Amidst the tragically unfolding nuclear drama in Japan, and with the gulf spill looming large over the next wave of fossil fuel extraction, one would think that the time was ripe for multilateral commitment to renewable solutions. In fact, government leaders find themselves in a pickle as they bounce back and forth in their endorsement of non-sustainable strategies to feed our ravenous and growing appetite for energy.
In the U.S., after opening Alaskan and eastern seaboard areas to oil foraging, President Obama was forced to freeze those contracts, placing a moratorium on new coastal and deep-sea extraction. To make up for the lost prospects, the President then re-invigorated his support for nuclear programs only to now -- understandably -- contemplate a hold on their development, which reflects the mounting concerns over the genuine risks associated with atomic energy. Angela Merkel just saw her credibility suffer in the German polls after she was forced to backtrack on her recent promotion of nuclear solutions. Such abrupt retraction, some believe, has contributed greatly to her party's upset in the recent regional elections, undermining her prospects for the 2013 national elections where the Greens are bolstered in their 25% popularity.
In Italy, Prime minister Berlusconi saw his nuclear comeback ambitions, planned since 2008, thwarted by overwhelming opposition from a country intent on upholding its 1987 referendum ban on nuclear power. French president Nicolas Sarkozy found himself defending the choice of nuclear energy in front of members of the academy of science of the G8 and G20 last month. But two days later he was forced to promise the shutting down of all nuclear plants that did not pass the European Union's new safety standards established in response to the Fukushima disaster. 75% of the electricity-use in France derives from 58 nuclear plants whose median age is 25 years. The older technology could prove disastrous against the new EU standards and dictate massive investments in new energy production.
Meanwhile, renewable strategies have slowly but steadily gained momentum offering safe and economically viable energy solutions. The latest generation of solar panels is a milestone over its predecessor. The new technology is said to be three times cheaper and four times more efficient. Wind farms are proving not only profitable, but with an area use of just one percent of harvest land, they provide multi-revenue sources to farmers who can still produce agricultural yield on top of abundant energy production. Geothermal heat pumps offer a constant source of domestic renewable heat or cool from taping into the earth's mild subterranean temperature. Research and development investments have steadily climbed in the last decade, indicating the financial community's interest in technology-based energy solutions.
Aside from cutting down green house emissions and helping meet clean energy mandates, we've all heard that renewable solutions stimulate new employment while reducing current utility bills. All arguments are in fact compelling, offering win-win metrics across the board.
So what is the hold up?
China is now manufacturing close to 60% of photovoltaic, laying a claim over a technology that was invented by the U.S.! In 1995 the U.S. produced well over three quarters of worldwide PV (China did not start production until 2000). Today, the U.S. produces merely 12% even while the global demand is growing. In fact, most US solar power comes from panels manufactured in China. We are literally giving away jobs while clinging on to what has proven unstable or polluting industries.
Sure, renewables are in vogue again. But when an industry like solar sees a growth of 51% in 2009 (and 89% the year before), you know we are talking about small numbers (0.01% of total output or 1.38% of renewables)! In fact, all renewable energy industries combined amounted to about 11% for 2010, which includes hydropower and biofuels, while non-renewables account for almost 90%, half of which is coal. With each climate disaster, or spike in the oil price, the nation hits the panic button and demands immediate solutions.
Bills end up getting tied up in Congress long enough for OPEC prices to drop; and the focus shifts elsewhere. But how long can this carry on? With growing global demand for hydrocarbon fuels and shrinking supplies, the trend is clearly on the rise. We're not getting out of this one. The higher prices help justify tampering with Pandora's box: whether tapping into the potentially hazardous world of atoms, or extraction methods that were once believed inherently cost-prohibitive, or too volatile. And as it is, were it not for the heavily subsidized indirect cost of gasoline (factoring health issues, climate change and military action among others) the four dollars we now pay at the pump would swell to over sixteen dollars. Every president since Eisenhower has proclaimed energy independence as a top priority. Obama is no exception. What is pending now is our way of getting there -- and the cost.
It is fair to ask why haven't we fully committed to exponentially growing our renewable technologies portfolio. Part of it may be because the administration and distribution of energy is taxable, and the rising costs makes for astronomical profit margins. Many renewable technologies provide free energy -- after hardware and installation costs -- by harnessing natural resources. And in the old model there is little money to be made there -- long term. Whereas unsustainable energy consumption makes for soaring taxable returns. And it is the bread and butter of the financial sector. The irony is that given such a heavily subsidized environment, by taking from Peter to give to Paul, only the energy companies and commodities banking end up seeing profits. The environment suffers while taxpayers pay more against the promise of uninterrupted energy supplies. And traditional energy lobbies are spending hefty sums ($263M for 2010 against $39M for renewables) to hold on to this model. But the cracks are showing. President Obama has promised to begin phasing out fossil fuel subsidies in 2011. And cutting fossil fuel subsidies is one sure step towards reducing carbon emissions and stimulating alternative energy production.
Sure, the argument comes back that we cannot fulfill our energy needs without the high output of fossil fuels and nuclear or a combination thereof. This is in fact the recurring credo that is based on short term and conservative projections. While it is true that the 2.5 million vehicles we have on the road consume about 25% of the world's gasoline, the high cost of oil and low price of electricity should speed up the transition to zero emission electrical vehicles. Nothing sends a clearer message to both manufacturers and the government than the bottom line: so go buy one! Sales growth stimulates both the car industry and reduces unsustainable subsidies. What we need is a market transformation towards a sustainable economy. And this can only happen with a general mobilization in the order of the industrial transformation of the car industry at the onset of world war two.
Wind, biofuel, biomass, hydro, wave power, geothermal and of course conservation: those solutions have been with us for some time. But our most precious renewable energies are commitment, foresight and imagination. The cost of militarily defending our access to oil alone could balance the budget! What has lacked is a wake up call that sees longevity and not short-term profit as the objective.
The Finns know something about longevity. They have spent the better part of the last three decades building a storage environment for radioactive waste deep into their bedrock. Part of their challenge has been to create new universal symbols and written language that will withstand the test of time -- a very long time. Its purpose: to ward off future generations from giving in to their curiosity and go dig open these radioactive coffins. Indeed those could emit lethal radiations for anywhere from 100,000 years -- which is how long U.S. scientists believe nuclear waste holds a charge -- to a million years -- which is what their Japanese counterparts believe would be the case. By comparison, humans are roughly 200,000 years old. And Egyptians hieroglyphs are 6,000 years old. It is not likely that contemporary language and script will outlast a radioactive charge. Isn't there something philosophically wrong with spending intellectual resources to warn future generations many millennia from now to keep away from our trash, while the sun produces more energy in one hour than the global population uses in one year...
PS: If you want to cut carbon emissions now, switch to compact fluorescent lighting. A global commitment to energy efficient lighting could close one third of the world's 2,800 coal-fired power plants.
Follow Sebastian Copeland on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@sebcopeland