all countries involved opt-in to pledge an amount of emissions that they can afford to cut, with a reassessment every five years. While the United States has been removed from the list of countries that are in agreement, almost immediately after President Trump made that decision, hundreds of city, town, and corporate leaders- representing 70 million Americans, pledged to demonstrate the United State’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement by voluntarily lowering their emissions. In addition to this, there is a plan developed by a team of Stanford engineers headed by Mark Jacobson that outlines in detail how the United States can be converted to running on 100% renewable energy, state by state, by 2050. The plan calls for changes of infrastructure and how Americans consume energy, but the report explains how it is technically and economically possible given current technology. When asked about the report, Jacobson said that, “The main barriers are social, political and getting industries to change. One way to overcome the barriers is to inform people about what is possible, by showing that it's technologically and economically possible, this study could reduce the barriers to a large scale transformation.” the report also states that, “the reduction of air pollution in the U.S. could prevent the deaths of approximately 63,000 Americans who die from air pollution-related causes each year. It would also eliminate U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases produced from fossil fuel, which would otherwise cost the world $3.3 trillion a year by 2050.”

A common argument against the conversion to renewable energy is that it kills jobs and because of that is bad for economies. While it is true that the rise of renewable energy will mean that jobs will be lost in the fossil fuel industry, it is important to note that the renewable energy sector represents a completely new industry that will account for ancillary jobs along with the jobs that it will create itself. Just as oil rigs need workers to tend to them- so will wind turbines and solar panels. Just as gas station workers represent jobs created by the fossil fuel industry, recharging station attendants will be needed as well. As reported by fortune in 2017, “solar and wind jobs have grown at rates of about 20% annually in recent years, and sustainability now collectively represents four to four and a half million jobs in the U.S., up from 3.4 million in 2011” in the same reporting it is also stated that, “the solar and wind industries are each creating jobs at a rate 12 times faster than that of the rest of the U.S. economy.”

While the renewable energy industry can be considered small in comparison to the global fossil fuel industry, the sense of inevitability begins to seep in the more you look into the transition. Sending people to the moon seemed impossible until it wasn’t. If the costs of implementing renewables continue to fall, which they will with economies of scale, then the only thing holding us back from a planet ran completely off of renewable energy are self imposed limitations. With that said, more and more, as shown in the uptrend of installations, people are realizing that the reality of renewable energy really is rising.