Time for Clean Energy - Let Us Count The Ways

Foresight turns out to be a critical adaptive strategy for times of great stress.
— Jamais Cascio

The US consumes a sea of fossil fuels annually, literally.  We burn through 289 trillion gallons of oil every year.  Our use of fossil fuels produces over 6.5 gigatonnes of greenhouse gas, a mountain of man-made atmosphere.  Many mountains, in fact.  The US is responsible for 860 cubic miles of atmospheric CO2 every year, the size of 10 Mount Shasta’s


The impact our fossil fuel dependence has on climate change as a nation is significant.  Taken alone, that should be compelling enough to motivate us to invest in renewable energy infrastructure.  Unfortunately, evidence suggests we have not yet been properly motivated.

In 1949 9.3% of the energy consumed in the United States was produced by renewable sources (hydro).   By 2013, sixty four years later, the total energy coming from renewable sources grew to 9.52%.  That is a compounded annualized growth rate of 0.035%As we say in Minnesota, that’s not so good.

The sluggishness with which we’ve tackled advancing renewable energy infrastructure is “not so good” for a number of reasons:

We Can See the Bottom of The Oil Drum

Being a non-renewable energy source, oil has a finite existence on Earth.  And at our prodigious consumption, its days are certainly limited.  The US Energy Information Agency is a bit cagey about projections, indicating resources are adequate through 2040, but without clarity on when they will be consumed.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers provides a more satisfying mathematical answer to the question: "There are an estimated 1.3 trillion barrels of proven oil reserve left in the world’s major fields, which at present rates of consumption will be sufficient to last 40 years.  By 2040, production levels may be down to 15 million barrels per day – around 20% of what we currently consume. It is likely by then that the world’s population will be twice as large, and more of it industrialized (and therefore oil dependent)."

The point to make here, however, is that regardless of whether fossil fuels have 25 years, 40 years, or 100 years left we are certainly walking towards an energy cliff.  Unless we vastly out perform our collective 0.0035% annual increase in development renewable energy energy - it is a cliff we are certain go over.

World Oil Spending and Economic Growth.  Click to enlarge

Oil Has Negative Economic Impacts

Globally our economy is currently based on fossil fuels.  To say oil has negative economic impacts, then, may seem a counter-intuitive statement.  The fact we all balance on top of the oil drum, however, is exactly the issue.  When oil prices go up, we have negative economic impactsUnfortunately, when oil prices go down, we have negative economic consequences as well.

There is strong evidence, also, that investment in the fossil fuel industry has negative impacts on the local communities from which it is extracted.  A study in Wyoming has identified long-term oil industry dependance has resulted in decreased per capita incomes, decreased education levels, and increased crime levels.

Internationally, a study by the United Nations has detailed numerous negative impacts on the local Nigerian communities in which oil extraction has taken place over the last 40 years.  The study finds evidence of the oil industry being responsible for negative health impacts, ground water contamination, loss of biodiversity, and the negative impact of traditional livelihoods, and lifestyles.

Investment In Renewable Energy Has Positive Economic Impacts

In a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists investment in renewable energy sources are shown to create more jobs than the fossil fuel industry per dollar invested, with a larger portion of that investment remaining in local communities.  As they conclude“The development of renewable energy resources supports local economies, creates jobs, and moves America toward a cleaner, more reliable energy future”.

Another study by International Renewable Energy Agency published in May 2014 also concludes that renewable energy, if properly adopted, could create better-paying jobs, improve international trade balances, and promote industrial development around the world.

A  sturdy outline of the positive impacts of each of the primary renewable energy types was assembled by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and can be found here.

Even Modest Renewable Energy Investments Unhitch Economic Growth From GHG Emissions.

In our earlier post “A Drop In The Bucket we pointed out the strong parallel between economic activity and greenhouse gas emissions since 1970.  Taking a closer look at the relationship between US GDP and GHG emissions there are a few anomalies that show up: 1978-79, 1981, 1985-86, 1996-98, 2003.

Unlike all other time frames, these periods show a divergence between economic performance and GHG emissions.  When we overlap investment in alternative energy production, the reason for the divergence becomes clear: in every case a decrease in total emissions is coincided with, or proceeded by, an investment in alternative energy infrastructure.  This seems reasonable - of course an increase in renewable production will have a direct impact on reducing GHG emissions.

Since 1970 there have been 15 time frames with increased renewable energy investment. Of those, 11 have immediately preceded an increase in US GDP. Click to enlarge

What is less obvious, however, is that in many of these instances an uptick in renewable energy investment and production immediately precede an increase in GDP performance.  This provides strong evidence we do not need continued increase in our GHG emissions in order to support economic growth and, in fact, investment in renewable energy may help promote an increase in our economy.

Since 1970 the US increased clean energy production 15 times, 11 have immediately preceded GDP increases.

Can Renewable Energy Meet Our Demand?

In short, the answer is “Yes”, “Yes”, and “Yes”.

In all studies, though, our ability to meet our National and Global demand for energy without fossil fuels by the time they dry up for good relies entirely on one simple thing:  We need to act.  The sluggish growth in renewable energy since 1949 is incriminating evidence that business as usual will leave us with an energy gap when oil finally runs dry – whether in 25, 40, or 100 years.  We can no longer simply wait for the ‘powers that be’ to make the rapid investment in renewable energy that is required.


Photos:  Wind Turbine Chrishna va Flickr; Oil Drum Noah Sussman via Flickr; Bull Glen Scarborough via Flickr